Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Baseball In The "Great White North"

Rogers Center
Toronto, Ontario
June 26, 2015
Texas Rangers Vs. Toronto Blue Jays

Fall 2014, Spring 2015, Preparing For Canada


It had been an eventful "off-season" for us since we had come home from last summer's romp through the Mid-west. During that trip we had seen five games in Illinois (Rockford Aces, Chicago White Sox, Joliet Slammers, Windy City Thunderbolts and Chicago Cubs), one in Milwaukee (Brewers) and two in Minnesota (Saint Paul Saints and Minnesota Twins), as well as the "Field of Dreams," the Surf Ballroom (Buddy Holly's last performance venue) and the Buddy Holly crash site, In Iowa, in addition to eating more great meals, and touching upon more American History than anyone had thought possible, all in ten days.

After getting back we had decided this summer was going to be some combination of Colorado, Kansas City, St. Louis and Toronto, but we weren't sure how it was going to break down because the MLB schedules needed to be released, and reviewed, first. Before that, however, we had a final "road-trip" we were going to take, to honor a legend.

Rob and I had managed to secure tickets to see Derek Jeter's final game in The Bronx, as well as two of his final three games in Boston, which ended the season and his career. Having followed Jeter's career since the Yankees drafted him in 1992, and having been present for many of his career-defining games (except his 3,000th hit game- you'll have to ask Tony about that story), there was no way I was going to miss this event.  It would be the perfect ending to the baseball season, as the Yankees were not going to the playoffs, we were determined to make these three games the piece de` resistance of our summer.

First up was the final night in The Bronx, for which Ryan (who else would I be taking?), Rob and Rob's girlfriend, Jordie, would be joining us. Rob had met Jordie about six months prior and they made a cute couple. She is a sandy-haired, brown-eyed, cutie with a vivacious personality that always seems to keep you on your toes, who likes the Yankees and can be as "excitable" as Rob can be reserved, so they area good match.

The game was amazing, though it didn't start out that way when Baltimore's first two batters homered. Jeter, however, drove in a run and scored another, as the Yankees tied the game in the bottom of the inning. The Yankees took a three-run lead in the seventh, when the O's misplayed a Jeter ground-ball, and were three outs away from winning the game when David Robertson gave up three runs, on back-to-back home runs in the ninth, to tie the score.

 Jose Pirela led off the bottom of the ninth with a single and was replaced by Antoan Richardson as a pinch runner. Brett Gardner then sacrificed the runner to second and up to the plate stepped Jeter, with the winning run on second.

"You can't make this stuff up," Ryan said, turning towards me just moments before Jeter punched his trademark single to right field and Richardson came scampering home with the game-winning run.

Moments After Jeter's Winning Hit

Jeter threw his hands in the air and was quickly engulfed by joyous teammates as Yankee Stadium erupted. For the next fifteen minutes we all stood, hugged, high-fived and watched, some with tears in their eyes, as Jeter said goodbye to the Yankee fans who had showered him with love for the last twenty years. Jordie managed to squeeze off a picture of Ryan and I celebrating, which has become one of my all-time favorites, capturing the bittersweet moment perfectly.

For the next three days Rob, Ryan and I made our base camp at Heather and Tim's house (thanks Aunt Smoochie and Mr. Tim, we'll forever be in your debt), and wandered all over Boston, mingling with Yankees fans who had also come up to witness the end of an era, as well as good-natured Red Sox fans who also wanted to be there for this special occasion.

The Saturday game was forgettable, Jeter played, the Yankees got crushed, but it didn't matter as we were hanging out with our friend Brian (Uncle Brian to Ry) and having a blast in Boston. Sunday, however, was much better. The Red Sox put on an amazing pre-game ceremony honoring The Captain, who finished up his career with an infield (RBI) single before walking off to thunderous chants of "DER-EK JE-TER" in Fenway Park, which is something I never thought I'd hear.

Final Game At Fenway
Bernie Williams came out to play "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" on his guitar during the 7th Inning stretch, and the whole stadium sang along, both Red Sox fans and Yankees fans, in unison. It was a surreal moment, that's for sure, but one I am glad the three of us got to experience. Even Brian was on his best behavior, never once chanting "Yankees suck." It was the perfect way to end the MLB season and send us off into the fall and winter.

Rob, however, had one last trip in his plans. He had a work conference in Kansas City in October and somehow managed to secure tickets to Games 6 and 7 of the World Series. He was in attendance when the Royals fought back from a three-games-to-two deficit and throttled the Giants, 10-0, in Game 6, as well as for the epic Game 7, where the Royals fell just short, leaving the tying run on third in the bottom of the ninth. Though the team he was rooting for fell just short, this experience cemented, in his mind, that we were coming to Kansas City the following summer.

By December we had come to the conclusion that Toronto would not work as part of a larger trip through the cities I had mentioned before, so it would have to be a stand-alone. We picked the end of June to go to Canada, as I could use it as an 8th Grade graduation present for Ryan, and Nicole and Brendan could join us as well, while the bigger trip would be in July and see us flying to Colorado, renting a car and driving back across the country while going to games in Colorado Springs, Denver, Kansas City, St. Louis, Memphis, Nashville, Pulaski (VA), and Frederick (MD), along the way.

Rob and Jordie

In December Rob and Jordie got engaged- on Christmas actually- and with that came the perfect ending to what had been a pretty damn good 2014. Over the next six months we planned our two trips, set the itinerary for each city, asked friends and family to join us on our adventure and spent the months anxiously waiting for the time to arrive.

During the spring both Ryan and Brendan, of course, played baseball, with Brendan's team (the Dodgers) making the playoffs, but bowing out after two games and Ryan's team (the Elks) winning the Babe Ruth Championship. A few days after the "champagne" stopped flowing for the Elks, the parties began again when Ryan had his 8th Grade dance and, a few days after that, his graduation ceremony. It was now official; the next time he stepped into a school he would be a high school student. I don't know how that happened or when it happened, but I do know I was ridiculously proud of the young man he was becoming and wanted to make this Toronto trip extra special as it would be his present from me and Nicole.

With that in mind we were ready to hit the road the minute school let out on the final day.

June 24, "MMMM, Wings" In Buffalo

By the last day of school everyone was raring to go. Ryan had been out of school since the week before, having taken his finals and having had his graduation ceremony two days prior, Nicole, Rob and I had taken the day off, but poor Brendan was being sent for the final day of school. To be honest I didn't want to, but he had had a tough winter with sickness and Nicole didn't want him to miss any more days. So we compromised; he would go and we would pick him up at 10 a.m., two hours before the day officially ended.

By the appointed hour he was running out the school's front door to the car, backpack flying behind him.

"Let's go," he called to me. "I don't want to be late."
"Late, for what?" Nicole wanted to know.
"I want to see the falls before it's too dark," he said, excitedly.
"Buddy, we're not going to the falls today," I had to tell him.
"Why not?"
"It's a six-hour ride," I reminded him. "We'll get there around 4 o'clock."
"Can we at least go swimming at the hotel?" he asked dejectedly.
"Absolutely. Swimming before we head out to dinner," I promised.

I was relieved to see the excited smile come back to his face. Both boys started talking about all they wanted to see in the next five days, as Nicole headed out of the parking lot and began the long trek ahead.

Uncle Z's A Pillow
Over the next hour we talked about anything and everything associated with the trip. Both boys were super-excited, as neither of them had been to Canada before, and were blabbering away like howler monkeys when all of a sudden I realized it was too quiet. Quiet, when you have two excitable, interactive kids is never a good thing, so I nervously turned around to find Ryan playing a video game, Rob staring off into space and Brendan fast asleep on Rob.

"What the hell is this?" I asked.
"Too much excitement for the little man," Rob said laughing.
"Don't wake him up, I like the quiet," Ryan told us, shaking his head.
"How much longer am I stuck with you four?" Nicole wanted to know.
"Five days," Ryan said laughing.

Brendan snorted, snored, and snuggled closer to Uncle Z.

The ride wasn't bad; there was a mixture of highways, country roads and small town scenery that kept changing, so we always had something "new" to look at. Rob plugged in his phone, letting the music shuffle, finding something for everyone, and we stopped once for a quick bathroom break and some iced coffee and doughnuts. By 4 p.m., as expected, we pulled into our lodging for the evening, about three miles from the falls themselves.

Fun In The Pool
The room was nothing to write home about; I had stayed at better, I had stayed at worse, but the fact that it was close to the falls, and had a pool, made it perfect for some road-weary travelers. Nicole, Rob and the boys unpacked for the night, while I ran up the block to get some beverages and snacks, and when I got back everyone was ready to head out to the pool for an hour or two.

After an hour or two of swimming, sunning and general mayhem in the water, we were ready to clean up and head out for dinner. There was never any question as to where we were headed; after all we were in Buffalo and it would be sacrilegious not to go to the Anchor Bar. Ryan, of course, was in his glory, as he had been waiting all week to have their famous Buffalo Wings, but Brendan was concerned there would be nothing else on the menu.

"Don't worry, buddy," I laughingly assured him. "I'll make sure you have something to eat."
"Thanks, Daddy," he said, looking less worried. "But I'll try a wing."
"You have to try one," Ryan teased him. "You didn't come to Buffalo not to have a wing."
"MMMM, wings," Rob said, mimicking Homer Simpson from the backseat.

Twenty minutes later we pulled into the parking lot and all hopped out of the car, excited to try the delicacies that have become synonymous with the city.

"I'm starved," Ryan announced to one and all, as he exited the car.
"No surprise there," Nicole chided him.
"Pictures first, wings second," I told him, knowing he wouldn't be happy.
"Food first, pictures later," he said, half-jokingly.
"Who's paying for this?" I asked him.
"Uncle Rob," he announced, sticking his tongue out.
"Okay," Rob told him. "Like the man said, pics first, eat second."
"Fine," Ryan said, knowing he'd been beaten.
Dinner Time

After about ten minutes I had all the pictures I wanted and we headed inside to put our name on the list for a table. The place was getting busy and we apparently got there just in time because two minutes after we gave our names to the hostess a party of 35 walked through the door. Ryan shot me a look that was equal parts "thank you for taking the pictures quickly" and "I would have made your life miserable if we had ended up behind them." I laughed and we all spread out to explore the restaurant.

The Famous Anchor Bar

The Anchor Bar is a restaurant just north of downtown Buffalo, situated at the intersection of North and Main Streets, which opened for business in the 1930s. It established itself as a favorite watering hole over the years, but stumbled upon "overnight success" in the mid-1960s when owner Theresa Bellissimo "discovered" the Buffalo Wing.

Before this, chicken wings had been used to add meat and flavor to soups or simply thrown away, but Theresa decided one night to deep fry them, drench them in hot sauce, and serve with celery and bleu cheese dressing for dipping and the Buffalo Wing was born. She initially served them as free bar food, for customers who were waiting on their meals, but such was the demand that she started putting them on the menu and serving them as an appetizer, or bigger portions for a meal.

Over the years there have been many duplications of Theresa's wings, and many have claimed that they were the originator, but in August of 2008 it was determined by Paul Raichlen, of the PBS show Primal Grill, that the Anchor Bar was the original home of the Buffalo Wing. Today the Anchor Bar is world-famous, has its own gift shop and will ship its merchandise, including its five sauces (BBQ, mild, spicy, hotter and suicidal) all over the world. Like I said, you can't go to Buffalo without going to the Anchor Bar.

As we waited to be seated Rob, Ryan and I walked around the restaurant while Nicole and Brendan looked around the gift shop next to the hostess stand. The first thing we noticed was a full size bar area immediately off to the right, which had plenty of room both at the bar and at the tables and hi-tops situated in the near vicinity. The walls were covered in license plates from all over the world, attesting to all the visitors who have come through the doors, as well as autographed photos and other memorabilia from folks in the sports and entertainment industry who had visited. There was even a motorcycle bolted to the wall in the bar area which caught my attention as well.
Bren In The Phone Booth

"What's that?" Brendan wanted to know, as Nicole laughed under hear breath.
"Did your mother tell you to ask me?" I started laughing.
"Yes, so what is it?" he iterated again.
"It's a phone booth," I told him.
"A what?"
"A phone booth. People would go in there to use the phone when they wanted a quiet place to talk."
"Why didn't they just take their cell to a quiet area?" He innocently asked.
"This was before there were cell phones, there was a pay phone in there to make a call," I told him.
"Before cell phones? When was this, like 1920?" he said, shaking his head and walking away.

I just looked at Rob and sighed as Nicole doubled over with laughter, having overheard the whole conversation.

