Baseball Buffet

 

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The Cheeto-Lote from the Los Angeles Dodgers

Imagined if the lyrics to “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” were changed to reflect the cuisine that MLB teams serve up at concession stands in 2018.

“Take me out to the ball game,
Take me out with the crowd;
Buy me grasshoppers and Cheeto-lotes,
I don’t care if I never get back.”

Uhh, insects and Cheetos?

Those are just two of this baseball season’s concession stand options that are currently being served in the first annual MLB Food Fest in New York City. This weekend event gives baseball fans and foodies alike two hours in an all-you-can eat-setting to sample delectable and, um, different, offerings unique to each of the 30 MLB teams. Included in the menu are the Seattle Mariners’ Toasted Grasshoppers and the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Cheeto-Lote—an elote (Mexican corn on the cob coated in chipotle mayo, Parmesan, and tajin) with powdered down Flaming Hot Cheetos sprinkled on top.

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Toasted Grasshoppers from the Seattle Mariners

I went to the food fest on Saturday for lunch, and ended up sampling enough to cover Saturday’s dinner and breakfast for Sunday—an unintended byproduct of trying one paper food tray’s worth of food for 12 out of the 30 ballclubs. These are the teams I visited:

NL:
Chicago Cubs – Chicago Dog
Los Angeles Dodgers – Cheeto-Lote
Miami Marlins – Bacon Wrapped Plantain
Milwaukee Brewers – Cheddar Beer Bratwurst
Pittsburgh Pirates – Pulled Pork Pierogie Hoagie
Washington Nationals – Crab Grilled Cheese (with chips)

AL:
Baltimore Orioles – Chesapeake Waffle Fries
Cleveland Indians – Flamethrower (Yes, Flaming Hot Cheetos are involved)
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (The Angels Angels of Anaheim, or AAA) – Pork Katsu
Seattle Mariners – Toasted Grasshoppers
Texas Rangers – Chicken and Donut Slider
Toronto Blue Jays – Jerk Chicken Nachos

 

Click the images to see the whole menu.

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Chicken and Donut Slider from the Texas Rangers

A few factors limited me from trying the food from all 30 teams.

(1) I was full by the 10th sample of food. I don’t know how I got through an additional two more teams.

(2) Each team had its own counter where you waited in line for the crew to finish a freshly prepared portion of food to hand out. While I appreciated the recovery time, the lines for the Dodgers and the Texas Rangers siphoned away eating time.

(3) Half size portions are larger than expected because of the shifted scale of sizes toward BIG in American concession stands. Reaching all 30 teams may have been attainable with another person by sharing the food and the burden of lining up to collect samples. I’m making this sound too much like field work now.

(4) Some teams occasionally had to pause production to wait for restocked ingredients. One team ran out of two separate ingredients—beef and cheese, for those who want try and guess the team—at two separate times in my two hour block.

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Pulled Pork Pierogie Hoagie by the Pittsburgh Pirates

Now to the important stuff about the MLB Food Fest: my awards for arbitrary categories that I’m coming up with on the fly.

Most Appealing Menu Item I Wish I Tried: Tie
Arizona Diamondbacks – Churro Dog
Atlanta Braves – Pig Pickin’
Kansas City Royals – Brisket-Acho

I guess you could also pour a bag of sugar down your mouth for the same effect, but the Diamondbacks’ Churro Dog is a dessert bar menu smashed together into one dish. A churro is topped with vanilla Froyo, chocolate sauce, caramel, whipped cream—and all of that is inside of a donut. Ice cream is my normal sweet tooth weakness, but churros and donuts aren’t too far behind. When I wanted to line up for the Diamondbacks toward the end of my stay, the line sprawled across the room and seeped into the back of the Washington Nationals line on the opposite wall. Kids are correct here: always eat dessert first.

The Braves’ Pig Pickin’ is a fusion between Tex Mex and Southern comfort food. Curly fries, mac and cheese, and pulled pork put together sound too good to turn down. (Ignore the fact that I did turn them down by failing to have the adequate stomach capacity.)

The Royals just dumped cheese and barbecue on top of nachos, but you know what? It’s the barbecue version of what I normally get at Moe’s, so this Brisket-Acho must have been great.

Most Surprising Taste: Seattle Mariners – Toasted Grasshoppers

I still don’t understand how Seattle became an epicenter for eating insects, but here we are. I’m guessing the lime provided with the cup of grasshoppers has something to do with it, but the grasshoppers were a tad sour. Still good, though, and you can leave with a sense of pride if you overcome any fears of bugs to try a grasshopper. I’m just grateful they didn’t make that crunching sound when I bit into my first one—that would have been an appetizer killer.

Most Obvious Pairing: Tie
Baltimore Orioles – Chesapeake Waffle Fries
Boston Red Sox – New England Lobster Roll
Chicago Cubs – Chicago Dog

Crab and Old Bay are the peanut butter and jelly of Baltimore. You can never go wrong with Old Bay in your life.

It would have been a travesty if the Boston menu item didn’t incorporate lobster in some way.

The Chicago Dog is self-explanatory here, right? I had one to reset my taste buds and fight back the sluggishness from eating so much in such a short period of time. It did its job, but I really could go for a Portillo’s Dog after whetting my appetite here.

