Tagged: Ottawa Champions

Can-Am League/American Association All-Star Game – July 25

I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy some pretty cool experiences since I began traveling for The Ballpark Guide in 2010, but one thing that has always eluded me was an all-star game. Fortunately, that drought came to an end late in July, when I had the fortune of visiting Ottawa for the all-star game between the best of the Can-Am League and American Association.

Unlike most all-star events that pit the best players in an individual league against each other, this game was unique in that it consisted of all-stars from a pair of independent leagues — the six-team Can-Am League and the 12-team American Association — competing against each other. I’d actually planned to take in the home run derby and skills competition a day earlier, too, but daylong rain meant those activities were a wash. That was unfortunate, but the bright skies on July 25 meant that the all-star game thankfully wouldn’t be threatened by Mother Nature.

My ballpark visits normally revolve around exploring the ballpark, sitting in a bunch of different spots and trying to come up with some unique adventures, but the priority on this night was simply to take in my first all-star game. Don’t get me wrong — there was still some exploring and a chance to do something I’d never done before on the agenda.

I got to Ottawa’s Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton Park about 3 p.m. and went down to the field a little before the Can-Am League all-stars began hitting. Since I’d missed out on seeing long bombs due to the derby cancellation a day earlier, I was excited to see the league’s top home run hitters pounding balls over the fences at RCGT Park. One such slugger was Rockland Boulders first baseman/outfield Joe Maloney, who was a 10th round pick of Texas and also played as high as Double-A in Minnesota’s system:

Judging by the season he had with Rockland, you have to wonder if he’ll be back in affiliated ball again. He slugged 35 home runs, drove in 101, batted .282 and had an OPS of .997. And, lest you think that his offensive game is one dimensional, he also contributed with 18 stolen bases.

Another hitter I was anxious to see was Quebec Capitales outfielder Kalian Sams, who played affiliated ball in the Seattle, Texas and San Diego systems between 2007 and 2013:

His numbers this season were also impressive, especially considering that he only played in 72 games — 23 home runs, 70 RBIs, a .291 batting average and an OPS of .943.

Maloney and Sams lived up to their billing, as did many of the other Can-Am League hitters, including Ottawa’s own catcher Danny Grauer. Ottawa isn’t a hitter-friendly park, but it was impressive to see balls sailing well over the fence, including some moon shots that landed on Coventry Road beyond left field.

The American Association players soon took the field, and while I must admit that I didn’t recognize many of their names, one player I did know was starting pitcher Mark Hamburger. If you don’t know his story, it’s an interesting one. He’s certainly one of the more colorful characters in independent baseball, as you might get the sense from this photo:

After the Can-Am League batting practice ended but before the American Association guys began to hit, I zipped up to the press box to catch the scene from a bird’s-eye view:

Then, I headed back down to the field and just enjoyed watching the various players go in and out of the cage to my right. One player I spoke to was Martin Medina, a former White Sox and Blue Jays farmhand who currently catches for the Wichita Wingnuts:

I asked him about his perspectives on visiting Ottawa for the first time, and he admitted that many of the AA all-stars had arrived so late that they’d come straight to the ballpark. In fact, the American Association roster was a little short due to some players’ travel issues — so short that Ottawa Champions infielder Daniel Bick got called in to suit up for the American Association.

After BP, I joined my brother and nephew down the third base line. They’d decided to take in the event with me, and my nephew was just a tad excited:

OK, so maybe he was excited about the prospect of trying to get a baseball and chowing down on hot dogs and ice cream, but you get my point.

Our seats adjacent to the home bullpen meant that we got a chance to see the familiar faces of the Ottawa guys and a bunch of other Can-Am League all-stars. Here’s New Jersey Jackals outfielder Johnny Bladel, who had a spectacular year at the plate, hitting .345:

And the aforementioned Grauer, who was recently named the team’s most valuable player:

Grauer wasn’t the only all-star starter from Ottawa. Former big leaguer Phillippe Aumont, who I saw throw a no-hitter earlier in the season, was starting on the mound for the Can-Am side:

Speaking of Aumont, I went to the cross-aisle behind home plate to watch the game’s first pitch:

It was a little disappointing to see so many empty seats. I mean, there was still a decent crowd on hand, but for the caliber of baseball being showcased that night, as well as the rarity of the occasion (the first baseball all-star game ever hosted in the city) it’s regrettable that more Ottawa residents didn’t attend. The Champions did an exemplary job of putting on the entire all-star event, and it would’ve been nice if more baseball fans had come out to enjoy the evening.