After about 15 minutes the hostess informed us the table was ready and led us into the dining room, just past the bar area and in a completely separate room. There was more paraphernalia on the walls and the tables were jammed with hungry patrons, as far as the eye could see. I could tell right away that everyone was having a great time as they were either munching on something from their plates or laughing, joking and drinking with their friends and family.

As we sat down at our table my mouth was starting to water from just looking around the room. I saw hand-crafted pizzas, humongous salads, burgers, but mostly I saw wings. Overflowing plates, trays and platters of wings, as large as I had seen before and dripping in all different kinds of sauces. My head was spinning. I needed those wings...STAT.

Our waitress was a cute, local girl named Jessica and she tried to start some small talk with us, but I was so much more interested in the food I didn't really pay attention to what she was saying. I wanted to hear more about the area and things we should see, but I really wanted those wings in front of me as fast as possible.

My first priority was making sure Brendan found something to his liking, which turned out to be no problem as he found pizza bites which made him happy. Nicole decided on one of the giant salads and Ryan, Rob and I "settled" on a TRAY of 75 wings, drenched in the hot sauce. We agreed to split the sauces up, having 25 spicy, 25 hotter and 25 suicidal, though it was understood I would be the one eating the majority of the suicidal ones. Just as we had finished ordering, however, something else caught my eye...

"What's Buffalo Wing soup?" I asked Jessica.
"Are you adventurous?" She wanted to know.
"Absolutely," I told her.
"OK, I'll bring a bowl and if you don't like it we'll take it off the bill," she promised.
"That's a win/win," I told her "Let's do it."

While we sat back and waited for our food we discussed the next day's adventure, Niagara Falls. All five of us were excited to see what the falls had to offer and when Jessica heard us talking about it she gave us some advice about what to see and what to avoid. She told us we had to see both sides of the falls, American and Canadian, as they both offered different perspectives, but we should leave plenty of time as it would take a while.

Buffalo Wing Soup
Before too long the food arrived. First to come was the Buffalo Wing soup, which looked and smelled outrageous. I knew right away this wouldn't be going back and have to be taken off the bill as soon as it was placed in front of me. It was a cream based soup- think New England Clam Chowder but instead of seafood stock and clams it was made with chicken stock and huge chunks of shredded chicken, topped with bleu cheese crumbles- that were slowly dissolving into the hot liquid, and buffalo sauce drizzled over the top.

I quickly mixed it all together, so as to get the full effect, and with everyone at the table watching I dug in. There is no way to properly describe the tastes that assaulted me all at once; the creamy soup, with the chicken, was made even more so as the blue cheese had fully melted in and the buffalo sauce gave it quite a "zing," but not so much that it was overwhelming, or uncomfortably hot. After the first bite I just looked up, mouth agape in wonder of the deliciousness. Ryan and Rob both saw the look on my face, so, of course, I offered up the spoon and the look on their faces told me they felt the exact same way. In fact, they liked it so much I was lucky to get the spoon and bowl back before Ryan emptied it.

Just as we finished the soup, or I should say just as Ryan finished the soup, the meals arrived. Nicole's Cobb salad was huge and looked as good as it was big, but then again compared to my five-foot-tall princess everything looks large, and Brendan was quite happy with his pizza rolls (think pizza toppings rolled into bite sized bits of dough and baked through), but that was not what the three of us had come to consume. We had come for the wings, and it was wings that they brought us. Lots and lots of wings.

Our Waitress Brings Dinner

I had seen food served on trays instead of plates before- the German restaurant in Minneapolis being the latest- but this took the cake. The tray was an immense silver platter, divided into three sections, and piled high with wings. I couldn't believe what 75 wings looked like, especially with ones as big as these were.

"Just make sure you put the suicidal sauced ones in front of him," Ryan told Jessica, pointing to me.
"Don't worry, Buttercup," I told him. "I'd never want you to feel the burn."
"Go ahead, eat one now," he dared me.

I picked one up, making sure to rub it in more sauce, which made Ryan just shake his head, and popped it into my mouth. I was expecting a burn, but never got one. Curiously I took another and had the same result.

"Are you sure these are suicidal?" I asked.
"Yes, sir," Jessica told me.
"I wouldn't even consider these hot," I replied back.
"The heat isn't for burn, it's for flavor," she laughed.
"You gotta try these," I told Ryan and Rob.

Cautiously they each took one and gingerly sniffed it. After determining that it probably would not maim them, they chowed down and came away with the same reaction I had; it was delicious.

Nicole Tries One
After that there was no stopping us. We mixed and matched, trying some of each and being impressed with the meaty size of each wing, as well as the differences of each sauce. The mild was Okay; it had a nice flavor, but left something to be desired. This is the kind of wing you would offer to a novice, or one who was more interested in saying they had wings, rather than looking for full flavor and taste. The hotter was just that and most people would find just to their satisfaction, as it added a slight "kick" but not anything that would be uncomfortable to eat in a large quantity. The best, by far, was the suicidal. It added flavor, and enough heat, to satisfy those who consider themselves wing aficionados and was just perfect, unless you were dumb enough to be looking to burn your mouth and ruin any chance you had to enjoy the meal.

The chicken itself was cooked just right, hot and juicy, with a little bit of a "burn" to add some extra flavor, and more than enough meat on each wing to make you feel that you were certainly getting your money's worth. We even convinced Nicole, who HATES spicy food, to try one and even she came away impressed.

MMMM, Wings
In the end, the food was going to be no match for the three of us. A pile of 75 wings, no matter how big and meaty, was never going to have a fighting chance and I can honestly say they didn't suffer. We had drawn a crowd of watchers, from their tables, as we had been eating and after paying the bill and heading to the car one of the gentlemen stopped us to say how "impressed" he was that we didn't have any leftovers.

"Not with this group," I told him, laughing, as I headed out the door.

We drove back to the motel, stuffed and ready for sleep, but excited for the next day's adventure. Brendan didn't make it very far; he was asleep before we got on the highway and Ryan wasn't far behind him. In fact no one even wanted to watch TV before bed, and the lights were barely off when the sound of complete silence enveloped the room.

June 25th: Over The Falls In A Barrel and The Canadian Invasion 

Family At The Falls

We were all up early the next morning, anxious to get to Niagara Falls and explore all there was to see, and by 8:30 we were out of the motel and headed towards the border. We parked the car on the American side and wandered through Niagara Falls State Park, stopping at the visitor's center to see what other attractions might interest us besides the boat tour for which we had signed up. Jessica had suggested the Cave of the Winds, the night before, so that was on our radar, but we were all pretty antsy to actually see the Falls, so we decided to come back to the visitor's center later on.

We could hear the falls before we could actually see them, which was impressive, and I had always had a picture of how I supposed it would look, but I wasn't prepared for the power and majesty of nature as it came into view.

At Prospect Point
We all seemed to grow a little more excited as we approached Prospect Point, which is the site of the
elevator that would take us down to the basin where we would catch our boat, and the view from the overlook simply took our breath away. From this vantage point we were looking directly at the Horseshoe Falls, as it semi-circled from the American to the Canadian side, from above.

"Holy cow," was all Ryan could utter.
"Wow," agreed Brendan.

I was rendered speechless, which is a difficult thing to do to me, and just stared off into the distance as the sights and sounds engulfed me. We stayed at this vantage point for a good 15 minutes, just staring and taking pictures, before we realized we had to step lively because our boat would be leaving in about 20 minutes.

Ten minutes later, after an elevator ride of 282 feet that took us to the gorge below, we were standing in line, waiting to get our ponchos for the boat ride we would take that would bring us to the water's edge of the falls. I was told the weather will play a large part in determining how close we could actually get to the falls, but it was a beautiful morning with plenty of sunshine, no wind, and a very calm waterway, so I was hoping we could get very close.

We had chosen the Maid of the Mist for our boat tour after doing some research and talking to others who had already been. There are a variety of boats that travel the Niagara River to the base of the falls, but this was the one we always came back to and that people from all over had raved about.

Maid of the Mist
Beginning in 1846 the Maid of the Mist Company began operation with a steamboat large enough to carry passengers, luggage, mail and cargo. However, in 1848, a bridge was built over the river and the Maid was re-branded as a sightseeing line, which operates to this day. It is the oldest, and longest running, sightseeing cruise on the Niagara River and has graduated from paddle-wheel steamers to the boats of today. Over the course of its existence it has been the cruise line for many distinguished visitors, such as Marilyn Monroe, Robert Redford, President Jimmy Carter, President Theodore Roosevelt, Princess Diana and her sons, Prince Harry and Prince William, Soviet Premier Kosygin, Soviet President Gorbachev and a host of others, and with a plethora of happy customers and positive reviews it was a consensus choice.
Ponchos For Everyone

"What are the ponchos for?" Brendan wanted to know. "It's not supposed to rain is it?"
"No, but without it you'll be wetter than having been caught in the rain," Nicole told him.
"How close are we actually going to get to the falls?" he asked in a worried tone.
"Close enough to get really wet," Ryan laughed. "But don't worry," he added, "you'll be Okay."

We didn't have to wait long; the line moved rapidly, but Ryan was a little disappointed we didn't get to go upstairs by the bow, as that's where everyone at the front of the line ran to. He was a lot less disappointed when we were able to get on the bow, on the lower deck, and had a giants smile on his face as he staked out his parcel of land.

Everyone's anticipation grew as we pulled away from the dock and headed upriver, towards the falls. The boat headed into the river, about half-way across, and traveled upstream. We all waived to the Canadian boat, Horatio Hornblower, as it went past us and blew its horn in greeting.

American Falls
Niagara Falls is actually a combination of three waterfalls: American Falls, Bridal Veil Falls and Horseshoe Falls. The first of the three waterfalls we came to was the American Falls, which lies completely within the United States, and the state of New York. It has a height of 70-110 feet, which is measured from the top of the falls to the top of the rock-pile below it, and a height of 188 feet from the top to the river below, and has a crest that is about 950 feet wide. American Falls has about 10% of the water from the Niagara River flowing over it and is separated from Horseshoe Falls by Goat Island. Along the side of the American Falls there is a trail where people can walk close to the falls and go about 3/4 of the way to the top, which was not lost on the kids.

"Can we walk that trail, after the boat ride?" Brenny wanted to know.
"I don't see why not," I responded.
"How wet do you think we'd get there?" Ryan wanted to know.
"Wet enough to wash off your stink," Nicole laughed at him.

Ryan was not amused, but kept his mouth shut when he realized the boat had slowed down so we could get a good look and take some pictures.

Bridal Falls

The next waterfall we came to was Bridal Falls, which is the smallest of the three, standing 181 feet tall from the crest to the Maid of The Mist Pool below. These falls also lie completely within the United States, and the state of New York, and have a crest-line of about 56 feet wide. The Cave of The Winds, which Jessica had told us about, allows visitors to go behind Bridal Falls on foot and access the base of the falls. Bridal Falls has also been known as Luna Falls and Iris Falls, in the past, but I found it to be the least impressive of the three.

We all were having a blast, being on the river, having the sun shine down on us and a gentle breeze cutting through the morning air, but that was way too idyllic to last.

"When are we going to get wet?" Brendan wanted to know.
"You have been," I told him, and running my hands on top of his head for emphasis.
"If I have to wear this stupid poncho I want to get REALLY wet," he informed us, annoyed.
"Oh, you'll be getting wet soon," Rob told him and pointed to the last of the three falls.

As if on cue the mist started getting stronger and more concentrated. I was having trouble seeing through my sunglasses, but I knew if I took them off I'd see next to nothing so they stayed on. The  closer we crept to Horseshoe Falls the harder the mist came down. We all were laughing, joking and teasing Brendan about how wet he had gotten in just the few moments since he had lodged his complaint, but he didn't care; by now he had a huge smile across his face and was standing with his arms stretched, trying to catch as much water as possible.

"How close are we going to get to the falls?" Ryan wanted to know.
"As close as is safe," I assured him. Though I knew he would have pushed the envelope a little farther if possible.

Approaching Horseshoe Falls

In my estimation we pulled within 20 yards of the base of the falls, which were now towering above us. Horseshoe Falls (also known as Canadian Falls because 2/3 of it lies in Canada) is the largest of the three falls that make up Niagara Falls. These falls lie between Terrapin Point (on Goat Island in the United States) and Table Rock (on the Ontario, Canada portion) and stand about 180 feet high and 2,600 feet across the crest-line. About 90% of the water that flows over Niagara Falls comes over the Horseshoe Falls, at a rate of about 600,000 gallons per second.