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Chesapeake Waffle Fries from the Baltimore Orioles

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Chicago Dog from the Chicago Cubs

Oddest Food/Team Pairing: New York Yankees – Adobo Bao

I’ll have to try this when I go to a Yankees game this year, because 2018 is apparently the debut of the Adobo Bao. The Yankees’ decision to offer a new menu item reeks of a choice made solely from a marketing perspective, but it’s cool to see Filipino flavor get the spotlight here with arguably the biggest name in baseball.

Best Name: Minnesota Twins – Kurd Marczuk

I didn’t get to try this offering, but this wins Best Name because I can’t figure out how to pronounce “Marczuk.” And if you have little ones, you can use the name of the dish as an opportunity to look beyond our borders and teach them about the Kurdish people. (Then you can delve into literary analysis together of the spelling of “Kurd,” which is intended to allude to cheese Curds, and that the “K” may have been chosen to pay homage to the scorecard’s symbol for a strikeout.)

Most Unique: Miami Marlins – Bacon Wrapped Plantain

Like Old Bay, you can’t go wrong with bacon in your life. This was the last item I ate, and the bacon wrapping fell off the plantain. So it was like I had two treats in one: the sweet plantain first, then the salty and juicy bacon to cancel it out. This was a great ending, except for the whole feeling bloated part.

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Bacon Wrapped Plantain from the Miami Marlins

Dish I Wish Was in Attendance: Toronto Blue Jays – Churro Poutine

Four churros served with a massive scoop of vanilla ice cream and a drizzle of caramel sauce is up with there with the pizookie and cake and ice cream as my favorite desserts. (I just like ice cream paired with pastries, apparently.) This dish would have provided some relief to the long lines of the Diamondbacks, but would have added more competition for the free soft serve machine MLB brought in as a surprise. That soft serve was provided in black MLB Food Fest cap cups, like the ones from Dairy Queen.

Best Dish: Los Angeles Dodgers – Cheeto-Lote

I don’t do spicy well, which is why I normally avoid Flaming Hot Cheetos. But the Cheeto-Lote was the equivalent of conducting an Olds and Milner’s “reward centers” experiment on me. My first bite of the Cheeto-Lote made me regret that I didn’t have a bottle of water on hand; the spices of the chipotle mayo and Flaming Hot Cheetos slowed down my chewing. But once the spicy stuff was consumed, I was rewarded with the delightful taste of sweet corn. So the rest of my journey with the Cheeto-Lote was to chomp away at the Flaming Hot Cheetos—God, I still regret not having water on hand—so I can savor that sweet, sweet corn at the end of each bite. I love LA.

Runner-up: Milwaukee Brewers – Cheddar Beer Bratwurst

A soft bun and a brat flavored with cheese and beer made me a happy person.

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Cheddar Beer Bratwurst by the Milwaukee Brewers

Here are the rest of the items I had at the food fest.

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Flamethrower by the Cleveland Indians

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Crab Grilled Cheese from the Washington Nationals

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Pork Katsu by the Los Angeles Angels

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Jerk Chicken Nachos by the Toronto Blue Jays

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Yes, They Have That, Too

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If Publix is where shopping is a pleasure, then Wegmans is where shopping is a bonanza.

I spent the past weekend in New Jersey, and on my way back to Connecticut, I stopped at the Wegmans at Woodbridge Township, New Jersey to find out what made Wegmans so special. Publix has Pub Subs; that sweet buttercream frosting on its cakes; and stores that offer a wide selection of items in clean, organized, and well-lit environments. And yet Wegmans is treated supposedly equal to or—*gasp*—better than Publix.

Sure, there’s market research that put Wegmans and Publix as America’s favorite grocery store in 2017—after Wegmans had sole claim to that title in 2016. Anecdotally, Wegmans opened up to rave reviews in Virginia when the Rochester, New York-based chain expanded into Publix’s stronghold in the south, and the prospect of a Wegmans opening in Brooklyn Navy Yard has tantalized New York City since 2015. New Jersey gave me the opportunity to see what I was missing out on.

The exterior to the Woodbridge Township Wegmans is—to put it diplomatically—bland. It’s a giant, brown, rectangular structure with “Wegmans” spelled out in blocky, white letters that look taken from an 80s video game. You’re not supposed to judge anything by its cover, though.

I went inside and found a miniature town buzzing with people. A row of more than 20 cash registers separated the doors and this community of shoppers zipping their large carts or small trolleys through this giant warehouse, kids running to their parents with a snack that they want to buy, and employees replenishing shelves with new items. The tan walls and bright lights comprising the interior of the store reminded me of the presentation found in a Ralph’s in Los Angeles or a Jewel in Chicago—but Wegmans was on a much grander scale than those two.

The first thing I learned while wandering the aisles of the store: you can build a household and raise a family on Wegmans alone. Feed your kids Wegmans-branded boxes of macaroni and cheese, fill your dog’s bowl with a scoop of Wegmans Nature Lamb and Brown Rice dog food, and then treat yourself to Wegmans tofu for dinner and Wegmans Chocolate Peanut Butter Swirl ice cream for dessert. With winter lingering into spring in the northeast, you’ll probably need a box of Wegmans tissues by your side.

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That doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface on the breadth of Wegmans products available at its stores. You’ve got cereal—I’m sure you can match Berry Corn Crunch and Cinnamon Squares to their mainstream equivalents—ketchup, mustard, relish, frozen pizza, granola bars, sparkling water, teriyaki sauce, canned soup, cookies, trail mix, yada yada, yeah, you get the gist. Everything.

