There are a million ways that I could begin this blog post that details my first baseball game of 2021.
I could tell you how I went nearly 800 days between live baseball games, which was by far the longest such streak of my life.
I could tell you that like many of you, I had a bunch of exciting road trips planned for 2020 and 2021 that I had to cancel.
Or, how despite being an optimist, I was doubtful that this day would come before 2022.
These are all relevant parts to this story, but there’s no better way to begin this post than with gratitude.
Simply put, I’m hugely grateful to have been able to see some live baseball this fall — the first time I’d stepped into a ballpark since I left Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia way back in July of 2019.
I’m grateful that the world is slowly returning to a state in which fans are allowed back in stadiums. I’m grateful to be healthy enough to attend some games without serious concerns for my health. I’m grateful that the Toronto Blue Jays took numerous steps to protect their fans at games this season. And I’m grateful that you’re still reading this blog, even after all these months have passed.
At various points early this season, I had pretty much resigned myself to the idea that I wouldn’t see any live baseball in 2021. It wasn’t an idea that I was very happy about, so I busied myself drafting up some itineraries for 2022 travel. But once the Blue Jays announced that they’d be returning home to Rogers Centre on July 30, I knew I had a really good shot at seeing some baseball late this season. Rather than jump at the opportunity to attend the home opener, I decided to hold back and see how things went in Toronto, and then buy some tickets for later in the season. The regular season-ending three-game series against Baltimore was a no brainer; I knew that the games would have a big impact on Toronto’s playoff push and, let’s be honest, I expected to see some victories for the home team.
Instead of driving to Toronto, which I’ve done several times over the years, I decided that I’d fly. Dirt-cheap ticket prices, plus the fact that I was honestly excited just to be able to fly again, meant that flying was the best method of transportation for this trip.
I can’t deny that I was positively giddy when I showed up at Ottawa International Airport for the short flight to Toronto. I got to the airport way earlier than necessary, simply so I could walk through the terminal, take in the sights and think about my long-awaited trip that was finally underway. I’ll spare you too many pictures from the airport, but can’t resist sharing this shot of my plane shortly before we boarded:
After spending a good amount of time wandering around the semi-deserted airport, I grabbed a seat near my gate and waited until boarding time:
Soon enough, we were in the air for the hourlong flight to Toronto:
Once on the ground in Toronto, I hopped on the UP Express, an airport rail link that connects Toronto Pearson International Airport with Union Station to give passengers the ability to travel between the two transportation hubs in about 25 minutes — a fraction of the time that you’d spend navigating the route by car:
From Union Station, I made a short walk over to the hotel that I’d be calling home for the next three nights. For this trip, I decided to stay at The Westin Harbour Castle, which I’d previously visited in April of 2013 while in town for a pair of Jays games. The hotel left a huge impression on me and nearly a decade later, it’s an understatement to say that I was pumped to be visiting again. I’ll have more details about the hotel toward the end of this post. First, though, I need to share this gorgeous view from my room:
The body of water is Toronto’s Inner Harbour, and the Toronto Islands and Lake Ontario are in the distance. It’s easily one of the best views I’ve ever had at a hotel, and one that I sat and enjoyed countless times throughout my stay.
After a quick lunch and a bit of walking around the waterfront, it was time to don a blue road trip tee, snap a photo in the mirror outside of the elevators …
… and make the short walk over to Rogers Centre. One of the things that makes this hotel appealing is its close proximity to the ballpark. The walk takes just 10 to 15 minutes, depending on your pace and how many crosswalks you need to wait for, and takes you through a part of the city that offers a lot to see. Staying at hotels that are within walking distance of the ballpark is one of my favorite things, as you might know if you’ve been reading this blog for a long time. I love the excitement of seeing the ballpark in the distance as I approach, as well as the fortune of not being stuck in a vehicle in the pre- and post-game traffic.
It wasn’t long before I cut across Bremner Boulevard and was looking at Rogers Centre with the 1,815-foot CN Tower just beyond it. To say that this scene was a sight for sore eyes was putting it mildly:
And speaking of eyes, I’d be fibbing if I said my eyes didn’t get a little misty a couple of times as I walked around the ballpark as the reality of finally being able to attend another live baseball game set in. Given that I’ve visited Rogers Centre so many times over the years — 13 times since I started this blog, and dozens and dozens of times before that — I didn’t feel a huge need to run around and take a few hundred pictures. Instead, I just took a slow walk along the sidewalk and turned right when I got to the end of the ballpark, making my way to Gate 10 so that I could snap this selfie:
I was pleased to see that Rogers Centre was opening its gates 90 minutes before first pitch for this Friday game, and two hours before first pitch for the two weekend games that I’d soon be attending. I’m a big proponent of getting into the park as early as possible, and while some teams have moved their gate times closer to first pitch since the start of the pandemic, I’m happy that the Toronto park kept its gate times consistent with past seasons. With about 45 minutes remaining before gates opened, I made my way to Gate 12, where I was (of course) the first fan in line.
