Last week, I had the fortune of taking part in a once-in-a-lifetime baseball event.
I got to take my three-year-old nephew, Ben, to his first baseball game, alongside my brother (and Ben’s dad) Phil. Ben is about as much of a baseball fan as someone his age can be, watching the first few innings of Blue Jays games on many nights with my brother and chanting “Go Jays, go!” and “Home run!” when the mood suits him. Phil and I have been excited to think about taking Ben to his first Blue Jays game, but decided to try out something a bit more subdued until he’s a little older.
That plan found us at Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton Park (doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, eh?) in Ottawa, Canada, home of the Ottawa Champions of the Can-Am League. For the record, I’ve seen one Can-Am game in the past, back in 2013 when my friend Jeremy Nowak was playing for the Trois-Rivières Aigles. The Ottawa ballpark is the former home of the Triple-A Ottawa Lynx, who were in existence from 1993 through 2007 before moving to Allentown, PA, to become the Lehigh Valley IronPigs. Phil and I figured the park would be the perfect venue for Ben’s first game — not too overwhelming in terms of size and crowd, but still enough to truly provide the experience of watching professional baseball.
First, of course, we had to remind Ben that we’d be watching, not playing. He told me on the way to the park that he was going to “hit the ball and catch it” and when I asked him if he’d hit it far, he responded with “I can hit it a little bit far.” Thankfully, the little guy dozed in the car on the drive to the park, which would give him the energy for a late night out — even if he wouldn’t end up getting to pinch-hit.
We arrived just after 6:30 p.m. for the 7 p.m. game and our first view of the park was this shot from the parking lot:
OK, not the most enticing picture in history, but I can promise you that the pictures get much cuter as we go.
Ben was still groggy from his nap on the drive, so he got treated to a chauffeur ride across the lot from my brother:
After briefly walking around the concourse, we decided to head out to the seating bowl to give Ben a chance to take in the sights. The Champions had already taken the field by the time we reached the cross-aisle and it was truly a joy to see Ben processing all the new things before him:
(This photo was followed by a question: “Ben, do you have your mouth on that bar?”)
As you’ve probably encountered if you’ve attended a baseball game with a child, we sat for part of the first half of the first inning before Ben said he was hungry and we returned to the concourse for dinner. I’d scouted out the ballpark’s concessions menu online before our visit and I’ve gotta say that I was impressed with the look of things. While Ben scarfed a couple hot dogs (no picture of this — I asked if I could take his picture while he ate and he told me “Nope”) my brother and I set our sights on the ballpark’s poutine menu. Now, I’m not the hugest poutine fan in the world, but if it’s done right, it’s delicious.
While you can order your poutine plain — fries, gravy and cheese curds — there are some extra toppings to kick things up a notch. I got General Tao’s poutine, which was topped with breaded chicken, General Tao’s sauce, diced green onions and black sesame seeds. It was ridiculously good. I think it would crack my all-time ballpark food top-10 list. Absolutely delicious:
My brother had a winner, too. He got the 911 poutine, which had sriracha sauce and two types of hot sausage as toppings. He reported that the heat had him just on the verge of sweating, which is always a good sign. Here’s the serving:
We took our food down to some front-row seats on the first base side (the park is entirely general admission, so we wanted to sit close to the action) and mowed down our dinner with this view:
Once we’d eaten, Phil and I used toothpicks he’d grabbed at a concession stand and it wasn’t long, of course, before Ben convinced us that he needed one, too:
(By the way, if you think it’s odd that a three-year-old kid can successfully use a toothpick, you’d be pleased to know Phil taught Ben to chew and spit sunflower seeds well before his third birthday.)
Anyway, the toothpick adventure ended up being short lived because Ben found that if he held it in his mouth, he could pretend to be a “‘squito” and peck at us.
