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Nat Bailey Stadium, Vancouver, British Columbia

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Nat Bailey Stadium, Vancouver, British Columbia

Number of states:  still 8 (but one province!)
States to go:  42
Number of games: 1
First game: August 29, 2004 (Everett AquaSox 5, Vancouver Canadians 3)

I had purchased the engagement ring about ten days earlier.  It had been sitting in my sock drawer.  Michelle The Girlfriend and I had been together for about two and a half years, and I was getting tired of her being merely at Girlfriend status.  Indeed, I had considered popping the question to her on our trip earlier that summer to the Oregon Coast–the Second Annual Paul and Michelle Minor League Trip, which included Tacoma, Eugene, and Portland.  But I wasn’t quite ready then.  Indeed, while sitting across the table from her at Mo’s Restaurant in Newport, Oregon, I confessed that I had thought about popping the question to her, but wasn’t quite ready.  Did she cry?  Get bitchy?  Nope.  She just gave a half smile and said something like “Whatever.”  She understood my need to, as she put it, “look at it from 20 different angles and upside-down before making a decision.”  If anything, that assured I’d get that ring–she was breathtakingly patient with me and very understanding of–and even fond of–my quirks. So it didn’t take long.  And on August 29, 2004, the day before school began, the day when we went to Nat Bailey Stadium–this would be the day I asked.

At some point early in our relationship, long before marriage had crossed our minds in any serious way, Michelle had warned me:  if I dared propose at a sporting event, she would walk out of said sporting event and I’d never see her again.  That works for me. 

I’m fairly into my private intimate moments being both private and intimate, and not public like the guy I saw propose to his girlfriend at Dwyer Stadium in Batavia, NY. So I knew the rules.  But when I think of Michelle and our best moments, they usually involve random road trips, baseball, and hanging out.  In fact, in honor of this, I gave Michelle a birthday card that year that said something like:  “We need to go bowling in Canada…[open card]…That way we can always talk about how fun it was that time we went bowling in Canada.”  Michelle repeatedly mentioned that card in the months following her birthday and the need to bowl in Canada.  So that set up our weekend road trip:  wake up early, put the ring in my jeans pocket while Michelle wasn’t looking, find a bowling alley south of Vancouver that would be open at 10AM on a Sunday (Michelle, trip-planner extraordinaire did that), and then zip up to Nat Bailey Stadium to catch a critical matchup between Everett and Vancouver, who were battling for the Western Division title.  After that…well…I had plans.

Michelle beat me at bowling.  That says more about my bowling abilities than about hers.  (Sorry, babe.)

How good a ballpark was Nat Bailey Stadium?  Good enough to make me forget

the stresses of the day.  I even stopped feeling in my pocket for the ring.  At first, before arriving, I thought the ballpark’s location was a bit unfortunate…it’s within Vancouver’s city limits, but very much a suburban spot.  However, I was won over when I got there.  The stadium is wedged between Queen Elizabeth Park, which provides for lovely views past the outfield wall of dog-walkers headed through the trees, and Hillcrest Park, which featured a nice, large, friendly pickup soccer match for the locals and a spiral slide for Michelle.  A lovely place to be.

Nat Bailey Stadium has as nice an atmosphere and as respectful an attitude towards its past as any ballpark I’ve ever been to.  This is best exemplified in its pavilion area.  I’m usually not thrilled with a cementy area under the bleachers, completely devoid of any natural light.  But at Nat Bailey Stadium, the pictures, exhibits, and history on display made the pavilion into a place I could have spent hours.  I had just finished reading Ball Four when I made it to Vancouver, so I wanted to see the 1969 Vancouver Mounties photo.  Sure enough, there it was, featuring many of the people Jim Bouton described in his book.  There were a number of newspaper accounts of key games from Nat Bailey stadium in the past, most notably a piece about an appearance Babe Ruth made there.  (Or was it Mickey Mantle?  I had a lot on my mind that day and could be remembering it wrong.  I do think it was Ruth, though.)  I’m enough of a nerd that I most enjoyed an article featuring Hilly Hathaway, whom I saw get one of his four major league wins.  I just loved meandering around that place, reading the articles covering baseball over the past many years.  It reminded me of Wichita and Spokane, two other places whose pavilion areas were de facto museums of local baseball history.  All minor league parks should have something like it.