I wanted to watch some of the game from a different vantage point, so I went out through the front gates and walked around the perimeter of the park until I arrived in the driveway behind the visitor’s bullpen and the batting cages. This is where the visiting team’s bus parks, and it’s somewhere I hadn’t really explored in the past. The view of the game from this spot isn’t great — and that’s fine, because there aren’t any seats there, anyway — but it was neat to actually be behind the bullpen:

While I was standing in this area, Hamburger (who’d since finished his work for the evening) took a walk down to the ‘pen and mugged for the fans sitting nearby. What a character:

I watched an inning from this spot, partially hoping that one of the right fielders would make a play along the fence or that a foul ball would come my way. Neither happened, but something better took place — I was speaking for a few minutes with a member of the RCGT Park grounds crew, and he casually asked if I wanted to go up to the roof. It obviously didn’t take me long to ponder that offer or give him my answer, so we made plans to meet at the end of the sixth inning so that I could check out this uncharted territory.

That gave me a bit of time to continue checking out the game from various angles, while also occasionally dropping in on my brother and nephew. The next spot I visited was the camera platform in straightaway center field. I’d previously checked out this spot before the Champions game against Cuba, but never during a game itself. I was surprised to run into a security guard standing in front of the ramp to the game — but kind of glad, too, because I’ve occasionally seen freeloaders sneak onto the RCGT Park property and watch the game from this spot without buying a ticket. He was cool with me taking a few photos, so I took shots like this one …

… and majorly hoped for a home run ball to come my way. That didn’t happen, but by the time I made it over to visit with my brother and nephew again, four-year-old Ben had himself a nice baseball. And, as you can tell from this photo, he was pretty stoked:

Champions pitcher Daniel Cordero handed it to him, thus keeping Ben’s streak alive — he’s gotten at least one baseball at every game he’s been to. (And the streak has continued in the games he’s attended since the all-star game, for the record.)

I still had a bit of time until my rooftop adventure, so I grabbed a Fan Club Burger from the home plate concession stand and sat in the upper seats on the third base side to enjoy it:

This was the second time I’d eaten that burger at RCGT Park, and it was just as outstanding as the first time. A huge thumbs up to the Champions and their food services team for producing a burger this delicious.

After the last bite of the burger, I went down to the grounds crew’s office to meet up with my new friend/tour guide.

I’ve only ever been on the roof of a ballpark once. That was back in 2014 when I attended the last game in Jamestown Jammers history. That rooftop experience was cool, but the Jammers played in a small park, so I was basically just going up onto a platform atop the tiny press box. This would be different — RCGT Park is an actual stadium with a legitimate roof, so I knew I’d be in a for a treat. We rode the elevator up to the press level, then took a set of stairs up to the roof. The first thing I did was go right up to the edge and shoot this photo:

It felt a little weird being up so high, but there was a comforting lip around the front edge of the roof that kept me from dropping in on the fans below. I watched a couple minutes of the game from this spot, and then looked around the roof a little. It was wide, with HVAC stuff running down the middle and several banks of speakers along the front edge. Here was the view to my right:

And here’s how things looked over to my left:

That’s the press level immediately under the Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton sign. I was hoping to catch the attention of the broadcasters so that I could wave at them, but they were understandably focused on the game.

Two people who did notice my location were my brother and nephew. They’d been keeping an eye out for me, and when I appeared at the edge of the roof, my nephew was waving like crazy. (Later, he asked me, “How did you get up there?”)

