On the Road: Across the Border but Never Bored in Vancouver
I’ve been employed by MiLB.com in various writerly capacities for approximately 2600 days, and in that time have produced more content (good, bad and ugly) than I care to think about. But this content, voluminous as it has been and will continue to be, had never included a blog dispatch chronicling the professional baseball scene in another country.
My latest (and therefore greatest) road trip ended with a two-day stop in Vancouver, home of Canada’s sole remaining Minor League entity: the nothing-if-not-accurately-named Canadians. This franchise, occupants of 60-year-old Nat Bailey Stadium, have been members of the Northwest League since 2000 (prior to this they competed four rungs higher on the Minor League ladder, as entrants within the venerable Pacific Coast League). More information on the Canadians’ history and current operation can be found in this effervescently-written MiLB.com piece, which also includes a photo gallery and links to four interviews I conducted while visiting Nat Bailey (including a chat with Minors Moniker champion Rock Shoulders!).
“The pictures, the pictures, why won’t he get to the pictures!” you’re saying at this point.
I hear you:
Nat Bailey (named after the restauranteur/baseball supporter who founded the famous-in-Canada “White Spot” chain) is, in every sense, a classic ballpark. You can tell this even before entering.
I had driven to Nat Bailey immediately after making it into Canada via the Peace Arch border crossing, and therefore hadn’t had a chance to experience even one iota of Vancouver (the iota is the metric system’s smallest unit of measurement). So before entering the facility I did a lap around it, to at least get a small sense of where I was and what it was like there.
Well, first and foremost, it was beautiful.
Nat Bailey is located amidst a residential area, and it sure looks like an appealing neighborhood to call home.
The residents of this neighborhood make ample use of the Hillcrest Community Centre (yes, “centre”, this is Canada) located next door to the stadium.
The smell of chlorine wafts from this building, but serving as a public pool and recreational facility was not its original intent. The Centre was built as the curling venue for the 2010 Winter Olympics! (And, oh goodness, it’s all coming back to me — I actually wrote an article about this when the building was being constructed).
Across the street from this erstwhile Olympic venue is a massive and beautifully maintained public park, which I had the good fortune to explore the following afternoon (more on that in a future Vancouver-based post). If I lived here, I would totally join the lawn bowling club:
At this point my entrance into the ballpark could be delayed no more. And, once I did so, I was greeted in a very hospitable fashion: the front office had devised an action-packed itinerary for me, and as a result this narrative will last a very long time. (That’s fine with me. On the other side of these blog posts lies the unfathomable abyss of the offseason).
After conducting a couple of player interviews, I embarked on a stadium tour with manager of community relations Jeff Holloway. The view from the field:
At the time of its installation, the Nat Bailey videoboard had the second highest definition of any in professional baseball (behind New York’s Citi Field). But the hand-operated scoreboard located just to the right is a relic, as it had originally been located within Seattle’s Sicks Stadium (home of the 1969 Pilots team immortalized in Ball Four).
Within an hour, this sprawling first base-side picnic area would be packed with fans as part of a Thursday evening sellout. Did I mention that it was an absolutely beautiful day?
We proceeded to the concourse, just minutes after the gates had opened and the throngs began pouring in.
You can’t really tell in this picture, but the third concession stand in is devoted to the unassailable combination of sushi and Asahi beer (the combination of a large Japanese population and proximity to water makes Vancouver a premier sushi town).
Oh, look, I just found a picture of what I was just talking about:
Our next stop was this historical concourse display, named in honor of a well-known and loved Vancouver baseball historian/super-fan.
Artifacts, photos, and a team timeline can be found along the walls.
A prominent pair of teammates from Vancouver’s last season in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League:
An early iteration of mascot Bob the Brown Bear, whom I soon ran into out on the main aisle.
Sorry, Bob. I didn’t mean to invade your personal space.
Back outside the stadium, large crowds had gathered as game time approached.
The Canadians are a hot item these days, thanks to a total franchise overhaul that occurred after new owners Jake (no relation to Bud) Kerr and Jeff Mooney bought the team prior to 2007 and installed veteran baseball exec Andy Dunn as president. I was told that fireworks nights tickets go for exorbitant amounts on the secondary market and — hey! — this is something I’d never seen outside of a Minor League park before. A scalper!
My re-entry to the stadium was assured, but not before appearing as a guest on broadcaster Rob Fai’s pre-game show. Here he is finishing up his interview with the previous guest, an ardent C’s supporter who appears at each and every game dressed in full uniform: pitching coach Dave Pano.
