With the exception of being away from home, I love everything about my baseball road trips. The ballparks and games themselves are the focal point as I continue to build The Ballpark Guide, but my trips are often full of other fun adventures, like doing interesting touristy things and staying in cool hotels. I’ve driven to and from Toronto countless times, so when I got up at 6 a.m. yesterday to get ready for my second baseball game of 2013, I decided I wanted to get to the city quickly, rather than do some sightseeing along the way. Why?
I can’t deny that I was excited for last night’s game, but I was super excited to check out my hotel. I love staying in hotels, and from the minute I booked a two-night stay at Toronto’s Westin Harbour Castle, I was pumped to check in. I’ve heard about this hotel for years and have always heard it to be a prime spot for baseball fans. Now that I’m here, I can definitely confirm this sentiment.
The Westin is one of Toronto’s nicest hotels and has a prime location right on the shore of Lake Ontario. It’s just a short walk from a number of downtown attractions, which is ideal because parking downtown is expensive and driving downtown can be a hassle, given traffic and the permanent construction in the city’s core. It was easy to find my hotel, though, and I’m rather directionally challenged. It’s just a couple minutes off the highway and before long, I was parked and checking in. As far as the nearby attractions, they’re too many to list extensively. If you’re into fine dining, for example, consider the Westin’s restaurants or take just a short walk to hit dozens of area eateries. There are also at least two grocery stores about five minutes away if you want to load up on snacks for your room. One thing I did before visiting was check out the hotel on Google Maps, and just scroll around a bit to see what’s in the area. If you want to do the touristy thing, the CN Tower, Hockey Hall of Fame and all sorts of shops are just a short walk away.
I was told that I’d enjoy my room, but WOW — I didn’t have any idea it’d be this great! I’m on one of the upper floors and have a lake-facing view. Here’s a shot out my window, although the photo hardly does the view justice:
You’re looking at a ferry taking people over to the Toronto Islands, a group of islands just a stone’s throw from the city’s downtown. As a side note, I went over to the islands once — during a Grade 8 trip to Toronto with my school band to play the anthems at the SkyDome. The spot that we boarded the ferry is directly below my window here at the Westin. And here’s another side note that baseball fans will enjoy — in 1914, Babe Ruth hit his first professional home run at Hanlan’s Point Stadium, a ballpark on the island. He was playing Double-A ball at the age of 19 and was still a half-decade away from tearing up Major League Baseball.
Most of one side of my room is made up of windows, so I truly have a panoramic view of the lake and islands. If I look out the window on the right side of the room, I can see Centre Island and Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport:
I’m pretty pumped about the view, but the room itself is outstanding, too. But before I get to the room itself, check out what was waiting for me when I got in:
Yes, it’s a welcome note AND a mini baseball bat filled with baseball-shaped candy! I should explain — since booking this trip late last week, the Westin has been following me on Twitter and knows about my love of baseball. How cool is it that they’d make the effort to find a baseball-themed welcome gift for me? It’s outstanding, but it wasn’t the only thing waiting for me. On top of a nice platter of fresh snacks, there was this:
My room is about 400 square feet, which is significantly larger than my first apartment. Since I’m staying here two nights, I’ll get to more details about the room and the hotel in my next blog post — I’ve still got some exploring to do!
The gates at Rogers Centre open 90 minutes before first pitch, so I figured I wanted to get to the stadium shortly before 5 p.m. I’d have time to walk around and take some photos, buy my ticket and get a good spot in line. First, though, I toured around my floor of the Westin and looked out the different windows to get varying views of the city. Hockey and basketball fans will like this one:
As you can see, I’m right across the street from Air Canada Centre, which is home of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Toronto Raptors. What a view! Soon enough, I made the short walk over toward Rogers Centre. The walk took about 15 minutes; you could do it in less time, as much of that time was spent waiting for street lights to change. It’s a nice walk and if you’re new to the city, gives you the opportunity to walk past the ACC and Toronto’s historic Union Station, as well as walk in the shadow of the CN Tower.
I’ve been to Rogers Centre virtually every year since it opened in 1989, I believe. And regardless of how many times I visit, it’s always exciting to approach the stadium. After crossing the pedestrian bridge over the railway tracks, I looked up to see the stadium’s famous statue called The Audience. (Side note — it’d be nice to see some statues of Blue Jays legends outside the stadium, too.) Whenever I see this statue …
… I can’t help but recall visiting Rogers Centre (then known as SkyDome) in 1989 for my birthday party. I remember thinking the statue, for whatever reason, was the coolest and funniest thing ever.