As impressive as thatis, there’s still the real star of the Wegmans experience to explore: the massive market and food court in the western end of the store, which is basically a theme park in its own right. Even though you’re inside a climate controlled warehouse, Wegmans took the world-building attention to detail found in theme parks and put it work inside of a store to craft the vibe of an open-air atmosphere. At the Woodbridge Township Wegmans, the market looks like it could have been taken from Disney World’s Main Street USA. (Sorry, but that includes the massive weekend crowds, too.)

The village motif sets the tone: beige building facades with lit windows, lamps, and potted plants are built into the upper level of the store, serving as the backdrop for the different departments of freshly prepared food. Gray awnings are installed below these facades, to identify the food offered and to create the presentation that the employees and food have some shelter from the sun. Like the products offered under the Wegmans brand, the categories of fresh food cover the gauntlet: Bakery, kosher, pizza, sub sandwiches, coffee, sushi, chef’s creation.

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Stands for fruits, vegetables, fish, and cheese are scattered in the interior floor space, away from the facades, to add that street fair element to the market. Chalkboard signs identify the individual fruits and vegetables, and there’s even a man working the fish area who periodically rings a bell and yells out special, limited time offers as shoppers walk around.

After an hour of wandering the floor, I went to the hot bars—Taste of Mexico, Taste of Asia, and Homestyle Cooking—to pick up lunch. Lunch consisted of a slice of “celebration” chocolate cake with buttercream frosting and custard (I’m celebrating that this lunch will cancel out the Rutgers 8K I ran that morning), king salmon teriyaki with rice, and a side of macaroni and cheese. The food was flavorful and filling, so much so that I couldn’t bring myself to cobble together a bag of Wegmans gourmet cookies—chocolate peanut butter, chocolate chip, snickerdoodles would have been my haul—and a cinnamon swirl doughnut from the bakery for Connecticut. I did end up with two boxes of Wegmans white cheddar mac and cheese, though.

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I spent two hours at the Woodbridge Township store (yeah, I need more hobbies), but it didn’t take much time to convince me of the merits of Wegmans. Although Wegmans sells it own version of everything, the store still offers mainstream national and international branded equivalents at reasonable prices—a little higher than Walmart and Target, but at about the same level as Publix, taking into account cost of living differences between Florida and New Jersey. The store-made products is where the pricing gulf emerges: it’s $5 for four cupcakes at the Wegmans bakery, but you can pick up a six-pack of cupcakes for about $4 at the Publix bakery.

The selection and sheer size of Wegmans makes it come off a hybrid of a supermarket and the warehouse clubs of Costco, BJ’s, and Sam’s Club—but without the membership fee. Publix has the same breadth of choices for regular groceries, but is limited on the fresh food and store size fronts. H-E-B of Texas is the only supermarket chain I know of that seems to offer the same diverse selection of products in gigantic brick and mortar stores as a Wegmans.

So here’s the hot take all three of you who got this far have been waiting for: I’m not even going to try to rank one above the other. There’s no reason to pick between Publix and Wegmans as the best when they both make the errand of grocery shopping more fun than it already is.

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The Process

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The tickets said that the Brooklyn Nets were the home team, but the loudest people in the line to enter the Barclays Center made it feel like we were waiting at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia.

As I waited in the sprawling line to get into the arena for Sunday night’s NBA tilt between the Nets and Philadelphia 76ers, a number of Sixer fans chanted their love of The Process and the Eagles’ Super Bowl victory. They wore the official blue Sixers shirts that said “PHILA,” the unofficial blue Sixers shirts that said “TRUST THE PROCESS” wrapped around Joel Embiid’s No. 21 in the center, and green Eagles shirts celebrating the Super Bowl. One of those fans lifted up his sweater like he was flashing the line to reveal his Eagles logo shirt.

Brooklyn may have been the hosts, but The Process was the headline act for the night.

The Sixers may as well been the Harlem Globetrotters with the way the crowd—home supporters included—reacted to the team. No audible booing could be heard from my nose bleed seats when the Sixers took the floor for warm-ups and the player introduction; a few audible cheers could be heard for the announcement of Embiid’s name. A father and his two teenage sons seated to my left, all Nets fans, whooped and yelled “OHHHHHHHHHH” when Embiid nailed a three pointer from behind the top of the key, delivered a monster block on the other end, then followed those up in the paint by faking out a Net to the left before shifting right for an open layup. The three Nets fans reacted in the same manner to many of the jumpers that J.J. Redick, Marco Belinelli, Dario Saric, and Robert Covington sank in the first half.

An offense where the players keep on the move and some slick passing allowed the Sixers to put up 70 points by halftime. A stretch of slack defending and a heroic effort on offense by D’Angelo Russell propelled the Nets to 60 points by the interval.

After being down by as much as 19 points, the 10 point halftime deficit gave Nets fans hope. That hope would manifest itself in the fans cheering louder and louder for their team and getting angrier and angrier at the referees for any calls they disagreed with. The fans could taste the comeback when the Nets slashed that deficit to six points— Russell to the rescue again to make it 74-68—early in the second half.

Then, the lightbulb flickered on for the Sixers. The visitors remembered how to play defense.

A block, a steal, and a number of rebounds later, the Sixers ended the third quarter up 96-83. Philadelphia kicked off Garbage Time early when it took a 105-85 lead with eight minutes left in the game. The Sixers reserves built on that lead against the Nets bench anyway, and Philadelphia left Brooklyn with a 120-97 blowout victory.