Nicole and I, Getting Soaked
To be this close to Mother Nature's power and beauty was both awesome and scary. Everyone on the boat was standing, mouth agape, just staring into the wall of water that was crashing down, just mere feet in front of us. After a minute or two, though, we all regained our composure and took as many photographs as we could before we were afraid the camera and phones were going to get ruined from all the mist, which now had us completely drenched. We just couldn't get enough photos of everything surrounding us and since we were all soaked (except where the ponchos covered), and looking like drowned river rats, the kids were happy, which provided smiles for everyone.

The boat stayed at the Horseshoe Falls for quite a while before turning aroundand heading back to the docks. Everyone had a blast and was very excited that we had done it, but the minute we hit land Brendan and Ryan were off like a shot, racing down the footpath and heading for the walkway at the American Falls.

Walking The Path At American Falls
The pathway was fun- not as much as the Maid of the Mist, but it did allow you to walk about 3/4 of the way up the American Falls on a stone footpath. We all enjoyed getting as close as we could and took lots more pictures as we climbed the stairs. The kids had fun staying wet and we kept a careful eye on them, as the footing was slippery and no one wanted to take a tumble and end up getting hurt. The hike lasted about 20 minutes and by the time we got back to the elevator that would take us back topside we were all hungry and trying to determine where to go for lunch that was close by, but still kept us in close proximity to the customs bridges that would take us into Canada.

By the time we got back to the car, Nicole, Rob and I had settled on a lunch location and Rob was figuring how to get there by mapping it on his phone. The kids fed the pigeons for a bit, but then realized we had only seen half the falls and they really wanted to see things from the Canadian side too. We all agreed that it would be best to do that on Sunday, on our way back across the border, so we hopped in the car and headed for a restaurant Rob and I had remembered seeing on a Travel Channel special about this area.

The Silo
The Silo is a waterfront dining restaurant in Lewiston, New York, which is a small town about ten miles north of Niagara Falls and has a rich history in the state of New York. It was here that French explorers brokered trade with the Indians and opened the Great Lakes to commerce; it was the stepping off point when the US attempted and ill-fated invasion of Canada during the War of 1812; it was a stop on the historic Underground Railroad, which transported escaped slaves to freedom after escaping the South during the Civil War era; and it was the departure point for the steamers that would take passengers to Toronto during the 1920s and 30s.

The restaurant itself is actually an original silo from the Lewiston Canada Steamship Line. It was joined to the terminal to accommodate the ships and their passengers in the early 1900s. In 1938 most of the original structure was damaged by river ice floes and after it was torn down this was all that remained. Eventually it was turned into an eatery and has had a loyal following, which turned national when Adam Richman of the Travel Channels show "Man Vs. Food" visited there. The restaurant features a simple menu- burgers, specialty hot dogs, sandwiches and kid's food- but we were going there for the Haystack sandwich and the Beef on Weck sandwich, both of which had been raved about.

View From Our Table
As we pulled up to the restaurant we all enjoyed the down-home, country-type feel. The restaurant is an
actual silo and has indoor and outdoor seating. Being that it was a beautiful day we chose the outdoor area, in the back of the restaurant, which offers a spectacular view of the river. We grabbed a table and went back inside to order at the counter, which was necessary as there is no waiter/waitress service available. We ordered our lunches and were handed a numbered placard that would be called from a window where we would then pick up the food and take it back to the table. The wait wasn't long, maybe 10 minutes or so, and when I went to the window I could scarcely believe the size of the sandwiches; Ryan and I had ordered the foot-long Haystacks, while Nicole and Brendan were going to split one and Rob had the Beef on Weck, but it was amount of food that was stuffed into the rolls that made me do a double-take.

I knew Ryan was going to inhale his, but I had to laugh when I saw the look on Nicole's face. I knew there was no way she and Brendan were going to even be able to split their foot-long, which meant more for Ryan and I and we were just fine with that.

I looked over my sandwich before taking the first bite and wasn't sure where to begin. This behemoth was certainly something to behold; a full pound of seasoned rib-eye steak, covered with melted Mozzarella cheese and piled high with crispy hash-browns. I knew I could take it down, even with the order of fries that went along with it, but I knew I wasn't going to be wanting anything more for a while after finishing.

With my first bite in I was sure I had gone to Heaven. The steak was cooked to a perfect medium-rare perfection and the seasoning gave it just a pinch of flavor which was accentuated by the smooth Mozzarella that was just dripping all over the place. Topping it off was the slightly salt and peppery crunch of the hash browns, which complemented the other flavors and made for an unbelievable culinary delight that can hardly be described with mere words.

The Sandwich Never Had A Chance
I had no desire to even come up for a breath, but I figured I probably should once I was at the halfway point of the sandwich. It was then I noticed  Ryan had finished 3/4 of his and was still going strong. It shouldn't have surprised me; I had seen this same scene played out over and over again in different establishments during our jaunts, but it never ceased to amaze me.

Rob offered up some of his sandwich, the Beef on Weck, which is apparently a local favorite no matter where it's purchased, so I figured I'd give it a shot. Basically this sandwich is comprised of house seasoned and roasted beef, piled high on a Kummelweck roll and slathered with horseradish and served with a side of au jus straight from the roasting pan. It was good; the beef was tender and juicy, the horseradish gave it a nice "kick" and the au Jus was flavorful with a slight salty taste, but I was not a fan of the roll. Maybe it was an acquired taste, but it was just too tough and doughy for me. I traded back and finished off my Haystack.
Bren and Nik, Relaxing At The Silo

As I thought, Nicole and Bren couldn't finish theirs, so they left the remnants for "the Thing" and me, which we gladly scarfed down while they went outside to take some pics and see the grounds along the river. We joined them after finishing up and took some more pictures before Ryan noticed something that had escaped his notice on the way in.

"What the hell is a railroad car doing outside the restaurant," he wanted to know.
"You didn't see that on the way in?" Rob asked, incredulously.
"Um, no," was his response.
"How do you miss a whole railroad car that you have to walk past to get inside?" he wanted to know.
"I was thinking about lunch, I guess," was his response.
"It's an ice cream store," Brendan offered up for his big brother.
"Can we get..." Ryan started to ask.
"Not on your life, you had enough lunch," I interrupted.

He knew better than to argue, so we all hopped back in the car and headed for the border.

North To Toronto

Into The Great White North

We pulled up to a rather large line of traffic at the customs checkpoint, which didn't thrill anyone, but we had no choice to get the passports out and wait our turn. The kids were making jokes at one another's expense about how Canada would not let one in and laughing at one another when a very worrisome thought crossed my mind.

"Ryan," I said, sharply.
"When we get to the checkpoint, don't be a wiseass, it won't go over well."
"You mean don't ask if we should declare a pipe-bomb that we may have in the car?" he laughed.
"That's not even funny," Nicole shot back, quickly.
"I am NOT being subjected to a body cavity search because of you," Rob warned him.
"Do I want to know what a body cavity search is?" Brendan asked.
"NO," Nicole and I told him at the same time.
"These people have no sense of humor," Ryan bitched, aloud.
"Just keep your mouth shut," I warned him.

Thankfully we had no issues at the crossing, though I did hear Ryan let out a grunt as if being elbowed in the ribs when the lady asked if we were carrying any firearms or explosive devices with us. It seems Uncle Z may have made a preemptive strike.

Hello Toronto
It took us about an hour and change to reach downtown Toronto from the customs checkpoint and time went quickly. The only "challenge" was the fact the GPS system didn't have Canadian street maps uploaded into it, so we were kind of flying blindly, but between Rob's phone and what was in the system we didn't have any real problems. The kids were excited to see the CN Tower, the waterfront and the Rogers Center from the car and I was flooded with memories of the last time I was in the city, in 1994, when we passed the Hockey Hall of Fame, on Yonge Street.

"Where are we staying?" Brendan wanted to know.
"The Chelsea Hotel, on Gerrard and Yonge," I told him. "Uncle Brian got us a great deal."
"Is it a nice place?" He wanted to know.
"It looks VERY nice," I told him, pointing to our destination, which was right in front of us.
"Can we go swimming?" he then asked.
"After we get checked in, unpacked, and settled," Nicole told him.

It took us about 15 minutes to get a spot in the underground garage, grab our gear and get to the lobby, but when we got to the main floor we were blown away. Brian had done a tremendous job finding this place; it was huge, elegant, busy and very cosmopolitan- in other words someplace we had never stayed before on one of our trips.

The lobby was all hustle and bustle, even at one o'clock in the afternoon, and from my vantage point I could see an outdoor food court, an upscale cocktail lounge, a sports bar and live music venue, an espresso/wine/coffee bar and exits to the four streets the hotel accessed. This was going to be a fun place to stay for the next 24 hours.

We headed upstairs and unpacked while the boys changed into swim trunks as Rob and I grabbed a beer from our makeshift cooler. The hotel had two pools; one was listed as a rooftop pool with a cocktail bar, while the other had a corkscrew water-slide, so we decided we had to hit both. Unfortunately when we reached the rooftop pool it was only for guests 18 and older, which left the kids out. Rob and I looked around a bit while Nicole took the boys to the other pool, but we decided to head down and hang with them at that pool. When we got there, however, the kids were again unhappy as the water-slide wasn't accessible, except on weekends. We did make the best of it, playing ball in the pool and sitting in the hot tub for a few hours before heading upstairs to clean up for dinner and an evening wandering around downtown.

While Brendan and Nik cleaned up, Ryan, Rob and I went wandering around the hotel. We stopped into the sports bar to have a pint and got to meet the bartender, who told us off-color stories about when she worked for the Maple Leafs and their "interesting" former owner, Harold Ballard, who was a character, to say the least. After that we walked around Yonge Street for a bit and then came back and got Nicole and Brendan and headed out to Wayne Gretzky's restaurant for dinner.

Now I have a history at Gretzky's, not a good one but a history nonetheless. The last time I was in Toronto was the winter of 1994 and two friends and I had come up to see the Hockey Hall of Fame and the Maple Leafs vs. the Canadians at Maple Leaf Gardens. We had been out all day, exploring the area watering holes, and decided to have dinner at Wayne's. By the time we got there we were more than a little inebriated and having too much fun to be thinking rationally. By the time we got to the door one of us (not me) told the hostess she looked like Kirk Muller's sister, which is NOT a compliment, and then when the waiter came over for a drink order he asked us if we'd rather have a pop, instead of a beer, and was told (again, not by me) that unless he brought three beers he'd get a "pop." Needless to say, we quickly found ourselves eating and drinking at the Hard Rock Cafe down the road. Over the years both my compatriots got back to Toronto and had dinner there; even my 11-year-old "nephew" liked to rub it in that he had dinner there while I never did, so there was not a chance we weren't going. I was on a mission.

It took us about 20 minutes to walk from the hotel down to the restaurant, which is about a block from the Rogers Center and the CN Tower. Two of the first things you notice in downtown Toronto is how clean everything is- it is most certainly not like walking around New York- and how friendly everyone is, saying hello as they pass you by. We even had a few folks ask us if we needed help with directions when they saw Rob looking at his phone to re-calibrate our directions.

Gretzky's is located at 99 Blue Jays Way, about a block from the Rogers Center, and has been in operation for about 20 years. There is no doubt about who the owner of the establishment is when you first see the front of the establishment. A gigantic "99" stands outside the front window, beckoning customers the way a lighthouse calls out to weary seafaring travelers as they reach the shoreline. The restaurant serves the standard menu, and is known for the 99 Burger, which actually has Gretzky's signature # 99 seared into the meat, but is almost as famous for all the memorabilia on display that showcases Wayne's Hall of Fame career.

After taking the mandatory photos in front of the 99 sculpture we wandered inside and decided to sit in the bar area. Ryan, Rob, Brendan and I wandered around, looking at all the photos, trophies, jerseys, equipment and pucks that signified special moments in Wayne's career, while Nicole grabbed a bar table and some menus. We came back to the table long enough to look at the menu and decide on a drink and then were off looking at stuff again. Like I said, I hadn't been there since 1994 and I wasn't there very long anyway, so this was theoretically the first time I really had to look around.

The 99 Burger
After our curiosity had been satisfied we headed back to the table to sit down and wait to order dinner. I was definitely having the 99 Burger, until the waitress informed me it could only be cooked medium-well. Apparently ground beef is mandated to be cooked this way in order to ensure that no one could get sick over it. This did not sit well with me, as I want my burger to taste like a burger, not shoe leather, but I couldn't sign a waiver or anything, so I politely refused dinner. The waitress tried to "reason" with me, but I was not having any of it. After all, if I am paying you to cook my dinner I want it cooked the way I want it and there was no changing that. Eventually they all gave up on trying to change my mind, or get me to eat something else, and the rest of the group ordered dinner. The funny thing was that ten minutes after placing the order my buddy Andy and our soon-to-be-traveling companion Brian each told us, though text, NOT to order the burger because they will only cook it medium-well. I laughed and told them vindication was mine, even as Nicole just shook her head and rolled her eyes.