Now, over the last few weeks, Phil and I had been talking about how cool it would be for Ben to get a baseball at his very first game. Phil asked me if I thought there was a chance, and I told him I guaranteed it would happen. When we arrived at the park and I saw a bigger crowd than I expected, I was sweating about my guarantee — or maybe it was just the fumes coming off the 911 poutine. In any case, I figured that if I wasn’t able to snag a foul ball down the line, we might have a chance of a player giving Ben a warm-up ball.
Cute kid + glove = ball, right? Yes, but by the third inning, he’d yet to snag one. I hatched a plan: Jackals starting pitcher Gabriel Perez, who played between 2009 and 2014 in the Angels and Diamondbacks organizations, was coming out of the dugout each inning to play catch with the right fielder. We got Ben to patiently stand with his glove while Perez played catch and tried to make eye contact before the pitcher returned to the dugout each inning:
It didn’t take long to get his attention. In fact, after the first inning of this strategy, Perez caught the warm-up ball and turned to us — except by this point, Ben was down off the fence and had his back turned. So, Perez turned away and went back to the dugout.
By the midway point of the game, Ben still hadn’t managed to get a ball. Perez was down the line toward the bullpen and Phil caught his eye and pointed toward Ben. Perez gave a subtle hand rotation, as if to say, “Next inning” and we were able to breathe at least a partial sigh of relief.
In the meantime, we shifted our attention back toward the game and I was happy to see the familiar name of Tony Caldwell. A 2011 draft pick of the Marlins, Caldwell hit five home runs in his MiLB career and I managed to get one of them during a 2013 visit to Charleston, West Virginia. I didn’t get a good action shot of Caldwell during the game, but here he is on the video board:
The next half-inning, Phil and I looked for Perez. Sure enough, he emerged from the bullpen with a ball in his hand and began walking straight toward Ben. We told Ben to hold out his glove and be ready, just in case. I could barely contain my excitement and as Perez approached, the moment was absolutely priceless. Perez was awesome — instead of just handing Ben the ball and walking away, he made a point of holding it out to get Ben excited and then even helped Ben hold his glove the right way to secure the ball. I was snapping photos the entire time so I’ll let them speak for now:
Ben was stunned — when he said “thank you,” I think his words registered at 0.1 decibels because he was in awe, but Phil and I were quick to thank Perez multiple times. Ben accidentally dropped the ball onto the warning track, but Perez turned back around the grabbed it for him. This time, the pitcher put the ball in Ben’s throwing hand and made a joking point of closing his fingers around the ball.
What a moment!
Heartfelt thanks to Perez for being so generous and such a good sport. He’s having a great season so far (7-3, 2.56 ERA and 84 strikeouts in 84.1 innings) so I hope he gets a chance in affiliated ball again. We’ll definitely be pulling for him!
Ben assured us that he would “play with the ball every day” and “be careful with it,” so I’m glad to see he’s got a good head on his shoulders!
The next inning, Phil took a picture of Ben and me …
… and, yes, I’m reppin’ the Great Lakes Loons and Auburn Doubledays.
By 9 p.m. or so, Ben began telling us that he was getting tired. We decided to stay another half inning and a moment after this decision, a kid who couldn’t have been older than 10 appeared behind us with a ball for Ben! We thanked the kid profusely and were soundly impressed with his generosity. Kids get pretty excited to get baseballs at games and it obviously takes someone special to give his ball away. You could say that Ben was slightly happy with the two balls:
Figuring we’d end the evening on a high note, we took this group shot with my GoPro …
… and then headed up to the cross-aisle, where I snapped this quick panorama of the ballpark:
Ben was now energized by his new acquisitions and we stopped to take his photo at this display …
… before heading out to the parking lot and saying goodnight to the ballpark:
There was zero sleep for Ben on the ride back home, but plenty of talk about baseball and the playing thereof. It’s funny to think that Ben is probably still young enough that he won’t remember his first baseball experience, but I hope I’ll get the chance to share many more games with him as he grows up.
Thanks for such a special memory, Phil and Ben!