Michelle and I parked ourselves in the front row, just short of Vancouver’s dugout.  It turned out we

were seated only a few feet away from Vancouver’s coaches.  This meant I got to hear umpire/coach conversation, and, as a sports official, I thoroughly enjoy this.  Today was better than most.

Vancouver’s pitching coach, I was pleased to see, was Craig Lefferts, whom I remember totally owning my ’84 Tigers in the World Series.  He looks like he’s still in awfully good shape, and as good a pitcher as he was and as long as he stuck around, I think that the pitchers in the Oakland system are fortunate to have him.  He seemed to be a good-natured guy, holding conversations with the fans behind the dugout in an easygoing manner that led me to believe that he had talked to these folks every game.  I even got to hear him politely–but firmly–yell at the home plate umpire about a pitch he felt caught the corner.  The conversation

went something like this:

CRAIG LEFFERTS:  Where was that, blue?!!
HOME PLATE UMPIRE (removing his mask):  I don’t want to hear it!
CL:  My catcher didn’t even move his glove!
HPU:  I’m right here, and you’re way over there!  You can’t see it!
CL:  I know my catcher wouldn’t set up off the plate!

As I see it, the umpire here was being a little bit of a hothead…Lefferts’ questions/complaints aren’t exactly rude, and hardly merited the removal of a mask and the subsequent hollering.  Lefferts hadn’t said anything all day prior to that.  But then, it had been a long season…maybe there had been previous encounters I don’t know about.

A little more interesting to me was the batting coach, Todd Steverson.  In looking at his career, he seems to mirror Billy Beane–the first-round pick with loads of promise who never quite makes it.  Perhaps that explains Todd’s behavior on this day–maybe he has a bit of a chip

on his shoulder, because in the fourth inning, he got tossed.  The play was a double-play call against the Canadians.  Steverson felt that the pitcher, who was finishing off a 3-6-1 double play, was pulled off the bag by the throw.  From my angle, he was thrown off the bag, but landed on it again before the batter, Landon Powell, got there.  Good call, Blue.  But Steverson had a fascinating way of arguing.  Did he say:  “No!  He was pulled off the bag!”  Nope.  Did he say:  “Oh, you blew that one!”  Nope.  Steverson immediately started shouting–and repeating three times!–the following complaint:  “You suck, Blue!  You suck!  You suck!”  What the hell is that?  That’s terribly juvenile behavior…Steverson is living down to the stereotype of ballplayers with that kind of garbage.  And what’s more, it’s not even clever!  It’s fourth-grade level.  If you’re going to bitch and moan, at least be creative about it.  Or, to put it in a way that Mr. Steverson might more easily understand:  You suck, Steverson.  A very rare combination of immature, whiny, and lame!  Anyway, back to the game.  The second base umpire rightly tossed Steverson, who then ran out onto the field to get his last complaints in before leaving.  The only problem with the base umpire, as I see it, is that he was smiling when he ejected Steverson.  To me, that betrays a little weakness…he’d have done better to have stayed poker-faced.

I cannot locate the names of either umpire for that game, but here’s my prediction:  out of these four main characters (Lefferts, Steverson, and the two umpires), only Lefferts will make it to the majors as a coach or umpire.

More about the ballpark:  It is unabashedly minor league in so many ways…encountering ballplayers making phone calls in the pavilion (probably expensive to make an international cell phone call), loads of promotions, a between-innings archery exhibition…it was nicely put together.  A good day of entertainment.  I insist that Canadians are more polite than Americans, and that this leads to a sweet atmosphere at the ballpark–and it means that even a large city like Vancouver can have a

small-towny feel to it.  I even felt like the font of the concession stand lettering had a retro feel to it, making me feel like I was in a ballpark in the early ’50s.  Does that make any sense?  I especially enjoyed the foresty views of Queen Elizabeth Park.  They seem to have everything I like in a ballpark.  On my visit, there were flyers being past around that said something like “Save Nat Bailey Stadium.”  I hope they succeed.  This is an old place, but clearly a loved and lovable place, and one of the better minor league ballparks I’ve ever seen.  I’d like to see it stay.