Now I certainly wasn't going to starve; we had ordered poutine for the table but Brendan didn't exactly look thrilled with that so I figured there was more for me. I couldn't have been more wrong.

"What's poutine?" Ryan wanted to know.
"It's french fries, covered in gravy and cheese curds," I told him.
"Cheese curds? Eeeewww," was Bren's response.
"Cheese curds are awesome,"Ryan told him. "We had them fried, in Milwaukee, last year. They're great."
"No thanks,"Bren said, sticking out his tongue.
"More for me,"Ryan laughed.

All of a sudden I stated worrying about getting food for myself.

Poutine, A Canadian Tradition
When the poutine came it didn't last long, so we ordered a second helping. The fries were cooked just right and still had a bit of a crunch to them, and the gravy and cheese curds added a silky, smooth, rich quality that blended quite nicely. Even Brendan tried some and decided it wasn't bad, but he wasn't going to be talked into another bite. The burger, however, didn't go over as well with Ryan as he thought it would. It was aesthetically pleasing, and had the # 99 seared into it, but being cooked medium-well apparently assaulted his sensibilities as well.

"This is dry and has no taste," he complained.
"Ask for another slice of cheese," I told him, but even that didn't help.
"I am never ordering anything this way again," he told us.
"I wouldn't do it to begin with, remember?" I laughed.

Nevertheless he finished it (he was hungry), but informed us that he would be needing something else to fill him up later on. We told him Okay, paid the bill and headed out to see more of the city before Brian's plane got in at 9 p.m.

Nik and Bren With The Salmon
We headed down towards the Rogers Center and CN Tower, to get some pictures and see the sights. The kids loved the tower, but the ballpark looked more like a hockey arena than a baseball stadium so we were not initially impressed. I was hoping for more when we would be inside, tomorrow night, so I withheld judgement until I could see the whole thing. Brendan found a really cool sculpture pond right outside the aquarium he would be going to on Saturday; it was a pond/waterfall and had salmon "swimming" upstream to spawn, so we stopped and took some pictures there as well.

Ry and Bren At The Rail Yard
After that we headed across the street to the old rail-yards, where we found an old-time switch yard with actual trains for the kids to pose and climb on, outside the old train sheds which have been turned into restaurants and bars. Ryan and Brendan were zipping about, climbing on the trains, posing for pictures, and discovered a miniaturized kiddie train, which took families all over the grounds. There was a round house for the three trains, a miniaturized waterspout, a train station and everything one could think of when planning out a railway for children.  As we were walking about I found out this was also home to Toronto's Steam Whistle Brewing Company, which supposedly made a good beer, so we decided we'd have to try it later in the weekend.

Walking a little farther we came to the waterfront area, which housed a marina, a band-shell and stage, scenic walkways and quite a few restaurants and bars. Ryan mentioned he was hungry, again, so we stopped into a local brew pub to grab a beer and some appetizers.

Amsterdam Brew House

The Amsterdam BrewHouse is located on the shore of Lake Ontario and looks just like a European beer garden. They not only craft their own beers, from old school recipes, but use those recipes in preparing their foods as well. We felt right at home and decided to grab an outdoor table and sit and relax as the sun started to set on the soft Toronto night.

I asked for a Fracture IPA while Rob ordered a Boneshaker IPA, and the kids
and Nicole had sodas. We had a Bavarian pretzel and some wings to munch on and just kicked back and watched the sunset. The Fracture was a fantastic beer, but as warned it had to be sipped. It had a very hoppy flavor and was extremely strong; I should have realized that when I saw it had 9% ABV, but it surprised me nonetheless. As the waitress said, "Do not gulp this beer, it will put you on your behind." Rob's Boneshaker was also hoppy, but not as heavy, though you could certainly smell the citrus and pine, which made it a perfect beer to kick back and "just be" with.

Around 8:00 we decided it was time to head back to the hotel to wait for Brian. His plane was due in and it would just be easier to meet him back there; besides Nik and Brenny were getting tired and they wanted to go relax. Ryan, on the other hand, was just getting warmed up, but he knew the night was ahead of us and it would make more sense to make his mother and brother happy, which would allow him to enjoy himself.

We grabbed a streetcar and took that to the subway, where we changed trains and 20 minutes later we were in our hotel room. The trains in Toronto, both above and below ground, were spotlessly clean, well-lit and very comfortable in seating, or standing capacity. It reminded me a lot of the Washington D.C. Metro. We were all very much impressed and glad we decided to take the train, rather than walk.

We had been back at the hotel about 20 minutes before Brian came knocking at the door. He'd had an uneventful flight from Boston and was now eager to hit the city and grab a drink and some food, so Nicole waived us out the door as she and Brendan put on pajamas and climbed into one of the beds to relax and watch TV.

"Boys night out, Toronto-style," Ryan chirped as we hit Yonge Street and headed into the night.
"Where to first?" I asked Brian.
"Food and beer," was all he needed to say and with that we were off.

The first two places we went were nothing special; they were good beer and music joints, but before we knew it the clock had stuck midnight and we wanted one more place to go. No one was ready to call it a night yet and Ryan decided he was going to find us the perfect place. We headed down Yonge Street until he pointed to a sign; Astor's.

"There," he told us. "That's where we're going."
"That looks like it's inside a mall," I told him to no avail.
"That's where we're going," he said again, emphatically.
"Ryan, everyone's coming out," Rob pointed out as we walked in the front door and headed up the escalator.
"Trust me," he again told us, as if he had been there before.

We got to the third floor and headed into the bar area.

"This isn't Astor's," Ryan said, shaking his head.
"How do you know, you've never been here before," Rob wanted to know.

He pointed to the name on the marquee It wasn't Astor's. It was, however, closing.

"If this place is closing, so is everything else in this mall," I said, starting to get annoyed.
"Upstairs," he said, pressing on.

When we go to the fourth floor we found Astor's. The lights were on, the music was loud and there were sports on the televisions. We walked in and the hostess told us they were open for another hour and the bar and the kitchen were still open.

"I'll never doubt you again, oh beer hound," Brian told him.

We all laughed, went inside and spent the next hour laughing, joking and having a bit more to eat and drink before being booted out and making our way back to the hotel.

June 26th: Animals, Baseball and Old "New" Friends

Bren's Happy Place

Sleep had come quickly, but the morning came just as fast and it was going to be a long day. First, the zoo for Brendan, then back to the city for the Jays game and, finally, out to Cindy and Jeff's for the night, as that was where we would be staying for the next 48 hours. I guess we should have thought about that before staying out until 2 a.m.

"Coffee time," Nicole said, shaking me awake.
"Shower first, Tim Horton's on the way out," I told her.
"OK, then let's get moving."
"I want a donut," Brendan reminded me.
"Go get dressed, I'll get everyone moving and we'll get some breakfast,"

Forty-five minutes later we were all out the door, checked out, and driving up Yonge Street. Looking for a Tim Hortons' coffee shop.

Timmy's, as it is known in Canada, is the equivalent of Dunkin' Donuts in the U.S., and can be found on most every street corner in Toronto. Brian and I quickly ran in and brought back something for everyone and pointed the car towards the Toronto Zoo. Brendan was especially excited, as he is my zoo kid, and this was THE reason he wanted to take this trip. No vacation is complete for us unless we can get Brendan to a local zoo or aquarium and he does all his research on the zoos we are going to, like Ryan does with the baseball teams.

Bren And Nik Ready For Fun
The Toronto Zoo prides itself on being Canada's premier zoo and it's easy to see why. Open since 1974 and located in Rouge Park, in the eastern end of the city, the zoo attracts visitors both nation and world-wide. It is approximately 700 acres large, has seven different geographical locations ( Indo-Malaya, Africa, Americas, Tundra Trek, Australasia, Eurasia, and the Canadian Domain) and is home to over 5000 animals, of 50 different species. Brendan was in his glory and couldn't wait to act as our "guide" for the day, even though he had never been there.

As soon as we walked in Brendan was enthralled. The first stop was literally right in front of us, the Xie Shou Giant Panda exhibit. Here we "met" the pandas, Er Shun and Da Mao, and learned all about them, their habitats and explored the panda interpretive center. It's always great to see my little guy so excited about something, but when it's animals that excitement is increased 100-fold.

From the giant panda exhibit we walked over to the Eurasia Wilds, where we got to see camels, yaks, wild dogs, red pandas, snow leopards and Barbary sheep. Brendan doesn't differentiate between the animals- he loves them all, but I favor the tigers, polar bears and the canines, so the wild dogs in this exhibit appealed to me.

I HATE Snakes

The day was hot, and the zoo was large, so we were trying to see everything without having to backtrack. Our next stop was one of my favorites, the Tundra Trek. Here we got to see two of my favorites, the Artic wolves and the polar bears, so I very much enjoyed this area. Though, truth be told, I was more than a little jealous that the wolves and bears were getting to go for a swim in their climate-controlled pools while I was sweating my butt off. On the way out Brendan and Nicole found a "Snake Crossing" sign and knowing how much I HATE snakes, of course they made me take a picture there, laughing the whole time.

Our next stop was going to be the Canadian Domain, where we would see American moose, elk, grizzly bears, cougars, bison, Canadian lynx and North American bald eagles, but we had to walk through part of the huge African Savanna to get there. The Canadian Domain might have been my second favorite exhibit, but it was my least favorite to get to. This was a section of the zoo that was so hilly and steep that warning signs were posted for pedestrians to take care while navigating it. Brendan and Ryan, of course, paid no attention and ran full speed down the hill, but we took our time and arrived with no stumbles or falls on the way. The grizzly bear seemed to everyone's favorite. Standing about seven feet tall, he was more than a little intimidating and we were all thankful he was in a good mood and we were unreachable as he strolled about his compound.

The walk back up was a lot less pleasant than the one going down, and we did have to stop once so Nicole could catch her legs, and her breath. Even the kids didn't seem so interested in sprinting up the giant hill, but once they reached the top it was full-speed-ahead once again, this time into the African Savanna.

Happy Boy

Here we saw the most animals in any exhibit, which included lions, zebras, giraffes, cheetahs, baboons, hippos, hyenas, warthogs and various birds. Brendan dazzled everyone with his knowledge of the animals, which kept everyone entertained as we walked along, and reminded me how very different my two sons were and how thankful I was to be able to share their passions with them in the same trip.

Lastly, we came to the Indo- Malaya section of the zoo. This exhibit is the home to tigers, gibbons, guars and many, many reptiles, including the dreaded snakes that I loathe so much. The boys were more than happy to tell me about all the different species and try to get me to go into the reptile house, but I wouldn't be persuaded. I was quite content to look at the lizards, crocs, dragons, turtles and the myriad of fish and water birds found here.

Our final stop, on the way back to the car, was the gift shop. There was no way Brendan was going to come all the way to the Toronto Zoo and not get souvenirs of some sort, so we all went in and let him choose an assortment of stuff that we gladly purchased for him. It worked out for everyone; he was happy to have gotten so much swag, the zoo was happy we had spent the money and Nicole and I were happy to be able to put a gigantic smile on his face.

All in all, the zoo was a fantastic experience and everyone agreed we'd had a great time, but it was now after 1 p.m. and we were getting hungry. There were still a few hours before the Rogers Center opened its gates for the evening game, so we headed back towards the city to grab a bite to eat and relax.

We parked the car and found a sports bar named Hoops, about a block away from the Rogers Center, which had an outdoor patio, and was perfect for a late afternoon bite to eat. The restaurant served pub-style food, so it was burgers, bar pizzas, and salads for everyone. Amazingly, I could get my burger medium rare, just the way I like it, so there was not a repeat performance of the night before.

"Okay," Brendan started in, between bites of his burger. "Tell me about the Blue Jays."
"Well," I started.
"Not you," he interrupted. "I know YOU know the history, I want to hear it from Ryan."
"Testing him out?" I laughed. "Go on Ry, you're up."

Not surprisingly, he did very well. I only had to add a bit here and there to fill in the gaps.

