Carl Steffens, 14, takes in the baseball game from his perch in the outfield of Nat Bailey Stadium June 18, 2013 during the home opener of the 2013 season. (John Lehmann/The Globe and Mail)
There is a moment during an evening at Nat Bailey Stadium that is as perfect as any.
It’s when the last sliver of sunlight fades from the grandstand along the third-base line, the lights come on, the colour of the sky deepens, and the cool air of Queen Elizabeth Park creeps down the hill into the ballpark, bringing with it the smells of blossoms and grass.
There are no city references in sight – only the trees beyond the outfield wall. You could be anywhere, at any time, save for the new electronic signboard. It was installed following new sponsorship, when the place was officially renamed Scotiabank Field at Nat Bailey Stadium, though no one calls it that. Hits, runs, errors and innings, though, are all still displayed on an old-fashioned scoreboard with white numbers on black boards manually slid into rectangular windows. You can occasionally spot a young face as the numbers are changed.
I’ve been going to “The Nat” on and off pretty much since I arrived in Vancouver three decades ago. I was there for the Canadians’ last game as a Triple-A franchise in 1999 when they blew out the Charlotte Knights 16-2 in game five to win the Triple-A World Series. I’ve sung the national anthem there and so has my daughter.
A lot has changed, but after taking in a game on a gorgeous night this week I can report that the glory of The Nat and its small-town family atmosphere remain intact.
Which is a small miracle given that the stadium has grown by 750 seats, with new bleachers behind the outfield fence, and that it’s sponsored by a major bank, and that there is more commercial activity taking place than ever before. Even with all of that, somehow the feeling of the place has been preserved.
Yes, it’s Single-A ball now – which means more wild pitches, dropped balls and sometimes spotty fielding – but all of that only adds to the excitement and the unpredictability of the game. There are also perfect pitches, heroic catches and sometimes beautifully choreographed plays on the infield.
And here’s the thing: I don’t care for sports and I know next to nothing about baseball. To quote my daughter, “I don’t do sports.” But for The Nat, I make an exception.
At a time when attending a major sporting event, a concert or even a movie can range from a disheartening ordeal to an expensive exercise in frustration, a C’s game is neither.
Pick up your tickets from the will-call table and they feature your name handwritten on the envelope.
On this week’s visit, from beginning to end, every person associated with the operation (and there are hundreds) was courteous, efficient and good-humored – even with a near sell-out crowd to contend with.
The inside of the stadium is a little tight – especially early on, when concession lines are long – but the lines moved quickly and the food was decent and fairly priced, though I question the need for a metre-long hot dog. Beer is on the pricey side if you insist on local craft beer – but the good news is they have local craft beer.
More good news, a reserved grandstand seat is $14. Box seats are $18.
The team’s owners and management have been hellbent on creating a family atmosphere and they’ve succeeded. With the exception of some questionable razzing aimed at a visiting player of small stature – I didn’t hear a single harsh phrase or curse uttered all night, though things may have been different in Section 10, which has a bit of a reputation.
There’s a children’s play area with a giant inflatable slide and bouncy-castle, which came in handy when my eight-year-old became antsy around the fifth inning, and again during the seventh.
There are sushi races in which people costumed as sushi rolls, wasabi and a bottle of soy sauce race around the bases. There’s a chicken dance and the traditional seventh-inning stretch with Take Me Out to the Ball Game. We didn’t last for the fireworks that followed the game’s conclusion.
I’ve been to The Nat on less-than-perfect nights. Nights when you find yourself seated beside lager-swilling yobs with zero interest in the ball game. Nights when the concessions were overwhelmed. The place isn’t always perfect.
But on this night, with the sun setting, the breeze, the sky all blues and purples, a blanket around us, surrounded by pleasant people and the Canadians ahead by four runs, I can’t imagine how it could have been better.
Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 690 AM and 88.1 FM in Vancouver.