Another post about visiting Ottawa, you ask?
To that I say, yes.
While it’s my mission to see games in as many ballparks as I can, I can’t resist the opportunity to see baseball wherever it’s played and, this season, that has frequently come in the form of Ottawa Champions games at Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton Park. I’ve got some great trips in the works for the remainder of the summer and into the fall, so you can count on a lot of blogging before the final pitch of the season is thrown. In the meantime, when I’m able to get to Ottawa — the closest city to where I live that has a professional team — I’m going to take it.
I’ve been having a blast at RCGT Park so far. You’ve perhaps read about me seeing the Cuban and Dominican Republic national teams, but for this visit in the second week of July, there wasn’t any international action scheduled. Rather, the Sussex County Miners were in town for a critical series; after a slow start, the Champions have been playing some excellent baseball, and the Miners were holding the final Can-Am League playoff spot at the time of my visit with the Champions right on their heels.
Although I’m trying to mix up my ballpark experience to give you something unique each visit, one thing won’t change — how early I get to the ballpark. As always, I arrived around the start of batting practice, and went right down to the field. One of my favorite things during BP is watching infield practice. Although the action in the cage is perhaps the prime attraction, it’s always impressive to watch the sure hands of the infielders as they go about their drills. Infield practice began soon after I arrived, so I stood in front of the Ottawa dugout on the third base side and watched as players like Ricky Oropesa took grounders at shortstop:
Oropesa, a third-round draft pick of San Francisco in 2011 who made it as high as the Triple-A level, is a first baseman. As such, I was surprised to see him on the left side of the infield. I quickly looked up his career fielding record on Baseball-Reference, however, and learned that he played a handful of games at third base in 2014 while playing Double-A. And, judging by his adeptness with short hops and his cannon of an arm, it was clear that he was more than comfortable out of his regular position.
After watching infield practice for a bit, I walked over behind the cage and watched a couple groups of the Champions hit. Then, when the Miners took the field, I took a leisurely walk from one end of the cross-aisle to the other, keeping my eye on the action on the field as I walked. At one point, as I was on my way back from the left field corner toward home plate, I noticed someone in a Champions uniform leaning on the railing and watching Sussex County. He’s barely visible in this photo, but that’s Champions manager Hal Lanier, who earned National League manager of the year honors with the Houston Astros in 1986:
The Sussex County BP was largely uneventful for me. I hung out on the field for a bit, in the stands for a bit, and did some wandering around, too. When the field was empty after BP, I took a seat on the third base side and scrolled through Twitter for a bit, before moving down the line a little as the players took the field a while later. I can never resist standing next to the bullpen as a player is warming up. At RCGT Park, the bullpens are so close to the front row of seats that it’s a real thrill to stand there and hear the ball go past you. Right-hander Steve Borkowski, who played rookie ball in the Atlanta Braves system two seasons ago, soon took the mound — and I was right there to watch:
As he threw, he had a pair of talented starters standing behind him. That’s Daniel Cordero and Phillippe Aumont from left to right. They’ve both been named as starters at the upcoming Can-Am League vs. American Association all-star game, and you might recall from my last blog post that Aumont threw a no-hitter this season. Regarding Cordero, you could make a strong case that he’s been Ottawa’s best overall starter through the first half of the season. He leads the team with six wins, has a pair of complete games, an ERA of 3.39 and 55 strikeouts in 69 innings.
