Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Tour 2016: Olympic Stadium

All photos of Montreal and Olympic Stadium available on Flickr. 

Our first international ball trip since 2009 took us to Montréal, Quebec this past weekend, where Erik and I watched the Toronto Blue Jays battle the Boston Red Sox in an exhibition series at Olympic Stadium (or Stade Olympique as it is known in French).  Both the games and the city were c'est magnifique!  As you can already tell, I fell in love with the French language while we were there and I have already accidentally said merci to several people since I've been back in the states.  Although French and English are both official languages in Canada, most predominantly speak English.  These are your stereotypical "yah der hey" and "a-boot" Canadians.  In Quebec however, French is the main language and it seemed that most people know how to speak both.  This was the first city in all of my travels that I really actually felt like I was in a foreign country.  We were usually greeted in French by the locals until it was clear we were from out of town, which didn't take long.  I was able to pick up some words while we were there - important words like au jeu (play ball or literally "to the game") and bouteille de bière (bottle of beer).  But it certainly helped that Erik took 4 years of French in high school and was able to get us around town as needed.  That French knowledge came in handy immediately as we were able to locate the closest watering hole to our hotel on Thursday night, a place called MVP Bar-Sportif.  After Erik and I both landed close to midnight we needed a few drinks before bed and enjoyed some Labatts Bleue Dry up until bar close at 3AM.

Friday was the first of the two games we had tickets to, but first pitch wasn't until 7pm so we had some time to kill.  We started out with a customary E + P stop at a local burger joint for lunch.  Uniburger is kind of like the In-N-Out Burger of Montréal - just a good greasy burger chain with like 3 things on the menu.  It really built up a good base for what would be the beginning of a 12-hour bender.  But before we hit the bars, we did our one super touristy thing of the trip and hiked up to the top of Mount Royal on the outskirts of downtown.  It's more of a large hill than a mountain but it was still exhausting.  It took us awhile to find the path up to the top and ended up wandering through the McGill University campus and the stadium where the Canadian Football Alouettes play.  Our reward for breaking a sweat on vacation was a stunning view from Chalet du Mont-Royal at the top.  We could see most of the city from up here, except for of course the stadium which was one of the reasons we wanted to walk to the top.  There also wasn't a bar at the top, so we quickly descended and grabbed a couple beers at a great little brewpub near our hotel.  In all we probably walked close to 10 miles before we got back to the hotel and hopped on the metro to the ballpark.  We could not have picked a better location to stay in - we were about a block from the main metro station, 3 blocks from the main bus terminal, and right in the center of downtown near Old Montréal.

Arriving at Olympic Stadium by rail is kind of like arriving at Nationals Park in DC.  You have no sense of direction because you're in a subway tunnel, and you're crammed on a car with a bunch of people in team gear drinking out of plastic bags that would otherwise have no business going to this part of town.  After the mass exodus off of the train, we arrived at a sort of lobby space with a bunch of banners celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Parc Olympique complex.  Outside in the lower plaza we choked down some terrible Canadian gas station beer and got our photos with a sorry excuse for a Youppi replacement mascot before heading inside. 

Olympic Stadium was built for the 1976 Summer Games and definitely has that 1970s feel similar to Kauffman Stadium - very futuristic organic white forms, brutalist concrete massing, and very little openness.  The only real views to the outside are from a band of windows around the second floor.  Being that it was originally designed as the main Olympic stadium, which are usually very cutting-edge for their time, the various oddities and expression of structure were about what I expected and what set the place apart from just a normal rundown, outdated ballpark.  The place definitely needs a lot of TLC but the wide array of unique features distracted me just enough to not really notice its dumpiness.  For instance, the folding chairs are unlike anything I had ever seen.  They're very narrow and have only one swooping armrest, and they unfold very loudly - fans actually use this to their advantage and there were many times that 50,000 people would clang them in unison to get a rally going.  I didn't really care that they were half-broken and not painted in 40 years because they were just so cool.  The same goes for lots of things, such as the brick bathroom "pods," or the chipping concrete on the arched beams, or the Kevlar retractable roof that doesn't work anymore.  Erik and I were both very curious as to what the vending and team store situations would be, but there was a pretty decent selection of basic ballpark foods and several varieties of poutine, which is pretty much Canada's national food - fries with gravy and cheese curds.  And of course, you can't go to a sporting event in Canada without the cups of beers that come with lids on them.  It was actually quite surprising what they were able to put together in a stadium that only hosts a handful of events per year, and has not had a regular tenant since 2004.  There were also several areas where you could purchase Blue Jays and retro Expos gear.  Erik and I both were impressed with the stadium in general, given the low expectations that have been bestowed upon it by the league.  The fact that it is a multi-purpose venue does present operational challenges, but it's definitely viable as a suitable temporary baseball facility.  I would even go so far as to say it's really not that much worse than where the Blue Jays play now, who were the home team for the 3rd straight year at this preseason exhibition.