Blue Jays History

The Blue Jays were not professional baseball's first foray into the city of Toronto, as that distinction belonged to the Maple Leafs, who played in the city from 1896-1967. They were a Triple-A, minor league team that played in the international league and won the pennant 12 times (1887, 1902, 1907, 1912, 1917, 1918, 1926, 1943, 1954, 1956, 1957 and 1960), the Governor's Cup four times (1934, 1960, 1965, and 1966) and the Junior World Series twice (1907 and 1926). They were affiliated with many teams, including the Detroit Tigers (1932-1933), the Cincinnati Reds (1934-1935), the Philadelphia A's (1940-41 and 1945-1946), the Pittsburgh Pirates (1942-1944), the Boston Red Sox (1944 and 1965-1967), the Philadelphia Phillies (1948-1950), the St. Louis Browns (1951-1952), the Cleveland Indians (1960), the Milwaukee Braves (1962-1963) and the Braves/Washington Senators (1964). There were also quite a few notable players who came though the franchise as well, some even making it to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown: Sparky Anderson, "Wee" Willie Keeler, Napoleon Lajoie, Charlie Gehringer, Tony Lazzeri, Dick Williams and Ed Barrow. The team ceased operations after the 1967 season when they were sold to a group from Kentucky. They would play the next five years as the Louisville Colonels before moving again, this time to Pawtucket, Rhode Island, becoming the Pawtucket Red Sox and continuing to operate today.

The city almost became home to the San Francisco Giants, in 1976, when an agreement was reached to purchase the club from Horace Stoneham. That plan, however, was nixed in court and the Giants were sold to Bob Lurie never leaving California.

In 1976 Toronto was awarded one of two expansion franchises (Seattle being the other), and a group of investors consisting of Labatt Brewery, Howard Webster (the chair and president of the Globe and Mail Newspaper) and the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce purchased the team for $7 million. The name Blue Jays was chosen by Labatt's, after a fans' write-in campaign, as a tie-in with its feature beer, Labatt's Blue.

The 1976 expansion draft was held on November 5, in New York City, and Toronto's first G.M. (Peter Bavasi) and Assistant G.M. (Pat Gillick) made Baltimore's Bob Bailor their first pick. They would go on to fill out the roster with players from all over baseball, such as; Otto Velez, Garth Iorg, Ernie Whitt, Rico Carty, Pete Vukovich and Jim Mason. Needless to say the team, which was to be led by manager Roy Hartsfield, was not projected to be very good.

The team would play their home games at Exhibition Stadium, located on Lake Shore Blvd. West and Ontario Drive, which had been refurbished for baseball when the Giants were supposed to be coming, but that really was just the home of the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League (CFL). The building was originally constructed in 1959, had a natural grass surface, and could seat 33,150 for a football game. By 1972, however, the playing surface was changed over to Astro-Turf as the cost of keeping natural grass year-round was prohibitive, and after the retro-fitting it would seat 38,522 for baseball, though that number would increase to 43,737 in year two. The field dimensions were symmetrical, being 330 feet to right and left fields, 375 to right and left-center fields and 400 to straight-away center.

Exhibition Stadium 
Of course when a football stadium is retro-fitted for baseball, issues can, and will, arise and Exhibition Stadium was not immune from them. In fact, in some instances they were magnified. Right off the bat, the lower level seats were set further back from the action, since a football playing field is wider than a baseball one, and when you factor in the fact Canadian Football fields are larger in width than American ones the seats were even farther from the action. Also, since a football field is rectangular the seats face across from one another, but when recast as a baseball stadium they do not face the action of the field. In fact some seats were over 800 feet from home plate, forcing the fans to use binoculars. Other issues that quickly arose were the cold, the wind, and seagulls that would flock to the stadium, being just off Lake Ontario. All in all it was not a fun place to play, either for the home team or its visitors.

Opening Day, 1977
The organization's first game came on April 7, 1977, and has become known more for the weather than the final score. That day the Jays and the Chicago White Sox squared off in front of 44,649 fans, on a cold, blustery, and snowy Toronto afternoon with the Jays prevailing 9-5. Toronto's Doug Ault had the first Blue Jays' hit, a home run, and later hit his second home run, as the home team rallied from a 4-1 deficit to win 9-5. The real story of the game, however, was the snow removal done with a Zamboni borrowed from the Toronto Maple Leafs, which amused the crowd, both home and on TV.

From there it was all downhill for the Jays, as they finished the season in last place, at 54-107, 45 1/2 games behind the New York Yankees. They also finished 9 1/2 games worse than Seattle, the other expansion team of 1977. Peter Bavasi was the first casualty, being forced to resign after the season, and was replaced by assistant Pat Gillick, who would hold the job until 1994.

The Blue Jays had a difficult time of things for their first few seasons. They would finish in the basement of the American League East in 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980 and 1981, going 270-482, never winning more than 67 games and losing, at least, 102 three straight times. They would change managers in 1980, from Roy Hartsfield to Bobby Mattick, and again in 1982, replacing Mattick with Bobby Cox, but still the team couldn't find a way to win. They did, however boast the 1980 co-Rookie of the Year (shortstop Alfredo Griffin), and in 1980 John Mayberry became the first Jays player to hit 30 home runs in a season.

Starting in 1982, the team's first year under new skipper Bobby Cox, the Jays would make steady strides upwards in the standings. The first goal the team accomplished was getting out of the basement, which the Jays did in 1982, finishing in sixth place, being led by pitchers Dave Stieb and Jim Clancy, as well as young outfielders Jesse Barfield and Lloyd Moseby. In 1983 they had their first-ever winning record (89-73) and climbed all the way to fourth place in the A.L. East, powered by Willie Upshaw and his team record of 104 RBIs and .304 batting average. 1983 also saw one of the stranger situations to ever arise in MLB occur in Toronto..."The Seagull Incident."

Winfield and The Seagull
On August 4th, 1983, Dave Winfield of the New York Yankees accidentally killed a seagull in the outfield, while warming up before the bottom of the fifth inning. As previously noted, seagulls from Lake Ontario had always been an issue on the field, but nothing like this had ever happened before. It occurred when Winfield was playing catch and the ball hit the bird. An Ontario policeman working the game thought Winfield had intentionally targeted the bird, but Winfield denied the allegations. Either way, the fans let their displeasure be known vocally and after the game Winfield was arrested in the clubhouse and charged with animal cruelty. The charge was later dropped, but the incident has never been forgotten in Toronto.

1985 was the team's first break-through year, finishing 99-62 and winning the American League East, two games in front of the Yankees. The team had a strong pitching staff, led by veteran Doyle Alexander and mid-season call up Tom Henke, and a balanced offensive attack, which brought them to an ALCS match-up with the Kansas City Royals.

The Royals were a team no one anticipated winning the AL West. They were a mix of older vets and young kids, who had finished 97-71 (one game ahead of the California Angels), and were led by third baseman George Brett, as well as home run-hitting first baseman Steve Balboni. The pitching staff was deep and featured a future star by the name of Brett Saberhagen. There were also quite a few holdovers from the 1976-1980 teams that had battled head to head with the Yankees, but lost each time, such as, Larry Gura, Dennis Leonard, Jamie Quirk, John Wathan, Frank White, Willie Wilson and Hal McRea. These teams had been through the wars, unlike the Jays, and knew what it would take to win.

The ALCS would begin in Toronto and the Jays took full advantage of their home field by winning the both games, 6-1 and 6-5. In Game 1 the Jays jumped out to a 6-0 lead by the fourth inning and never looked back, easily coasting to the win behind Dave Stieb. Game 2 was a little more challenging as they fell behind 3-0, tied the game in the sixth, took the lead in the eighth, squandered it in the top of the ninth, fell behind by one in the tenth, and then rallied for two in the bottom of the inning to win in extras.

Games 3 and 4, played in Kansas City, were split between the two clubs, with KC winning Game 3, 6-5, with George Brett going 4-4 with a single, a double, two homers, four RBIs, three runs scored and gunning down a runner at the plate. He single-handedly kept the Royals alive in a game they had no business winning. Unfortunately for KC, and their fans, he couldn't duplicate that feat the next night, when the Jays scored three times in the ninth to erase a Royals lead, which put Toronto one win away from reaching the World Series.

Needing one win to move on, the Jays fell flat on their beaks in Game 5. The Royals scored once in the first, again in the second, and that was all starter Danny Jackson would need. Jackson would pitch a complete game shutout, scattering eight hits over nine innings, and send the series back to Toronto for the final two games.

Game 6 was another back-and-forth affair, with the Royals scoring in the first, the Jays tying it in the bottom of the inning, the Royals going ahead again in the third and the Jays tying it, again, in the bottom of that inning too. In the fifth George Brett hit his third homer of the series (all off of Doyle Alexander), and they added two more in the sixth and held on for a 5-3 victory, which tied the series at three games each. The teams were headed for a winner-take-all Game 7.

For all the emotion the Toronto fans brought with them to Exhibition Stadium that day they could not will the home team to victory. The Royals scored a run in the second and the fourth, but put the game away with a four-run sixth and limited the Toronto offense to one run on eight hits, en route to a 6-1 victory. The loss hurt, especially since they had been leading three games to one, but the team and their fans had a lot to be proud of, and felt with a few tweaks they would be right back in the playoffs the following year. Unfortunately, after winning the American League Manager of The Year Bobby Cox left to become the G.M. of the Atlanta Braves; it was a disappointing off-season, on many levels, for Toronto.

After Cox abandoned ship the Jays hired Jimy Williams as his successor, but they could not replicate the magic of the previous year, finishing 86-76 and finding themselves in fourth place in the division. 1987 and 1988 saw the team better itself, finishing in second and third place, two and three games back respectively.

 A New Home,  A New Manager and A Winning Team


As the 1989 season opened the Jays found themselves in a new "nest," SkyDome. This multi-purpose stadium was built in downtown Toronto, adjacent to the CN Tower, near the north shore of Lake Ontario. The primary impetus for getting a new facility was to have something with a dome, so the teams using Exhibition Stadium could play regardless of the weather and the fans wouldn't be subject to the elements since about 90% of Exhibition Stadium's seats were not protected from the weather.

There were many sites considered for the new facility, but it was eventually agreed upon to locate the new stadium close to Union Station, and the highway, so fans could have easy access via both mass transit and their own cars. Construction started in October 1986 and finished two and a half years later, in May of 1989. The final costs came to approximately $570 million (Canadian dollars), with funding by the Canadian government, the Ontario provincial government, the city of Toronto and more than a few corporations. The stadium was designed by architect Rod Robbie and engineer Michael Allen and the construction contract went to EllisDon Construction and Dominion Bridge Company.

The designers decided to keep the plans simple since this would be the first structure of its kind in the world and they wanted to ensure there were no issues with the roof, which would be retractable and sitting on a fixed building. The roof would be 31 stories thigh and divided into four panels; the northern-most would be fixed in place and the other three would move with the help of train engines that would move on high-strength railway rails. The roof, itself, would be made out of steel trusses covered by corrugated steel, which was covered by a single-ply PVC membrane, and take 20 minutes to fully open and close.

The name SkyDome was chosen via a province-wide "name the stadium" contest that was sponsored by the Toronto Sun newspaper. Over 150,000 ballots were cast and a committee narrowed the final choices to Towerdome, Harbourdome, The Dome and SkyDome, with SkyDome, submitted by Kellie Watson, being the final choice.

Left Field
Right Field
When finished the stadium would be a multi-purpose facility and would house the Blue Jays, the Toronto Argonauts (Canadian Football League, 1989-2015), the Toronto Raptors (NBA, 1995-1999), the Buffalo Bills (NFL's Bills Series, 2008-2013), and the Toronto FC (MLS, 2012-present). It would seat, for baseball, 59,516 from Opening Day. The field dimensions are a uniform 328 to left-field, 375 to left-center, 400 to center-field, 375 to right-center and 328 to right. The playing surface was originally covered in Astro Turf from 1989-2004, but was switched to Field Turf, which is a more natural-looking, and feeling surface made to replicate grass, from 2005-2010, before going back to AstroTurf products (Game Day Grass 3D and 3D Extreme) from 2011 onward.
Center Field

Aside from the above-named sports teams, SkyDome would host many other sporting events as well, such as: cricket, tennis, four NCAA International Bowl games, Australian rules football, the World Baseball Classic, international soccer between Manchester United and Scotland's Celtic FC, an Ultimate Fighting Championship, and international track and field events. It has even seen local high school and collegiate sporting events, such as the Prentice Cup (baseball), the Vanier Cup (inter-university football) and the Greater Toronto High School Metro Bowl (football).

SkyDome has also hosted many concerts over the years. Artists such Bruce Springsteen, Madonna, Bon Jovi, The Rolling Stones and U2 have all played here, though the acoustics have been known to be poor and bands generally prefer multiple nights at smaller venues.

