Ottawa Champions – June 28

Whenever I return to a ballpark I’ve previously visited, my mission is to have a new adventure to blog about. It can be easy to fall into the ever-present blogging trap of being formulaic, and that’s something that I try to avoid as best I can.

Sometimes, I really have to get creative to give you a new story. Other times, something awesome just falls into my lap.

The latter was the case during a late-June visit to Ottawa to watch the Can-Am League’s Champions host the Dominican Republic National Team. As you might remember, I’ve seen Ottawa in international baseball action twice over the past two seasons — against Cuba in 2016 and again against Cuba earlier this June.

Once I heard that the Dominican squad would be in Ontario, I couldn’t resist traveling to Ottawa to see the Champions again. I arrived at Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton Park about 3.5 hours before first pitch, and went down to the field as Ottawa was taking BP. I figured that I’d just be watching the action for a bit on my own, but team president and minority owner David Gourlay was in front of the dugout. I went over to say hello, and we spent about 15 minutes talking everything from baseball to baseball card collecting. Before David and I wrapped up, he asked if I’d had a chance to tour behind the scenes of RCGT Park.

“Well,” I said somewhat sheepishly, “I’ve done a little snooping … but haven’t ever had a full tour.”

He pledged to meet up with me midway through the game and give me the grand tour. Things were already looking up.

Before Ottawa finished its BP, I also got a chance to talk to all-star catcher Danny Grauer for a few minutes; he and I had chatted during my first Champions game of the season and it was fun to get caught up with him. He’s a friendly and instantly likable guy, so I make a point of saying hello to him or speaking to him for a few minutes at each the Champions games I attend.

Once Danny left the field, I spoke for a while to team broadcaster Mason Detre, and also enjoyed such scenes as this one:

Yeah, it looks like a batting cage, but that’s Ottawa manager Hal Lanier watching his players hit. Lanier is a decorated former MLB coach and manager, with a World Series title in 1982 and National League manager of the year honors in 1986. And he also had a decade-long playing career for the Giants and Yankees. It’s not every day I get to see someone with that baseball pedigree.

In each of the times I saw Cuba in Ottawa, the international team was late getting to town and didn’t take BP. That was a disappointment for me, so I was pleased to hear that the Dominicans had arrived in plenty of time — and even more pleased to see some players filtering into the visitor’s dugout with bats in their hands toward the end of the Champions BP session.

I soon learned that the Dominican side was being managed by Luis Polonia, another manager with extensive MLB experience (and a pair of World Series rings). Before long, Polonia and his club were on the field, and I was thrilled to be soaking it all in:

I watched the majority of the Dominican BP session before heading off to wander around RCGT Park a little more. What I found, however, was rain. The weather was hot and sunny enough during Ottawa’s BP session that I could feel the skin on my neck burning a bit. By the time the Dominicans were on the field, the weather was still good but there were clouds in the area. As the visitors left the field, Ottawa rushed to get the tarp in place as the raindrops fell. And a few minutes later, this was the scene:

As it rained just about as hard as I could, an usher and I checked the weather app on his phone and learned that the storm was supposed to let up around 7 p.m. With the game’s first pitch scheduled for just a few minutes later, that meant that an on-time start was in doubt — but that things looked hopeful for a little later.

There wasn’t much exploring to be done as the rain fell; I wanted to stay in sheltered areas, so I went up to the suite level and walked into the restaurant/sports bar that is located on the suite level’s third base side. It’s not a working restaurant during most games, but it’s used for a variety of functions and is adorned with lots of cool Champions action pictures, as well as an overall baseball theme. It was empty except for me, so I silently stood at the windows and hoped for the storm to go away. This scene wasn’t overly promising …

… but this one, just a short while later, certainly was:

The rainbow was so impressive that I’d quickly scampered down to the seating bowl to get a better angle of it. And, would you believe that by shortly after 7 p.m., this was how the ballpark and sky looked?

That’s right, the skies had cleared and the stage was set for a great night of baseball in Canada’s capital.

