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.