There weren’t many people around when I bought my ticket shortly before 5 p.m. and, as usual, I headed toward Gate 11, which is where I like to enter the stadium. Once there, I took my usual ticket shot:
I often enjoy taking panoramas of the outside of ballparks, but at Rogers Centre, it’s very difficult to get far enough away and still have a clear view. I kept walking backward and as you can see here, I still couldn’t get far enough away to get the entire height of the park in my frame:
After embarrassingly tripping on a step (the perils of walking backward while looking through a camera, I guess), I looked to my right and Gregg Zaun walked right past me! He played 16 years in the majors, including a stint in Toronto, and has worked for years as the studio analyst during Jays games. I didn’t want to run ahead of him and snap a photo, so I took this one:
I’ve zoomed in to show his World Series ring, which he won in 1997 with the Marlins:
How do people feel about the Jays current logo? I love it. I wasn’t a huge fan of the last couple incarnations, so it’s fun to see a logo that I enjoy so much adorning all sorts of things around the park, including many light posts:
The half-hour or so that I had to wait in line went quickly, and as soon as I entered the stadium, I made a quick turn to my left to head down to the left field corner. This is the route I always take when the gates open; sometimes you can find a batting practice ball here, or just hang out in hopes of catching a ball. I, however, wanted to get an early shot of the team’s new 200 Level Outfield Patio, which has been featured repeatedly on the team’s broadcasts:
I’ll have more photos of it later on, but it’s the structure with the railings between the Budweiser and Rogers logos. It’s free for anyone to enter, has nearby bars and a souvenir stand and, most importantly, has three levels of standing room. I figured that given its new popularity, it would be packed during the game. It was, but it was never packed enough that I couldn’t get a spot when I tried.
I often try to get a batting practice ball by hanging out in the 100 Level outfield seats or in the corners at field level. This time, I wanted to go up to the less-crowded 200 Level, so I made the quick jaunt up the dark ramp:
Seriously, how dark is this area? If you didn’t know better, you’d swear you were somewhere you shouldn’t be. I know this photo is less than thrilling, but I wanted to show how dark things are without using my flash. Things were brighter and more exciting when I got up to the 200 Level seats, and I took a moment to grab this shot of myself with the White Sox batting practice in the background:
I had to be quick; as I hoped, the balls were flying into the 200 Level fairly consistently. While I was standing in this area, I was thinking how I’ve been to Rogers Centre so many times. I don’t want to have my blog posts seem formulaic or mundane, so I decided I should try to take some shots of things I haven’t previously shared. As I looked around, the phone in the Toronto bullpen caught my eye:
I also get a kick out of these three seats; I always see them from afar but this might be the first time I’ve stood right next to them:
And speaking of being next to things, check out the view to my immediate left:
Yep, it’s the new standing room area I mentioned earlier. As for Chicago’s BP, catcher Tyler Flowers was putting on an impressive display. He crushed several balls into the 100 Level seats, and before long, blasted this one into the seats just to my right:
Adam Dunn was putting on an even better performance. He was routinely hitting 200 Level bombs and even hit a handful off the facing of the fourth level; I specifically noticed one hit between the Cito Gaston and Pat Gillick names in the photo below. Talk about power:
I decided not to hang out and try to get more balls. I was pleased to get one, so I made a beeline for the new standing room area to my left. I’ve got to say that it’s absolutely awesome. I’ve ranted about the ushers at Rogers Centre in the past, but those watching over this new area seemed really proud to welcome fans to check things out. I took a number of shots, but I’ll share just a few for now. Here’s one taken through the giant “B” in the Budweiser sign:
And here’s one that shows the layout of the area before it got crowded:
As you can see, there are three levels, tables and a number of sections have wooden bars for your food and drinks, or just to lean on. It’s a perfect spot.
The 200 Level has a number of cool additions since I last visited this part of the park. I was excited to see two bars named after former stars Roberto Alomar:
And Joe Carter, although I cringe when I see how they’ve left out a crucial comma:
After making one complete circuit of the 200 Level, I went down the ramp to check out the team shop. As I mentioned last year during my Rogers Centre visits, the new Memorabilia Clubhouse section is absolutely amazing. It’s full of game-used and game-issued stuff, and the only disappointment was not seeing the club’s two World Series trophies, which were on display here last year.