There are no pictures of me during my time on the air, but I don’t think this will trouble anyone a single iota. The pre-game show segued nicely into the game itself (it’s weird how that happens), and we re-entered the stadium just in time for the anthems.
Yes, anthems plural. I thought this group did a fine job singing both the “Star-Spangled Banner” and “Oh, Canada.”
Take my word for it.
Finally! Play ball!
The first order of business was to make our way down the third base line in order to experience one of the most, uh, “generously-portioned” food items in Minor League Baseball. Just the sight of it on the grill made the concession workers giddy.
Here’s the menu. Take one guess as to what it could have been.
Not an “Itzakadoozie,” but it was a doozy: the two-foot fungo dog! (But what is that in meters?)
This 24-inch frankfurter is provided by a local butcher, and it’s more than just a novelty: it’s delicious! But, of course, said deliciousness was off-limits to me due to, yeah, the celiac disease. Enter Andrew Forsyth, Canadians media relations assistant and enthusiastic “designated eater” for the evening.
Take it away, Andrew, and gussy it up! He put pretty much every condiment available on that thing:
From there, only one thing was left to be done: Eat It! And Forsyth did so, with aplomb.
But yet another colossal concession item awaited us – the one-foot corn dog. How much is that doggie in the window?
It’s abundantly gluten-ous nature meant that this gluttonous corn dog was, of course, off-limits to me. But nonetheless I took a moment to gaze longingly into (what I assumed were) its eyes, reflecting on the good times that I had once enjoyed with its batter-dipped brethren.
‘Tis better to have loved and lost:
The Canadians’ front office staff was exceptional throughout my visit, both in their dealings with me and (more importantly) the fans in general. It’s an ace operation. But if I had to offer a criticism, it would be this: no one was interested in “designated eating” the corn dog, nor was a designated eater found. The last time I saw my beloved corn dog it was sitting neglected under a table, a tragic ending to a brief but glorious existence:
But life goes on, long after the thrill of food on a stick has gone. The next order of business was to join sales and community relations coordinator Vanessa Williams during her daily Smart Car drive around the perimeter of the playing field (this is a sponsored promotion).
This was our view, as we waited for a third out that seemingly never came. I’m not sure if the corn dog had already been removed from the table at this point, or if was simply obscured by the (soon to be dancing) members of the grounds crew.
The Smart Car journey is full of peril, and Williams approached her task with a pragmatic and world-weary stoicism. This was her burden to bear and, come what may, she’d deal with it.
The visiting Boise Hawks seemed to be friendly enough fellows.
Fortunately, we weren’t hit by any wayward balls to the backstop.
The Canadians bullpen showered the car with sunflower seeds (Williams has learned to keep the drivers’ side window up).
Along the warning track, we reached speeds approaching a blazing 40 kilometers an hour.
Check out the view!
And, finally, there were the cackling wiseacres of the Boise bullpen. They had partially barricaded the mound with trash cans, but Williams eluded these obstacles with ease.
Upon the completion of this circular journey, there was no time to reflect on what had occurred. Like a politician running behind schedule, I was quickly whisked away by my overseers. We rushed through the concourse and into one of the best lairs that I had the good fortune to spend time in this season.
A mascot lair!
The partially costumed individual seen above would soon transform into Chef Wasabi as part of the Canadians’ nightly “Sushi Race.” I, meanwhile, was to be Mr. Kappa Maki. Before continuing, I’d like to make a few announcements regarding Ben’s Biz procedures from here on out:
New Blog Policy Alert: From the moment I put a mascot head on, that mascot is referred to in the third person and not as “I.”
New Blog Policy Alert II: Out of respect for the mascot community, I will no longer run dressing room shots of the disembodied heads and strewn-about suits of a team’s primary mascot(s). “Racing” mascots will continue to be depicted in various states of dismemberment, however.
We may now proceed. Here I am in proper Mr. Kappa Maki attire, sans head.
You gotta love Mr. Kappa Maki, as he projects a perpetual glazed lasciviousness (must be the effects of the seaweed). I imagine him sounding like an Asian Pauly Shore.
Side profile, limbs emerging from the avocado.
The action shots from the race didn’t come out too well, but all that you really need to know is that Mr. Kappa Maki overcame an early lead held by Ms. B.C. Roll and emerged triumphant.
Ain’t no thing, bros. Ain’t no thing
Mr. Kappa Maki was feeling A-Okay en route back to the lair.
But Maki’s mellow was harshed right quick, after coming face to face with this once back in the lair.
