“Buying Championships” Is Harder Than It Looks

For the purposes of this article, all WAR measurements are through Baseball Reference.

 

So the Dodgers are in the World Series, and to some degree they are wearing the Black Hat of the villain. Though they haven’t won the World Series since 1988, their payroll tops baseball, and those of us who have gone our whole lives hating the Yankees for buying championships may well have a distaste for the Dodgers for using the same playbook.

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Daniel Riffs on Expansion and Realignment

If you haven’t been following Twitter much today, you might’ve missed an article from Baseball America commenting on the possibility of Major League Baseball expansion, realignment, and schedule changes. Part of it includes speculation that Portland, Oregon would attract a team, which I’m skeptical of (and so is the principal author of this blog), but that’s kind of beside the point.

 

I have a bit of a wish list for any expansion of the league and the playoffs, and I’d like to share that with you now.

 

I’d like to see two leagues of 16 teams each, with each league split into two divisions of 8. The two division winners would be entered into the Division Series. In addition, four Wild Card teams would be included in the playoffs and they would play a one-and-done game to reach the Division Series, hosted by the two non-division-winning teams with the best records.

 

Perhaps the thought that makes this most attractive to me is that winning the division competing directly against seven other teams would be a significant achievement. Having direct competition with so many teams makes it similar to winning the pennant in the pre-expansion era. It would also bring it back in line with division champions from 1969 until 1994 when expansion and divisional realignment gave us three divisions instead of two.

 

Bringing the teams-per-division into alignment with historical norms would give us a better measurement of team dominance over time. Twenty-nine of the Yankees’ 40 pennants happened before divisional play; while this was certainly dominant, the league itself was only eight teams at the time. Being one-in-eight I think is worth celebrating, where being one-in-five doesn’t carry the same weight.

 

In the meantime, keeping wild cards in existence prevents the fate of the 103-win 1993 San Francisco Giants, who failed to make the playoffs because Atlanta collected 104 wins. It also maintains the ratio of playoff teams we’re used to seeing over the last decade of baseball. Lastly, it helps maintain the primacy of the MLB regular season. Over the past few seasons, I’ve mostly grown to like the Wild Card Game because of the benefit it gives to the division winner.

 

The downside I can see here is that having four Wild Card teams pushes ever closer to the NBA problem were sub-.500 teams can make the postseason (A 38-44 Brooklyn team was the last one to do so in the 2014-15 season). My counterargument in the near-term is that an expansion team in each league will probably soak up some extra losses for a few years and middling teams may pick up a game or two and avoid dropping below .500. Perhaps a Monte Carlo Simulation can tell us if this is actually more or less likely with more teams.

 

What seems clear is that MLB is excited to keep fans invested later and later into the season, and having these extra playoff spots may be a way to do that. All that’s well and good, but I’m not convinced that the extra spots have actually driven up attendance any appreciable amount. I’ll use some data: This season, the Mariners averaged almost 25,450 for their August 14-16 Baltimore series, which fell on a Monday through Wednesday after they has been swept by the Angels over Edgar weekend. At this point, the M’s were two back of the Angels for the second Wild Card spot. Look ahead a bit to their series against Oakland on the Friday-to-Sunday of Labor Day Weekend and they only averaged 22,724. Out of 15 home games in September, only four cracked 25,000, and two of those games were Fan Appreciation Night and King Felix Funko Pop Night. On the other hand, the M’s only cracked 25,000 once in the final month of 2015 on Fan Appreciation Night as well.

 

Anyhow, moving aside from the playoff eligibility talk, I want to keep the American League and National League designations for as long as I can, along with the DH in the AL only. One thing I love about baseball is that there is a rule distinction between the two leagues, and the organization of the teams is more than simply “legacy,” like it is in the NFL. From an outside perspective, the NFL’s AFC and NFC conferences seem arbitrary, though they have preserved rivalries like Dallas vs. New York and Green Bay vs. Chicago. I don’t want baseball’s American and National Leagues to suffer the same fate.

 

I’ll get off my soapbox in a second, but since I’m here, I’d also like to eliminate Interleague Play. Unfortunately, I have my doubts that would ever happen. It seems that there’s too much money in it and everyone has more or less gotten used to the idea at this point. That said, I think removing Interleague Play could create more excitement once again for the All-Star Game and World Series. Maybe it could wash.

