My visit to Montreal’s Olympic Stadium in 2017 to see the Blue Jays host the Pirates in Spring Training action arguably goes down as the worst ballpark experience I’ve ever had. Terrible rules, awful food and a stadium that’s nowhere near ready to host professional baseball all made for an experience that lacked the fun that live baseball is supposed to provide. (If you want to read all the gory details, here’s the link.)
As I traveled home from Montreal a year ago, I vowed that I wouldn’t bother visiting “The Big O” again for Blue Jays exhibition action. About a month ago, however, I began to soften my stance. Traveling to ballparks is my favorite thing to do, and the idea of a miserable experience rubs me the wrong way. I found myself wondering if I’d been unnecessarily harsh in my evaluation of Olympic Stadium, and if it were indeed possible to have a good time at one of these games.
All this meant as this year’s Montreal series approached, I began to think seriously about attending again with the goal of rewriting history as best I could — and on the morning of March 26, I found myself sitting in the Ottawa train station waiting to travel to Montreal for my first baseball trip of 2018:
While I normally drive or fly for my trips, the idea of riding the train was appealing from a financial perspective. In addition to being known as having the worst traffic of any Canadian city, parking in Montreal is also expensive. I was looking at paying $25 per day to park at my hotel, and if I were to drive from the hotel to the stadium, I’d be paying another $20 per game. I was pleased to learn that I could buy a return train ticket for under $80, which made this mode of transportation a no-brainer.
I’d driven to Ottawa bright and early on Monday morning and arrived at the station well in advance of the 11:30 a.m. departure time. The train ride to Montreal took only two hours, so I got to my hotel in plenty of time to check in, relax for a bit and then get ready for the game. Since I was on foot, I elected to travel to and from each game on Montreal’s Metro system, and bought a three-day pass that came in handy not only for the games, but also for some sightseeing that I did on the second and third days of my visit.
My subway pulled into the Pie-IX Station next to Olympic Stadium a little before 4 p.m. (If you’re wondering what’s up with the station name, it recognizes Pope Pius IX. I was calling it “pie one ex” in my head, but Montrealers call it “pee nuff.”) The Pie-IX station leads directly into a large atrium type of structure that serves as Olympic Stadium’s lobby. You still have to go through the ticket checkpoint, but you’re essentially in the stadium without being in it, if that makes sense. (No? It doesn’t make much sense to me, either, but that would be the case for a lot of things about Olympic Stadium.) Fans were already lining up in advance of the gates opening at 5:30 p.m., but I wanted to get outside and see this bizarre-looking structure from street level. A year earlier, I’d been so miffed about the horrible no-camera policy that I’d grumpily neglected to walk around the stadium before going in, so I needed to change that this time.
Getting out to the sidewalk meant that I had to go through a security checkpoint the wrong way (more on security later), and fight my way through the crowds that were attempting to get through the checkpoint to get into the stadium. Soon enough, I’d made it to the sidewalk and … realized that there was no way of photographing the monstrous stadium unless I got much farther away. I walked for a couple minutes, turned and took this photo that shows part of the stadium, but hardly provides context:
Simply put, I needed to get farther away. Fortunately, I sound found a ramp that led to another ramp:
It was the type of place that gave me two concerns, given that there was absolutely no one in this area and I didn’t know if it was off limits or not:
- Would security spot me and tell me to get lost?
- Would a hobo stab me with a broken beer bottle?
I’m happy to report that neither took place, which meant that I could keep climbing until I found an open area that provided this view of the stadium:
(I’ll try to avoid a bunch of alien spaceship jokes, but you can feel free to leave ’em in the comments below.)
If you’re wondering about all the climbing that I did to essentially get to what looks like street level outside the stadium, let me explain. The street to the right of the photo, which is where I’d come from a few minutes earlier, is low enough that it’s out of sight. Yet, the street on the left side of the photo is well above where I stood — it basically runs along the base of the treeline. While there are gates directly ahead of where I stood, they were closed and the “main” gates were essentially a full floor below. Make sense?