After snapping the scene in panoramic form …

… my mission was to find a foul ball. I’ve been to enough Champions games to know that foul balls land on the roof. A lot. I was surprised that the roof wasn’t littered with baseballs, which indicates that someone from the gameday staff or grounds crew likely visits the roof regularly to collect them. I told my tour guide that I wanted to take a couple minutes to hunt for a baseball, and he obliged. Unfortunately, that tour yielded nothing. As I expressed disappointment, my new friend smiled and handed me a ball that he’d found:

I’ve managed to collect a bunch of baseballs over the years, but it’s hard to beat the cool location of this one!

Our rooftop visit wrapped up soon afterward, and I need to give a big thank you to my rooftop tour guide for making it happen.

Afterward, I rejoined my brother and nephew and we moved to this spot behind home plate …

… where we remained until the final out.

I’m pleased to say that my first all-star game experience was a thrill, and I commend the Champions organization for doing such a great job of putting on the spectacle for baseball fans.

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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.

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 – June 16

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:

Political tweet
Political tweet
Political tweet
Retweet of my photo
Political tweet
Political tweet
Political tweet

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:

Here’s Steve Brown, who played on the Trois-Rivières Aigles in 2013 with my buddy Jeremy Nowak:

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.

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 – June 17

Even though I focus on the major leagues and minor leagues when I plan my road trips for The Ballpark Guide, I had my eye on a mid-June visit to Ottawa since the early spring. Why? Because the independent Can-Am League’s Ottawa Champions were hosting the Cuban National Team, and if that’s not a unique reason to head to the ballpark, I don’t know what is.

The Cuban squad, which is the same group of players that hosted the Tampa Bay Rays in Cuba during Spring Training, was scheduled to play a handful of games in North America, and I knew that I wanted to at least see the team in action once. This was a special occasion because it would mark the first time since 1954 that a Cuban team played baseball in Ottawa, Canada’s capital city. That team, the Havana Sugar Kings, is one that you’ve likely heard of if you know baseball history.

I visited Ottawa’s Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton Park once last season, as you might recall, and was eager to visit the former home of the International League’s Ottawa Lynx once again. I got to town a couple hours before first pitch to give me time to explore the stadium a bit, as well as get down to field level and watch the Cuban team warm up, which I was especially excited about.

Here’s how RCGT Park looks from the parking lot:

ottawa-champions-rcgt-park-outside

The ballpark was built in 1993 and while I’m generally not the biggest fan of the look of ’90s-era “bowl-style” stadiums, you’ve got to admit that the exterior of this one looks sharp. The combination of brick and silver looks cool, and I especially like the variety of colors of glass in the middle structure.

Although I was, as usual, eager to get inside the park, I wanted to take a quick look around the surrounding area. RCGT Park is located next to the highway, and there’s a modern pedestrian bridge …

ottawa-champions-rcgt-park-outside-bridge

… that runs between the stadium and close to one of Ottawa’s train stations, making the stadium easily accessible on foot if you decide to visit Ottawa by train.

The bridge provides a cool vantage point of the stadium, too, and I took this photo of the side of the building when I was standing at the entrance of the bridge:

ottawa-champions-rcgt-park-outside-1

From this spot, I could also hear that batting practice was taking place, so I decided to quickly head inside and check out the action on the field. To my surprise, it was the Ottawa side — not the Cuban team — that was hitting first. This is what the scene looked like after I made it through the concourse and to the cross-aisle behind the lower bowl seats:

ottawa-champions-first-field-view

I watched BP from the cross-aisle for a few minutes, before deciding to start walking around and surveying the park from various spots. My first mission was to head down the third base line to the large grass berm, which features a variety of seating options beyond actually sitting on the grass:

ottawa-champions-berm-and-chairs

The weather was super hot and sunny, and I was amused to see three members of the Champions getting a tiny bit of relief from the shadow of one of the light posts; one player seemed to be making sure that his arms were in the shade, too:

ottawa-champions-players-in-shade

There were a couple baseballs laying in the grass on the berm, but since the gates weren’t yet open, I didn’t want to take them — although I made a pledge to remember to return to the area once the park was open to all fans.