After Borkowski finished tossing, he spoke briefly with all-star catcher Danny Grauer …
… and then the players headed to the dugout. That meant that it was time for me to head away to find a spot to sit for the game’s opening innings. In my previous visits to RCGT Park this season, I moved around so much that I didn’t do much action photography. I wanted to change that for this game, so I grabbed a spot in the front row behind the visitor’s dugout so that I could watch the action. Even though my camera and lenses aren’t very expensive, I love shooting baseball. It’s a fun challenge and a never-ending quest to get a photo at just the right moment. From my spot, I had a great view of home plate, so I snapped shots of shortstop Daniel Bick …
… and second baseman Steve Nyisztor:
Beyond having a clear view to home plate, one of the coolest things about sitting behind the dugout is just watching the goings-on. You can easily hear that the players are saying, as well as see subtle things that you might not catch if you were watching on TV. One such thing — and arguably something I’ve never seen before — was Sussex County pitcher Kris Regas recording a video of the Ottawa hitters. It makes me wonder if he’s friends with someone on Ottawa or he’s just doing a little scouting for himself:
In the top of the second inning, I had a great view of Miners right fielder Rubi Silva as he smoked a ball over the fence for a home run — and celebrated after crossing the plate:
After snapping the above photo, I made the quick decision to run after the ball. I was extremely far away from where it left the field, but I figured that I might as well make an attempt and see what might happen. I quickly ran up the steps of the seating bowl, navigated my way through the concourse and headed out of the stadium. Snagging balls at RCGT Park isn’t easy. The area immediately behind the outfield fence is a deep ravine-like area and is extremely thick with brush that isn’t easy to navigate. You’ve got to accept that you’re going to get muddy and scratched by thorn bushes if you have a hope of finding a ball. Here’s how the area looks:
I pushed my way down the muddy slope and through the bushes, looked for several minutes and found Silva’s ball after maybe three or four minutes of looking:
See that big green stain on the ball? It was left there in an interesting way. Silva’s blast was just barely long enough to leave the yard. In fact, it landed with a thud on the top of the outfield fence and then rolled over to end up on the muddy slope. There were a number of tree branches extending over the top of the fence, so I’m certain that the green was left after the ball squashed some leaves between it and the top of the fence.
I immediately checked to see if the home run ball would have any significance to Silva. I didn’t know of him before the game, so I had no idea whether this was his first professional home run or would otherwise be noteworthy. As you might know if you’ve followed me for a while, I’m always up for returning a home run ball to the player who hit it if the ball is noteworthy. That didn’t appear to be the case here — the baseball in my hand was his second dinger of the season and 52nd of his career between the minor leagues and independent baseball.
Here’s another number for you — this is the fourth home run ball in my collection!
I was thrilled to be holding it as I returned to the stadium, took a seat on the third base side and sent out this Instagram post:
All the running around and excitement had worked up an appetite, so I headed to the main concession area behind home plate to look for dinner. I’ve had really good luck with the food at RCGT Park dating back a few years — and while it’s tempting to stick with a proven winner, I want to continue to try new things. Dinner on this night came in the form of General Tao chicken. In the past, I’ve eaten it on poutine, but this was a plain order served on noodles that came with chopsticks:
It was absolutely delicious and actually gave me a source of vegetables at the ballpark — a rarity, to be sure. In fact, I was so excited to have a veggie at a baseball game that I felt compelled to snap this silly photo:
Once I’d eaten, I went back down to the front row to resume taking action shots. Here’s one of Grauer about to make contact for a single:
Once the inning was over, I went up to the press box for a few minutes, snapping this photo during my brief stay there:
Then, it was time to check out an absolutely awesome vantage point for photos. I’d visited this spot briefly with team president and minority owner David Gourlay during my previous visit to RCGT Park, and wanted to be sure to return in the future. The spot in question was the end of the umpires’ tunnel, directly behind home plate. It’s an amazing place to watch the game, but the ability to shoot photos from this spot was a real thrill. Here’s how the view looked from a wide angle:
Pretty cool, right? Yes, but when I zoomed in, I was able to get shots like this one of Borkowski dealing to Jarred Mederos:
And here’s one of Bick squaring to bunt as a pitch from Sussex County starter Gianni Zayas is on its way:
Since I mentioned Ottawa all-stars Aumont, Cordero and Grauer earlier, I can’t leave out Sebastien Boucher, who is the team’s fourth and final all-star selection:
I stayed in this spot for a couple innings, and while I feel like I could share dozens of photos that I took, that might be a little boring for you. So, here’s one last one from this spot — a look at outfielder Steve Brown’s big follow-through on a foul ball:
Once the Champions finished hitting, I went back up to the cross-aisle to watch the remainder of the game — including when it began to sprinkle rain a little:
As soon as the game wrapped up, I was back in my car and headed home — but very much looking forward to my next trip to RCGT Park.
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:
Retweet of my photo
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:
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.
Less than three months after attending my first Ottawa Champions game of the season, I was back in Canada’s capital city to see the Can-Am League team again — this time, as it competed for the league crown.
