I am a lifelong resident of Vancouver, British Columbia, a city that MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has recently claimed could be home to a major-league team someday in the future. I don’t really know how realistic an idea this is—Vancouver is already one of the most densely populated cities in North America, and finding a place to build a ballpark that would still be accessible from the downtown core would be a tall order for anyone interested in bringing the big leagues to BC. If or when some group of enterprising minds figures out a way to make it happen, I’ll gladly go root for the new home team. Until then, I have the Canadians.
The Vancouver Canadians are the Blue Jays’ Class-A short-season affiliate. They play in the eight-team Northwest League, and their home park is Scotiabank Field at Nat Bailey Stadium, built in 1951 and home to a number of other minor-league teams over the decades. The stadium was renovated to increase its capacity, and in recent years, the vast majority of games have been sellouts. The Canadians’ average attendance is twice that of the rest of the league, and they outdraw even some Triple-A teams.
The combination of a big, enthusiastic crowd and a beautiful backdrop—looking out onto the field, one can see the tall trees of Queen Elizabeth Park beyond the various ads that form the outfield wall—makes for a nice way to spend an evening, even if the quality of the baseball being played is often less than great, and the outcome of the game feels less urgent than it might if you were watching a major-league team. In a way, that almost makes it all better. I like to go to games alone after I’ve had a particularly bad day, because there’s so much happening on any given evening that you can lose your troubles in the chaos. There is so much happening, in fact, that it can be a little overwhelming.
To that end, here is a guide to some of the more important things one can experience at a Canadians home game—specifically, at the Canadians home game this past Monday night against the Hillsboro Hops. There was nothing really at stake for either team, at least in terms of wins and losses. The Hops had already clinched the South Division’s first-half title and a playoff spot, and the Canadians were already assured of coming in second in the North Division. It was about as meaningless as meaningless games can get. It was another sellout crowd.
A bad start
I was in Seattle a few days ago for the Baseball Prospectus event at Safeco Field, which was delightful, if deeply intimidating. I had initially planned to get some amount of writing done while there, but it turns out that going to Seattle doesn’t magically relieve of you of all the problems that burdened you in Vancouver. The only writing I did the entire weekend was a few lines of distressed scrawl in my baseball notebook, left there at some dark hour between Friday and Saturday. They were not baseball-related in the least, and read as follows: “Things are so bad. They keep getting worse. I keep thinking there’s no way it could get worse and then it does. And there’s nothing I can do. Nothing.”
I arrived at the Canadians game on Monday a little later than I should have, and by the time I had cleared the line and gotten into the stadium, the game had already begun. Since my seat was in the middle of a row, I figured I would get my drink and fries first, then take my seat during the break between innings.
Fifteen minutes later, drink and fries in hand, I walked up the stairs into the sunshine to find that not only was the top of the first inning not yet over, but that the Hops had already scored two runs on two singles and two doubles. There were two outs, but the bases remained loaded. Starter Josh Winckowski got out of it on a pop-up, but appeared visibly frustrated by his poor effort as he walked off the field. His head was down, his fists clenched. The top of the second inning began better for Winckowski. A grounder to first base, a convincing swinging strikeout, and he hopped off the mound, fired up. The rough first inning was behind him. Better things had to be ahead.
The Hops’ next batter, Jorge Perez—who posted a .315 slugging percentage last season with the Hops and the Midwest League’s Kane County Cougars—crushed a fastball into the gap for a triple. The throw came into third base, and Winckowski, covering the play, almost reeled backward with dismay as he saw that Perez was going to be safe. Winckowski’s next pitch was hit for an RBI single. The next inning, a run scored on a ground ball that he slipped and fell trying to field. The bad kept piling on.
Winckowski managed to get through four innings, allowing five runs on 10 hits and a walk. He pitched a clean top of the fourth, and only three of those runs were earned. But he had to have been hoping for better—for more of an improvement on his last start, when a similar confluence of defensive misplays and hard contact led to him leaving the game after only an inning and a third. And when he walked off the field on Monday, the Canadians’ lineup had yet to record a hit. There was no one backing him up, no cover for his mistakes. It seemed unfair.
The Hops’ starter, Matt Mercer, cruised through two hitless, walkless innings, almost exclusively throwing a 96 mph fastball that the Canadians’ hitters looked profoundly hopeless trying to catch up with. He was replaced in the third inning by a similarly hard-throwing pitcher named Ryan Miller, who pitched a scoreless inning before being replaced by Andy Toelken. Andy Toelken did not throw a 96 mph fastball—he was more of a high-80s kind of guy. And he seemed to be throwing a breaking ball more in his outing.
