Ottawa Champions – June 16

On June 17 of 2016, I traveled to Ottawa, Canada, for some international baseball action. If you were following my blog back then, you might recall my exciting day seeing the independent Can-Am League’s Ottawa Champions hosting the Cuban National Team. If you don’t recall, this link should jog your memory.

A year minus a day later, I was back in Canada’s capital city for a reunion of sorts — the Champions were once again hosting Cuba, and I’d made plans to be in attendance as soon as the series was announced. My excitement for this game meant I pulled into the lots of Ottawa’s Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton Park more than three hours before first pitch. I was so early that the parking lot looked like this:

As usual, I took a short walk around the exterior of the ballpark before entering. I won’t post those photos here, though, because they’re virtually identical to some of the pre-entrance shots that I’ve shared in other posts about seeing the Champions. What can I say? I’m a creature of habit sometimes.

Ottawa was on the field hitting, and this is the first view I had after I walked through the main entrance and out to the cross-aisle behind the seating bowl:

I was eager to get down to the field, as that’s always a thrilling experience, but I decided to first do a little wandering around the park to check out the sights. My first stop was the top row of seats on the third base side. Here’s a shot that gives you a good idea of how the interior of RCGT Park looks:

My next stop was the grass berm in the left field corner. There’s a huge picnic area behind it, as well as a couple rows of Adirondack chairs that give fans a unique seating experience — and a cool spot to snag a long foul ball during the game. Here’s how the area looks from roughly the top of the berm:

Speaking of foul balls, a batting practice baseball laying in the grass caught my eye, so I picked it up and photographed it:

It was hugely waterlogged, so I’m assuming it’d been there since the day before.

Next, I headed down to the field, where I chatted for a while with Champions marketing and communications director Craig Richenback. I met Craig for the first time last season, so it was great to catch up with him again and talk baseball. Before long, we were joined by team president and minority owner David Gourlay, who is someone I’ve talked with several times on social media, but was happy to finally meet.

Given the magnitude of the international series, Craig and David were soon back to their pregame tasks. This left me alone watching BP — but only for a minute. Soon enough, Champions catcher and 2013 Cincinnati Reds draft pick Danny Grauer approached me. Why? Because he noticed my shirt and told me it was “awesome.” (By the way, I’m currently doing a prize draw for a free shirt. All the details are on my Facebook page.) If you remember my visit to Binghamton last month, I was approached by two players who also liked my shirt, so it was a thrill for another player to come talk to me because of it.

Danny was super friendly, and we talked for several minutes. Each time it was his turn to hit, he’d go over to the cage and take a bunch of swings — and I’d watch from right behind the cage:

Then, he’d come back around to me and we’d talk more baseball. Danny told me about playing a season of pro baseball in Germany, and I told him about some of the parks I’d visited. I’ve had some cool conversations with players over the years, and this ranks among them. I’ll definitely look forward to talking to him next time I visit RCGT Park.

After Danny headed off to the clubhouse, I spotted team broadcaster Mike Nellis, who I’d also met a year earlier. We’ve stayed in touch on Twitter, so it was great to catch up with him for a bit. By the time he headed off to prepare for the game, the Champions had finished hitting — and that meant I was the only person left standing on the field. I didn’t feel a compulsion to rush off, so I just hung out by myself. Cuba had yet to arrive (the team was late last year, too, and the players came off the bus wearing their uniforms) but I was hopeful that the squad would be here in time to hit. In the meantime, I just wandered around on the field and took shots like this one:

A little while later, the Cuba bus pulled in — late enough that BP wouldn’t be in the cards again. Still, I was excited to see the bus in its Team Cuba colors:

As the players climbed off the bus, they entered RCGT Park and headed toward the visitor’s clubhouse. I knew it’d be a little while before they reappeared and began to warm up, so I took some time to explore beyond the outfield fence. There’s a camera platform in straightaway center that I wanted to snap some photos from, as it provides a unique view of the ballpark. In the following photo, you can see the batter’s eye on the right and the walkway leading to the camera platform in the distance:

And here’s the view from the platform of a quiet — but soon to be lively — RCGT Park:

After snapping this shot of myself on the platform …

… I headed back to the field. The stands were still mostly empty when I noticed this picture of several rows behind the visitor’s dugout that were reserved for supporters of the Cuban squad. I thought it was an interesting sight, so I took a photo and tweeted it out:

Interestingly enough, the Cuban Embassy’s official Twitter account retweeted it and, given that it was the day that President Trump made changes to U.S.-Cuba relations, the embassy’s Twitter timeline comically looked something like this:

Political tweet
Political tweet
Political tweet
Retweet of my photo
Political tweet
Political tweet
Political tweet

A short while later, the Cuban players had emerged and were hurriedly warming up. The right field corner was a beehive of activity — some players stretching and taking grounders on the field, others taking BP in the cage and others hitting off a tee:

It was an interesting spectacle to watch. Warming up to play baseball, I’m sure, is the same in virtually any country in which the sport is played. Yet, the Cuban warmup just felt a little different. I’ve seen players stretch on the field a million times, but the Cuban stretching routine had more of a calisthenic nature to it, I’d say. A big difference was the use of whistles; when it was time for the players to change from one stretch to another, one of the trainers blew a whistle. It hearkened back to high school gym class a little.