I don’t normally make it a priority to attend playoff games, because larger crowds impede my ability to explore different ballparks with ease — in fact, the last time I saw any playoff action in person was 2010, when I watched the New Hampshire Fisher Cats and Tri-City ValleyCats on back-to-back days. But, I was happy to add a Champions game to my schedule just a few days before I’d head off to Denver.
As always, I arrived good and early and I appeared to be the first fan in the parking lot at Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton Park:
Before entering, I decided to check out the ballpark from a vantage point I hadn’t explored on my last visit. If you read that post, you might recall me writing about how Coventry Road passes directly behind the outfield fence and, in particular, is very close to the fence in left field. Pedestrians will often watch some of the game from the sidewalk, so I wanted to see how the view looked from this spot. I was impressed — you’d have to contort your body a bit to see the whole outfield, but you’d definitely be able to follow the game from here:
Of course, you’d enjoy the game much better from inside the stadium, and that’s where I headed next.
One of my favorite ballpark experiences is walking into a park before the gates open and just standing quietly on the cross-aisle. There’s something special about being in this environment; it’s calm and peaceful, but you can hear the music playing and BP taking place. It’s almost like a mini meditation for me. Anyway, BP hadn’t yet started when I entered RCGT Park, but the cage was set up and the players were just minutes away from hitting:
Next, I went down to the field and took this shot for Instagram:
(I’m fairly new to Instagram and often post stuff there that doesn’t appear elsewhere, so if you feel like giving me a follow, I’d appreciate it.)
The Champions were hosting the Rockland Boulders, who hadn’t yet appeared as I made my way down to the field to talk with Dante De Caria and Mike Nellis, two of the team’s broadcasters whom I’d met during my last visit and are great guys to talk baseball with.
After catching up with them for a bit, they got back to their pregame routine, and I stayed on the field to watch BP. At one point, I noticed Hal Lanier, Ottawa’s 74-year-old manager:
Does his name sound familiar? He played in the big leagues from 1964 to 1973, and was the manager of the Houston Astros from 1986 to 1988, earning a National League Manager of the Year award in 1986.
Once I’d watched Ottawa finish its BP session, I decided to do some more exploring of the ballpark. My first stop was the home bullpen down the third base line. I stood there to watch a bit of the Rockland hitting session …
… and then took a walk through the still-deserted concourse:
Next, I made a brief stop up in the press box just to grab the rosters and lineups and check out the view …
… and then went back down to the field just after BP had finished:
Since I’d enjoyed checking out the view from behind the left field fence earlier on, I decided to go up beyond the right field foul pole, just to see RCGT Park from a new vantage point:
I was standing on a driveway that is closed off to the public, but this is near the area where the visiting team’s bus parks during the game, as you can see on the left of the above photo.
Since I was beyond the fence, I couldn’t resist taking a look for a home run baseball from BP. It didn’t take long for my search to pay off, but this ball had definitely been there a long time, and didn’t have any discernible markings on it:
By now, first pitch was getting closer, so I went back up to the suite level and headed to the press box. First, though, I stopped in a bar/eatery that was closed, but that I think is used for private events throughout the season. This was the first time I’d ever checked this spot out in all my visits to the Ottawa stadium:
I can see this being a cool place to watch a game — here’s how the view looked from the seats along the window:
Before heading back down to the concourse, I poked my head into the press box one last time … and was surprised to see a former colleague I hadn’t seen in eight or nine years. He was shooting the game for his newspaper, so we decided to shoot the game together and get caught up in the process. We headed down to the camera pit at the end of the Ottawa dugout, where I’d have a perfect view for a bunch of action shots.
How close was I?
You’re looking at Cuban import and infielder Alexander Malleta, catcher Jonathan Salcedo and pitcher Andrew Cooper, who was a 12th-round pick of the Washington Nationals in 2013.