It took an eternity for the Sixers to reach this point, but the fruits of the tanking is delightful to watch now. The defense can be porous at times, but on offense, the Sixers have the weapons to win in a variety of ways. The Sixers are active attackers; they spread the floor and the ball flows between players on the move. Philadelphia can attack the paint with Embiid and Simmons, but they’ve got gunners in Redick, Saric, and Covington to hit the three-pointers and long jumpers when the lanes are clogged.

The Sixers offense clicked on all cylinders on Sunday, resulting in a balanced score sheet through the whole roster:

Embiid: 21 points
Covington: 19 points
Saric: 18 points
Belinelli: 13 points
Redick: 12 points
Simmons: 11 points
Ilyasova: 11 points
McConnell: 10 points
Anderson: 3 points
Holmes: 2 points

The Sixers are built on two stars in Embiid and Simmons, but the stats from Sunday show that everyone gets to chip in. Long live The Process. Long live the fun.

A Terrierific Win for Town

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(Apologies for the awful attempt at a pun in the title.)

Goals, periodic hailstorms, Chinese New Year, and a redeye bus ride from London to Manchester. My trip to Huddersfield and the 4-1 victory for Huddersfield Town over AFC Bournemouth had it all.

BT Sport and the Premier League scheduled the kickoff for Huddersfield Town vs. AFC Bournemouth for noon on Sunday, 11 February, but the bus ride to the north began at 0145 for Bournemouth supporters.

Thanks to reduced train service on Sundays, my trip to Huddersfield began at 0100 from London Victoria Coach Station.

For six hours, I sat in a window seat on a Megabus with a row to myself, sleeping as the coach traveled up the M1. A woman to my right took out a stuffed animal and slept with it while sprawled out on both seats. Another man plugged his phone into a charging port, then slept with it beside his head like it was a stuffed animal. Three teenage brothers traveling north to their mother’s home each took a row for himself.

I woke up in flashes when the bus stopped at Leicester, Sheffield, and Leeds and watched Megabus employees load and unload luggage and check in new riders for the trip. At Leicester, a man with Bose headphones took the empty row in front of me and asked for my permission to recline his seat before doing so. He deserved a cookie—sorry, I mean biscuit—for his thoughtfulness. In Sheffield, an employee finished his duties early and vaped while waiting for my bus to depart. After my bus departed Leeds, I remained awake long enough to see Elland Road, the home of Leeds United, off the motorway before falling asleep again.

My bus pulled into the Shudehill Exchange at Manchester just shy of 0700. I watched the sun rise as I walked the 15 minutes from Shudehill to Manchester Piccadilly Station, where I boarded a TransPennine Express for the 30 minute trip north to Huddersfield.

I left Manchester with the sun rising into a clear sky. When I stepped foot on Huddersfield, wind and snow hit me against a gray backdrop.

—-

Huddersfield is the hometown of Sci-Fi legend Sir Patrick Stewart, Captain Picard of Star Trek: The Next Geneartion, and Sci-Fi star Jodie Whittaker, the new Doctor who, in a prior life, once joined forces with John Boyega to protect London from aliens in Attack The Block. The fickle weather in Huddersfield that Sunday felt like some odd phenomena Picard or the Doctor needed to investigate. The sky would turn gray and dump snow, hail, and an angry wind on the city for about 15 minutes. Then the sun would barge in, the sky would turn blue, and Huddersfield resembled a (still cold) paradise for a 15 minute period. Then the weather reverted back to gloomy gray and snow for another 15 minutes.

I know what you’re thinking: substitute for rain for the snow, and you have the wacky weather of Florida in a nutshell. Huddersfield is Florida.

It in these shifting conditions that I walked Leeds Road and arrived at Kirklees Stadium (John Smith’s Stadium), home of the Terriers of Huddersfield Town. It’s not a doghouse of a ground, though, with arches adorning the top of each stand and adequate parking for the drivers. When the stadium opened just after 1030, I walked to my seat in the southeast corner of the Britannia Rescue Stand and saw that the Terriers embraced the Chinese New Year. The Main Stand opposite my seat was decorated with sky blue and white plastic bags that spelled out “YEAR OF THE DOG.”

As you discerned from the previous sentence, 2018 is the Year of the Dog in the Chinese Zodiac. With the blessing of shirt sponsors OPE Sports—a Chinese gaming company—and the Chinese Society at the University of Huddersfield, the club tied the holiday into the Terriers nickname. Each seat in the stadium came with a red clapper emblazoned with a gold Terrier and Year of the Dog printed next to it. The matchday program featured a red and gold cover of Town’s No. 8 Philip Billing—the number 8 being a lucky number in Chinese culture; go see the release date for the Crazy Rich Asians. The pregame festivities featured the university students waving the Chinese flag and English flag alongside each other in front of the Main Stand. The flags flew again after each Town goal.

Knowing that Year of the Dog t-shirts with the club’s Terrier mascot were for sale at the club shop, the cynic in me felt that this tie-in leaned more toward cash grab than cultural exchange. Or maybe that’s just the presence of the clappers—which the crowd didn’t really need that day—poisoning my thoughts.

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The seat I bought apparently belonged to a season ticket holder who couldn’t attend the match, and put it on the club’s official resale market. I just wanted a seat next to the Cowshed, Hudderfield’s most vocal section of supporters in the neighboring Chadwick Lawrence Stand to my left. But because of my proximity to the Cowshed, I was expected to stand for the match and be loud.

Well, crap. How am I, a Palace supporter, supposed to impersonate a supporter for another club?