One thing that didn’t remind me of gym class was the sudden smell of cigar smoke in the air. Briefly confused, I looked around and noticed that Cuba manager Roger Machado was puffing away at a (presumably Cuban) cigar as he watched his squad go through its paces:

I chuckled thinking of classic MLB managers like Jim Leyland who would clandestinely smoke cigarettes in the dugout, but here was Machado not attempting to hide his cigar at all.

A minute later, a Cuban staffer approached me, saying, “No press, no press.” Of course, I had every right to take photos of the team as it warmed up in a public place surrounded by members of the public, but I didn’t want to create an international incident. I asked him what he was worried about, but the language barrier, unfortunately, was as vast as the distance between Ottawa and Havana, so our conversation didn’t get too far. He wasn’t forceful; his comments were more of a pleading nature and he was perfectly polite, so I was happy to move away so that I wasn’t so close to the team’s warmup.

That seemed to satisfy him, as he gave me a thumbs up when he saw me shooting photos of the team a little while later. I think the big takeaway here is that the “learn Spanish” app that I use from time to time is shockingly not making me fluent. It’s regrettable that I wasn’t able to converse with him in his native tongue and find out what he was worried about.

In any case, after moving to a “safe” area, I continued watching the Cuban team. I was excited to catch a glimpse of Y. Cespedes — not Yoenis, but his half-brother Yoelkis. He was one of 13 players competing against Ottawa who suited up for Cuba in the most recent World Baseball Classic, and it was easy to spot him as he stood around the cage:

An interesting thing I noticed a moment later was that Yoeklis appeared to be wearing Yoenis’ New York Mets wristbands:

As you can see here, they’re orange and marked with the number 52, which is Yoenis’ number. Yoeklis, as you might’ve seen in the previous photo, was wearing jersey number 51. Another tiny bit of uniform nerdery — Yoelkis was also wearing WBC-issued batting gloves, and was the only player I specifically noticed with this garment.

Once I’d watched the Cuban side for a while, I went over to the front row of seats on the third base side to watch Ottawa warm up. I quickly spotted my new BFF Danny, so I snapped this shot of him stretching before he began to play catch:

There were a bunch of other noteworthy Ottawa players I wanted to see. Here’s Canadian Tyson Gillies, who was drafted by the Seattle Mariners in 2006. He played more than 500 games in the minors, reaching Triple-A with the Philadelphia Phillies system:

Here’s Steve Brown, who played on the Trois-Rivières Aigles in 2013 with my buddy Jeremy Nowak:

And here’s Gustavo Pierre, a former Blue Jays signee who I saw as an 18 year old with Auburn back in 2010 during my very first road trip for my blog and website:

There’s another Ottawa player I saw years ago on a road trip — pitcher (and Champions interim pitching coach) Phillippe Aumont, who is the only current Champions player with MLB experience. I saw him when he pitched for Double-A Reading back in 2011:

When Ottawa starter Daniel Cordero — who pitched four seasons in the Braves system — began to play catch, I found a new spot along the fence and took shots like this one:

Then, as he and Danny headed toward the bullpen, I found a spot where I could take photos like this:

Between warmups and first pitch, I set off in search of something to eat. As much as it was tempting to once again hit the poutine concession stand, I wanted to try something different. I’m happy to say there were a handful of new food choices on the RCGT Park menu, and I was surprised to find a Cuban sandwich. I’m assuming that it’s a specialty selection for the international series but, either way, I couldn’t resist ordering it.

The sandwich that I was handed didn’t remind me of what I was expecting to see — instead of being put into a panini press, the sandwich was served on a bun. (Way better choice in my books.) And, I’m happy to say, it was outstanding. My understanding is that Cuban sandwiches can use a few different types of meats, and this one had something that reminded me of corned beef (or, perhaps the Cuban version of corned beef). Tons of meat complemented with cheese, pickles and a spicy sauce made this sandwich a big-time winner:

I finished my sandwich just in time to catch the Cuban ambassador to Canada throw out the first pitch, listen to the Cuban and Canadian anthems, and then settled into my seat to watch the top half of the first inning from this spot:

Then, I spent the bottom half of the first inning and the first bit of the second inning with this view:

The action on the field was interesting. Given that many of the Cubans were on the WBC roster and Cuba is known for its baseball, one might expect to see the visiting team beat up on an independent ball club — and that’s no disrespect to the Champions, especially given that they’re defending league champs. But that certainly wasn’t the case — Ottawa not only won the game 3-0, but swept Cuba in the three-game series. In fact, Cuba is currently just 4-8 in its 12 games against independent teams on this tour. And that’s one of the great things about baseball — you might have an idea of which team could win on paper, but you’ve got to play the game, as the saying goes.

I mentioned earlier how Cuba’s pregame warmup was different, but it wasn’t the only difference I noticed in how the Cuban squad approached the game. Between innings midway through the contest, the players and coaches gathered in front of the dugout for a pep talk from manager Machado. When’s the last time you’ve seen a scene like this?

(And, yes, I hope you noticed the trombone on the left. There was a large Cuban contingent behind the dugout, and its chanting and music definitely made for a fun vibe.)

I watched the remainder of the game with this view …

… and then snapped this one last shot of the exterior of the ballpark after the game:

I’m not sure when my next Champions game will be, but I’m batting 1.000 in good times at RCGT Park, and I’m sure that streak will continue whenever I return.

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