Michelle and I head home.  This is the Sunday night before school starts and I have to abandon Michelle for nine more months while I tackle student essays.  I tell her I’d like to go out to eat.  I try to very calmly say “where would you like to go?”  She says I get to decide.  I tell her I’d like to go to the Five Spot restaurant, which is where we had our first date.  I stop at a rest area and sneak off to make a phone call without her knowing.  I ask the guy at the restaurant to set aside the table where we met on our first date.  He does.  I think I’m being all suave, but Michelle insists she knew what I was up to.  She thinks I suggest the Five Spot a bit too eagerly.  She even thinks (she later tells me) she sees me checking my pocket for something…I know it wasn’t the ring, it was a cell phone, but Michelle thinks it’s the ring.  I spend the three hour drive home thinking about the best times I’ve had with this woman–many of them at ballparks, many of them documented here.  It seems appropriate that I should ask Michelle to marry me after a ballgame.  I’m happy and excited–not really scared-nervous, but psyched-nervous.  We get to the restaurant.  The table is ours.  I order my dinner.  I ask for an entire pitcher of water (Michelle later says this was a CERTAIN giveaway of my plans.)  I tell her that this is where it all started between us, and that this is where I’d like to start something else.  I produce the ring and set it on the table.

At that moment, an unfortunate waitress happens to set Michelle’s Diet Coke next to her.  I say “Will you marry me?”  The waitress literally runs away.

Michelle The Girlfriend became Michelle The Fiancée at that moment.

Man, but I love baseball.  And I love this exceedingly cool woman who accompanies me to games even more.

BALLPARK SCORE:

Regional feel:  8.5/10
For one thing, the ballpark is in the middle of The Queen’s Park–so I know I’m in Canada.  The suburban location isn’t perfect, but once inside, there’s not a question I’m in Canada…just enough maple leaves and Canadian promotions to push this score high.

Charm:  5/5
Very much so.  There’s something sort of your-father’s-baseball-park charming about the whole place.

Spectacle: 3.5/5
A bit calm, which I usually like, but my short-season-A ball can be a little more frenetic between innings.

Team mascot/name: 2.5/5
The name is fine, if a little generic.  No mascot.

Aesthetics:  4.5/5
Absolutely lovely throughout.

Pavilion area: 5/5
Absolutely fantastic.  Ex-Canadians’ pictures on the wall, old newspaper clippings, and old team photos intermingle with old-timey concession stands…I could have spent the whole down in the tunnel.  You know I like a pavilion if it’s not open-air and I give it a perfect score.

Scoreability:  4/5
No problems here.

Fans:  3.5/5
They seemed to be nice people, and close friends with Craig Lefferts, who talked to them throughout the game.  Not too many of them, though.

Intangibles:  5/5
A beautiful ballpark with a sense of charm and history.  Plus, I’ll always associate it with getting engaged later that night.

TOTAL:  41.5/50

BASEBALL STUFF I’VE SEEN HERE:

Everett’s Brandon Green had the key hit, a two-run game-untying single in the eighth inning off pitcher Adiel Sanchez’s leg and into right field.

The Canadians couldn’t solve Aaron Trolia’s pitching…he shut down Vancouver for 6 1/3.

Mark Lowe came on to get the save.

Skydome

Skydome, Toronto, ON

Number of games:  2
First game:  July 24, 2004 (Blue Jays 4, Devil Rays 2)
Most recent game:  July 25, 2004 (Blue Jays 5, Devil Rays 3)

Skydome changed its name to the Rogers Centre for the 2005 season.
(Click on any image to view a larger version.)

CUSTOMS GUY, WINDSOR, ONTARIO:  Where are you from?
ME:  Seattle.
CG:  Where are you headed?
ME:  Toronto.
CG:  What for?
ME:  Two Blue Jays games.
CG:  Are they playing Seattle?
ME:  No.
CG:  Who are they playing?
ME:  Tampa Bay.
CG:  All right.  Have a good time.

Welcome to Canada!  I never knew that knowledge of the baseball could ever serve me well at Customs.  Since I knew the Jays were due to play the Rays, I was allowed in the country. 