Thankfully the middle aged Town supporters with whom I shared my row reminded me of the Midwestern folk back home: very polite and generous. The man and his wife were fascinated by the fact that I was an American who traveled from London to see their club play—after I had already been to a match in the top four tiers of the English pyramid.

They asked me for advice on taking a cruise out of San Francisco or Los Angeles if they wanted a warm vacation and whether or not it snows in Southern California. (I swear they are now the only residents of northern England who know what the heck Big Bear Mountain is.) In return, they taught me a few of the songs led by the Cowshed that I could mumble, mime or just listen to. This massive soundtrack included “Stand Up if You Love the Town” (in a church-like manner, everyone stands up during the song), “David Wagner’s Barmy Army,” and “Blue, Red, and White Army.” During halftime, the man offered me some massive fruit snacks shaped like the fruit they tasted like. The name of the fruit printed on the center of the snack; the peel-shaped orange said “orange.”

I apologize to my parents, and to all parents everywhere, for basically ignoring the rule of never taking candy from a stranger. On the bright side, I’m still here and the fruit snacks tasted good.

Anyway, friends of the couple seated in the row behind us came with their own set of questions. A man with long gray hair and a gray beard asked me which teams I saw.

“I saw Palace-Newcastle, Wolves and Sheffield United, Cambridge and Lincoln, and Wimbledon and Northampton,” I said.

“Ah, you didn’t see any football!” he jovially replied. “You’ll finally see some real football today! Hopefully.”

“You’ll also learn that we northerners don’t speak like those southerners,” the gray hair man added. With that quote, it finally sunk in that other countries around the world have the same geographical rivalries similar to our North vs. South back in the States.

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A draw would have been the best result for Palace, so I rooted for a high scoring affair of 2-2 or 3-3. But Huddersfield opened the game like a pack of nipping Terriers—swarming the box and pestering Bournemouth into mistakes when they had the ball—and made it obvious I wouldn’t get my wish.

Seven minutes in and former Brentford-loanee-turned-eventual-Terrier Alex Pritchard gave the home support the best reason to be loud without clappers. Huddersfield striker Steve Mounie took advantage of open space on the left to drive into the box and cut the ball back to the sprightly Pritchard, who stroked it inside the near post to give the Terriers a 1-0 lead. I had a lot of fun showing restraint; all I could do was politely applaud the buildup that led to the goal and nod my head to the celebrations.

Bournemouth gave me false hope when Junior Stanislas equalized after no Terrier marked his run. (This time, I just nodded.) But Stanislas’s goal wasn’t a knockout punch; the Terriers shrugged it off and kept going after the Cherries. Huddersfield were rewarded for their endeavors with a free kick in the 27th minute, in which midfielder Aaron Mooy delivered a sublime ball into the box. An unmarked Mounie rose highest to meet the ball and as soon as I saw him make contact, I blurted out that that’s going in.

The ball bounced under Bournemouth keeper Asmir Begovic and into the net to put the Terriers back on top, and Kirklees went crazy again. Although the gray sky returned and snow came down hard on the pitch for the final minutes of the first half, the Terriers went into the interval walking on sunshine with that 2-1 lead.

“You need to come here every week,” the man with gray hair told me after the halftime whistle blew.

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At some point during the second half the Huddersfield supporters began singing “Na Na Na Na Hey Hey-ey Huddersfield Town,” their version of “Na Na Na Na Hey Hey-ey Goodbye.” Whenever the Town supporters trotted out that song, I sang along for the “Na Na Na Na” part, but muttered the Palace ending—“Wilfried Zaha”—under my breath. Besides, “Wilfried Zaha” rhymes with “Na Na” and flows better with the tune than the mouthful of “Huddersfield Town.”

The Kirklees faithful should have sang “Na Na Na Na Hey Hey-ey Goodbye” to the Bournemouth fans when Mounie knocked in the third in the 66th minute. Once again, Mooy the Talisman created the goal. Instead of passing the ball wide to Pritchard to set up a cross—which was what I thought he’d do—Mooy strolled to the box, causing the back four to retreat toward Begovic. That opened up the space for Mooy to deliver a hard, low drive to the center of the box, where Mounie one-timed it to seal the points.

This is when I resigned myself to a Huddersfield win and wanted them to run up the score on Bournemouth. Like some sci-fi character, Huddersfield read my mind, then added a fourth goal via penalty kick in the last minute of stoppage time.

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The volume of joy that erupted following the full time whistle was something to behold. The result stunk for Palace, but I was happy for my neighbors in my row, where the woman bounced up and down in place while clapping and her husband sang along with both arms in the air. The man with the gray beard told me that I was welcome back any time after a result like this.

Amidst all the raucous happiness, a quiet act of graciousness unfurled. Before evacuating to the tunnel, Begovic found a trio of Bosnian supporters in the front row of my stand and handed them his game-worn shirt. During the warm-up, the trio unfurled a Bosnian flag by Begovic’s net and cheered the goalkeeper on; the shirt was the reward for their loyalty. Even though their goalkeeper lost, his act of generosity probably made the trio as jubiliant as the victorious home supporters.

Once everyone else cleared the pitch, the Huddersfield squad got in their victory formation and commenced the closing ceremony. The Terriers jogged side-by-side in a line toward the Cowshed, stopping at the penalty spot. The players joined hands at the spot, then raised their arms up in their air multiple times, like boxing champions, to the roar of the crowd.