The people behind me had understandable trouble keeping up with the frequent pitching changes, leading to a case of mistaken identity. When a pitch from Toelken came in with a velocity reading of 82 mph, they expressed shock at how quickly the pitcher had gotten tired. “He was just throwing 95 two innings ago!” one of them said. Another suggested that he was doing it on purpose, trying to lure the Canadians’ hitters into a false sense of complacency. But the other guy was not convinced. “An 82 mph fastball—that’s not very good,” he said, his voice dark with concern.
By the seventh inning, the people behind me were arguing about whether classic rock is a genre or an era. By the eighth inning, they had moved on to discussing Athenian democracy.
My experience at major-league games has been that the people in the stands are often extremely confident about how well they know baseball. All of their opinions are correct, and they are happy to explain why, loudly and with emphasis, even if their opinions are not factually true.
Canadians games are different. A significant chunk of the crowd on any given night knows nothing about baseball—they’re just out having a good time, and the game itself is more decorative than anything else. They’ll speculate on what’s happening, what counts as good and what counts as bad, what the letters on the scoreboard stand for, and how the Canadians can possibly have no hits when they’ve had runners on base. Sometimes they forget which color of uniform is the color they’re supposed to be rooting for, and they have to ask someone.
I love listening to these conversations. They’re a reminder that baseball can be enjoyed beyond a drive to always be the one who’s right, always be the winner. When the Canadians finally scored a run, someone yelled: “Yeah! We got our one point! Now we can all go home happy.”
Every evening, the crows that live in Queen Elizabeth Park fly away en masse to the place where they roost, passing directly over the ballpark—a thousand flecks of black in a deepening blue sky, soaring above the lights.
In the later innings, when much of the crowd had fled, a bunch of rambunctious ice cream-wielding kids moved into my vicinity. They talked so much that I couldn’t possibly keep track of what they were saying. As the bottom of the ninth inning started, though, one of them cupped his hands around his mouth and began the age-old tradition of taunting an opposing player with his own name. “POOOOOONDLER!” he called to the pitcher. “POOOOOOONDLER!”
The pitcher’s name was not Pondler. Randy Pondler is, in fact, a pitcher for the Canadians, and he hadn’t appeared in the game. Eventually the kid caught sight of the video board, where the pitcher’s actual name—Josh Green—was clearly listed. He stopped his heckling and turned to his friend, who was giggling. “You lied to me!” he accused. “You’re a liar!”
A few minutes later, the liar stepped in ice cream. Justice had been served.
During a late pitching change, Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On a Prayer” began playing on the speakers. The pitcher finished warming up right as the chorus was about to kick in. The music cut out, but everyone kept singing anyway.
The game ended, and I waited for the crowd to clear before making my way down the trash-soaked concrete steps. At the bottom of the steps was a group of elderly game-goers. One of them grinned at me and said, “You’re still here? I thought you ran away!”
I was certain that I’d never seen any of those people in my life, and I hadn’t left my seat for the entire game. Were they somehow mistaking me for someone else? Were they ribbing me for wearing an octopus-print shirt and shark-print socks, an outfit that doesn’t suggest a commitment to baseball-watching? Had I gotten up at some point during the game without realizing it?
I racked my anxious brain for a few seconds before I realized that it didn’t matter. That, whatever they were saying, what they were trying to convey was welcome. I laughed and smiled and went on my way.
If you walk along the west side of the stadium, you can see the windows of the visitors’ clubhouse and the windows of the front office. The lights were on in all of them. The front office betrayed no noise, but from the clubhouse came waves of cheering. The first half was over, and the Hops were champions. It was time to celebrate. I felt glad to have been part of their celebration in some way.
The Canadians lost 6-3. They committed three errors, and were outhit 14-5. It was the fourth loss I’ve seen this season in the six games I’ve gone to, and somewhere in the thousands of people who crowded the parking lot, I could pick out a voice, triumphant and drunk, yelling: “I hope I get hit by a car! I’d love to get hit by a car!”
Things are bad, I thought. They keep getting worse. I keep thinking there’s no way it could get worse and then it does. And there’s nothing I can do. Nothing. But the Canadians play at home again on Friday, and I will be there again. I wove carefully through the cars and the crowd and made my way home, toward the mountains and the lights.
Thank you for reading
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