By Jay Blue
Blue Jays from Away
I was traveling for work last week and when I found out that my trip included a stop in Winnipeg, I considered it a perfect opportunity to get a look at some independent-league baseball thanks to the Winnipeg Goldeyes, the two-time champions of the American Association.
The Goldeyes play in Shaw Park, a lovely park in the heart of downtown Winnipeg (about an eight-minute walk from my hotel near Portage and Main. Shaw Park seats about 6500 fans comfortably and all of the sightlines are fantastic. The seats go right down to field level, so even if you're a few rows up, it feels like you're right on top of the action, and even sitting down the right field line, up a level, on the outdoor patio of the Clay Oven restaurant (more on that below), you could see everything and really feel like you're in the action.
On a sunny Wednesday evening, 3,679 fans attended the game, which is pretty good although my friend had mentioned that it was packed the previous Sunday. I'd probably peg the level of play at just a bit below double-A but the game has a double-A-type feel to it. Pitchers are a little less accurate, at least in the game I saw, and there were a lot of counts that went full, leading it to be quite a sluggish game. That said, there are players who played at all levels of affiliated ball, including Drayton Valley, Alta., native Shane Dawson (who's out with a shoulder injury) who peaked in the Blue Jays' system at double-A and former big leaguer Dave Sappelt, who was recently signed by Winnipeg. Another former Blue Jays connection was catcher Kevin Garcia. Garcia was a 30th-round pick by the Blue Jays in 2014 and never rose above Vancouver in two years with the organization. He caught on with Minnesota and played mostly in A-ball with them before being released after 2017. A lifetime .250/.318/.295 hitter in affiliated ball, Garcia is tearing up the American Association, hitting .330 in 28 games with seven doubles, a triple and a home run and he's putting fear into opposing baserunners, showing tremendously quick pop times and a strong, accurate arm.
Players are popular with the fans, but they know not to get too attached. The Goldeyes just released four players and brought in replacements (including Sappelt) on June 12. Like any minor league team, players are looking to get picked up and, with a team playing at such a high level, you'll see Goldeyes catch on with affiliated baseball at some point. Or players who are scuffling could be released. It seems to me that independent leagues might have a quicker trigger than big league organizations because there's relatively little risk and investment in players in indy ball.
The stadium itself is a joy to be in. The food offerings are outstanding and varied. The crown jewel is clearly the Clay Oven, an Indian and Hakka Chinese restaurant with three locations in the city and with a patio that overlooks right field. For those who have never heard of Hakka Chinese, it's becoming all the rage in Toronto and is Chinese food that originated in the Hakka region of China before moving to Kolkata, India where the Hakka Chinese immigrants tailored the spice mix to the Indian palate. In addition to the full-service restaurant, there's also a kiosk behind home plate where you can get a variety of dishes at various price points. You can also get Subway, Tacotime, The Pretzel Place, Lil' Orbits Mini Donuts, Mooshiro Japanese Cuisine, Mr. Perogie, Boston Pizza and more in addition to your expected ballpark fare at "Goldie's Grill" (Goldie is the Goldeyes mascot).
The view out towards right field is of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights and, as the sun sets, it's a lovely background to the park. Beyond the fence there are a lot of trees, giving the park a very green feeling despite being set up right in the middle of downtown Winnipeg. The organization is first class, with most games streaming live on TV and getting radio broadcasts and I can totally recall when Drew Muren told me that he thought that the American Association was one of the best leagues he played in (and he's been around).
I highly recommend a visit to Shaw Park if the Goldeyes are in town when you're in Winnipeg. For great baseball, a great experience and gorgeous park, check it out.
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