This ritual and the joy among the home support renewed that urge to see Palace claim a Premier League win at Selhurst. One day. One day. But for now, I have to be content with living vicariously through Huddersfield’s fans, random hailstorms and all.

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Terracing in the Rain

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Of course they blared “I Am The Resurrection” by The Stone Roses as the first song for the pregame warm-up.

After three years of failing to get my travel schedule to line up with a home fixture for the phoenix club AFC Wimbledon, I finally made my way to Kingsmeadow (Cherry Red Records Stadium) on 10 February to see the Dons host Northampton Town in League One action. By attending this match, I completed my goal of watching a match in the Premier League and the three tiers of the Football League within a week. And odds are, this fixture would also be the closest I will ever get to attending Wimbledon, the tennis Grand Slam.

Even without watching a single match of theirs until the FA Cup tie against Liverpool in 2015, I’ve had a soft spot for the Dons because of their resilience. Sports in the States is littered with organizations moving on the whim of the owner—just look at the NFL in the last five years, the Seattle SuperSonics, and the current ownership of Columbus Crew—but that type of action is virtually unheard of in England. And yet a move happened in 2003, when the chairman of the former Wimbledon F.C. moved the club to present day Milton Keynes and rebranded it as MK in 2004.

Anticipating the Milton Keynes debacle, Wimbledon supporters formed AFC Wimbledon in 2002 and plunged to the depths of non-league. AFC Wimbledon’s rapid ascent from non-league to consolidation in the Football League—six promotions in 14 seasons—is quite the underdog story, but the dramatic finishes in recent years have added an element of magic to this rebirth. In 2013, it was on FlashScore and the BBC Vidiprinter where I “saw” Jack Midson’s penalty keep Wimbledon in League Two on the last day of the 2012-13 season. In May 2016, it was on Twitter where I saw the club’s official account go bonkers after Ade “The Beast” Akinfenwa scored the penalty against Plymouth Argyle at Wembley to ensure Wimbledon’s promotion to League One.

Unfortunately for the Dons, that magic didn’t accompany them against Northampton. The Cobblers took advantage of a defense that went passive after conceding a penalty to defeat the Dons 1-3.

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But what really matters here is that I finally got to partake in the old-school way of watching The Beautiful Game: terracing.

For my fellow Americans reading this, terraces are all-standing sections of stadiums; the rows in this section are steps of an increasingly higher vantage point as you go from front to back, like the Steps of Knowledge in Legends of the Hidden Temple. I arrived at the stadium early enough to take a spot in the front row of the home section of the RyGas Terrace, which runs along the length of the pitch. To my left was the shortest fan in attendance: a kindergarten-aged boy attending the match with his grandfather for a day out. Grandpa came prepared. His tote bag on the ground held a two bottles of fruit juice and multiple bite-sized Twix bars, whose wrappers went back in the bag after they ate them. Grandpa also brought a little white step stool so that his grandson could see over the safety rail running along the front row.

There is an intimacy to watching from the terraces at Kingsmeadow. The terrace to my left, behind one of the goals, is the ChemFlow End where the more vocal home supporters packed themselves for the match. My perch in the front row of the RyGas and the front row at the ChemFlow are about five feet from the touch line and the goal line, respectively. That proximity lent itself a different challenge for the fans of the ChemFlow, though: target practice.

Not intentionally, of course.

When Wimbledon took their pregame shooting drills on the nets in front of the ChemFlow, multiple shots went wayward and turned into home runs. The fans at the ChemFlow didn’t try to catch the balls; they played dodgeball with those shots, craning their necks left or right to avoid a headshot or sidestepping potential body shots. The enclosure shielding the supporters from the elements was defenseless, though.

**THUD**

The balls that avoided harming a human instead met a noisy end when they collided with the aluminum wall behind the supporters in the ChemFlow, dropping to the ground quietly upon impact with the structure. Somehow, most of the stray shotsduring the match avoided clattering into the aluminum wall and instead flew over the stand completely.

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Things got really fun when the match kicked off. The narrow gap between the terrace and pitch made me feel like I was a VIP with pitch-level access. I heard the players on the pitch shouting directions to their teammates and vent to the ref, and saw those on the bench dash back and forth along the touchline to stay loose. I made eye contact with Tom Soares—a squad member in the 2004-05 Crystal Palace squad that snared me into English football—when I applauded him after his substitution out of the game. I saw the effort and extra exertion to track back for a ball manifest as pained expressions on the faces of the sprinting players (or maybe that’s just how Barry Fuller looks like when he runs) and observed two different managerial styles in Wimbledon’s Neil Ardley and Northampton’s Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink.

Ardley was calm and quiet—almost chill in his demeanor, even when Wimbledon fell behind twice—as he watched the game from the dugout. From my angle, it looked like he was even leaning on the cover of his bench as he watched the game and pondered his next move. On the rare occasions he shouted directions to his team, Ardley stood tall delivered them in an even-keeled manner.

On the other side of the center line, Hasselbaink was much more evocative. He made hand gestures and arm movements to accompany his verbal directions, as if he was the conductor of an orchestra who took the liberty to bark commands like a military officer. Where Ardley tried to instill a sense of composure for his team by keeping his cool, Hasselbaink went for the sense of urgency in his active style of delivery.