This area was a blast to explore. Despite the stadium being situated in a busy part of town, and thousands of fans descending on the area as I wandered around, there was just about no one in this area. It’s my understanding that this open area played a big role in the 1976 Summer Olympics, which is the reason that Montreal built the stadium in the first place. We’ve all likely seen the online photos that show how quickly Olympic venues deteriorate in the years that follow the games, and this open space sort of fell into that category. Case in point — these stadium seats around the edge of the open area looked as though they hadn’t been used in a long time:
There was a lot of dichotomy to the outdoor space. On one hand, there were the flags of all the nations represented in the games still flying proudly, but the area was so messy and in disrepair (I realize that the melting snow doesn’t help how things look):
Still semi-unsure as to whether someone was going to come and yell at me in French for being in this area, I continued to walk around — feeling a bit like someone on a strange planet. My goal was to take a long lap around Olympic Stadium, so I walked for a moment more and then shot this panorama of the scene:
You have to admit that while there’s no disputing this stadium’s genuine ugliness, it also looks sort of cool. It’s maybe like those weird-looking pets that are so ugly that they’re cute.
I got as close as I could to the side of the stadium to snap the following shots of the cables that hold up the roof:
The cables aren’t just for holding up the roof — they were also designed to move the roof. When Olympic Stadium was designed, it was supposed to have a retractable roof, but that didn’t happen — which was just one of a million construction SNAFUs that the stadium has been through. By the way, that tower that holds the cables is 574 feet tall, making it that tallest inclined structure in the world.
I continued on my walk until I reached a platform above what is essentially the rear of Olympic Stadium. It’s an area with loading docks and looks a bit like a construction site, which I guess is fitting because the stadium has essentially be under construction in some manner for its entire existence. Here’s how this area looked:
OK, so the environment around Olympic Stadium wasn’t exactly brimming with fun things to do, but I’ll admit that I was enjoying making the lap around the stadium — in part because of just how weird the whole thing looks. As you might’ve noticed in the previous photo, I was well above “ground level” of the stadium, even though I was walking on a sidewalk. To get down to the main level, I nervously slipped and slid down a snow-covered embankment, which you can see here …
… until I was safely standing on ground that wasn’t covered in snow — and that’s where I snapped this photo:
Next, I walked through a parking lot until I got to the sidewalk, and followed it back to the security gates through which I’d walked earlier. Now, here’s where it starts to get weird.
This photo shows an atrium area that isn’t technically “inside” the stadium yet:
See where it says “Stade” in the distance? (French for “stadium,” by the way.) Under that sign is the doors at which you show your ticket and get scanned into the stadium. To get to this area, though, you first have to go through a standard set of metal detectors like at any other stadium in the big leagues. They’re outside and out of sight to the right of where I stood to take the image above, and allow entry into the building. The only thing is, if you visit Olympic Stadium by taking the Metro, as I had before deciding to go outside to walk around, there are no metal detectors.
Let me say that again:
There are metal detectors if you come in off the street. There are metal detectors if you come directly out of the underground parking. There are no metal detectors if you take the subway from any point in the city and walk straight into the stadium. And if you’re wondering if you go through metal detectors to get into the subway system, the answer is no. So, this has to be a colossal oversight, right? I kept looking around under the assumption that I was missing something, but I wasn’t. And the next day, the setup was the exact same thing.
Talk about dropping the ball.