Our seats for Friday night's game were excellent, on the 3rd base side of the lower bowl, about halfway up.  We got to our seats plenty early to witness the bilingual pregame ceremony honoring many former Expos greats, including Tim Raines, Pedro Martinez, and everybody's favorite bad-ball hitter, Vladimir Guerrero.  The game pitted Canada's national team, the Blue Jays, versus their AL East rival, the Red Sox.  The lineups were pretty close to the Opening Day lineups, minus the notable absence of Edwin Encarnacion for the Jays.  Erik and I were both hoping to see the beefy slugger Pablo Sandoval get the start for the Red Sox, but apparently he is not even good enough to run out there in a meaningless game.  The scoring got started early with a leadoff homerun by Kevin Pillar in the bottom of the 1st and a Michael Saunders homer in the 2nd, and the Sox responded with an RBI groundout by Xander Bogaerts in the 3rd.  The game went to extra racks and the Red Sox got the game winning hit in the 10th on a 2-run double by some guy who's probably not making the team.  Nearly every one of the 50,000+ fans stayed until the bitter end and it was loud until the very last pitch.  Montréal baseball fans definitely proved that they were passionate about the game and deserve another shot at baseball, and it was no different at Game 2 on Saturday.  For this game, favorite Québécois son Russell Martin was part of a pregame ceremony that honored the 40th anniversary of the Olympic Games with a ritual torch procession around the bases.  Former Expos manager Jim Fanning was also honored.  He passed away recently and was the only manager to take the Expos to the playoffs, in the strike-shortened 1981 season.  This game was also a loss for the Jays, this time 7-4.  The big hit was a homerun by backup catcher Ryan Hanigan to start the scoring for the Sox as part of a 5-run 5th.  Toronto made it a little bit of a game with a small rally in the 7th, but Koji Uehara and Kyle Martin shut the door in the 8th and 9th for Boston.  For some reason new closer Craig Kimbrel did not pitch in the series, which is a shame because I would love to have seen how high his fastball registers in km/hr.

Before Game 2, we were able see more of the outside of the stadium and the rest of the grounds.  Up on an upper platform level, we were able to walk around most of the stadium, although it is just giant expanse of empty concrete and not really that interesting of a space.  To the north of the main stadium are also some venues that were used as part of the '76 Olympics, including the arena, the velodrome, the swimming arena, and the practice track.  Today, the velodrome has been converted into a BioDome, and the Montéal Impact soccer team built a stadium over the site of the former track.  The swimming pool is actually underneath one of the most unique features of the stadium: a slanted observatory tower.  It is still in use today and is still the world's tallest inclined inhabitable structure.  It was like $22 to get up there and we had already had our fare share of climbing up tall things the day before, so we decided to pass, but it was very cool to see this part of the stadium up close.  It's kind of sad walking around the stadium and seeing all the peeling paint and general poor condition of the grounds, even despite the billions of dollars invested into repairs and renovations, but that I suppose is more of a commentary on Olympic Villages in general than Montréal.

After the game on Saturday, we took the metro back to the hotel, and then walked for quite a bit around town looking for a decent restaurant.  We then found a couple of interesting bars before going to bed in the wee hours of the morning.  It's only when I go to other cities that I realize how good we have it here in Milwaukee with a bar on every corner.  Besides the tragedy of having to walk a whole 5 blocks to find an open pub, Montréal was a fantastic city that is full of life and culture, and just one more reason why I love Canada.  However, I do NOT love Air Canada, as I was stranded in Toronto on the way home for nearly 24 hours and almost missed Opening Day in Milwaukee.  Lesson learned: it's still always better to buy American.

park rankings and statistics:
aesthetics - 7 (would be higher if it was in better shape)
views from park – 0 (dome)
view to field - 8
surrounding area – 4 (Parc Olympique but really nothing else)
food variety - 4   
nachos - n/a (poutine is Canadian nachos)
beer - 2 (expensive, low variety)

vendor price - 7 (pretty fair except for beer)
ticket price - 7 ($99 lower, $22 upper)
atmosphere - 10
walk to park – 6
parking price/proximity - n/a (subway)
concourses - 6 (liked the intermediate concourse in the seating bowl)
team shop - 4

best food – poutine
most unique stadium feature – world's tallest inclined structure
best jumbotron feature – commercials for monster truck rally
best between-inning feature – OK Blue Jays in 7th

field dimensions – 325/404/325
starters – Steven Wright (BOS) v. J.A. Happ (TOR); Sean O'Sullivan v. Scott Copeland
opponent – Boston Red Sox v. Toronto Blue Jays
time of game – 3:11; 3:05
attendance – 52682, 53420
score – 4-2 BOS, 7-4 BOS

Brewers score that day – 4-2 L, 7-4 W

Brewers 0-2, -2.0 (3 v. Astros, 3 @ Cardinals)
Reds 1-0, -0.5 (3 v. Pirates, 3 @ Cubs)

Twins 0-1, -1.5 (3 @ Royals, 3 v. White Sox)

Erik - 2 (+0 worked)

Peter - 3

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