The Can-Am League’s Ottawa Champions have been a fixture in my blog dating back to 2015. While I don’t make independent baseball my primary focus, I can’t resist checking out this team and have done so one or more times every season since then.
This blog post is about my visit on June 8, but I’d actually been to Ottawa’s Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton Park once earlier in the season. That visit took place back on May 22, and between a delayed start due to a rain and my early departure because I had a busy schedule the next day, there wasn’t a ton of blog-worthy content.
There was, however, one exciting thing that transpired and that would factor into my June visit to Ottawa. During that May game, Ottawa first baseman Vincent Guglietti blasted his first home run of the season over the right field fence, and I managed to track the ball down later on. Guglietti is in his first year with the Champions, so I knew that the home run was a bit of a milestone for him. The next day, I caught up with him on Twitter and asked if he wanted the ball back. He told me that he’d appreciate giving it to his parents, who collect his baseball memorabilia, and I made plans to hand it over the next time I was in Ottawa.
Fast forward to June 8, and I was once again on my way to Canada’s capital city with his home run ball safely tucked in my backpack. The ball, which I’d photographed earlier …
… would be the second home run that I’d be returning to the player who hit it. (If you’ve followed my blog for a long time, you’ll know that my first foray into the ball-returning game turned out well.)
I pulled into RCGT Park’s parking lot as the Champions were taking batting practice, as I’d planned to meet up with Guglietti at the end of BP. When I walked into the stadium, I was pleased to see bright skies overhead and the home team hitting — two things that weren’t a part of my visit a few weeks earlier. Here’s my first view of the field:
I hung out in the stands and watched Ottawa hit and then, just as we’d planned, met up with Guglietti as soon as BP wrapped up. He was super friendly and seemed happy to get the ball back, and I was certainly happy to give it to him. We chatted a bit about how he was liking Ottawa and how the season was going so far, but I completely missed an opportunity to get a photo with him. I intended to, but was enjoying our brief conversation and sort of felt weird about blurting out a photo request. Boo to me.
Soon enough, he said goodbye and headed into the Ottawa clubhouse, and decided to wander around for a bit. I’ve been to RCGT Park enough times that there isn’t much exploring to do, but I always enjoy moving around the stadium and taking in the sights. By now, the sights included the visiting Salina Stockade, who were just starting to take BP. The Kansas-based Stockade is a traveling team in 2018 that played in the American Association last season and the Pecos League in 2016. (The franchise has also been called the “worst pro baseball team of 2017” in an entertaining article in The Ringer.)
Bad team or not, I was interested to see the Stockade for the first time as I watched the first few minutes of its BP session from the grass berm/picnic area down the third base line:
After the Stockade finished hitting, I decided to grab a few minutes of shade by climbing to the upper row of the seats behind home plate, which are shaded by the press box and suites. As I looked above me, I saw the familiar face of Mike Nellis, the Champions’ lead broadcaster and director of communications, in the press box. He’s a guy I’ve gotten to know over the past few seasons, and I always enjoy talking baseball with him. We caught up for a few minutes, and then he got back to preparing for the game and I got back to, well, enjoying the shade.
Pretty soon, the Champions made their way out onto the field, and I headed down to the third base side to watch them warm up. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t aware of the presence of their all-star catcher, Danny Grauer, who is at home rehabbing off-season surgery. He’s a player I met early last season and became friendly with, often talking with him for a few minutes before each game. We kept in touch through the off-season, and I even caught a Norfolk Tides game with him back in May. So, yeah, it was weird not seeing Danny there and talking to him, and I was definitely missing seeing him.
I was snapped back into reality when I noticed a player waving at me from the field — it was Guglietti, and it was cool to see him again. I snapped this shot of him after he began stretching:
As more and more players filtered out onto the field, I began to see a bunch of familiar faces and lots of new ones. There’s a significant amount of turnover in independent baseball, as you might guess, so I needed to figure out who was who. Here’s infield Steve Nyisztor, a former Arizona Diamondbacks farmhand who is in his second season with Ottawa:
And here’s a new addition to Ottawa’s roster in 2018 — outfielder Coco Johnson, who played in the Miami Marlins system in 2013 and 2014:
He comes to Ottawa from the Windy City ThunderBolts of the independent Frontier League, where he swiped 57 bases in 96 games last year and 48 in 93 a season earlier.
I watched Ottawa for a few minutes, and then went over to the first base side to watch Salina. Here’s one player warming up …
… unfortunately, I have no idea who he is. He wore #5 and there’s currently no #5 on the team’s roster, according to its website. There are four #24s, though! And, for what it’s worth, Salina’s manager was also wearing #5.
Uniform numbers aside, there were a couple of interesting things that I noticed about the team’s jerseys. As you can see here, some players were wearing mesh-style jerseys, while others were made of solid fabric:
And here’s something that I found amusing — one player safety pinning sleeves on his teammate’s jersey, which appeared to be one of those sleeveless types:
I took a spot behind the visitors dugout on the first base side for the start of the game and watched the action from there. The view was definitely different — alongside other parks around baseball, RCGT Park installed protective netting over the dugouts prior to the season starting. I get what the netting is there for, but I’m not the biggest fan of looking through it. So, after the inning wrapped up, I was on the move again. Before I found another place to sit, I decided to grab some dinner. Ottawa’s selection of food over the last few seasons has really impressed me. If you’ve seen some of my posts about visiting RCGT Park, which you can check out here, here and here, you’ll see some images of tasty fare that you might not expect in independent baseball. Although I was tempted to go for one of my tried-and-tested meals (General Tao poutine, I’m looking at you) I wanted to try something different. This quest sent me over to a concession stand in the left field picnic area, which I’d walked past a million times over the years but had never bought anything from. I grabbed an order of chicken wings and took them up to a seat on the third base side to eat. Here’s how they looked:
Not a sight that has your mouth watering, is it? This surprised me, because lots of people were buying wings in line ahead of me. It sure looked as those these had been sitting around for some time. Fortunately, they tasted much better than they looked. They weren’t very meaty, but the chicken didn’t taste as dry as I’d feared and the hot sauce they came with was a good addition. In fact, it was blazing hot, so as soon as I finished eating dinner, I set off to find something for dessert to cool down my mouth. Dessert came in the form of a bowl of root beer ice cream, which I bought at a concession stand just a few paces away from where I’d bought the wings:
This is the second time I’ve had root beer ice cream in my life, and both times have been at a ballpark. (My first root beer ice cream experience was last season at a Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders game.)
Happily full, it was time to snap some action photos. I didn’t want to contend with the netting, so I went to a perfect spot that I first encountered last season — the umpires’ door right behind home plate. Here’s one of the first shots that I took, which shows Ottawa’s Johnson a split-second after laying down a bunt:
And here’s Ottawa outfielder Steve Brown waiting for a pitch:
I ended up spending several innings in this spot. It’s such a thrilling place to watch the game, and Ottawa’s official photographer Marc Lemieux soon arrived, so I had fun talking baseball and photography with him.
I spent the last three innings rotating between seats on the first and third base sides, and enjoyed the rest of the game. Salina, for all of its uniform issues, looked solid, beating Ottawa 8-6. The Champions got revenge a day later, though, trouncing the road team 13-0. It was an entertaining visit to RCGT Park, as always. I don’t know when my next visit will be, but I’ll definitely be back there again this season.