Though sports and concerts are the venue's primary focus, other events have been held here as well.  Several auto shows, Disney on Ice and an AIDS awareness conference's opening ceremonies and circuses have all been held here. There have even been public speaking events by the Dalai Lama, Billy Graham, Nelson Mandela and author J.K. Rowling (of Harry Potter fame) for a book reading.

The building is also home to the front offices of the Blue Jays, the Canadian headquarters of Ticketmaster and Zuffa (an American Promotional company specializing in MMA), the Toronto Renaissance Hotel and, before its lease expired, a Hard Rock Cafe. In fact, the hotel has rooms that look out over the outfield, so guests can enjoy a Blue Jays home game while relaxing in their suites. These rooms are difficult to get, so if interested plan accordingly.

SkyDome was supposed to be ready for Opening Day, but construction delays forced the beginning of the season to be played back at Exhibition Stadium. By mid-May the team would have a 12-24 record and Jimy Williams was fired. He would be replaced by hitting coach Cito Gaston just in time for the first game in the new ballpark.

SkyDome was officially opened on June 3, 1989 with an immense grand opening show that was broadcast from coast to coast in Canada. With 50,000 people at the event, Ontario Premier David Peterson opened the roof. Unfortunately it was a rainy night and a lot of the spectators got wet, but there was very little complaining, as everyone seemed very excited.

Fred McGriff
Two days later, on June 5th, the Jays played their first home game at SkyDome against the Milwaukee Brewers. Toronto's Fred McGriff had the Blue Jays first hit and RBI, a two-run home run, in their new home, but the Brewers went on to win 5-3. Jimmy Key went the distance but was tagged with the loss, his fourth of the year, while Don August went 5.1 innings for the win.

Despite losing in their first game at SkyDome, the Blue Jays went 77-49 the rest of the year to win the American League East by two games, over the Baltimore Orioles, who had a record of 89-73. This would send the Jays to the ALCS, where they would face the heavily favored Oakland A's.

The A's, in 1989, had the best team in baseball, finishing the season with a record of 99-63. They had won the A.L. West by seven games over the Kansas City Royals and had a team of superstars that included Ricky Henderson, Jose Canseco, Mark McGwire, Dave Parker, Bob Welch, Dave Stewart and Dennis Eckersley. This was not a team to take lightly, as the Jays would soon find out.

The first two games were played in Oakland and the A's flexed their muscles right away. The Jays took a 3-1 lead into the fourth, but the A's put the game away with six unanswered runs, behind homers from McGwire and Dave Henderson and won 7-3. Game 2 saw the Jays ahead 1-0, until the A's scored six runs between the fourth and seventh innings to take a commanding 6-1 lead. The Jays would score two in the eighth, but it was too-little-too-late, as the A's prevailed 6-3 to up their lead to two games to none.

Game 3, back in Toronto, looked to be more of the same, as the A's built a 3-0 lead after three innings, but the Jays scored four in the fourth and three in the seventh and Jimmy Key pitched Toronto to its first-ever postseason victory in the SkyDome, 7-3. Game 4, once again, showed the A's power bats, as Ricky Henderson hit two home runs and Jose Canseco added one of his own. The A's built a 6-2 lead in the seventh, but the Jays scored three to make it 6-5 before going down quietly against Eckersley in the bottom of the ninth.

Game 5, still in Toronto, was a repeat performance of the night before. The A's took a 4-0 lead into the bottom of the eighth inning before the Jays got on the board with a solo shot off the bat of Lloyd Moseby in the bottom of the inning. In the bottom of the ninth the Jays would not go quietly, scoring two more, though they could not break through Eckersley and the A's finished off the game, and the series, with a 4-3 win. Though they lost, the fans and the players held their heads high, knowing just how far they had come since moving into the SkyDome with a 12-24 record.

The Jays, and their fans, had high expectations for 1990. Unfortunately the team took a slight step backwards and finished the year 86-76, which was good enough for second place in the division, two games behind the Boston Red Sox. The organization promised better results for 1991 and they would deliver.

Roberto Alomar
During the 1990 off-season the team would make moves that would set them up for success in the immediate future. They would trade Tony Fernandez and Fred McGriff to San Diego, in exchange for Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar, and then bring in Devon White from the California Angels. Already a deep team, these additions fit in very nicely with current players such as, Tom Candiotti, Pat Hentgan, Tom Henke, Jimmy Key, Al Leiter, Dave Stieb, David Wells, John Olerud, Ed Sprague and Derek Bell.

The team would jump out of the gate and win five more games than the previous season, which was a new organizational record. They would finish in first place, at 91-71, and win the A.L. East by seven games over the Boston Red Sox and Baltimore Orioles. The team headed into the postseason on a high, facing off against the Minnesota Twins, who had won the Western Division by eight games over the White Sox.

The teams split the first two games in Minnesota. The Twins took Game 1, 5-4, behind the pitching of Jack Morris, scoring all five in the first three innings and then holding off a late Jays' run. Game 2, however, went to the visitors by a score of 5-2. The next three games were played back in Canada, where the Twins swept all three. Game 3 was a tight, tense, nail-biting ten-inning affair, 3-2, but the following two were blowouts, 9-3 and 8-5. The Jays had taken another step, but their ultimate goal was left unfulfilled and they vowed that 1992 would be their year.

1992 was a watershed year for the Jays. Right off the bat they strengthened an already formidable lineup with the additions of 1991 World Series hero Jack Morris and veteran All-Star Dave Winfield, and adding ace pitcher David Cone at the trade deadline. The team blew out of the gate and went the entire season without being swept in any series. They finished with a record of 96-66, another franchise record for wins, and again good enough for first place in the American League East this time to draw the Oakland A's in the American League Championship Series.

The A's were another veteran-laden team, filled with stars such as Dennis Eckersley, Goose Gossage, Bob Welch, Dave Stewart, Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco and Rickey Henderson. They would finish with the exact same 96-66 record as the Jays and would win the A.L. West by six games over the Twins.

The rematch of the 1989 series started off in Toronto, with the A's winning the first game 4-3, behind three home runs (McGwire, Terry Steinbach and Harold Baines), but the Jays evened the series when David Cone threw eight innings of four-hit baseball and Kelly Gruber hit a two-run shot to lead Toronto to a 3-1 win.

With the series shifting to Toronto for the next three games the Jays put the pedal to the floor, winning Games 3 and 4, 7-5 and 7-6 (11 innings), and moving to within one game of moving on to the World Series. The A's, however, would not go quietly, winning Game 5 by a score of 6-2 and keeping their slim hopes alive.

Those hopes were dashed, much to the delight of the home fans, when the Jays pummeled the A's, 9-2, in Game 6. The Jays had jumped out to a 7-0 lead before the A's could even plate a run and finished the game on cruise control to advance to the organization's first-ever World Series.

First Game of 1992 Series
The 1992 World Series would be the first to ever have games played outside of the United States, and matched the Jays up against the defending National League Champion Atlanta Braves. The Braves, led by old Toronto skipper Bobby Cox, had just beaten the Pittsburgh Pirates in the NLCS. They were returning to the World Series for the second consecutive season, having lost to the Twins in 1991. The Braves were at the beginning of a long run of post season play and while this would not be the best team they would field in that time, it was a formidable one, led by Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Steve Avery, Mark Wohlers, Terry Pendleton, David Justice, Otis Nixon and Mark Lemke. They had breezed through the National League, sporting a record of 98-64, which was good enough to best all others in the league. This would be a daunting match-up for the Jays.

The series started out in Atlanta's Fulton County Stadium and the opening game went to the Braves, 3-1. The Jays equipped themselves well, but just didn't have enough juice to get them past Tom Glavine, who gave up one run on four hits. Undaunted, the Jays came back and evened the series the next night, with a 5-4 victory. The win, however, was not a walk in the park. The Jays scored three times in the eighth and ninth innings, to erase an Atlanta lead and tie the Series at one game apiece.

Games 3-5 were played at the SkyDome and the stadium was filled to capacity and LOUD. The Jays gave their fans even more to cheer about when they won Game 3, when Candy Maldonado "walked off" with a game-winning single in the bottom of the ninth. Game 4 again went to the Jays, 2-1, when Jimmy Key went eight innings and only gave up one run on four hits. The win put Toronto one win away from a World Series Championship, but the Braves refused to go quietly. The took Game 5, 7-2, on the strength of a five-run fifth inning and sending the series back to Atlanta for Games 6 and 7.

The Jays would have two attempts in Atlanta to try and win one game, but they didn't want to use both; they wanted to win this thing in six, not seven. Game 6 was a classic back-and-forth affair, with Toronto breaking through with a run in the first and the Braves tying the game in the third, only to see the Jays go up 2-1 in the top of the fourth. The Jays took the field in the bottom of the ninth needing three outs to secure the Championships, when the Braves tied it with two outs.

The teams played a scoreless tenth and then Toronto struck for a run in the eleventh inning, when the struggling Dave Winfield came to the plate and drove a line drive into the corner, scoring the go-ahead runs, and putting the Jays three outs from a championship again. The Braves made things scary for the country of Canada when they scored in the bottom of the eleventh, but the Toronto pen would not blow another save on this night and the Jays were crowned World Series Champions.

This would be the city of Toronto's first Championship since the Maple Leafs had last won the Stanley Cup in 1967, and Cito Gaston would be the first African-American manager to hoist the World Series trophy. The people of Toronto, and all of Canada, celebrated the country's first World Series Championship as if they would never have another.

After the 1992 World Series the Jays let both Dave Winfield and Tom Henke leave as free agents, but replaced them with All-Stars Paul Molitor and Dave Stewart. The team didn't miss a beat, recording a 95-67 season which was good enough for another American League East title, posting seven All Stars (Paul Molitor, Roberto Alomar, Devon White, Pat Hentgen, Duane Ward, John Olerud and Joe Carter) and finishing with the best record in the American League.

The 1992 champs would look to defend their crown by first beating the Chicago White Sox in the ALCS, which they did handily, four games to two. The Sox had won the Western Division, with a record of 94-68, but proved no real threat to the Jays who won games 1, 2, 5 and 6 and outhit Chicago's South Siders 64-46 for the series. They would return to the World Series, looking to retain their title against the Philadelphia Phillies.

The 1993 Phillies had waltzed through the National League with a 97-65 record, and defeated the Braves in the NLCS, four games to two. This was a big upset, as the Braves had won 107 games that year, so the Phils were flying high coming in.

The 1993 Phillies were a scrappy bunch, led by Lenny Dykstra, Daren Dalton, Mickey Morandini, John Kruk and pitchers Curt Schilling, Terry Mulholland and closer Mitch "Wild Thing" Williams. They were not going to be a pushover and were more than just happy to be there.

The teams split the first two games at the SkyDome, with the Jays taking Game 18-5 and the Phils fighting back for a 6-4 Game 2 victory. Al Leiter out-dueled Curt Shilling in Game 1, while Terry Mulholland bested Dave Stewart the next night.

Game 3, in Philly, went to the away team, 10-3, behind an offensive explosion. Toronto scored three in the first, one in the third and sixth, another three in the seventh and, finally, two in the ninth. Philly never knew what hit them, but it showed the kind of fire-power Toronto was capable of, which would again be on display the following night.

Game 4 was a back-and-forth slug-fest, in every sense of the word. Toronto scored three runs in the top of the first inning, only to see the Phils plate six in the first two. The Jays scored four in the top of the third, to take a 7-6 lead, but the Phillies would score five in the fifth, one in the sixth and another in the seventh to go back on top 14-9, heading into the eighth, when Toronto's bats came alive. Hits from Molitor, Fernandez, Henderson and White would score six runs, and Duane Ford took care of the final four Philly batters to make the comeback complete.

Unfazed, the Phillies, behind two early runs and a complete game shutout from Curt Schilling, took Game 5, 2-0. This set up a Game 6, back in Toronto, which could give the Jays a back-to-back championship.

Toronto stormed out to an early lead, scoring three in the first inning and two more in the fourth and fifth, while the Phils answered with a run of their own. The Jays looked like they were going to run away and hide by the seventh inning, holding a 5-1 lead, but that's when Philadelphia struck for five runs and stunned the SkyDome crowd with a 6-5 lead. The score didn't change by the bottom of the ninth and with Phillies closer Mitch Williams on the mound it looked very much like there would be a seventh game to decide the series.

Williams made the crucial mistake of walking Rickey Henderson to start the inning. After getting Devon White to fly out, Williams gave up a single to Paul Molitor, which brought Joe Carter to the plate. Carter ran the count to 2-2 and then drove the next pitch into the left field seats for a World Series-winning three-run homer. It was the first time the World Series had ended on a walk-off home run since Bill Mazeroski had done it in the 1960 Fall Classic, and caused Jays announcer Tom Cheek to utter the now famous line "Touch 'em all, Joe, you'll never hit a bigger homer in your life."

