Since April 17, 1993, the 10,332 seat natural-grass Ottawa Baseball Stadium has been hosting baseball in the Canadian capital of Ottawa, Ontario. The stadium – originally named JetForm Park – was built to house the Ottawa Lynx, the Triple-A affiliate of the now-defunct Montreal Expos. The City of Ottawa embraced the Lynx, setting International League attendance records in its first season. Two seasons later – in 1995 – the Lynx won the International League Championship, featuring future Major League players such as Rondell White, Cliff Floyd, Matt Stairs, Kirk Rueter, and F.P. Santangelo.
Following the Championship season, interest in the team began to wane. The team was sold in 2000, and three years later the Expos terminated their player development agreement with the Lynx. The Lynx then became the Triple-A affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles, but attendance did not improve. At this time the ballpark’s branding agreement with JetForm expired and the stadium was renamed Lynx Stadium.
The team’s affiliation with the Orioles lasted until 2007, when the Philadelphia Phillies signed a player development deal with the Lynx with the goal of moving the team to Allentown, Pennsylvania. For a more detailed history of the team and its struggles, check out Mop-Up Duty’s own 15 and Out for the Ottawa Lynx.
Following the departure of the Lynx, a new team – The Ottawa Rapidz of the Can-Am League – became the stadium’s lone tenant. The stadium was renamed yet again, this time to “Rapidz Stadium.” Unfortunately it was a case of “one and done” as the Rapidz folded after a single season
The stadium, now known as Ottawa Stadium, was left vacant for the 2009 season. In March of 2010 it was announced that baseball would be returning to Ottawa in the form of an expansion Intercounty Baseball League team. From the Mop-Up Duty post Ottawa IBL Team Gets A Name:
Today the ownership of Ottawa’s newest Intercounty Baseball League (IBL) franchise unveiled their name today: The Fat Cats. The team name is meant as a gentle poke at Ottawa’s reputation as a place where government jobs protect the city’s economy.
The taxpayer-owned Ottawa Stadium continues to be the home of the Fat Cats to this day. However, there is a movement afoot to try to draw – yet again – another Major League-affiliated team to Ottawa Stadium. In August of 2011, the City of Ottawa was contacted by Beacon Sports Capital Partners (an organization that represents an anonymous Eastern League team) regarding the possibility of securing Ottawa Stadium for use by a minor league team affiliated with professional baseball. Following Beacon’s initial contact, an Ottawa-based group called The Champions of Ottawa Baseball was formed to “mobilize and support the presence of professional minor-league baseball in Ottawa.” (Follow them on Twitter @Champs_Ottawa and @OttawaBaseball ) More specifically, the goal was to move the Toronto Blue Jays’ Double-A affiliate from New Hampshire to Ottawa. Those plans were dashed when Toronto announced the extension of their player-development deal with New Hampshire for an additional two seasons. Blue Jays director of minor league operations Charlie Wilson said the team is “pleased” to extend the player development contract by another two seasons:
“The Fisher Cats represent the best of Minor League Baseball with state-of-the-art ballpark and facilities, passionate baseball fans, and a great front office led by (owner) Art (Solomon) and Rick (Brenner). This is a great arrangement for us for another two years.”
With that said, there is still the possibility of professional baseball in Ottawa in 2014. Beacon Sports Capital Partners hope to have the necessary approvals and agreements settled by “sometime around” Oct. 1, said Richard Billings, the firm’s managing director and chief operating officer.
While the New Hampshire ballpark is a state-of-the-art facility, Ottawa Stadium could be generously described as “tired.” Based on the interest in the facility, and to assess the facility’s readiness for affiliated minor league operations, the City of Ottawa engaged International Facilities Group (IFG) to conduct an assessment study of the Ottawa Stadium. The result of the report stated:
- The washrooms are in poor condition and there has been damage to some of the stadium concrete because of failed weatherproofing.
- The stands need “comprehensive waterproofing upgrades and concrete remediation.”
- Some seating sections should be removed to create two-to-three patio/party zones.
- The electrical system is in good shape and only needs minor repairs.
- Lighting on the highway side of the stadium is in bad shape and needs immediate attention. “The poles are so rusted that in some cases they present a safety hazard related to falling as well as an electrical safety hazard.”