The Champions were kind enough to hook me up with a press pass, which gave me field access. Although I’ve been on professional fields a ton of times, the thrill never gets old — and I wanted to be standing behind the batting cage when the Cuba side began to hit. I took a spot on the visitors’ side of the field and enjoyed the action for several minutes with this view:

ottawa-champions-bp

Ottawa wasn’t showing any sign of giving up its BP just yet, which meant that the Cuban hitters probably wouldn’t take the field for a while, so I decided to head to the upper row on the first base side and snap this panorama:

ottawa-champions-rcgt-park-pano-upper-deck

When I got some reprieve from the sun by standing against the cement wall between the upper deck and suites, I saw this sign and had to laugh:

ottawa-champions-sign

It reminded me of a time that I broke this very rule myself — way back during a chilly April doubleheader in Syracuse.

A few minutes later, the Champions left the field, so I went up to check out the press box during the break in the action. Here’s the view from up there:

ottawa-champions-early-press-box-view

You can see the grass berm I visited earlier on the left side of the photo; there’s no berm down near the right field foul pole, as the stadium’s batting cages are in that area instead. I also want to draw your attention to Coventry Road, which passes behind the left field fence. The road is less than 50 feet from the outfield fence, so long home runs definitely have a chance of reaching it. Additionally, you’ll often see passers-by lining the chain-link fence behind the berm on game nights, as there’s a good view of the field from the sidewalk.

I spent a few minutes in the press box enjoying the view, and then headed back down to the main concourse. By this time, a pair of horses and riders were taking laps around the warning track. Certainly not something you see every day at the ballpark, right? In fact, I think this is probably the first time I’ve seen horses on the field at any of the 60-plus parks I’ve visited. I quickly descended to the field and snapped this picture of one of the horses and its rider …

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… and then shot this one of the other horse and rider:

ottawa-champions-horse

I watched the horses take a bunch of laps around the field, but that was about it for the action down at field level. The Champions were in the clubhouse, and the Cuban side seemed conspicuously absent; I hadn’t seen a single player wearing a Cuban uniform, despite first pitch being on the not-so-distant horizon. I figured the national team was still in its clubhouse, but when I went back to the press box and talked to a couple members of the Champions broadcast team, I learned that the club had yet to arrive! Apparently, the Cuban bus had experienced some sort of problem on the way to Ottawa. We learned that the team was scheduled to get to town in time, but that it wouldn’t be hitting, unfortunately.

When the gates opened, I went back down to the berm where I’d previously seen the ball, and snagged it:

ottawa-champions-baseball

I love the black bat smudge on this one. I grabbed another baseball, too, and gave it away to a little boy midway through the game.

A little while later, I saw a positive sign out the press box window — a coach bus wrapped in Cuban colors backing up to the stadium:

ottawa-champions-cuba-bus-arriving

The players actually came off the bus wearing their uniforms, so I quickly bid farewell to the press box and returned to field level to watch the warm-ups. I really enjoy watching international baseball, so it was a thrill to be standing next to these Cuban pros, and I took a ton of photos, like this one of some players stretching:

cuba-national-team-players-1

And this one:

cuba-national-team-players

That’s catcher Yosvani Alarcon in the foreground and a teammate whose #35 doesn’t appear to be on the official roster in the background.

Here’s Osvaldo Vazquez, another catcher, who seemed to be posing for me:

osvaldo-vazquez-cuba-national-team

And Jefferson Delgado, an infielder:

jefferson-delgado-cuba-national-team

And Raul Gonzalez, another infielder:

raul-gonzalez-cuba-nationa-team

Next, I witnessed a reunion of sorts. I was standing in front of the visitors’ bullpen down the first base line, when a couple of the Champions players approached and embraced several of the Cuban guys. The two players, Donal Duarte and Alexander Malleta, signed with Ottawa earlier this season after long careers as professionals in Cuba, playing on the island since 2001 and 1998, respectively. Here’s Duarte with some members of the Cuban team:

ottawa-champions-duarte-reunion

There was definitely a unique buzz in the ballpark with the Cuban team in town, and it was an experience I won’t soon forget. It just felt … different, but it was also neat to realize that despite all the differences between North America and Cuba, baseball is just baseball. From that perspective, things on the field didn’t feel very different at all. Of course, there were always constant reminders of the special nature of the night, like this selection of Team Cuba gear in the visitors’ bullpen:

ottawa-champions-cuba-bullpen-bags

As the Cubans wrapped up their truncated on-field drills, and first pitch approached, I set off in search of something to eat. Well, it was more of a beeline walk than a meandering wander — straight to the poutine kiosk on the first base side. I’d eaten a tremendously good order of poutine a year earlier, and even though I like to vary my ballpark food to try as many things as possible, I knew there was no way I wasn’t going to partake again.

While I waited in line, I noticed that the Champions offer a team-branded craft beer, which I thought was neat — especially at the independent level:

ottawa-champions-beer

As I did a season earlier, I ordered the “Tao Poutine,” an Asian-inspired dish with breaded chicken, hot sauce, diced green onions and black and white sesame seeds atop the poutine mainstays of fries, cheese curds and gravy:

ottawa-champions-food-tao-poutine

It was absolutely delicious once again, and for $5.75, it was a heck of a lot of food. It might seem like a random comment, but I was also hugely impressed with the attention to detail of the food services worker making the meal for me. All the poutine is made to order, which means that there can occasionally be a bit of a lineup. One young man was handling all the assembly, and while he was working quickly, he was also putting a great amount of care into putting the orders together. With mine, for example, he sprinkled some green onions on top, held the container out to inspect it, and then sprinkled just a couple more to top it up. That type of care is impressive and appreciated, and I can tell you this from experience; there have been too many times that I’ve had my food thrust at me at various stadiums with barely a grunt and absolutely no interest in the task at hand. It’s a thumbs up for the Champions, and I hope other fans have had this experience, too.

I mowed through my food during the pregame ceremonies, which included lots of photos and first pitches, and was intrigued with what I saw next: After the two national anthems were played, the Champions and Cuban National Team moved through the infield and shook hands. I don’t know if this is the norm in Cuba, or if it was just to celebrate the moment, but it was a nice scene of solidarity:

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As the players wrapped up their handshakes, the two horse riders (carrying Canada and Cuba flags) took a fast run along the outfield warning track …

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… and then it was finally time to play ball. I settled into a standing-room spot behind the visitors’ dugout:

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You probably know by now that I enjoy watching each game I attend from numerous vantage points, so as much as it was fun to hang out behind the Cuban team and watch the goings-on, I wanted to find a different spot for the bottom of the first inning. I settled on the berm when I’d previously found the BP balls, and I think you’ll agree that it provides a great view of the ballpark:

ottawa-champions-berm-view

Did you notice the Cuba flag hanging from one of the suites in the above photo? If not, here’s a closer shot:

ottawa-champions-cuba-flag-suites

There was one hanging over the visitors’ dugout rail, too, although it faced in the wrong direction from where I was standing:

ottawa-champions-cuba-team-dugout

I spent the next stretch of time watching an inning here, an inning there, and enjoying all of it. Here’s my view from the press box:

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And a panorama from the cross-aisle behind home plate:

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Here’s an action shot I took an inning or two later, which shows something cool — the grounds crew had painted Champions and Team Cuba logos in the dirt behind home plate:

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Later in the game, Cuba had reliever Frank Medina warming in the bullpen, so I made my way over to the front row at the fence and snapped some shots like this …

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With Medina on the mound soon after, I spent the last part of the game from this spot, watching Ottawa cruise to a 6-1 win:

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I left quickly after the game wrapped up, snapping this panorama of the exterior of the ballpark on my way out:

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As was the case last year, I was highly impressed with my visit to RCGT Park. Currently, the Champions are tied 1-1 in the first round of the Can-Am League playoffs with the New Jersey Jackals, whose ballpark I visited back in 2013 to see my friend Jeremy Nowak play. If the Champions are able to advance, I’m going to try to catch another game — and get some more of that poutine.