The camera pit was a neat spot. Not only did it provide a good view of the action on the field and a front-row spot to the goings-on in the dugout, but if I turned to my left, the Ottawa bullpen was just a few yards away. As such, I had a unique spot to watch starting pitcher (and 2016 Can-Am League Pitcher of the Year) Austin Chrismon warming up:
As much as I typically enjoy spending each game I attend on the move, it was fun to just hang out with my friend and watch the action from this spot. And there was plenty of action to see, too. Here’s Rockland’s Marcus Nidiffer blasting a home run:
Ottawa’s big righty dealing:
Champions third baseman (another Cuban import) Donal Duarte playing a ball right that carried him into foul territory right in front of me:
And outfielder Adron Chambers taking a lead off second:
You might recognize Chambers’ name — he earned a World Series ring with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011. I was glad to be able to snap a shot of Chambers, not just because of his MLB connection, but also because he played in the Midwest League. I’d noticed before the game that many of the players on both sides had MWL experience, so I wanted to take some action shots to share with my buddy Craig Wieczorkiewicz, a.k.a. The Midwest League Traveler. He used some of the pictures and wrote about the series on his blog. Hands down, Craig provides the most thorough MWL coverage around, so give his blog a look and be sure to check him out on Twitter, too.
My ex-colleague left about two-thirds of the way through the game, so I decided to head out, too — not out of the park, just out of the camera pit to continue looking around. I watched a bit of the action from here …
… and then from here …
Next, I finally got around to eating a late dinner. Once again, I visited the poutine stand where I’d enjoyed the Tao Poutine during my last two visits to RCGT Park. To change things up, I ordered the smoked meat poutine, which contained a heap of smoked meat on the usual poutine ingredients. It was good, but not nearly as good as the Tao variety, which’ll likely be my choice during my next visit. Unfortunately, my photo doesn’t show much other than smoked meat, but you get the idea:
In my blissful meat coma, I watched the remainder of the game from high on the first base side. Rockland put up an eighth-inning rally, thanks in part to Nidiffer’s second home run of the game, to top Ottawa 6-5. Ottawa would get the last laugh, though, clinching the Can-Am League title in five games to earn top honors in just their second year in the league — and earn the name on the front of their jerseys.
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 Diamonbacks 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 …
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!
If you’ve read more than a couple of my blog entries, you’ll know I get pretty excited about traveling to new ballparks. And while I was pumped for my entire July road trip, I especially had my July 12 visit to Yoga Berra Stadium, home of the New Jersey Jackals, circled in my mind.
But the reason wasn’t what you might guess. I didn’t know much about the ballpark itself and I couldn’t name a single player on the Jackals. I was more interested in who was coming to town.
I’ve regularly mentioned Jeremy Nowak in this blog dating back to 2011 and, if you’re not familiar with his story, I absolutely recommend checking out part one and part two before you continue reading this post. It’s definitely the coolest story I’ve encountered since starting The Ballpark Guide.
All caught up? OK, good. Unfortunately, after a stellar 2012 campaign for the Frederick Keys, Nowak was released by the Orioles during Spring Training. This happened despite him being a 2012 Carolina League all-star and leading the Keys in games played, hits, runs and doubles, all while batting .281. This spring, Jeremy signed with an independent team in the Can-Am League, the Trois-Rivières Aigles, or Three Rivers Eagles, if your French isn’t up to par. I’d planned to go see him play in Three Rivers at some point this season, but when I was planning my July road trip, I checked the Eagles schedule on a hunch and saw they’d be in Little Falls, N.J, when I was close to Philadelphia. I talked to Jeremy and made plans to see him on July 12.
After driving from Allentown, PA, earlier in the day, I made it to Yogi Berra Stadium more than a couple hours before game time. The park is located on the campus of Montclair State University. After parking on a very gray day weather-wise, I took a look at the front gate of the park and, as you can see, there wasn’t much activity:
I wasn’t able to get a press pass for this visit, but something even cooler happened. Jeremy said he’d leave a ticket for me at the ticket office! I can’t deny I was very excited to tell the ticket office employee, “A player on the visiting team left a ticket for me.” You might have trouble reading it, but the bottom of the ticket reads “Team Comp Visiting.” Pretty cool, huh?