Carter's World Series Winning Home Run

In winning the 1993 World Series the Blue Jays became the first team since the 1977 and 1978 New York Yankees to win consecutive championships. The MVP went to Paul Molitor, who'd gone .500, with 12 hits (six for extra bases), eight RBIs and ten runs scored. Canada was on top of the sporting world, having won their second championship in the last five months, as the Montreal Canadiens had hoisted the Stanley Cup in June. Little did anyone know that it would be the last championship for either team as of our visit there.

In 1994 the Jays talked seriously about a three-peat, but the team didn't have the guns to back it up and when the players went on strike, in August, the Jays were sitting firmly in third place, 16 games off the pace at 55-60.

The Rocket In Toronto
When the strike of 1994 was finally settled the Jays had a new leader at the helm. Over the off-season Pat Gillick resigned and handed control over to Toronto native Gord Ash. During Ash's tenure (1995-2001), the Jays went into free-fall mode, putting together a record of 541-575. During this time they did have some highlights, such as Pat Hentgen's 1996 Cy Young Award, signing Roger Clemens in 1997 and seeing him win back-to-back Cy Young Awards in 1997-1998, as well as bringing in Carlos Delgado, Randy Meyers, Jose Canseco, David Wells, Graham Lloyd, Homer Bush, Pedro Bourbon and Raul Mondesi. Unfortunately, they also traded away Roger Clemens and Shawn Green, and let many others walk during free agency. It seemed that players were coming as well as going, and that carried over to the managers as well. First Cito Gaston was fired, with five games to go in the 1997 season, and over the next four years the team saw a succession of Mel Queen, Tim Johnson, Buck Martinez and Cookie Rojas.
A New Logo

In 1997 the team decided to change its look, going with a new logo- a Blue Jay head atop the Canadian Maple Leaf- but the new look did little besides sell more merchandise. SkyDome also got a new name when, in September of 2000, Rogers Communications announced that it had purchased 80% of the organization, with the rights to purchase the other 20% by 2004, and decided to change the name to Rogers Center.

Between 2002 and 2009 J.P. Ricciardi was the G.M. and he brought in top-flight talent, such as Roy "Doc" Halladay, Erik Hinske, Vernon Wells, Ted Lilly, Miguel Batista, Alex Rios and Frank Thomas, but it didn't help as the Jays would only finish as high as second in the A.L. East (2006, when they were ten games back), and would finish in third and fourth place three and two times, respectively, and as low as fifth, once.

Ricciardi was replaced after the 2009 season, being succeeded by Alex Anthoupolis, but that change did little to stem the tide, as the Jays would finish in fourth place six times and fifth place once. The team always had a loyal fan base, but even those folks were sorely tested, despite exciting players like Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Vernon Wells, Lyle Overbay, Adam Lind, Jose Reyes, Melky Cabrera, Mark Buerhle and R.A. Dickey.

Josh Donaldson
By the time we hit town the Jays were looking to make some noise for the first time since 1993. They had signed catcher Russell Martin and acquired Marco Estrada and Josh Donaldson in off-season trades, and picked up Justin Smoak and Chris Colabello off waivers. The team was exciting to watch again, as they had become an offensive powerhouse in the vein of the late 1980s, early 1990s teams, with Donaldson, Bautista, Encarnacion and Martin being as good a 2-3-4-5 combo as any in the game. As we sat and talked about the team they were currently in second place, about six games behind the surprising New York Yankees, who were in first.

Starting Line-Up and Concessions

Back: Brian, Rob, Me
Front: Nicole, Ry, Brendan

Jim Kulhawy
Nicole Kulhawy
Ryan Kulhawy
Brendan Kulhawy
Robert Zoch
Brian O'Connor

As we finished lunch and determined it was time to go in Brendan had decided he needed a Blue Jays batting helmet, so we decided to walk around the stadium and hit the team store before getting on line to go in. The team store at the Home Plate Gate didn't have his helmet, but they sent us to the one next to the outfield gate where we got him just what he wanted, as well as a game night program and scorecard for Ryan. We decided we might as well walk around the rest of the building, completing the circle, and taking a close-up look.

The Front of Rogers Center

The building itself was rather drab looking, a white concrete edifice with red trim and a pale white dome, which was opened for this evening's game. There were banners of the different Jays players hanging from the sides of the building, but aside from that there was very little to differentiate Rogers Center from any other sporting venue. The one thing we did find "interesting" was a sculpture, located by the left field gate, attached to the side of the building, called "The Audience."

The Audience
Sculpture Description
The Audience, created by Canadian artist Michael Snow, is two sculptures
made to resemble a group of fans that one would find in attendance at an event at Rogers Center. Hanging from the Northeast and Northwest entrances to the stadium, these pieces of art are supposed to bring the fan expierience from the inside of the building to the streets of Toronto, making all that see them want to be a part of the action going on inside.

By the time we circled the ballpark it was almost time to go in, so we quickly went to line up in front of the Home Plate Gate in order to quickly get inside and see the place. Though we had just eaten, Ryan was, of course, hungry again and dying to find some kind of "Canadian" ballpark food.

"What would be Canadian food," he asked.
"Bacon," Brendan told him right away.
"Bacon is not Canadian," Ryan shot back.
"Canadian bacon is," he was quickly told.
Round 1 to Brendan.
"You know how this works," I told him. "See the place first, eat second."
"But I'm hungry now," he laughed.
"You're always hungry," Nicole told him. "You'll be fine waiting a little longer, now let's go see this place."

The ballpark was definitely built in a prior era; that much was obvious the moment we walked in. Ever since Camden Yards was constructed ballparks have been open and airy, offering great sight-lines from the concourses so the fans could be out of their seats and still feel as if they were a part of the action and see the game as it was going on, but there was none of that here. It seemed, to me at least, that the concourses were dark and set back from the field of play, which very much made me feel confined and distanced from the action. It was like being in Miami again, though with more fans around.

CN Tower From Inside
All that changed, however, when we walked out behind home plate to take some pictures. Once we were in the seating area the views were fabulous. Gone was the dark, dingy feel of the concourse, replaced by the light of the sun, and the views of the city, which could be seen above the upper rim of the stadium. The most stunning sight was the CN Tower, which stood high above the right field wall of the stadium, and seemed to go up forever, penetrating the light blue Ontario sky.

From behind the plate the field looked vast, though in reality it was no bigger or smaller than a normal-sized major league park. What Brendan noticed was the scoreboard.

"That thing is huge," he said, pointing to center field.

Scoreboard, Banners and Hotel Rooms
Situated directly over the 400 foot sign, the scoreboard sits in the midst of windows belonging to the Renaissance Hotel. This means the patrons of those rooms would have a view from straight-away center field, better than some of the patrons who bought tickets to the game. The LED-lit board is 33 feet high and 110 feet wide and has two companion boards, in left and right field, which stand ten feet high and 65 feet wide. Directly above the board stand eight banners depicting memorable players and seasons in Blue Jays history. From left to right, they start with Pat Gillick's Baseball Hall of Fame banner and then there are the 1985 and 1989 A.L. East Champion, the 1991 All-Star Game and 1991 A.L. East Champions, the 1992 and 1993 World Series Champion ones and, finally, Roberto Alomar's Baseball Hall of Fame one.

RF Level of Excellence
LF Level of Excellence
We also noticed, while looking around, that there were names imprinted on the walls of the stadium and after asking an usher we were told it was the "Blue Jays Level of Excellence." Apparently this is a recognition the team awards to individuals within the organization to recognize their achievements to the franchise. The name of the honoree is emblazoned on the 500 Level of the Rogers Center, for all to see, and as of today the list includes Dave Stieb (1996), George Bell (1996), Joe Carter (1999), Cito Gaston (1999), Tony Fernandez (2001), Pat Gillick (2002), Tom Cheek (2004), Roberto Alomar (2008), Paul Beeston (2008) and Carlos Delgado (2013). We thought perhaps these were also the numbers the Blue Jays had retired, but were surprised to learn this was not the case. As of our visit only one player's number had been retired, Roberto Alomar's #12.

After taking in all the sights, and snapping off a few pictures, we decided to head over to the first base area to watch the Jays take batting practice. Both boys were hoping to snag a ball, or an autograph, and the adults were quite content to be able to just relax while the kids had fun.

Up until this time we all had been joking about Brian's choice of attire for the game. Apparently he had gone out and purchased Tim Raines' MONTREAL EXPOS jersey, just so he could screw with the Toronto fans, and we were all getting a big kick out of the looks he was getting, though no one was prepared for what we found down by the field when we got there.

"Hey look, it's an older Uncle Brian," Brendan called out, pointing and laughing.

Brian and His Twin
Sure enough, walking down the aisle, coming straight at us was a gentleman that could have been Brian's doppelganger in 25 more years, wearing the exact same jersey. Nicole snorted, Ryan guffawed and Rob and I laughed and shook our heads. Brian, of course, loved every minute of it and struck up a conversation with the man, or at least a partial conversation as he spoke French and broken English. We made sure to grab a picture before he headed off to find some friends- at least that's what I think he said he was doing- and then settled in to watch the Jays' batting practice.

The kids loved being so close to the field and we were happy we had staked out a location that allowed them to be safe from hard-hit line drives, so we could all just relax and have a good time. Ryan was over a little to my right, trying to convince the pitchers who were shagging fly ball to toss him one, while Brendan stayed a little closer to the adults, just happy to be this close to the field.

Brian Catches a Ball
All of a sudden I heard the crack of the bat and before I knew it Brian was holding a baseball. He looked as shocked as I was, but the person most impressed was Brendan.

"You caught that?" he wanted to know.
"Well, yeah," was Brian's response.
"Can I see it, please," he wanted to know.
"Sure," Brain said, handing over the ball.
"Thanks," Brendan replied, taking the ball and examining it, before walking away. "Ryan, look what I got," he called to his brother.
"What just happened," Brian asked me quizzically.
"I think you just lost the ball," Rob told him.

Everyone had a good laugh...except for Ryan, who was none too pleased. Now he was more determined than ever to get one of his own.

"I would have given it to him anyway," Brian whispered to Nicole and I, "but I didn't want to leave Ryan out."
"No worries," Nicole told him. "Ryan has plenty and I guarantee he'll find a way to get one of his own before all is said and done."

Ry Needs a Ball
View From Center Field
Ryan was now on a mission to get a ball. He looked all over the
stadium, searching out what he considered the optimal location to harass a fielder, and picked the stands behind dead-center. Never mind that it had a wall 30 feet above the playing surface; that was what he considered his best option, so off he started, with us close behind and snickering at his determination.

Ryan wasn't the only one who had the idea this would be a perfect location; by the time we got there five or six other kids were there as well. He carefully staked out a spot, away from the crowd, and started to call to the players every time a ball was hit their way.

Both Kids Get BP Balls
I for one didn't think he'd be heard over the din of the other kids, but he was persistent. While the other kids were yelling and screaming, calling the players by their first names and "demanding" that a baseball be thrown their way, Ryan was loud enough to be heard, but also polite and less demanding. He would always call the player "Mr." and ask if he could "please have a ball" and in the end he was obviously heard. One of the players whom I didn't recognize- they were wearing pull-over jackets which didn't have the names on the back- looked up, pointed at him, and tossed him a ball. The look on his face was priceless. He had a smile that stretched from ear to ear as he walked over to show us his ball.

"Never had a doubt, did you?" I asked.
"Nope, I knew if I was polite, not rude like the rest of them, I'd be Oay," he told us.
"Who are you, and what have you done with my son?" Nicole asked, laughing.
"Can we eat now, I'm hungry?' he wanted to know.
"Looks like the real Ryan's back," Brian laughed.
"That didn't take long," Brendan chimed in.
"Food...Now...Please," was all Ryan said, as he started walking towards the left field corner.

Now I had been scouting out food since we had entered the building, as I knew this moment was coming and needed to be prepared. We usually do something indicative to the city we're in, but I had no clue what was indicative to Toronto, or Canada for that matter, that they could possibly have at the ballpark. I knew SkyDome had, at one time, been the home to a Hard Rock Cafe- I had eaten there after we had been "asked" to leave Gretzky's many years ago, but that had closed in 2009 and it wasn't exactly "Canadian," so that was out- but other than that I didn't see much in the way of anything but traditional ballpark food, meaning hot dogs, sausage and peppers, peanuts, popcorn and such.