All of this had me annoyed not because of a security perspective, but because of the stadium’s inane entry policies. A year earlier, I’d been caught off guard to learn as I attempted to enter that I couldn’t go in with my camera or my backpack — two things that are integral to me when I visit ballparks. This year, I made sure to read up on the policies, and learned that backpacks and “professional” cameras were prohibited. I immediately wrote to the Blue Jays and to the event company to explain my position. The Jays provided no assistance, and while I was able to get someone from the event company to discuss the matter with me, it was about as satisfying as getting spiked at second base while trying to turn a double play. I went back and forth with the rep to explain what I do, to ask for an exemption to this silly rule, to explain that in the nearly 70 stadiums I’ve been to, Olympic Stadium is the only time I’ve ever dealt with this asinine policy and, finally, to argue about what a “professional” camera was. I also pointed out that you can take Hollywood-caliber videos on a smartphone, and that the camera size has nothing to do with how good it is. Eventually, I was essentially told to buzz off, which left me wondering whether I’d obey the policy or try to sneak my camera in — because all stupid rules deserve to be broken.
Not wanting to get turned away at the gate and have to ride the subway back to my hotel to drop off my camera, I elected to leave it behind when I left my hotel earlier that afternoon.
All this to say, had I arrived from the subway with my camera and backpack, and not gone outside to walk around and then come through security, I could’ve walked into the stadium with no problems. The security guards at the metal detectors were the ones who were denying people with backpacks, although they were also waving people through who were wearing backpacks. (To add insult to injury, I literally saw a fan in the stadium wearing one of those hiking backpacks that runs from above your shoulders to your backside. I also saw tons of fans shooting with DSLR cameras.) So, I can only surmise that some of the security personnel took the rules seriously, and others didn’t. Could I have gotten in with my camera and backpack? Probably. But the risk of getting turned away would’ve thrown a major wrench into my plans, so I didn’t want to leave it to chance.
I joined the line about 35 people from the front and waited for close to an hour until the gates opened. There was a palpable excitement in the room, which definitely added to the fun of the moment. (For my part, I was doing my best effort to forget about the stupid rules and just enjoy the experience.) As the gates opened, the excitement seemed to turn to a blend of chaos and confusion. As we walked into the stadium, a lady on a platform was screaming something in French into a bullhorn, which made for a very bizarre experience. I can understand French, but the quality of the bullhorn was so poor that it was impossible to tell what she was yelling. I ignored and quickly navigated my way past her, descended from the concourse to the cross aisle, and ran down toward the left field foul pole to secure a spot in the outfield seats for batting practice. When I got there, this was my view:
In the first five minutes that I was there, no one on the Cardinals hit a single home run. So, I snapped this picture of the cool plastic cup that I’d received upon entering:
It’s one of the cups that you can sync to an app so that the base flashes blue each time the Blue Jays hit a home run all season, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy using it at home throughout the season. Of course, the no backpack rule meant that I had to carry it for the next four hours.
I’d been hoping to snag a Spring Training ball, and the fact that the outfield seats were still sparsely populated meant that I probably had a good chance of doing so, but I also wanted to get exploring the inside of this bizarre stadium. I figured my baseball collection would survive if I didn’t add to it during this trip, so I climbed up to the concourse to get busy wandering around.
You might be relieved to know that as weird as Olympic Stadium is from the outside, it’s just as weird inside. Part of the weirdness is that it’s just so freaking huge. The best way to describe the concourse is that there’s an inner and outer concourse — basically, an enormous concourse that has rooms down the middle to divide it into two lanes. Fans tend to stick to the inner concourse, which is directly adjacent to the openings to the seats, so the outer one is deserted much of the time. Here’s how it looked as I set out to explore:
I can assure you, for the record, that I wasn’t scouting out empty areas and photographing them. There was a steady flow of fans on the other side of the brick rooms that you see on the right of the above photo, but few people seemed to venture out to where I was walking.