A few hours later, I was inside the Skydome.

Even though Skydome was built fairly recently, in my eyes, it has a distinctively retro feel.  It was the second-to-last park built before Camden Yards revolutionized the building of ballparks, and therefore doesn’t have a good number of the attractions that we’ve grown to expect from Camden’s ilk (such as the outdoor pavilion of Jacobs or Coors Field, rides for the kids like at Comerica Park, wacky dimensions like at Minute Maid Park, statues and sculptures like in about a dozen places, and views of cities or water like just about everywhere now).  It harkens me way back to a time–all the way to the late ’80s and early ’90s!–when baseball parks’ primary purpose was to serve as a place to watch a baseball game, rather than be a massive theme park where baseball viewing is incidental.  This, to me, is a breath of fresh air, and lends Skydome a good deal of charm.

To be sure, Skydome has many of the problems as its predecessors.  I don’t care for the astroturf, of course, which gives the place a bit of a sterile feel.  But in spite of the Argonauts’ retired jerseys hanging high in the rafters, this clearly is a baseball-first ballpark–no silliness around me, just sharp baseball fans watching the game.

Even though the park is only 15 years old, I get a “futuristic retro” feel from it, sort of like at Disney’s Tomorrowland.  This is the way we used to think the future would be.  Here are some of the predictions from Skydome that felt advanced at the time, along with the verdict on whether it has caught on:

–One day, ballparks will all have hotel rooms looking out on them!  Wrong–no other ballparks have that I can think of have a hotel on site.  I do admit I like the idea…if ever I could afford it, I’d rent a room and watch the game in my bathrobe while eating room service.

–One day, all ballparks will have Hard Rock Cafe restaurants on site!  I guess Skydome did more or less start this, as it was the first ballpark to have the plexiglass linen-napkin restaurant as a part of the experience, and most ballparks opened since then have followed suit.  I’m not a huge fan of eating there during the game, but for recent trips I’ve grown to enjoy them for pre-and post-game meals.  The folks at the Hard Rock Cafe, for the record, have no idea what, if any, dishes contain MSG.  They’re polite about it, but not exactly helpful.

–One day, all ballparks will have retractable roofs!  Yup, Skydome was the first, and four have followed suit since.  As I said earlier, I don’t like the massive upper-deck that a retractable-roof-with-enclosure necessitates–I much prefer the canopy-style roof at Safeco Field, although I understand the need to shelter fans from cold Toronto

Aprils and Octobers.  The retractable roof completely encloses the stadium.  This creates a terribly tall upper deck, including a few rows along the first-base side that are actually above one of the lights–the only seats I can think of in the majors that are obstructed by lights.  At this low point in Blue Jays’ history, this leads to immense expanses of empty upper-deck seats, one of the largest negative consequences of huge multipurpose stadiums.  Still, the roof was impressive in one way.  I watched it close after the game, and I have to say that the technique for roof closure in Toronto is actually quite striking and beautiful (at least in the roof-closure department).  It’s hard to explain verbally, but here goes:  First, a not-quite-semicircle of covering (which covers perhaps a third of the surface area of the roof) extracts itself from the always-covered semicircular cap over the outfield, sweeping around the circular top of the stadium until it’s opposite where it began.  At that point, there’s an uncovered rectangle at the top of the stadium between the two coverings, and covering extends itself from the outfield side to render the entire building covered.  It was quite fun to watch, but once the roof is in place, the result is a predictably antiseptic indoor ballpark.

One nice touch–the Blue Jays

apparently let local Little Leagues play on the field when they’re not around.  Not two hours after the Jays and Rays were done, I watched from the Hard Rock Cafe while 13-year-olds (or so) played a game on the field.  This might be one advantage of Astroturf, actually–no way that the hypersensitive groundskeepers of teams who play on real grass would ever let anyone trod upon it besides major leaguers.

A quick anecdote, apropos of nothing:  on the scoreboard, the Blue Jays, acknowledging the presence of a group at the ballpark, put the following bizarre message on their scoreboard:  “Crystal Springs:  Welcome to Today’s Gamete!”