As the players hit the field, I walked down the front row of the third base seats to watch the warmups. Ottawa’s starter was Phillippe Aumont, who’s the only former major leaguer on the Champions roster and is also a former MLB first-round draft pick. He signed with Ottawa just three week earlier, and is doubling as the team’s pitching coach. I watched Aumont and Grauer go through their stretching routines and then begin to play catch:

A short while later, I went over to the visitor’s side to see the Dominican team up close for the first time since BP. One noteworthy thing caught my eye — one of the Dominican pitchers, Luis Nunez, was wearing a Hudson Valley Renegades  (short-season A affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays) warmup jacket over his uniform. (He played for the Renegades last season, for the record.) Its blue was nearly a perfect match with the Dominican uniform, so it blended in, with the exception of the team logo on the left chest. I was amused enough to snap a series of photos at Nunez, who eventually noticed me and gave me a peace sign:

I also noticed catcher Danny Tavares and a teammate who appeared to be having a secretive conversation, but were really just using Tavares’s glove to block the sun:

As the game was just about set to begin, I had my first big-time surprise of the evening. A fan who was headed toward his seat noticed my shirt and stopped to ask me about it. “Are you the guy who does those shirts?” he wondered. It turns out that the fan, Ben Lampron, follows me on Twitter. Even cooler is the fact that he’s not from Ottawa — he lives in Minneapolis, and was visiting Ontario for business when he decided to take in a Champions game. Ben snapped this shot of us right away:

It was such a strange occurrence to run into each other in this manner, and we made plans to meet up once the game had begun. We ended up sitting together for the first couple innings and talking baseball. It turns out that, counting independent ball, Ben has been to nearly twice as many stadiums as me. He travels frequently for work and attends baseball games whenever his schedule allows. We had a great time comparing notes on our favorite (and not-so-favorite) ballparks, and I’m sure our paths will cross again at some point.

After Ben and I parted ways, I went behind home plate to watch a few batters, and then decided that it was time for some dinner. Earlier, I’d heard the PA announcer suggest the “Fan Club Burger” to fans, and while I didn’t know exactly what the burger was about, I decided to take a shot. I’m glad I did. The burger was like what you’d make at home if you were competent in the kitchen — a nice, thick patty with a series of conventional toppings, including bacon:

It was excellent and definitely gets my recommendation for fans visiting RCGT Park. In fact, I’ll probably try it again this summer. Once I’d eaten, I settled into a seat in the front row behind the visitor’s dugout. From there, I had a great view of the Dominican players as they leaned on the railing while their team was on offense …

… as well as the action at the plate and first base. Here’s former Blue Jays minor leaguer Gustavo Pierre at the dish …

… and Sebastien Boucher, a Mariners draft pick in 2004 who’s in his 13th season of professional baseball:

In the fifth inning, I went up to the cross-aisle, where I had this view as I watched a couple batters with Champions director of marketing/communications Craig Richenback:

At one point, a Dominican hitter showed bunt and fouled it back to the screen. Craig sort of shook his head about the idea of bunting, and I was initially puzzled by his reaction. Then, it hit me.

Aumont had a no-hitter going.

It’s funny — when I’m attending ballgames, I don’t have a complete pulse on the game. It might sound weird, given what a baseball fan I am, but I’m walking around so much and checking out different sights that I don’t always know the score. I’ll always have an eye on what’s taking place on the field, but I’m just not glued to the action. I find that at baseball games, there’s so much more to see and do than just sit watching the game itself. To me, seeing a bit less of the game and a lot more of the ballpark and the sights around it actually enriches the entire experience.

I’d never seen a no-hitter in all my baseball adventures, but that didn’t stop me from continuing to experience the ballpark as I usually do. Just a moment after realizing that the no-no was intact, I connected with David and we began an outstanding tour — most of which was out of sight of what was happening on the field.

We met up in the concourse inside the main gates, but soon descended into RCGT’s Park’s lower level. For me, no matter how many stadiums I visit, it’s always exciting to see things that the average fan doesn’t get to see — and then share them on my blog. For me, even something as standard as this hallway beneath the stadium carries with it an excitement:

Our first stop was a seemingly ordinary room with an important role. It holds the beer (and soft drinks, I’m presuming) that are pumped up to the concourse concession stands and served to fans. The Champions are one of only a handful of teams with their own beer, and there were several kegs of it waiting to be hooked up:

Next, we checked out the visitor’s clubhouse, which was marked with a Dominican Republic team logo on the door:

Want to see inside? I did, too, and David led me in to check it out for a moment:

We then walked down the a hallway that is essentially parallel with the first base line. It has a tunnel running perpendicular to it that leads you to the visitor’s dugout, but we kept going until we reached the end. Here, we could see not only the DR bus, but also the batting cage that had been on the field earlier:

I stuck my head through the roll-up door in the above photo and this is what I saw to my left:

You can see a couple of the Dominican relievers in the bullpen, as well as Ottawa mascot Champ waiting for the next on-field, between-innings promotion.