 

As far as the actual cities go? I’m not sure I could care significantly less. It would be nice to have a nearby rival, or at least another team on the west coast so the Mariners don’t always have to travel so far, and I’d be a proponent of having a club back in Montreal, but I’d much rather have two divisions in each league instead.

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Angel Stadium: Unremarkable, But Odd

Angel Stadium of Anaheim marks the 16th MLB ballpark I’ve visited my slow march around the league, if you count the time I visited Cleveland when the Mariners series snowed out there in 2007. I feel like I don’t have much to say about the stadium itself; the physical location was kind of boring all things considered, but so very many things about the experience were just a little “off,” in my opinion, and in that sense it was jarring.

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I drove to Angel Stadium from San Diego for two Mariners-Angels games in the final series, and was struck by the expansive parking lot surrounding the stadium. Sure, Oakland has a big old parking lot, and Miller Park in Milwaukee is similar, but I’m just used to parks like Safeco Field or Coors Field where that just isn’t a possibility. Additionally, Oakland has the benefit of public transit, which doesn’t exist so much in Southern California. Luckily, parking was only $10, which was refreshing after frequently seeing prices in the 20s and 40s in Seattle, or even higher for bigger games.

The section numbers at Angel Stadium also struck me as unusual. Though they had the standard three tiers of seating, sections numbered up into the 500s because of how they organized the sections. Entering through the home plate gate put you into a lower concourse, blocked off from the field, where you could enter into a walkway in between the 100- and 200-numbered sections. Above the 200 sections was the concourse you’re more familiar with where you can see much of the action. Here’s the view from the “200-level”:

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Despite not being all that busy – I seriously doubt the Angels’ claims of 30,000+ in attendance for this series – the concession stands up on the 200-level concourse always seemed busy with relatively long lines, so I wound up walking the ballpark when I realized that I wasn’t hearing the radio play by play of the game anywhere. When I arrived in Center Field, I noticed that there weren’t any speakers for the PA system, so standing around and watching the game gave this sense of not actually being at the game, like it was a Wrigley Field Rooftop, except that I was clearly still in the ballpark.

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Speaking of the PA system, the home team was only ever referred to as the Angels. Not the “Los Angeles Angels,” and especially not the “Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.” I even noticed that the out of town scoreboard referred to the Dodgers as simply “LA,” not even the “LAD” that you see everywhere else. For a team that was so adamant about being LA that it was willing to append “of Anaheim” to the end of their name, that struck me as super weird.

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The Angels have won the American League West nine times in their history, and their division championships are featured prominently upon entry into the stadium and on flags in the outfield. I didn’t think much of it until they showed a pregame montage, set to Train’s “Calling All Angels,” that reviewed team history and included the clinching moments from those nine seasons.

I was a little surprised that the montage of clinchers didn’t seem to mean anything to me, but then again, I’ve been noticing recently that we hardly ever talk about the 1997 Mariners club that won the division, hit more home runs than any team in history (264), and reached 90 wins for the first time. Instead, Mariners historical conversations are always about 1995 and 2001.

Both the ’95 and ’01 Mariners were historically remarkable, so that keeps the conversation going, but I’m not sure there has been anything remarkable about the Angels up until Mike Trout. They’ve had some good players over the years, especially their 1990s outfield of Tim Salmon, Jim Edmonds, and Garrett Anderson, but Chuck Finley is the Angels’ all-time #2 in Wins Above Replacement. To some degree, a team wins a title every year (except 1994), so the winning of a division or a World Series is not necessarily all that remarkable, but an unlikely comeback like 1995 or a record-breaking win total like 2001 really reach another level.

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The Oakland Coliseum: An Outdoor “Kingdome”

I just returned from my road trip to watch the Mariners over their final few games of the 2017 season, and I figure it’s the Section331.com tradition to post some pictures and talk a bit about the ballpark experience. Angel Stadium in Anaheim is new to me, and I’ll get into that one in a separate post, but let’s talk about Oakland.