Skydome provides a unique look at the is-there-any-question-where-you-are test I give to my ballparks because it is the first baseball park I’ve visited outside the US (if you count Puerto Rico as the US).  I want there to be no question that I’m in Canada during the game.  But this leads to the inevitable question…what would Canadian baseball be like?  What the hell are Canadians all about anyway?  When I think of Canada, I think of the following things, roughly in this order:  socialized medicine, Bob and Doug McKenzie, Second City comedy, a weaker dollar, hockey, and a friendly, polite affect that is occasionally clouded by either a gentle smugness or a troubling inferiority

complex.  Fair enough, but what would this look like at a game?  I did sit in front of people from London, England via London, Ontario at one of the games, so Toronto gets credit for bringing its international and cosmopolitan flair into the ballpark.  What’s strange is that, even though Toronto is the largest city in Canada, I didn’t get anything like a big-city feel in either the ballpark or Toronto as a whole.  Sure, some of the people tried to heckle umpires, opponents, and a .205-hitting Carlos Delgado, but they lacked both creativity and passion.  I suggest you stick to politeness, Toronto…it suits you.  Also, Canadians go too far in their effort to be Canadian by making “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” the second song played during the seventh-inning stretch, after a forgettable, insipid singalong called “Let’s Play Ball.”  I don’t think it’s caving in to American cultural creep to drop “Let’s Play Ball,” or at least put it second.

Beyond those minor negatives, there is a nice Canadian feel to the park, from the advertisements for GM Canada

to the subtle-but-proud maple leafs on the outfield walls.  The ballpark’s location immediately next to the CN Tower leaves no question as to where I am.  It makes me feel as though I’m in the center of activity, and the CN Tower, along with a massive skyscraper (I think apartment buildings…only in Canada do you have people living in such large and beautiful downtown skyscraper locations) actually gives something to look at beyond the stadium’s massive upper deck.  The approach to the park is also wonderful…in spite of aggressive scalpers (and, in Toronto’s poorly-attended and losing 2004 season, quite desperate ones), there are nice gargoyles of Statler and Waldorf-like fans on the ballpark’s exteriors, including one of a guy giving a big raspberry to someone, perhaps an umpire or opponent…the only instance, I believe, of an impolite fan in stadium art.

For what it’s worth, I’m convinced I’ve found the best bang-for-the-buck for a ticket in major league baseball.  My favorite bang-for-the-buck seats in any ballpark are always in the top deck behind home plate.  It’s where my Safeco Field season tickets are…I can watch the entire play develop, have an excellent angle on top of the play, and don’t pay a lot of money.  Skydome’s top level, the 500 level, is actually closer to the field than comparable seats in other parks.  I could hear home plate umpire Larry Vanover’s every call, even the quieter ones.  I could even hear the beginning of an argument between first base umpire Sam Holbrook and Blue Jays manager Carlos Tosca that got Tosca ejected from the game.  After a couple of close plays, Tosca was obviously expressing displeasure from the dugout, and Holbrook shouted at him:  “I don’t want to hear it anymore!”  This drew Tosca out of the dugout, which led to his early dismissal.  The point is, I was very close to the action, as this photo should demonstrate:

Here’s the amazing part:  That seat was, as of 2004, $7.  Seven dollars…Canadian. If I were in Toronto, it would be very difficult for me not to buy 30-40 of those a year.

So, in the end, Skydome will land somewhere in the middle of my ballpark rankings, but I did enjoy the experience there a good deal.  There was just enough personality to shine through some of its drawbacks, and in the end, it’s the last of the ballparks that was designed as a ballpark first and a tourist destination second.  For that, I give it credit.

BASEBALL STUFF I’VE SEEN HERE:

Carl Crawford was the hitting star in the first game, collecting three hits, scoring two runs, and stealing a base.  Still, the Jays’ Josh Towers was too much to beat.  He’s now 2-0 in my presence–this in two appearances.  I’m your man, Josh…as of that ballgame, I’d seen two of your 21 career wins, including a (sort-of) close to perfect game!  Invite me to a game, dude!

Carlos Delgado homers to collect his 1,000th career RBI.

Aubrey Huff homers.

David Bush gets his first career win.

(Written August 2004.  Revised July 2009.)