Tagged: independent baseball

Ottawa Champions – July 12

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.

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Ottawa Champions – June 28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aumont had a no-hitter going.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

… and a pair of soaking tubs:

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

SHOWER “WITH SOAP” BEFORE USING TUBS!

I love how “with soap” was emphasized.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ottawa Champions – September 13

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:

ottawa-champions-rcgt-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:

ottawa-champions-outside-view

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:

ottawa-champions-concourse-view

Next, I went down to the field and took this shot for Instagram:

I'm back in Ottawa for some Can-Am League finals action with the @ottawachampions and the @rocklandboulders.

A post shared by Malcolm MacMillan (@theballparkguide) on

(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:

ottawa-champions-hal-lanier

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 …

ottawa-champions-bullpen

… and then took a walk through the still-deserted concourse:

ottawa-champions-empty-concourse

Next, I made a brief stop up in the press box just to grab the rosters and lineups and check out the view …

ottawa-champions-press-box-view

… and then went back down to the field just after BP had finished:

ottawa-champions-right-field-line

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:

ottawa-champions-right-field-corner

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:

ottawa-champions-baseball-bp

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:

ottawa-champions-bar

I can see this being a cool place to watch a game — here’s how the view looked from the seats along the window:

ottawa-champions-view-from-bar

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?

This close:

ottawa-champions-dugout-view

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:

austin-chrismon-ottawa-champions

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:

marcus-niddifer-rockland-boulders

Ottawa’s big righty dealing:

ottawa-champions-austin-chrismon-game

Champions third baseman (another Cuban import) Donal Duarte playing a ball right that carried him into foul territory right in front of me:

donal-duarte-ottawa-champions

And outfielder Adron Chambers taking a lead off second:

adron-chambers-ottawa-champions

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 …

ottawa-champions-game-night-1

… and then from here …

ottawa-champions-game-night

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:

ottawa-champions-smoked-meat-poutine

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.

Ottawa Champions – August 18

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:

rcgt-park-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:

phil-and-ben-parking-lot

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:

ben-at-bar

(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:

ottawa-champions-general-tao-poutine

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:

ottawa-champions-911-poutine

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:

ottawa-champions-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:

phil-and-ben

(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:

ben-with-glove

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:

tony-caldwell-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:

perez-and-ben-1

perez-and-ben-2

perez-and-ben-3

perez-and-ben-4

perez-and-ben-5

perez-and-ben-6

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 …

malcolm-and-ben

… and, yes, I’m reppin’ the Great Lakes Loons and Auburn Doubledays.

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:

ben-with-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:

rcgt-park-pano

Ben was now energized by his new acquisitions and we stopped to take his photo at this display …

ben-catcher-cutout

… before heading out to the parking lot and saying goodnight to the ballpark:

rcgt-park-night-view

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!

New Jersey Jackals – July 12

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:

yogi-berra-stadium-front-gate

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?

yogi-berra-stadium-jackals-ticket

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:

yogi-berra-museum-outside

And a statue of Berra:

yogi-berra-statue-new-jersey

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:

yogi-berra-stadium-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:

yogi-berra-stadium-trail-view

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:

yogi-berra-stadium-batting-cages

Then, it was down a dirt and gravel road to the area behind the outfield fence:

yogi-berra-stadium-behind-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:

yogi-berra-stadium-bp-ball-woods

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:

montclair-state-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:

yogi-berra-stadium-outfield-view

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:

yogi-berra-stadium-bp-ball

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:

yogi-berra-stadium-entry

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:

yogi-berra-stadium-seating

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:

yogi-berra-stadium-foul-ball

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:

nowak-running-catch

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:

jeremy-nowak-trois-rivieres-aigles-inside-pitch

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 …

kevin-nowak-text

… 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:

jeremy-nowak-trois-rivieres-aigles-on-deck

And then took this one of him in the subsequent at-bat:

jeremy-nowak-trois-rivieres-aigles-batting

Jeremy advanced a runner on that at-bat and got some fist bumps from his teammates upon returning to the dugout:

jeremy-nowak-trois-rivieres-aigles-fist-bump

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:

yogi-berra-stadium-under-umbrella

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:

jeremy-nowak-trois-rivieres-aigles-bat-engraving

A moment later, he drove the ball on this swing …

jeremy-nowak-trois-rivieres-aigles-hit

… and ended up on second on what should’ve been a double:

jeremy-nowak-trois-rivieres-aigles-on-second-base

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 …

jeremy-nowak-trois-rivieres-aigles-baserunning

… 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:

jeremy-nowak-trois-rivieres-aigles-crossing-plate

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:

yogi-berra-stadium-rainout

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:

trois-rivieres-aigles-tarp-slide

(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:

jeremy-nowak-trois-rivieres-aigles-bus-back

Recognize anyone on it? Here’s a closer look:

jeremy-nowak-trois-rivieres-aigles-bus-back-closeup

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:

nowak-family-with-malcolm

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:

saddle-brook-marriott-room

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:

saddle-brook-marriott-room-2

Next, I went outside and took this photo of the exterior of the building:

saddle-brook-marriott-outside

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:

saddle-brook-marriott-out-window

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.