Everybody loves to hate on the Oakland Coliseum, and the reasons for that are legitimate. Between the low attendance figures to the stories of sewage backing up and flooding team clubhouses, to the scene in Moneyball where Jermaine Dye is forced to stoop to the level of actually putting coins in the vending machine to make it work, to the simple fact that they share it with the NFL’s Raiders, it’s pretty clear we’re not talking about a fancy facility.

I’ve gone to Athletics/Mariners games there several times since Opening Day 2010 when I was excited to see Felix and Cliff Lee pitch (Lee would be suspended and injured for the opening series and wouldn’t put up stats until April 30), and since then I’ve considered the Oakland Coliseum to be an outdoor version of the old Kingdome. Both structures were built out of concrete, with fairly narrow and dark concourses, which just sets the tone for your experience. The Coliseum is almost impressive in its brutalism; when you walk across a skybridge from the nearby BART station, you arrive at two enormous concrete pillars out behind center field that just set the stage as if to tell you that you’re just not going to be comfortable.

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The center field monstrosity that is referred to as Mt. Davis was built in 1995 to attract the Raiders back to town after their tenancy in Los Angeles through the late 1980s, and it really is imposing. I’d say it’s the huge structure out in center field that makes the Coliseum actually feel like a coliseum and not just a “stadium,” “park,” or “field.” That it’s the only “coliseum” in baseball feels appropriate.

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Of course, the Raiders are now set to move to Las Vegas in the next few years, so it’s nice to see that investment paying off for the people of Oakland. Below, you’ll see a glimpse of the wider concourses that sit beneath Mt. Davis. Unfortunately, this area of the concourse is blocked off from viewing the playing field, unlike the area between the foul poles.

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For a comparison, here’s a view of the field from the concourse on the main level:

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The Coliseum has parking areas to the first and third base sides of the ballpark, where fans come out and tailgate before games. I visited some friends taking part in that several years ago, but there weren’t all that many people out there prior to games this late-September series. I wound up walking around the park instead and found their Championship Plaza area where they had food trucks set up for a game. This ticketed area outside the home plate entrance honors the Philadelphia Athletics and their championships alongside the Oakland squad’s successes in the 1970s and 1989. It struck me as odd that they would care to honor a team from another city, but as I counted up the flags I realized that the Athletics franchise actually has the third-most World Series championships behind the Yankees and Cardinals, with nine. Even their four titles in Oakland are more than any other American League franchise, save the aforementioned Yankees and their blood rivals in Boston (the four titles would make a third-place tie with Detroit).

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Recently, the Coliseum’s video boards have been updated to bring them up to modern standards. I found it interesting that their main scoreboards out in the left and right field corners that provided more stats on batters than I’m used to, even showing WAR and BABIP. The new scoreboards are used more than they used to with different inning-break entertainment. They added a video presentation “race” of their pitching Big Three of the early 2000s with Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, and Barry Zito in a sprint through the history of the Athletics franchise, with guest appearances by a black-and-white Jimmie Foxx in Philadelphia, Reggie Jackson in Kansas City, and then Ricky Henderson, Jose Canseco, and Mark McGwire in Oakland. The presentation is voiced by MLB Network’s Matt Vasgersian, which gives it a little bit more professionalism than you might expect from an inning break in Oakland. Here’s a photo of the scoreboard back in 2012, followed by an updated view:

Despite the updates, Oakland still isn’t a very popular place to go see a game, but I have to tell you that their fans are legitimately passionate. When James Paxton pitched on Tuesday, I was able to get a Maple Grove going near the M’s dugout, but met resistance from nearby A’s fans. Of course you’re familiar with the drummers and flag-wavers out beyond right field as well; I met some of them on Wednesday via Tom Bentley. Any time the A’s scored, they’d get up and sing a brief song about their love of Oakland. The energy brought by the fans is real, but the expansiveness of the park works against them. That said, you have to admire their willingness to go to a place commonly considered to be a dump and cheer on their team, even if it is just a dozen of them.

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An Ode To The 2017 Mariners…Friends.

Screen Shot 2017-09-16 at 7.41.28 AMI took this picture a year ago on the day.