With my ticket in hand, but the gates not yet open, I decided to spend the next hour or so wandering the area. Because rain was in the forecast and the field was wet, batting practice was cancelled, but I still wanted to take a walk around the perimeter of the stadium to look for a ball. I started, though, by checking out the Yogi Berra Museum & Learning Center:
And a statue of Berra:
The parts I saw of the Montclair State campus were picturesque, and the ballpark itself is surrounded by woods on a couple sides. With ample time to kill, I decided to wander down this path:
Despite thinking how this is how a lot of scary movies begin, I kept treading through the underbrush until I could spy the field through a break in the trees. There were a few guys playing catch on the field, but as the Eagles and Jackals both wear red, white and black uniforms, I couldn’t even tell which team the players were from:
I retraced my steps and ventured over to the other side of the park, where I saw a team (I’m still not positive which one, given the uniform color issue) using the batting cage:
Then, it was down a dirt and gravel road to the area behind the outfield fence:
I could see a few more guys on the field by this point, but sure didn’t recognize Jeremy, much less decipher which team I was looking at. After watching the players play catch as I stood in the open door in the fence, I set my sights on finding a ball. With the wooded area behind the fence, I knew there had to be dozens of balls hiding in the brush, much like the Hudson Valley Renegades’ Dutchess Stadium. It took less than a minute to see this ball:
And less than five seconds to decide to leave it where it sat. It was down a pretty steep embankment that was slippery with mud and littered with all sorts of sharp branches. I’d find a different ball that wouldn’t require slipping to my muddy and humiliating death, I decided.
Unfortunately, the area wasn’t as ball-ridden as I’d hoped. I walked and walked and walked and didn’t come up with anything, although I did take this picture of a neat university building:
I went back to the opening in the fence and checked out the scene again. From here, I had a good view of the entire park, as well as the university buildings nearby:
As I began the long walk back toward the front gate, I took another look at the ball, which seemed to be mocking me. And then I reminded myself of one of my favorite lines — “Do it for the story.” I began slipping and sliding down the slope until I reached the ball. Going down was the easy part, and after grabbing a branch and trying to Tarzan my way back up to the roadway, I emerged from the brush (with no one around, thankfully) with a Can-Am League ball for my collection:
I jammed the ball into my backpack and with that mission accomplished, headed back to the main gate and was the second fan to enter:
The park wasn’t exactly brimming with activity. I’m guessing the Jackals don’t draw too well, but if they do, the fan base was at home because of the weather. I walked around the virtually deserted park for a while and took a handful of photos, including this one that shows the seating on the first base side and the team shop. My favorite part, though? Check out the suite on the upper level. If you enjoy peace and quiet as you watch baseball, I think this suite has your name on it:
I quickly figured out the Aigles/Eagles dugout and bullpen were on the first base side, so I walked over to the fence between the two to wait for Jeremy. The players enter the field from a gate directly behind home plate, so I’d be able to spot him early and say hello when he was done warming up. Only a handful of players were out at this point, so I checked out the grass seating area in the right field corner and found this:
This ball was in pretty good rubbed-up condition, so I’m guessing it was a foul ball from an earlier game that no one chased down. In any case, I was glad to see it displayed the league name much better than the muddy ball I’d found just a short while earlier.
Several members of the visiting team filed out on the field but there was still no sign of Jeremy. As I glanced around, however, I did see a familiar face heading toward me … Jeremy’s dad! I’ve never met Jeremy’s folks, but I’m friends with his dad, Kevin, on Facebook. I had no idea Jeremy’s parents were planning to drive to New Jersey for this game, and it was an absolutely awesome surprise. We were both pretty excited and amused to finally meet each other, and before Jeremy hit the field, Kevin took me up to meet his wife and Jeremy’s mom, Maria. We made plans to sit together for the game and before another minute passed, Jeremy appeared along the fence and Kevin and I went down to greet him. We chatted with Jeremy for a few minutes, and then he had to run and get ready for the game.
I was excited to sit with Maria and Kevin for the game. You know when you meet people and within a moment of talking, it feels like you’ve known each other forever? That was the case here. The three of us sat jammed in our seats and never shut up for the whole game. It was an absolutely wonderful time.
In the first inning, I hopped up to get down toward field level to take photos of Jeremy. I was excited to capture him hitting but, before I got the chance, I snapped this four-photo series of him catching a fly ball:
When Jeremy was due up in the second inning, I went around to the third base side to take a handful of photos of him, including this one:
Early in the game, Kevin got a text message from Alicia, Jeremy’s girlfriend. If you’ve read the background on Jeremy, you’ll know Alicia is the reason I ever came to know Jeremy. I’m paraphrasing here, but her text basically said, “I don’t know if Jeremy told you, but Malcolm will be at this game. Maybe you’ll meet him.” Kevin leaned over to me, snapped this photo with his cellphone …
… and texted it back to her as his response. We all had a good laugh.