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Proximity also lent itself to heightened tension. Although a camera gantry separated the home and away support standing in the RyGas, that gap wasn’t enough to dissuade individuals on either side from lobbing… errrrm… aggressive banter at the other side. There were two balding guys standing a few feet to my right who deserve special recognition for being the loudest shouters within the crowd. Those two especially took umbrage at the referee for his inconsistency; he booked Lyle Taylor within the first 10 minutes of the match for accidentally taking a free kick before the whistle blew, yet didn’t issue a yellow card to Northampton’s goalkeeper for continuously time wasting.

The two guys also branded John-Joe O’Toole as a “cheat” after he won the penalty that gave Northampton an early 0-1 lead, and jeered Northampton striker Matt Crooks for a yellow card he deserved. Crooks played up his newfound villainy by mischievously staring at the loudest shouters raging against him, a little Mona Lisa smile creeping into his face as he eyed certain individuals in the RyGas. Toward the end of the match, the more obnoxious and angrier of the two dudes yelled at the ref to book each Northampton player substituted out for taking too long to leave the pitch for the dude’s liking. All that screaming made his throaty voice sound like it suffered the effects of smoking every day.

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In fairness to those two guys, they probably vocalized the disappointment of everyone who remained in Kingsmeadow after Northampton scored their third goal. A number of supporters to head for the exits, including the Wimbledon supporter who wore a Toronto Maple Leafs hat. (He is his own Venn Diagram.) For those who stuck it out through the end—including an excruciating five minutes of stoppage time—they found brief solace in the voice of the PA announcer. He read out the final scores from the other games around the league as everyone filed out of the stadium, but saved a certain result for last.

“Milton Keynes: 1,” said the PA announcer. He paused for dramatic effect. “…Portsmouth… 2!”

The Wimbledon supporters let out a celebratory cry and applauded the result.

“Still above the Franchise,” I overheard one Dons supporter tell his friend.

Wimbledon may have lost to Northampton, but still remained one spot above the relegation zone and four points ahead of Milton Keynes at the end of that day. To borrow from tennis—Advantage: Wimbledon.

Friday Night Lights at Cambridge

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The steward at the stadium car park gave me the strangest set of directions to find my gate.

“Exit the car park and make a right. At the rental car sign, turn right and walk down the alley,” she said. “A steward there will show you where your seat is.”

And so I turned around from our spot, zig zagged through the mess of cars parked on the gravel, made a right at the exit and onto the sidewalk, then another right at the Thrifty Car Rental Sign, passed through an alley wide enough for only two people side-by-side, and then found myself in a tiny open area outside the Mundipharma Community Stand. Sure enough, a couple stewards stood by a metal walkway and a rear staircase to check tickets and point attendees toward their seats.

When I took my seat toward the top of the stand, I quickly noticed that I’d have to keep time the old-fashioned way: my watch. There was no scoreboard visible from the community stand.

This was my welcome to Abbey Stadium, the home of Cambridge United, and to League Two, the lowest tier of professional football in England.

I was in Cambridge on 9 February 2018 to see United host Lincoln City F.C. The away side’s most recent claim to fame was last season’s run to the FA Cup Quarterfinals against Arsenal—as a semiprofessional non-league ** side in the Conference Premier League—en route to winning promotion back to League Two. On this cold Friday night, the two teams treated 5775 supporters (1678 of them being Lincoln supporters who made the two hour trip south) to an entertaining 0-0 draw that Cambridge should snatched in the end.

I know what you’re thinking: how could I find a 0-0 draw in the bottom tier of professional football in England so riveting?

It was end-to-end action through most of the 90 minutes, the red and white of Lincoln and amber and black of Cambridge scrapping about in an even match. Cambridge dominated possession in the first half, but Lincoln City had more quality chances with their counterattack, culminating with what the away side thought was the first goal of the match. Cambridge failed to clear a set piece and a Lincoln attacker somehow found enough space for a bicycle kick. The ball landed into the path of a teammate, who put the ball into the net. However, the linesman correctly ruled that Lincoln teammate offside in the buildup to the goal, and the home supporters jeered the jubilant away fans who failed to notice the linesman’s raised flag.

I was clueless on the names of the players on each side, except for Cambridge goalkeeper David Forde, who spent an eternity at Millwall, and Harrison Dunk, the Cambridge left back who always seemed to be at the right place at the right time to intercept a pass or put in a tackle when he was on my near side of the pitch in the first half. Unlike many of the players on both sides, whenever Dunk had the ball, he always tried to pass it around to his teammates rather than punt it forward.

Lincoln leveled the possession stat in the second half, but like Cambridge in the first half, struggled to do anything meaningful with it. Meanwhile, Cambridge manager and former Crystal Palace captain Shaun Derry made two substitutions that added a much-needed bite to the United attack: Uche Ikpeazu (whom the crowd greeted with repeated chants of “Uche Uche”) and David Amoo (whom all the older supporters surrounding me kept calling for after halftime).

In Uche, Cambridge finally had a proper target man who could also ram through defenders with his strength on the ball. Amoo complemented Uche by providing the width and pace that United lacked through going forward. The flurry of chances that Cambridge had in the final 20 minutes of the match arose from Amoo’s excellent crosses from the right, including United’s best chance on the night. Amoo sent out a cross that picked out Barry Corr in the box, whose bullet header was somehow stopped by a desperate dive from the Lincoln goalkeeper. Cambridge followed up that effort with their own Lincoln moment: a set piece that led to a goal disallowed for offside.