Back in civilian clothing, I returned to the ballgame and immediately became intrigued by this increasingly overburdened Boise Hawks coach (who I have not been able to identify). He had about three pairs of batting gloves stuffed in the front of his uniform, elbow guards on both arms, and a stopwatch. He was the most cyborg-esque first base coach I had ever seen.
But, of course, I had other business attend to — for the first time ever, Vancouver’s elite crew of dancing grounds crew members were welcoming a guest dancer. And this dancer, he was me.
This would be my second time engaging in dancing grounds crew antics (last season, I danced to “Party in the USA” while in Fort Wayne with the Tin Caps), and this time around the grounds crew in question picked an even easier song to dance to: “Apache.” The moves I had to memorize were as follows:
gyrate to the front/left/back/right/front, then jump, then spin with right hand circling in the air
We rehearsed these moves in the grounds crew storage area:
I should have gotten a non-performance shot of the grounds crew, as they were a very friendly and laid-back group of individuals. But thanks to Tom Archibald, Dylan Marsden, Trevor Sheffield and Connor Merillees for letting me crash their scene for an evening.
We had some time to kill before our moment of on-field dancing glory, so I amused myself by taking pictures of good ol’ number 14…
and here’s Boise slugger Dan Vogelbach, taking in the action with bat in hand.
And then — showtime! It wasn’t until later that I realized I had mistakenly walked backwards through the entire routine.
Airborne! (just barely)
And, would you believe it? Video exists of the entire routine! So here ya go:
Afterwards, I was thoroughly exhausted.
But no time to rest! Still wearing my ill-fitting borrowed grounds crew shirt, I was hustled over to the third base dugout to do the “Chicken Dance.” This familiar ritual is led every inning by dance master Hans Havas, an ebullient usher who has been part of the Nat Bailey experience for the past 32 years.
And, okay, fine. There’s video of this too. I was paired with a food service employee who seemed to be a Chicken Dance veteran (I forget her name, but remember her smile.) On the video you can hear fans taunting Vogelbach regarding his love of chicken, and this was par for the course for the Boise first baseman. I saw him play in both Yakima and Vancouver, and in both places he was given a really hard time because of his rotund body type. It didn’t seem fair.
Finally, it was time for a breather. Seeking a brief respite from public interaction, I retreated to the ballpark’s top row. What a sight to behold:
Another sight to behold was that which can be obtained from the stadium’s roof, upon which lies the press box.
One denizen of said box was Boise Hawks announcer Mike Safford.
I, along with Halloway (ever the accommodating tour guide) were on the roof during the seventh-inning stretch. And — wow! — Canadians fans are really enthusiastic singers. This video quality might not be great, but for the record I’d like to say that this was the best rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” that I’d ever heard at a Minor League ballpark. I almost shed a tear.
Back down on the concourse, I met a couple of these enthusiastic individuals. This is Steve Mezzomo, the preeminent supporter of Canadians fan favorite Balbino Fuenmayor (Fuenmayor, 22, has somehow managed to play six Minor League seasons already. The last three have been in Vancouver).
Mezzomo (who, while spelling his name, said “zed-zed” as Canadians are wont to do) said that he and his two boys were immediate Fuenmayor fans, and that making the shirts “just seemed like something fun to do with the kids.”
“The first day we wore the shirts, we saw Balbino and said ‘What do you think?’ said Mezzomo. “His mouth just dropped, and he wanted to take our pictures. Then, during the game the batboy ran over and said ‘Balbino wants to see you.’ He gave us a game bat. He’s such a great great guy; every time he has a ball he throws it to me. I almost feel bad.”
And here’s another individual who spells his name with a “zed-zed:” Joe Frizzell a Vancouver baseball lifer if there ever was one.
Frizzell grew up right by old Athletic Park, where he served as a sort of jack-of-all-trades.
“I did everything around the ballpark,” he said. “Batboy, operating the manual scoreboard, ballshagger, and then I finally got into selling tickets.”
This experience came in handy, as from 1951-56 Frizzell worked at Nat Bailey Stadium as what he calls the “game day manager” for the Vancouver Capilanos (a team named after a brand of beer). On a day-to-day basis, Frizzell played a key role in running the club. And now here he was, some six decades later, taking in the action as the Canadians dropped an 11-5 decision to Boise.
Where does the time go? Next thing I knew, the fans were filing out and the grounds crew was doing work on the field in a much less rhythmic fashion than before.
And with that, this dispatch from Vancouver finally, mercifully, concludes. It took me 2600 days to get to Vancouver, and 2600 words to write about it. But, sometimes, a single picture can say so much more. This was one helluva night at the ballpark.