The next time Jeremy was on deck, I took this photo of him:
And then took this one of him in the subsequent at-bat:
Jeremy advanced a runner on that at-bat and got some fist bumps from his teammates upon returning to the dugout:
By now, the rain decided to make an appearance. Of all games on this road trip, I was hoping this one wouldn’t get rained out. Fortunately, the rain came and went and, when necessary, I shared the two Nowak family umbrellas:
And so went the game. Lots of chatting, a little rain here and there and when Jeremy came to the plate, I’d dash off to get some photos.
Before Jeremy’s third at-bat, I noticed his name was engraved on his Old Hickory bat, which I thought was really cool:
A moment later, he drove the ball on this swing …
… and ended up on second on what should’ve been a double:
Instead, the scorekeeper called it an error and the Jeremy Nowak fan club in attendance (me, Maria and Kevin) voiced our disapproval to no avail. As I stood on the third base-side cross aisle and snapped photos of Jeremy’s lead off second base, like this one …
… the skies opened up and it absolutely poured. It was one of those rains that made you think, “Gee, I don’t think it could possibly rain harder.” Jeremy ended up scoring a run in the inning:
And although the rain was starting to fall a little lighter, the Jackals pitcher kept complaining to the umpires until they called a delay after six innings. Soon enough the skies opened up again and, as you can tell in this photo, it was soon rather rainy and dark:
Maria, Kevin and I were as dry as could be under the umbrellas, so that’s where we stayed. (Actually, I was soaking from standing out in the rain to take photos, but at least it was dry under the umbrellas.) Before long, it became pretty clear the game wasn’t going to resume, so we found a dry spot on the concourse and watched in amusement as a bunch of the Eagles came out in their underwear and did a tarp slide once the game was called:
(They were subsequently scolded by a member of the grounds crew.)
I think the three of us were the last three fans in the park and soon enough, the lights were turned off. We made our way up to the pavilion in front of the main gate in the dark and saw Three Rivers’ bus:
Recognize anyone on it? Here’s a closer look:
That’s Jeremy on the right! Pretty cool, huh?
Eventually, Jeremy emerged and it was great to talk to him again, despite standing in the pouring rain. I wanted to get a photo with the Nowaks, but it was pitch black. I hatched an idea — the parking garage where I’d left my vehicle was decently lit, so we all piled in their SUV and drove to the garage. With a little help from my camera’s self-timer, I got this photo:
Soon enough, we had to say our goodbyes, despite Maria inviting me several times to travel back to their hotel and hang out with the family for a bit. (As I said — super, super friendly people!) Although it was certainly tempting, I didn’t want to infringe on their family time and, besides, I was soaking wet and also looking forward to checking out my own hotel. The hotel I picked for the trip to Little Falls was the Saddle Brook Marriott, which was about 10 minutes from Yogi Berra Stadium. The hotel looked awesome online, and once I got there, I was really impressed.
Here’s what my room looked like the following morning:
As you can see, there was a king-sized bed, sitting area, desk, big TV and everything was clean and modern. That evening, I did nothing but change into some dry clothes and watch ESPN. On Saturday morning, though, I took some more pictures of the hotel, including this one that shows the room from another angle:
Next, I went outside and took this photo of the exterior of the building:
I definitely recommend this hotel for people traveling to the area. Not only are the hotel rooms spacious and clean, there’s a huge indoor pool, well-stocked fitness area and a restaurant and lounge adjacent to the lobby. If you want to go out for dinner, there are Italian, American and seafood restaurants within a couple miles. And speaking of close proximity, this view out my window shows how accessible to the hotel is:
That’s the Garden State Parkway and I-80 you see. I was glad at how easy the hotel was to find, given that it was raining like crazy when I arrived shortly after leaving Yogi Berra Stadium.
As for Jeremy, I’m rooting like crazy for him to get back to affiliated ball. And I’m already looking forward to seeing him in action again and crossing paths with his folks, too — whenever and wherever that may be.