I walked the entire length of the concourse, passing behind home plate, until I was behind the right field bleachers. The ultra-bizarre seating setup at the Big O means that you don’t walk right from the concourse to the bleachers. Instead, you take this weird walkway across no man’s land, through the tunnel and then into the bleacher seats:
There were only a couple dozen fans in the right field bleachers at this point — probably because it’s about a gazillion steps from the main gates — so I climbed up to the top row on the center field side and snapped this panorama:
After enjoying the good (the view), the bad (the weird one-armed seats) and the ugly (the random placement of the bullpens) from this spot for a few minutes, my stomach told me that it was time to find some dinner. When I visited in 2017, I didn’t buy any food at Olympic Stadium — and that meant that this time, I wanted to walk around to really get a sense of what might be fun to eat. I skipped the usual stadium fare, in part because the prices were once again ridiculous. The $6.25 being charged for a hot dog made it the most of any stadium in baseball, for what it’s worth. I chose to line up at the Levitt’s smoked meat concession stand. I knew that I wanted to try some smoked meat while I was in Montreal, and a long lineup is generally a good indicator of good food. A smoked meat sandwich, pickle and bottled soda came to $17.75, which seemed a little steep, given the unremarkable size of the sandwich. I carried my meal all the way back to the outfield seats and sat midway up to eat it:
The sandwich itself was completely forgettable — disappointing, considering Montreal’s connection to smoked meat. I’d like to report that at least the pickle was good, but it was so vinegary that I was visibly cringing while eating it. All in all, I was thinking that I was on the right track when I didn’t buy any food a year earlier.
Not long after I finished eating, the pregame ceremonies began. Perhaps the most memorable element was when, with the stadium lights down, everyone’s plastic cups began to flash blue. It made for a cool effect as I looked across the field:
You may have noticed in the previous image that the entire upper deck was dark. Unlike a year earlier, when it’d been possible to buy tickets up there, the upper deck was closed for both games. That was disappointing, because I’d been hoping to get up there and explore a bit. (For the record, I did try, but was thwarted a couple times.)
During the pregame ceremonies, and after the house lights were back on, I took a walk over to the third base side to watch several former Expos get announced and walk onto the field to huge applause. Without my “professional” camera, the ceremony was simply too far away to photograph, so I shot other things — like this image that shows the attendance (about 25,000 on this night) was pretty good, but the barren upper deck was an eyesore:
Keen on seeing the game from several spots, I found a standing-room spot back behind home plate as Jays starter Marcus Stroman made his walk in from the bullpen. As you can really see here, the weird overhang of the upper deck not only makes your seat really in the shadows, but also cuts off part of the video board:
The dark and semi-obstructed views were everywhere. Here’s how it looked from a seat in the upper row down the first base side, where I moved a moment later:
To be perfectly fair, the lower you got, the better the view got. With the obstructions and weird shadows out of the way, the view of the field from a spot like this one was absolutely perfect:
As much as I appreciated the view above, I was still curious to continue to explore the stadium — and to find zany spots to share with you. This next panorama definitely falls into that category. If you thought the outfield seats were far away from the action, how about going behind the outfield seats. Hardly seems to make sense, right? And, yet, here’s where I sat next:
In fairness, there weren’t a lot of fans sitting in this section. As you can see, there weren’t any below me, as I doubt those seats would’ve allowed you to see the field at all, and there were only maybe 30 or 40 fans behind me — including a bunch who were smoking marijuana well within scent of a trio of security guards.
I’ve got to admit that this section was so comically bad that I spent about an inning there. On the left side of the field, you couldn’t see a thing that happened behind the back edge of the infield, but I was still enjoying the sheer bizarreness of it.
After leaving this spot because the smell of smoke behind me was starting to get obnoxious, I spent a little time standing in the cross-aisle behind home plate, moving down to the stairs to snap this shot at one point:
For the remainder of the game, I split my seated time in the outfield seats and in the top row of the lower-bowl seats on the first base side — and I did a lot of random walking, too, to check out the bizarre stadium’s sights. (I’ll have a lot more pictures in my upcoming post about my second game at the stadium.) As soon as the game wrapped up, I quickly hustled out the main gates, through the atrium and down to the subway station, where I caught the first train back to my hotel and was chilling out in my room in time to watch the post-game highlights on TV.