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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.