Less than three months after attending my first Ottawa Champions game of the season, I was back in Canada’s capital city to see the Can-Am League team again — this time, as it competed for the league crown.
I don’t normally make it a priority to attend playoff games, because larger crowds impede my ability to explore different ballparks with ease — in fact, the last time I saw any playoff action in person was 2010, when I watched the New Hampshire Fisher Cats and Tri-City ValleyCats on back-to-back days. But, I was happy to add a Champions game to my schedule just a few days before I’d head off to Denver.
As always, I arrived good and early and I appeared to be the first fan in the parking lot at Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton Park:
Before entering, I decided to check out the ballpark from a vantage point I hadn’t explored on my last visit. If you read that post, you might recall me writing about how Coventry Road passes directly behind the outfield fence and, in particular, is very close to the fence in left field. Pedestrians will often watch some of the game from the sidewalk, so I wanted to see how the view looked from this spot. I was impressed — you’d have to contort your body a bit to see the whole outfield, but you’d definitely be able to follow the game from here:
Of course, you’d enjoy the game much better from inside the stadium, and that’s where I headed next.
One of my favorite ballpark experiences is walking into a park before the gates open and just standing quietly on the cross-aisle. There’s something special about being in this environment; it’s calm and peaceful, but you can hear the music playing and BP taking place. It’s almost like a mini meditation for me. Anyway, BP hadn’t yet started when I entered RCGT Park, but the cage was set up and the players were just minutes away from hitting:
Next, I went down to the field and took this shot for Instagram:
(I’m fairly new to Instagram and often post stuff there that doesn’t appear elsewhere, so if you feel like giving me a follow, I’d appreciate it.)
The Champions were hosting the Rockland Boulders, who hadn’t yet appeared as I made my way down to the field to talk with Dante De Caria and Mike Nellis, two of the team’s broadcasters whom I’d met during my last visit and are great guys to talk baseball with.
After catching up with them for a bit, they got back to their pregame routine, and I stayed on the field to watch BP. At one point, I noticed Hal Lanier, Ottawa’s 74-year-old manager:
Does his name sound familiar? He played in the big leagues from 1964 to 1973, and was the manager of the Houston Astros from 1986 to 1988, earning a National League Manager of the Year award in 1986.
Once I’d watched Ottawa finish its BP session, I decided to do some more exploring of the ballpark. My first stop was the home bullpen down the third base line. I stood there to watch a bit of the Rockland hitting session …
… and then took a walk through the still-deserted concourse:
Next, I made a brief stop up in the press box just to grab the rosters and lineups and check out the view …
… and then went back down to the field just after BP had finished:
Since I’d enjoyed checking out the view from behind the left field fence earlier on, I decided to go up beyond the right field foul pole, just to see RCGT Park from a new vantage point:
I was standing on a driveway that is closed off to the public, but this is near the area where the visiting team’s bus parks during the game, as you can see on the left of the above photo.
Since I was beyond the fence, I couldn’t resist taking a look for a home run baseball from BP. It didn’t take long for my search to pay off, but this ball had definitely been there a long time, and didn’t have any discernible markings on it:
By now, first pitch was getting closer, so I went back up to the suite level and headed to the press box. First, though, I stopped in a bar/eatery that was closed, but that I think is used for private events throughout the season. This was the first time I’d ever checked this spot out in all my visits to the Ottawa stadium:
I can see this being a cool place to watch a game — here’s how the view looked from the seats along the window:
Before heading back down to the concourse, I poked my head into the press box one last time … and was surprised to see a former colleague I hadn’t seen in eight or nine years. He was shooting the game for his newspaper, so we decided to shoot the game together and get caught up in the process. We headed down to the camera pit at the end of the Ottawa dugout, where I’d have a perfect view for a bunch of action shots.
How close was I?
You’re looking at Cuban import and infielder Alexander Malleta, catcher Jonathan Salcedo and pitcher Andrew Cooper, who was a 12th-round pick of the Washington Nationals in 2013.
The camera pit was a neat spot. Not only did it provide a good view of the action on the field and a front-row spot to the goings-on in the dugout, but if I turned to my left, the Ottawa bullpen was just a few yards away. As such, I had a unique spot to watch starting pitcher (and 2016 Can-Am League Pitcher of the Year) Austin Chrismon warming up:
As much as I typically enjoy spending each game I attend on the move, it was fun to just hang out with my friend and watch the action from this spot. And there was plenty of action to see, too. Here’s Rockland’s Marcus Nidiffer blasting a home run:
Ottawa’s big righty dealing:
Champions third baseman (another Cuban import) Donal Duarte playing a ball right that carried him into foul territory right in front of me:
And outfielder Adron Chambers taking a lead off second:
You might recognize Chambers’ name — he earned a World Series ring with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2011. I was glad to be able to snap a shot of Chambers, not just because of his MLB connection, but also because he played in the Midwest League. I’d noticed before the game that many of the players on both sides had MWL experience, so I wanted to take some action shots to share with my buddy Craig Wieczorkiewicz, a.k.a. The Midwest League Traveler. He used some of the pictures and wrote about the series on his blog. Hands down, Craig provides the most thorough MWL coverage around, so give his blog a look and be sure to check him out on Twitter, too.
My ex-colleague left about two-thirds of the way through the game, so I decided to head out, too — not out of the park, just out of the camera pit to continue looking around. I watched a bit of the action from here …
… and then from here …
Next, I finally got around to eating a late dinner. Once again, I visited the poutine stand where I’d enjoyed the Tao Poutine during my last two visits to RCGT Park. To change things up, I ordered the smoked meat poutine, which contained a heap of smoked meat on the usual poutine ingredients. It was good, but not nearly as good as the Tao variety, which’ll likely be my choice during my next visit. Unfortunately, my photo doesn’t show much other than smoked meat, but you get the idea:
In my blissful meat coma, I watched the remainder of the game from high on the first base side. Rockland put up an eighth-inning rally, thanks in part to Nidiffer’s second home run of the game, to top Ottawa 6-5. Ottawa would get the last laugh, though, clinching the Can-Am League title in five games to earn top honors in just their second year in the league — and earn the name on the front of their jerseys.
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:
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 …
… 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:
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:
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:
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:
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 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:
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:
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:
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 …
… and then shot this one of the other horse and rider:
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:
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:
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:
And this one:
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:
And Jefferson Delgado, an infielder:
And Raul Gonzalez, another infielder:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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 …
… and then it was finally time to play ball. I settled into a standing-room spot behind the visitors’ dugout:
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:
Did you notice the Cuba flag hanging from one of the suites in the above photo? If not, here’s a closer shot:
There was one hanging over the visitors’ dugout rail, too, although it faced in the wrong direction from where I was standing:
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:
And a panorama from the cross-aisle behind home plate:
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:
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 …
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:
I left quickly after the game wrapped up, snapping this panorama of the exterior of the ballpark on my way out:
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.