- The field lighting only requires new lamps, but in other places lighting boxes are missing covers and there are damaged lighting fixtures.
- The interior of the building is “fair,” the report says, noting: “Carpets are stained. Ceramic tiling is also best described as functional. Drywall and paint are generally in fair to good condition with the exception of basement ceiling areas that have been damaged by water leakage.”
- The report suggests some maintenance to the roof and a completely new security system. “The system is not adequate to provide even a minimum level of security to the site.”
- Resurface the parking lot, add some padding to the outfield walls and replace the netting behind home plate, the report recommends. Move garbage bins away from the stands so they don’t stink in the summer.
The total estimated cost for these renovations is $8 million. The City of Ottawa has committed $5.7 million while Beacon Sports is chipping in $5.5 million. But will it be worth it? Will fickle Ottawa sports fans show up? The answer is yes.. well, maybe.
The Champions of Ottawa Baseball have been focused on building community support by offering fully-refundable season ticket deposits. Targeting 2,500 deposits, the group exceeded their expectations by collecting 3,102. Although these deposits won’t guarantee fans in seats for a professional Ottawa baseball team, it is a clear statement that there is community support for professional baseball in Ottawa.
I first attended a game at Ottawa Stadium (at the time it was JetForm Park) 10 years ago, in 2002, with fellow Mop-Up Duty writer Early. It was a game between the Ottawa Lynx and the Buffalo Bisons. The Lynx were affiliates of the Montreal Expos and the Bisons were the affiliates of the Cleveland Indians. The Lynx featured current Blue Jays bullpen catcher Alex Andreopoulos, Jamey Carroll, Endy Chavez, Brandon Phillips, Scott Downs and Carl Pavano. The Bisons, meanwhile, had Milton Bradley, Coco Crisp, Karim Garcia, Jody Gerut, Cliff Lee, and Tim Laker. We were treated to an epic tantrum from Tim Laker, who aftering being called out on strikes, proceeded to throw garbage cans and buckets of baseballs onto the field. In 2002, this is what Ottawa Stadium looked like:
In 2012, I returned to see an Ottawa Fat Cats playoff game. The Stadium looks much the same:
I remember being very impressed with Ottawa Stadium at the time. It was not even 10 years old; the ballpark was bright, clean with modern amenities. In short, it was a fun place to watch a ballgame.
Today, many of those elements remain. Ottawa Stadium is in a split-level design, with a concourse running around the middle of the seating bowl. This concourse is at street level, so fans in the “lower” seats walk down, and fans in the “upper” seats walk up. All seats are blue chair-back models. Concessions, restrooms, a gift shop, and a kids’ play area are located along a wider concourse (also at street level) located underneath the upper seats.
The stadium also features skyboxes and a restaurant, encased in glass, perched high behind home plate. While the windows do open, there is no outdoor seating at this level. Access is by elevator from the concourse below. There are open-air picnic tables down the left-field line which are also available to all fans.
The stadium dimensions are: Left Field – 325 ft. (99 m); Centre Field – 404 ft. (123 m); Right Field – 325 ft. (99 m); Alleys – 380 ft (120 m).
At first glance, Ottawa Stadium looks like it could host a Triple-A team today. Although I have not been to very many minor league parks, I can say with conviction that Ottawa Stadium is a far better facility than Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, the Toronto Blue Jays’ Spring Training home and home to the high-A Dunedin Blue Jays (to be fair, Ottawa Stadium is twice the size). However, on closer inspection, it is clear that the park has been neglected for the last few years.
The concessions are limited to hamburgers, hot dogs, potato chips, popcorn and pop. The team focuses their attention on the true money-making concession items: drinks. The regular concession booths serve cans of domestic beer as well as independent brews Moosehead and Cracked Canoe. In addition, there exists an express beer cart that serves Moosehead and Cracked Canoe on tap, a Tiki Bar that serves mixed drinks, and a drink cart on the inner-concourse level.