As you might’ve heard, proof of vaccination was required to enter Rogers Centre — a decision I wholeheartedly applaud — so I took a minute to get my vaccination document and my photo ID ready to show staff at the gate. When it was time to enter, this extra step wasn’t a hassle at all. It added maybe five seconds to the whole process; it took far more time for staff to inspect my backpack. With a quick scan of my digital ticket, I was into the stadium. I decided that I wanted to get to the field right away, and since I was the first fan into this part of the ballpark, it was easy to cut through the concourse and run down the steps to enjoy this 200 Level view:
As you might’ve seen in the image above, the visiting Orioles were taking batting practice. I hadn’t brought my baseball glove because I didn’t have room for it in my carry-on luggage, but I stood in this spot for a few minutes in case any balls came my way. During this time, not a single baseball made it to the 200 Level in either left or right field — perhaps part of the reason that Baltimore finished the season 52-110 — but not snagging a BP ball did little to dampen my mood.
Once I gave up on snagging a ball, I made my way over to the WestJet Flight Deck, a multilevel, standing-room party deck that opened in 2015. One of the things that I love about this spot is that it’s available for fans on a first-come, first-served basis — unlike a lot of party spaces around the major leagues that require a special ticket. There were only a handful of fans in the Flight Deck at this point, so I took a few minutes to walk through each of its levels, snapping photos like this one:
I was loving the blue-on-blue bunting that was hanging throughout the Flight Deck. It helped to give the ballpark a festive vibe, which is something that I appreciated for the entirety of my visit. Another fun addition to the Flight Deck was a DJ station, which you can see here — minus the DJ, who I believe was outside of the stadium helping to pump up the fans as they entered:
After a few more minutes of enjoying the Flight Deck view, I made my way to the nearest ramp to head down to the 100 Level. As always, the ramps were dark and dreary. I know it’d take a lot of money, but if the team would paint these corridors white, add a blue stripe or two and perhaps some pictures of current or historical players, it would be such a facelift. Don’t you think?
The dreariness of the ramps couldn’t erase the smile from my mask-covered face, though, as I hustled down to the main concourse to begin taking in the sights.
Here’s a look at the Flight Deck and its aforementioned bunting from down the first base line …
… and another shot from farther away, after I’d made my way toward home plate:
Next, I wanted to take some time in the team shop. I’d previously read that the team would be operating the shop at a reduced capacity of just 150 people, so I knew that browsing it now would be better than having to stand in a long line to enter later on when the stadium was filled with fans. As you can see here, there was no line-up at this point:
While the assortment of Blue Jays merchandise was somewhat of interest to me, I was keener on checking out the game-used stuff. The game-used section was tucked in a space at the rear of the store in past years, but when I made my way to this area, it solely carried children’s apparel. Quickly, I scanned the shop like the Terminator searching for a target, and found a small display of items not far from where I stood. Game-used bats, signed baseballs and even jars of dirt from Buffalo’s Sahlen Field (the team’s “home” for the 2020 season and part of this year) were all for sale, as was a good selection of game-used balls. There weren’t any other fans in this area, so I took my time perusing the baseballs. Here’s a baseball that Red Sox third baseman Rafael Devers hit off Trent Thornton in the fifth inning of a May game, for example:
It could’ve been mine for $200, but I somehow managed to resist the urge to add it to my collection. Seriously, I wonder if anyone would spend this sum of money for this ball. It’s hard to imagine, right?
I was a little discouraged about the reduced game-used section, but I quickly turned my frown upside down upon seeing a new addition just a short distance outside the team shop. The Blue Jays Authentics kiosk carried a wide selection of cool stuff including helmets, locker plates and even players’ parking lot space signs from Buffalo. Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s was for sale for $800, if that’s your thing:
There were lots of game-used bases, too, but if my baseball glove hadn’t fit into my carry-on suitcase, I could be certain that a base wouldn’t, either. I didn’t end up buying anything at the Authentics kiosk, but I’m very glad it’s now a part of this ballpark. Team Authentics kiosks are a fixture throughout the big leagues, and I’d been hoping for years that Toronto would finally get one.
Once I’d taken a lap around the 100 Level concourse, it was time to head to the nearest ramp and make the lengthy journey all the way up to the 500 Level. It’s a walk that took a few minutes and, I hope, helped to burn a few calories in advance of the many calories that I’d soon be putting into my body. I reached the 500s on the third base side, and immediately went out to the seating bowl to check out the scene:
As you can see, the grounds crew was just starting to tear down the cage and screens from batting practice, and the seats were still pretty empty at this point. You may have also noticed part of the CN Tower visible just beyond the upper deck. When the roof is open, as it was for this game, the presence of the tower makes the view from any of the seats on the third base side simply breathtaking.