With Lincoln supporters comprising nearly a third of the total attendance, the atmosphere lively in spite of the cold. I couldn’t exactly pick out what was sung through my shivering and covered up ears, except for “Come on you Us,” but both sets of fans showed a lot of passion with the level of noise they sustained through the match.

The real uproar came after the match, when barely 10 minutes after the final whistle, the tweets and reports came out that Cambridge manager Shaun Derry left the club by “mutual consent.” At the bus stop outside the stadium, people were asking one another if the news was true, then checked Cambridge’s social media feeds on their phones to verify what the others said. Sure enough, the tweet was there.

Supporters expected Derry to be out at some point because of mediocre results and the new ownership that officially took over the club that morning, but the swiftness of the move caught them by surprise. It happened so fast, a teenager on the bus ride back to the rail station spent the first few minutes of the trip talking about how Derry would only last a couple months max under the new ownership, then looked at his phone and proclaimed “I told you!” when he saw the announcement.

Given the speed of the announcement, Derry—dressed sharply in a black coat, black vest, and gray pants—knew his fate already when he arrived at the ground. Derry’s departure also made him the second manager whose final match I attended before he left the job (Claudio Ranieri for Leicester v. Manchester United being the first). Even without any goals, Derry’s farewell to the division turned out to be a frantic finish for my introduction to life in League Two.

**Non-league is probably the better term I should have originally used for conveying that Lincoln City played outside the Premier League and the three divisions of the Football League.

Hyped Ham

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The irony of seeing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical, Hamilton, at the Victoria Palace in London.

Here is a Founding Father of the United States, celebrated six nights a week in the country he revolted against, while King George III is treated as comic relief in the country he reigned over. Within this theater, the predominantly British crowd is rooting for the American revolutionary to take his shot. And if you’re one of the handful Americans seeing the show in London—like me and the couple from Arizona seated to my right—you passed up Broadway, Chicago, and the National Tour to see the show in the territory that was once the mother country.

To be fair, it’s probably more cost effective for an American to see the show in London than to see it in New York, the capital of Hamilton’s United States. When the low end of Broadway’s prices hover around $300 for Rear Mezzanine and the max at the West End is £200 (about $280) for a premium seat, might as well make an overseas adventure of it. That’s the boat my Arizona neighbors and I found ourselves in.

I should note that I went into Hamilton blindly. I didn’t listen to the original Broadway cast recording because I had no idea whose voice belonged to which character. I was skeptical at the love showered on the musical in light of the thousands of dollars people were willing to pay for a seat on Broadway. But my curiosity—and the casting of Rachelle Ann Go in a lead role as Eliza Hamilton—persuaded me to dive in anyway when the production released a last batch of tickets for February performances.

By the end of the opening number, “Alexander Hamilton,” I understood the hype from a storytelling perspective. (The hip hop entertained me, but I’m too square/uncool to evaluate the quality of the lyrics from an artistic standpoint.)

The storytelling through the spoken word and hip hop is in your face, especially in the first act covering revolutionary America, and paces through Hamilton’s lifetime at a frenetic pace. Sounds like modern America, right? The London company of Hamilton also projected a confidence—bordering on cockiness—in how they attacked the lyrics and choreography to each musical number in those swanky colonial costumes. (The choreography for “Satisfied” and Ten Duel Commandments” are especially outstanding from a visual storytelling perspective.) It’s fitting that Jamael Westman, barely over a year out of drama school, won the role of the young Founding Father who quickly rose to be George Washington’s right hand man. Westman delivers the lyrics that Miranda wrote with that youthful tinge of fury in his voice and in his eyes that you’d expect from the ambitious individual that Hamilton lived his life as.

Ultimately, the core of Hamilton’s life is the classic underdog story. And that’s why the way Miranda delivered Hamilton’s story—rising from orphan in the West Indies to prominent statesman on the back of hard work, talent, and the help of those who spotted those traits—is important in today’s polarized atmosphere.

This is the dramatized biography of a white Founding Father presented as a hip hop musical, expanding the appeal of this story to a mainstream audience. This novel approach to a historical figure engages audiences and hopefully encourages them to go down the Alexander Hamilton rabbit hole on Google or Wikipedia on their own time. Yet the musical also gave the spotlight to his contemporaries that the high school history textbooks glossed over. I thought “John Lawrence” through the first act until I read the program during the interval and saw that he was John Laurens, and I also had no idea who Hercules Mulligan and Maria Reynolds were until last week.

The multiethnic cast fulfilling the roles of these white historical figuresis the other obvious appeal of the musical. Westman is of Irish and Jamaican descent, Giles Terera (Aaron Burr) is Black British, and Go and Christine Allado (Peggy Schuyler/Maria Reynolds) are Filipina, among everyone else in the company. It was visceral to see Terera, knowing that he portrays Burr, step onto the stage as the first lead in the opening number and yet accept this revised interpretation of Burr’s appearance without a second thought. These portrayals highlight the universality of the underdog story found in Hamilton’s life—and the ideal of an America that we’re still working to perfect today, more than 200 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed.

It’ll take a lot of work and time to break down the cultural, institutional, and systemic barriers that continue to push marginalized peoples to the fringes. But in celebrating Hamilton’s life, the musical is optimistic for an America where everyone, regardless of their background and ethnicity, has access to the opportunity—their shot—to prove themselves like Hamilton did. Even the Brits in attendance that night were rooting for us to get there.

The show had to pause for a brief moment for loudest ovation of the performance, when Hamilton and Marquis de Lafayette proclaimed “Immigrants: we get the job done.”