There was a cool assortment of game-used balls for sale:
And other neat things, too. Did you know that for just $800, you can get a broken Jose Bautista bat?
Since I was on the 100 Level, I decided to head over to the Sportsnet studio to watch the pre-game show with Jamie Campbell and Gregg Zaun:
I watched most of the show and from there, went over to the first base side during the anthems. Here, I caught my first glimpse of new Blue Jay Munenori Kawasaki, who was called up to fill in at shortstop with Jose Reyes hurt. Kawasaki has quickly become a popular figure in Toronto for his hustle and for bowing after plays:
(More on him later.)
I spent the first inning standing in this general area, where I took the photos to make up this panorama:
But by now, my stomach was growling. It’d been a long day and I was ready for something filling. I toured around for a bit, noting the new (and delicious-smelling) food options, but caved and went with my favorite thing to eat at Rogers Centre, the chicken wings at Quaker Steak & Lube:
After buying my food, I often grab one of the many folding chairs stacked up around the 100 Level and eat while watching the game through the railing. It’s a perfect strategy if you have a 500 Level ticket, as there’s no way you’ll make it up to your seat while your food is still remotely warm. I’ve done this for years, but this year, I was dismayed to notice that the chairs are locked up — see the padlock?
As for the wings, they were delicious and very meaty, as always. I got my usual flavour, Louisiana Lickers … and ordered it in my usual way: “The Louisiana one, please.” I wonder how many people actually say “lickers.” I stood to eat dinner behind the 100 Level outfield seats and after I was finished, noticed that the Jays new-look team has apparently brought all species out to Rogers Centre:
No big deal; just a guy in a bear costume, enjoying the game. My next stop was the outfield standing room area again, which was considerably more crowded than last time I stopped by:
It wasn’t difficult to find an open spot on the third level, however, and I lucked out because this screen was directly above me:
Game broadcasts nowadays are so good that it’s easy to feel at a slight loss for information when you attend games in person. Being able to watch the live game while consulting the screen for stats was baseball heaven!
The view from this area is really good. Photos always make things look a million miles away, but here’s the panorama I took from the area:
Late in the game, I decided to watch an inning or two from the concourse behind home plate, partly to watch Kawasaki. He’s a slap hitter who reminds me very much of Ichiro — and it’s not just that they’re both from Japan. Both have an insane dedication to stretching and calisthenics. Both guys routinely stretch between pitches while at bat and while in the field. At one point, the Jays showed a video of Kawasaki performing a handstand during pre-game stretching. As for the stretching, see what I mean?
Kawasaki had an outstanding at bat while I stood behind home plate. With two strikes, he fouled off at least five pitches until he drew a walk. (He finished 2-for-2 with a walk to boost his batting average to .364.) My favorite picture of him is this one:
Even though I’d bought a 500 Level ticket, I hadn’t quite made the trek up to the nosebleed seats just yet. In the bottom of the sixth, and with the Jays getting pummeled 5-0, I went up to the 500s and had this view of the video board …
… and this view of the field:
Remember my quest to find new things to photograph? I’ve never noticed it, but the foul poles at Rogers Centre (which are actually netting) are held in place by giant, crane-like arms:
I spent up until the middle of the ninth inning up in the 500s, and then slipped down to the 100 Level concourse to watch the Jays’ last at-bat. The Sox had tacked on two more runs to make the final score 7-0, which drops Toronto’s record to 6-9. What a disappointing start to the season. Fans are already panicking, and while that’s a little premature, it’s frustrating to see the team faring so poorly early on.
Nevertheless, I’ll be back at Rogers Centre for the final game of the series against the White Sox, and I can’t wait. I’ll be blogging about the game, and more about my stay at the Westin Harbour Castle, in the next day or two. If you’ve recently found this blog, please consider following me on Twitter to keep up to date with all my road trip plans and visit The Ballpark Guide. If you’re planning a baseball road trip of your own, my website has a ton of tips to help you make the most of your ballpark visits. If you find that my website has saved you a few bucks or increased your enjoyment of the game — or if you just enjoy reading about my travels, please consider making a small donation to help the cause. Thank you!