I headed off to my right through the upper deck so that I could stand directly above and behind home plate, pausing on this short walk to pick up this coin from beneath one of the seats:
For those who aren’t aware, this is a Canadian $2 coin, which is commonly known as a Toonie. There’s probably nothing at Rogers Centre that one can buy for $2, but I was pleased with the idea of putting this money toward my fast-approaching dinner.
Speaking of dinner, I figured that I’d grab something now instead of contend with lineups later on. So, I made the lengthy trek back to the 100 Level and took a lap around the entire concourse to look for the best option for my first game in 798 days. I’ve had some good meals at Rogers Centre over the years, but I was a little disappointed with the selection of options during this visit. Several concession stands were closed — which I suppose is fair, given the reduced stadium capacity rules. There weren’t any real “specialty” concessions anywhere, so I tried to find the most unique option I could.
It came in the form of something called “Loaded Cheeseburger Lattice Fries,” which consisted of a basket of lattice fries that were topped with ground beef, shredded cheddar cheese, diced pickles and a secret sauce that tasted suspiciously like McDonald’s Big Mac Sauce:
I’d describe this dish by saying that the concept was wonderful but the execution was mediocre. Many of the fries were overcooked to the point that I couldn’t penetrate them with my fork. This wasn’t the type of meal that would be easy to eat at the best of times, but the firmness of the fries added to the challenge of eating it without wearing it. Fortunately, I’d taken a seat in the upper deck to eat, so there were few witnesses as I eventually go through my long-overdue ballpark meal.
After eating, I remained in the upper deck for a bit longer and enjoyed the view of the park as it began to fill. There were frequent reminders on the video board about wearing masks, sanitizing hands and taking other safety precautions, and the Jays did a good job of making this information entertaining by getting the players involved. Here’s George Springer demonstrating how to properly wash your hands while humming “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” for example:
I went back down to the 100 Level for first pitch, watching it from the concourse behind home plate, and then continued wandering around while keeping an eye on the game by monitoring the numerous TV screens around the concourse as I walked. I hung out in one spot with lots of windows and snapped this shot of the city as dusk was beginning to fall:
If you recall the selfie that I took from outside of the ballpark before entering, I was standing roughly at the top of the stairs toward the bottom of this photo.
As is usually the case for me, I spent the next few innings walking around the park, stopping here and there to watch some of the action on the field. Eventually, I once again ascended to the 500 Level — if you’re wondering how much walking I did throughout the day, the answer is 24,342 steps — so that I could enjoy this view for a few minutes:
Yeah, it was obstructed to my left side, but the big TV on that wall ensured that I didn’t miss any of the action. Besides, I was just happy to sit in this environment and take it all in.
Later in the game, I moved to the third base side, not far from where I’d eaten dinner a couple of hours earlier. By now, the sky was dark and the CN Tower was aglow. As impressive as this view is during daylight hours, there’s something even more magical about it after dark:
I spent a couple of innings in this spot, moving down to the 100 Level concourse to watch the ninth as the Jays closed out the Orioles 6-4. While I sometimes linger in ballparks after the final out, I didn’t feel the need on this night because I’d be back at Rogers Centre a little more than 12 hours later. Instead, I exited through the nearest door, stepping into the balmy Toronto night that offered this view:
Instead of retracing the path I’d taken from the hotel earlier that afternoon, I took another route that was shared by dozens of exuberant Jays fans who were hopeful about the team’s playoff chances after game #160. Before long, I was back at The Westin Harbour Castle and excited to relax for a bit after what had been a long and fulfilling day.
I spent the next 30 minutes or so scrolling through Twitter, catching up on the evening’s game highlights on TV and enjoying the night view out my window. As much as the location of this hotel made it a perfect choice for my baseball trip, the guest rooms were outstanding, too. While the lake view was the star attraction, I was also impressed with how spacious my room was. This was my first hotel stay since the start of the pandemic, and the cleanliness of the room made me feel perfectly comfortable. Rather than share my own photo, I thought I’d share a better image off the hotel’s website that depicts a room that was identical to mine:
If you’re interested in visiting Toronto on a baseball trip next season, I wholeheartedly recommend this hotel. Beyond this recommendation, here’s a tip for saving some money: Book the Game Day Experience package, which not only includes your overnight accommodation (with free Wi-Fi), but also offers complimentary parking for one vehicle and a $25 credit that you can use for food and drink (including alcohol) at the hotel’s Chartroom Bar & Lounge or for breakfast at The Mizzen Restaurant. A drink and an appetizer before you walk over to the ballpark for an evening game? Sounds perfect to me. Check out this link to learn more about this package, which isn’t just for baseball fans. You can use it if you’re traveling to Toronto this fall or winter to see the Maple Leafs or Raptors, too.