Like the SkyDome/Rogers Centre in Toronto, Ottawa Stadium is predominantly concrete, creating a grey, dreary vibe from the outside. Once inside, the mood lightens considerably. The bright green of the natural grass field contrasts against the bright blue of the seats. The seats co-ordinate with the shiny blue glass of the office building past the left-field fence. The seats are comfortable and the sightlines are great in this baseball-only venue.
The current tenants, the Ottawa Fat Cats, have a team store adjacent to the main entrance to the ballpark. Although it’s not impressive, it has a decent selection of shirts, hats and souvenirs available for fans. In fact, it is probably on the same level as the Oakland A’s team store at the Oakland Coliseum.
It is clear that an effort has been made to showcase or at least pay tribute to some of the history of baseball in Ottawa. The city has sported three International League franchises in its history: The Ottawa Giants (1951), the Ottawa Athletics (1952–1955) and most recently, of course, the Ottawa Lynx (1993–2007, a team that many fans are loathe to forget). They’ve also had a Can-Am League franchise – the Ottawa Senators – that lasted for four seasons from 1936-1939. The original Ottawa Senators were part of the Canadian League from 1912-1915. In fact, the ’14 and ’15 clubs featured a young Urban Shocker. The signage exists in the main concourse commemorating Ottawa’s baseball history:
Moving on to Ottawa’s apparent state of disrepair. Yes, it is true: the washrooms are in extremely poor condition. They are filthy and need a total overhaul. This is the main renovation that needs to be addressed in order to bring the ballpark up to standard. As far as damage to concrete, it was not noticeable to me. The only thing I did notice was that remnants of the old “Welcome to Jetform Park” sign still linger.
I’m not entirely sure that money needs to be spent on creating a patio area. There already exists a berm adjacent to the left-field corner with picnic tables. It seems that removing a section of seats for a superfluous patio is not worth the considerable expense. If it were up to me, I would transform the berm section into an outfield bar/party zone, perhaps a carbon-copy of the one that exists at Bright House Field in Clearwater, Florida. This would be an idea post-work destination for the 9-5 crowd on a Friday to have a few drinks while watching high-calibre baseball.
The concourse, as it stands now, can only be described as dark and dank. Some refurbishment is in order to give fans the impressions that they are at a fun baseball event as opposed to something out of Tales from the Crypt
The parking situation needs to be addressed as well. The game I went to had approximately 500-600 fans in attendance, however the parking lot was at capacity. If the new AA or AAA team in Ottawa were to sell out its 10,000 seat capacity, where would the overflow parking go? I’m not familiar enough with the city to be able to answer this question, but it is an obstacle that needs to be overcome.
The one thing that needs the most attention, from my experience, is the condition of the playing field itself. The infield dirt was in such poor condition that it rivalled that of a sandlot. Infielders were beyond tentative when it came to routine grounders because of the sheer number of bad hops. It was, for lack of a better term, “bush league.”
With all of these improvements, Ottawa Stadium will be more than worthy of hosting a professional minor league franchise. With such a storied baseball history, coupled with the enthusiasm generated by the Champions of Ottawa baseball group, it is easy to see why the possibility exists to turn the professional baseball dream of Ottawa into a reality. Ottawa is also home to the largest amateur baseball league in Canada – the National Capital Baseball League. The league is a wooden bat league with 37 teams in 4 tiers. The interest definitely exists.
With that said, some of this enthusiasm must be tempered. Only five years ago we wrote the obituary to minor league baseball in Canada. In the five years that have past since writing that post, the only thing that has improved is that the former Oakland A’s affiliate – the Vancouver Canadians – are now the single-A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays. Baseball in Ottawa has failed many times and the same obstacles that caused these failures still remain. Yet, there was a time when Ottawa set minor league attendance records. The potential is there. With any luck, in a few years time, Ottawa will have a professional, Major League affiliated franchise that drew crowds like this one in 1995:
Image courtesy of the now-defunct Ottawa Lynx Blog.
For additional ballpark reviews, including both Major, Minor and International League ballparks, check out our Ballpark Review Roundup.
For more on the history of the Ottawa Lynx in Ottawa, be sure to check out the fantastic article by the Canadian Baseball Network’s Todd Devlin titled, “There used to be a ball team here.”
Featured image courtesy of Mike Lynaugh