At the time the above photo was taken, I had known one person in it for a few years, and maybe two or three others by Twitter handle/maybe real life name for less time than that. This was on the Mariners’ Social Media Night last year, a night that was not as well attended as I thought it would be, but was certainly a driving factor in the events of the 2017 baseball season, which is what I am going to talk about here.

This photo would lead to photos like these:

Most recently, it led to me going to Nickerson Street Saloon last night with some fellow fans, to watch James Paxton pitch for an inning and change in what is now his only real option for a rehab start, due to the season winding down and minors teams being unavailable or in their own playoff hunts. He didn’t do great, and was on a pretty heavy pitch count (which he used up during that short time, having issues with his location and a home plate umpire who maybe didn’t have the best idea about where a ball should occur within the context of a strike zone), but there were about 15 or so of us there at the pub watching the whole game.

This might not seem like a big deal to a lot of other sports fans. You have friends who like sports, you go to games, you have fun, you talk about it before and afterwards. Shrug, right?

Well, it wasn’t always that way for me. When I started going to games about 10 years ago (wow, has it already been ten years?!) I didn’t have any baseball friends. I have plenty of friends in my life, and I am grateful for every single one of them, but a lot of the time it was like pulling teeth to get people out to go to a game – a game that was free to them, I might add, since with my season tickets I had already taken the financial hit at the beginning of the year. All I wanted was someone to go to a game with; but after a while, even that wasn’t enough. After a while, I wanted more; a Mariners fan to go to a game with. Going to see baseball with fans of other teams was fun, but it was an opposition activity; it’s really hard to be a fan of the team that is losing (and the Mariners lost a lot back then) when your friend is lording it over you that they just won a World Series, or is talking about how your closer just blew another save or how your final batter is never going to make that walkoff against Mariano Rivera. In layman’s terms, it was fun, but it also sucked.

In the early days when I was on Lookout Landing, I at least had a place to go to talk to other folks either during games I was watching at home, or before/after games I was going to. But none of us really socialized other than that. I’m not even sure that anyone else went to the games at all, because I didn’t know them, really. I made some friends there, but the games we were all willing or able to attend were few and far between. I still had to collect a non-baseball friend or opposing team fan (or Tom) if I didn’t want to go to a game alone. During the 2008 season and probably a few times in 2010 I went to a few by myself because tickets were cheap and the team was disappointing, and I knew it would be easy to get good photos; but again, not the same. When Twitter was created, it was easier to get to know more fans online, but it seemed for years like a lot of us were just indoor kids, and talking online was as easy as it’s ever been, but still nobody was really going to games. It usually took some sort of blogger meetup special event, where there was a lure outside the game itself that got people to come out. Even then, folks seemed to stay in their own little groups, and I stayed with the few people I knew, feeling awkward and out of sorts and still generally not like I was connecting with anyone.

Then over the last few years, something really weird happened. The writing staffs for USS Mariner and Lookout Landing changed. Those guys moved onto other (hopefully better for them) things, and other writers moved in to fill their shoes. Some of them were women. I’m not going to get into anything political here, but long story short, it’s been a breath of  fresh air, and it seems to have really manipulated the way that at least our group of Mariners fans interacted with each other. Since the first picture in this post was taken, things have changed for the better for me. I have forged stronger friendships with the people I already knew (and now consider them “regular” friends, in addition to being baseball friends, if that makes sense), and I have made new friends from attending events hosted by these new writers and the Mariners front office. Fanfest got more fun. I have gathered even more Twitter buddies who maybe I haven’t met, but who are Mariners fans as well. Rational, level-headed Mariners fans. Daniel and I hassled Canada for the second year in a row this year, which then turned into this wonderful thing we call The Maple Grove. I feel comfortable nabbing a single ticket for myself to go to a game, because it’s 99.9% guaranteed that someone I know will be there – usually several someones – and we can go sit in some unsold upper level seating and hang out together while we watch the game. Sometimes we go out after and socialize. Sometimes we socialize before. Some of them come over to my house for the monthly cookouts I hold in the summer. And last night, I took a Japanese maple sapling to Nickerson Street in Fremont and we sat it on a table while we watched James Paxton pitch.