While you can see part of the field in the last picture, our next stop was to a spot where the view of the field was much better. Check it out:

David led me through the umpires’ tunnel to the door directly behind home plate, which is a spot I’d never been at RCGT Park and rarely at any of the 60+ parks I’ve visited. It provides an awesome view of the action — the pitcher looking in to get his sign from the catcher, the batter digging in, the umpire crouching as the pitcher begins his windup, and then the ball highlighted against the batter’s eye on its way to the plate. Visiting this spot was a true highlight of the tour.

While I was within sight of the video board, I checked the score. The Dominicans were still hitless.

Our next stop was the laundry room — not to look at the laundry, but to check out a concrete pillar that David was excited to show me. If you don’t know much about RCGT Park, here’s a quick primer. It opened in 1993 as JetForm Park and was the home of the International League’s Ottawa Lynx, who were the top affiliate of the Montreal Expos. The Lynx remained the prime tenant through the 2007 season, and then moved off to Allentown, PA, to become the Lehigh Valley IronPigs. In the years that followed, the stadium was used by independent and semi-pro teams, and even sat vacant for a stretch. The Champions took over in time for the 2015 season and have been there ever since. But back to the Lynx — they won the league title in 1995, just their third year in existence, and the team signed a pillar in the laundry room to commemorate the victory. How cool is this?

You can clearly make out the names of many future major leaguers who were on that roster, including Curtis Pride, F.P. Santangelo, Kirk Rueter and more. If you click on the image, you can blow it up to see the various names.

In a tip of the cap to the Lynx, the Ottawa Champions signed another side of the same pillar following their Can-Am League title last season. As I was checking out the names, David realized that he’d yet to sign it himself. “I’ve got a Sharpie,” I offered, “want to do the honors?”

David took my marker, added his name, and I snapped his shot next to the pillar:

After the laundry room, we stopped by Lanier’s office. It was pretty basic, but it was cool to see a framed photo on the shelf recognizing the manager’s 900th career win, which he’d accomplished just a few days earlier:

I knew from previous visits to the ballpark that the manager’s office is connected to the home team’s clubhouse, so I was hoping that that would be our next stop — and the tour didn’t disappoint. This was another major highlight. I’ve only been into professional baseball clubhouses a few times, so it was a huge thrill to just walk into the space and look around me. I respect that this space is the home team’s sanctuary, so I wanted to take a photo that would avoid invading anyone’s privacy while still giving you an idea of how the room looks. I figured that a wide-angle shot would do that the best:

Our last stop on the tour was a room adjacent to the clubhouse, which featured a workout area …

… and a pair of soaking tubs:

It’s hard to see in the image above, but there was a hilarious homemade sign on the wall that read:

SHOWER “WITH SOAP” BEFORE USING TUBS!

I love how “with soap” was emphasized.

The tour lasted a little longer than 15 minutes, so David was pretty darned generous with his time. Thanks so much, David!

Once we went back up to the concourse, I hurried up to the seating area to check the scoreboard. Still a no-hitter.

Next, I met up with a Twitter follower and fellow baseball fan named Jane-Anne Dugas. She and I have talked several times on Twitter dating back to last season, but our paths had never crossed in person. We’d connected earlier in the game, and I grabbed a seat next to her with this view for the ninth inning:

That’s Aumont dealing to outfielder Juan Crousset and if it’s difficult to see the goose eggs on the video board in the background, here’s a closer look:

It was great to meet and talk baseball with Jane-Anne, but as the game’s final batter dug in, we hit the pause button on our conversation to simply watch the magic before us. This is what unfolded:

As soon as I stopped recording, I rushed down to the field to snap a bunch of photos. As this was the first-ever no-hitter that I’d witnessed in person, I wanted to get as many shots as I could of this special occasion. I watched as outfielder Steve Brown and pitcher Daniel Cordero ran onto the field with a jug of water …

… and dumped it all over Aumont, much to everyone’s excitement:

This next photo isn’t the greatest, but it was a cool moment — Grauer hugging Aumont:

Here’s a teammate giving Aumont his hat back, which came off in the celebration:

You’ll notice that the pitcher has a firm grip on the final-out baseball, too.

And here’s my favorite photo of the no-hitter — Aumont saluting the fans on his way to the dugout:

While I’ve been lucky enough to see a long list of cool on-field accomplishments in person, I don’t know if anything beats seeing my first no-hitter. And this isn’t just my first no-hitter since starting The Ballpark Guide; I’ve been going to professional baseball games since 1988 and had never seen one before this night.

It was a perfect conclusion to a perfect day at RCGT Park.

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