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These people I have met and come to know over the 2017 Mariners season are the absolute loveliest of people. They have taught me boatloads about the game, and helped me grow as a fan. We all have friend categories, like work friends, close friends, friends we consider as close as family, people we keep guarded from and people we let into our inner circles. Out of habit, I still refer to this group as baseball friends, but I think those days are rapidly coming to an end, where I can just call them friends. Some of us may never hang out during the offseason, but the point is I would. As someone who suffers from MD-diagnosed anxiety, I mark my relationships by how much someone has managed to penetrate my personal bubble; would I go to a movie with this person? Hang out at their house in a non-baseball context? Cook for them or watch their pets or ask them to do the same for me? Those are basic questions, but you maybe get the idea. And the fact is, I love these folks. I love all of these people. They have vastly improved my baseball viewing experience, which is basically 6-7 months of my life every year. They’re wonderful, and I could not ask anyone for a better group of people to go watch baseball, a thing that has become such a huge part of who I am over the last, yes, ten years. In the offseason, I hope to be able to take in some hockey, or community theater or art shows, or curling matches, or whatever else they might be involved in that makes them who they are outside of baseball. Maybe some of them will show up when the musical project I am currently involved in gets out for some shows. So in no particular order, here’s to all the Daniels, Hillary, Su, the Daves, the Matts, Brittney and Lil’ E, Kate, Isabelle, the numerous Johns, Joe, the Rachels, Leonard, Tiffany, Dylan, Chris (there may be more than one), any Shanes that might have been involved, Dez, “Mommy Unit”, Rebecca, Josh, the Tims, Brett and Britt, Tommy, Alex, the Jasons, there is likely at least one or two Petes, the two Joses, Trista, Connor, anyone else I may be forgetting because I haven’t had any coffee yet or I simply don’t know your real name because it was noisy when we were introduced, we were never introduced (or just haven’t talked in person), or your Twitter handle is weird, and of course the Mariners front office for being super early adapters of social media, and having a most excellent social media and marketing staff. Honestly, baseball sells itself, but the work this team does with its fans and the public is amazing. And big ups for providing us with Stick Rizzs, an action that means more to a lot of us than you may ever know.

I am out of gas and need to do some prep work for our final party of the summer here at the house, but I wanted to write something here so that they all know how rad they are, and that after 10 years and change of Mariners fandom, I finally feel like I’ve found my tribe and it is the best tribe. I love you guys. Have a great weekend, and I’ll see you next week for the final few home games of 2017. ❤

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Let’s Talk About the Maple Grove Part 2

So because we live in a 24-hour news cycle and I am always late to the party, by now anyone who has been paying attention to Mariners baseball has been told or at the very least might be lightly aware of the Maple Grove. We did it on Monday night when Paxton and company shut out the Red Sox 4-0, and then a group of us were offered game tickets and a visit with Mr Paxton on the field for batting practice yesterday, an event that I sadly could not attend due to a financial meeting in Tukwila I had to leave work early for. It looked like everyone had a fantastic time at a 13(?) inning game that the Mariners pulled out at the last minute, and they put our group in the King’s Court, too; which seems only appropriate, because for as much as we love James Paxton, we know where our roots are. Pardon the pun. No, wait, don’t. I’m sad to have missed out on maple bars and other fun, but have been told that a signed ball was procured for me, and while that was not really necessary, my friends came through. I may have the best friends in baseball.

The ‘Grove was featured all over TV Monday night. I saw some super unflattering pictures of myself in national and local sports sites (but we’re all our own worst critics, right?)  I have no idea if we made it to print or not, I haven’t had the time to check. But it was fun, and because I’m not a weirdo who wants people to think we have magical powers (or the freaking patience!)  I have to specify that we did not bring the tree in. Gregg Greene, the Senior Director of Marketing for the team kindly brought us up a nice potted Japanese maple with a poster Fathead-style, of Paxton’s face attached to it. I am hoping the tree will make further appearances as necessary. It actually provided us with a bit of shade from the west as the sun took its time setting, so it provides several functions!

After listening to some discussion about it both online and on radio, I feel the need to point out that this group is not a Mariners marketing gimmick. I don’t push things I’m involved in often at all, but in this case I need to give credit where credit is due, and this is a specifically fan-driven thing that a bunch of us thought would be a lark during the last game of the Jays series, and then suddenly snowballed on us. This past Monday was the third game we’ve done it at. This upcoming Sunday will be the fourth (I was in Chicago for one a few weeks back, of course), and we’ll continue doing it as long as the front office will let us and as long as Paxton keeps starting baseball games. The Mariners people are definitely in contact with us (social media at its best), and Paxton himself seems to really like it; but we are not – at the risk of another pun – plants for the stadium. Nobody is on a payroll; we’re doing this because we’re all about Team Fun. Anyone is welcome to join us, we will use social media to get out the section or sections that we think we’ll be in for upcoming Paxton starts, and if we can’t make it work, we’ll try and take over a section that is out of the way of other fans so that we’re not inundating people with signs and general craziness. So far, this plan has worked well. I hope it continues to work well, as it has already really amped up the fun for 2017’s baseball season. I will say that there is a base group of about 15 or so people who were brainstorming things for the first time we showed up at the Sunday Jays game, and that all the planning has been done on Twitter; it just seems to keep gathering speed via word of mouth.

There aren’t really any leaders for the Grove; there are certainly some of us more involved in the planning and sign printing (Hillary Kirby is a saint!) than others, but that’s not really the point. The point is that anyone can join us, we’re there for James Paxton, the Mariners, and Seattle baseball. Hillary’s graphic design skills have even paid off in shirts that you can find at this link here: https://www.zazzle.com/themaplegrove . If you tell the site you’ve been referred, too, I think Hillary gets a little cash for her troubles. It’s maybe $1-2, so nobody is making a ton of cash off of  this here. You can even make your own shirt at that site (I have actually made a few for this website to wear on my own), though be wary of possible copyright infringements like Mariners logos or trademarks, because Zazzle will reject the design and refuse to print them for you. I found that out the hard way trying to make a Hawt Corner shirt a few years back.

It has been suggested that a Canadian flag be flown somewhere among us, but c’mon, we’re not Jays fans, right?  We’re not even Canadian. Unless one of you is. *looks around* Are you? We have Canadian “flags” with Mariners colors on them in the form of posters, so I hope that will be acceptable for any new folks that might want to join. And if you are Canadian, then I hope you find that the teal and blue is a nice twist on your national banner.

I don’t know where any of this goes at this point, I just know that I am looking forward to this weekend; a Mets game on Saturday followed by a haul up to Everett for the Aquasox Star Wars night, then back to Safeco on Sunday in section 182 with a to-be-determined number of people who just keep adding themselves to our pile. I hope that this results in a lot of good baseball friends and social media account sharing, at the very least. I have waited nearly 10 years to run into so many level headed and kind fans, and it was worth the wait, you all are amazing. See you Sunday, Go Mariners, and massive thanks to all the people, original Grovers and newbies, who are making this baseball season one of the best I’ve ever had.

 

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Let’s Talk About the Maple Grove

The Maple Grove has its roots in last year’s Blue Jays series. Daniel decided he wanted to troll the Blue Jays with Hunter Pence-style signs. Since I go to a lot of games with him, I came along for the ride, held some signs myself, talked to the handful of Jays fans who approached us and got the joke (some really, really don’t get it. At all.) and just generally had a good time at Safeco. We did it again this year, but it has now turned into a completely different animal; that of a cheering section for Canadian pitcher, James Paxton. “Big Maple”. A group of friends wanted to get together and cheer him on during the final game in the last Jays series, so brainstorming occurred, and it has taken on a life of its own! They did it again last night while I was stuffing my face full of Mexican food in Wheaton, and I think that it will likely continue until the time may come when Paxton is no longer on this team. I did want to share a few photos from the Jays series that I grabbed here and there during what would be the Jays taking the series from the Mariners. But we still had fun.

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It was sort of the same crew yesterday, via pictures I have seen. But I need to say, this is making me homesick. I have had a wonderful time here, and it has been smooth as butter; our travel and planning has worked out very well. But I am ready to smell the briney air in Seattle again and work in my garden, get back to my job and the cats and, of course, go to Mariners games.

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