Now Rogers Center does have some great sit-down places, such as the TD Comfort Clubhouse and the Sightlines Market and Bar, but that's not what we were in the mood for. Both are full-service eating areas, that offer a premium menu, full-service bars and fantastic sight-lines to see the game, but the Sightlines Market and Bar is one step above a normal sit-down restaurant. It is an open-air eatery, featuring a local farm-to-table buffet and lots of carving stations where even the pickiest eater can find something to satisfy their appetite. You can enjoy this facility either pregame, during the game, or post-game, but you will want to make a reservation to do so.

Inside The Market
Toronto Street Eats
There are plenty of other choices, if you are like us and not wanting a sit-down atmosphere. You can choose from Corktown Fresh Burger Co., for a gourmet burger, the T.O. Sandwich Company, for a freshly made sandwich or wrap, Garrison Creek Gourmet Hot Dogs, for a specially-made foot-long, or the Muddy York Market, where you can grab a wood-smoked, hand-carved, gourmet sandwich. Unfortunately none of these came across as "Canadian," but we found two things that did. A peameal bacon sausage sandwich, from Hogtown Grill, and a beef brisket poutine box, from T.O. Street Eats.

"What the hell is peameal bacon sausage?" I asked Rob.
"I have no idea," he looked quizzically at Brian.
"It kinda looks like a big hot dog," Brian said, trying to help.
"But what's peameal?" Ryan wanted to know.
"That's easy," Bren told him. "It's cornmeal, that's been peed on."
"I'll have the poutine box," Ryan said, making a face.

Brendan just laughed.

Poutine Brisket Box
The poutine box was just that: a ginormous box of poutine, topped with almost as much beef brisket. Ryan wanted to dig right in, but we told him he had to take it upstairs and eat at our seats. Grudgingly he closed the box so we could walk upstairs, where Brendan wanted to grab some pizza and Nicole wanted a hot dog. After all the great local cuisines we had been eating throughout our journeys, those choices just made Ryan, Rob and I shake our heads, but it's what they wanted so we made sure they got it.

The Game:

View From Our Seats
Our favorite place to sit in any ballpark is upstairs, behind home plate. In my opinion this gives the most optimal view of everything that will take place during the game, and we weren't deviating from that formula in Toronto. The layout from our seats was amazing and the  roof being open just enhanced the view, as far as I was concerned. It was especially impressive to see the CN Tower off to our right, starting to light up as the sun was sinking lower in the sky. The weather was supposed to be poor the next day, but this was a perfect evening for a ball game and I was thrilled we were able to experience this atmosphere.

First Pitch

Mark Buehrle was toeing the rubber for the Jays, while Nick Martinez would be working for the Rangers. Buehrle had always been known as a dependable starter and his record, on this night, stood at 7-4, but I didn't know much about Martinez. Brian told me he was 5-3, at this point, and was an average fourth or fifth, starter but nothing more.

Buehrle worked quickly, as he usually did, retiring the first two batters on eight pitches, but then he threw an ill-advised fastball to Prince Fielder, who crushed it over the right-center-field fence, giving Texas a 1-0 lead.

"Not the way we wanted the game to start," Ryan grumbled, face full of brisket poutine.
"No," I told him, "but it's early yet and Toronto has a good offense. This won't end 1-0."
"I just don't like giving up runs before the team we want to win even gets to the plate," he continued.
"They'll be fine," I promised. "Now, how is that poutine?"
"You want a bite?" he asked.
"Why do you ask questions you already know the answer to," I laughed.
"Don't you know you shouldn't answer a question with another question?" he winked.
"Just give me the box, please," I said, completely understanding the comedic effect he was going for.

Ryan Digs In
I took a fork-full and was immediately hooked. The fries were a little soggy, from the gravy, but the flavors of potato, cheese and barbecued meats made me forget about that. The earthy starch of the potato, mixed nicely with the gravy, sort of like a fork full of mashed potatoes and gravy, while the cheese added a rich creaminess and the brisket added that salty, smoked meat flavor that pulled everything together in a wonderful, exotic way. This dish was definitely a winner, both Brian and Rob agreed, though Nicole and Brendan wanted no part of it, which was just as well because Ryan was getting worried he'd be getting an empty box back.
"Okay, we need some runs," Ryan said, through another mouthful of poutine, as Jose Reyes led off the bottom of the first.

Reyes walked on four balls, to start things off on the right foot, and was followed by a Donaldson single and another walk, this one to Jose Bautista. Things were looking good for the Jays, as they had the bases loaded and no one out and slugger Edwin Encarnacion at the plate. Encarnacion was one-third of the Jays top-of-the-order power, Donaldson and Bautista being the other two, and he was quite capable of making this a 4-0 game with one swing of the bat- something that wasn't lost on the fans, who were starting to get excited.
"Wouldn't it be great if he hit a grand slam?" Brendan wondered aloud.

No sooner were the words out of his mouth than Encarnacion did just that, sending a 1-1 pitch over the center-field wall, for a 4-0 Toronto lead. Rogers Center exploded in applause and cheering, Brendan looked around with his mouth wide open in astonishment and there were high-fives for everyone.

"I told you it wouldn't end 1-0," I laughed at Ryan, as we hugged the folks around us in celebration.

Hernandez did settle in and get the next three batters, Martin, Colabello and Carrera, to end the inning, but the fans were fired up and it was just the beginning of the fun.

Buehrle got into a little bit of trouble in the second, giving up a walk to Elvis Andrus and a double to Rougned Odor, after getting the first batter. Leonys Martin then brought in Andrus with an infield out, making the score 4-2, but the Jays escaped further trouble when Robinson Chirinos struck out to end the inning.
Heading into the second inning Hernandez was looking to pick up where he left off in the first, getting the last three batters, but he immediately got into trouble, giving up a double to Kevin Pillar, who then went to third on an infield single by Devon Travis. Pillar came in to score on an infield out, while Travis went to second. With Josh Donaldson now up Hernandez dug himself deeper by throwing a pick-off attempt into center-field, which moved Travis to third, and he came in when Donaldson singled to center. The crowd was now on the verge of exploding, but they would have to wait for the next inning, as the Jays grounded into an inning-ending double play and killed the mood.

The Rangers went down 1-2-3 in the top of the third and Hernandez almost got the Jays to do the same in the bottom of the inning, but Russell Martin killed that hope when he homered to left field, upping the score to 6-2. The rout was on and we were having a blast. Ryan, Rob and I were showing Brendan the finer points of the game, watching the fielders, the hitters and the strategy that was taking place before us, while Nicole and Brian were keeping us amused with their people-watching comments. All in all we were having a great time and the excitement wasn't over yet...for the Jays and their fans.

Happy Fans
The rest of the game went by in a blur. The Rangers only managed five more hits over the next six innings and never threatened to score again, but the Jays had that many more runs. They would score two in the bottom of the fifth, making it 9-2, on a Colabello double and a Martin sacrifice fly, and another two in the seventh when Encarnacion hit his second dinger of the night, before ending the run barrage with another in the eighth on a Danny Valencia homer. By the time the carnage had ended Toronto had won 12-2 and there were a lot of happy Jays fans, including us, heading for the exit.

Post Game Wrap-Up and Off To Waterloo

Game Totals

Jays Win
After the final out was recorded we quickly headed to the car. It wasn't late, but we had an hour's drive ahead of us to get to our new "home-away-from-home," for the next two days, in Waterloo, Ontario, where we would be staying with our friends Cindy and Jeff, and their son, Kyle.

When Ryan and I started this grand excursion lodging was a primary concern of mine, knowing how quickly those expenses could add up, but friends and family have always been extremely kind and open their homes to welcome us as their own, and this trip was no exception. Right from the beginning Cindy and Jeff had insisted we stay with them, even though, amazingly, we had never met them in person.

Cindy and Jeff
As with many others, we met Cin and Jeff through and on-line Bruce Springsteen community and had grown close over the years. We share many of the same friends, whom we had met before, but could never seem to hook up at a concert or sporting event before this. We had wanted them to go to the game with us, and share in our Toronto adventure, but Jeff was away on his annual family camping and fishing trip and Cindy and Kyle wanted to be home when he got there, so they had politely declined, but wanted us to stay with them on both Friday and Saturday nights and wouldn't take no for an answer. With that very generous offer there was no way we could say no, so it was off to Waterloo right after the game.

By the time we got to their home, which is about an hour and fifteen minutes outside of downtown Toronto, we were a little tired and ready to relax. After all, it had been a long day, but we were excited to see/meet the Watkin family and they in turn were excited for our arrival.

I pulled the car in to the bridleway and headed to the door with Ryan, concerned it was a bit late to be ringing someone's doorbell. Those fears were quickly extinguished when I heard a squeak of delight at the sound of the doorbell and Cindy came skipping to the front door- I kid you not, she was skipping. She opened the door and quickly grabbed me for a hug and kiss hello, before moving on to Ryan and the rest of our weary entourage. Amazingly our feeling of being tired disappeared, and there was no way to not love this woman. She stands about 5'3" with brown hair and soft, warm-eyes, and her energetic, bubbly personality only enhanced her natural beauty and kindness. I knew right away we were going to have fun.

Our Welcome Sign
Our Welcome Cocktail Bucket
Once inside she introduced us to Jeff, a big bear of a man, who was outgoing, friendly and quick to offer a smile, a handshake and, importantly, a cold beer. As we walked into the kitchen we were greeted by a chalkboard sign on which Cindy had written " WELCOME AMERICAN FRIENDS" and underneath it was a full washtub of every kind of beer you could imagine. As if that weren't enough, Cindy quickly pulled a bacon cheese dip out of the oven, all warm and gooey, and set it on a table full of chips, dips and assorted snacky things that made my head spin. I was quickly becoming overwhelmed at this amazing display of hospitality. These folks were amazing and I had only known them for ten minutes.

Kyle and The Boys
A few minutes after we got situated Kyle came up from downstairs, where he had been preparing a "kids only" lounging area, complete with sleeping space, movies and video games. It was everything three boys could want, including no adults to bother them. Kyle is about Ryan's age and was very outgoing and polite, which was no surprise considering who his parents were. The boys quickly warmed up to each other, grabbed some snacks and headed downstairs to their "kids' cave," leaving the adults to sit back and share some laughs.

Nicole and Cindy

Nicole and Cindy got along right away and quickly started laughing, joking and giggling, no doubt helped by  the wine, while Brian, Rob, Jeff and I started talking about music, sports, our trip and Jeff's latest adventure in the Canadian wilderness of Northern Ontario.

As I said before, Jeff is a big bear of a man (more like a teddy bear, but I digress), and just looks like he would be at home either indoors or outside. Every year he, his brother and their dad take an annual camping/fishing trip to Northern Ontario, where the three of them bond over the great outdoors, and this year was no exception. They love everything about the trip, the camping, the fishing, the time alone with nature, except this year nature bit them back, literally.

It seems that on this particular trip the three of them were attacked, and eaten alive, by the entire mosquito population of the Great North Woods and Jeff had the bites to prove it. He was completely covered from head to toe in the itchy red bumps and was happy to have just survived. In fact it was this experience that led Jeff to utter a phrase that we all will be using forever, in some way, shape or form: "Northern Ontario is beautiful...don't ever go there."

The Boys
Rob, Cin and I
We spent the next two hours laughing, joking, eating, drinking and taking pictures before we looked at the clock and realized what time it was. We were having so  much fun with everyone that we had even forgotten how tired we were. So after discussing the plans for tomorrow, and of course one more round for everyone, we headed to bed. It had been a long, but fun, day and tomorrow promised more of the same.

June 27: Hockey, The Fishy Zoo and a Party, Canadian-Style 

Hockey Hall of Fame

The next morning we were all up by 8:30. Cindy and Jeff had beaten us downstairs and were getting ready for breakfast and had Mimosas and Irish coffees ready to go. We were each handed one as we entered the kitchen and asked what we would like for breakfast. Two thoughts immediately came to mind: 1) I absolutely love these guys; and 2) every day should start like this, with Mimosas and Irish coffee. I was beginning to fall in love with Canada, all over again.

The day was dark, dreary and rainy as we got ready to head out. Brian said his goodbyes to Cindy and Jeff, as they were not coming with us and he would be flying home after we visited the Hockey Hall of Fame, as we all went to the car. Jeff and Cindy were staying behind to prepare for a dinner party they were throwing us, and Kyle was going to the movies with some friends, but we would be meeting another friend, Andy, at the Hall.

We parked the car and Ryan, Brian, Rob and I went off to the Hall of Fame while Nicole and Brendan wandered over to Ripley's Aquarium. We had decided to split up as Brendan and Nik were much more interested  in seeing that than they were the Hall, so it seemed like the perfect way for everyone to do something they really wanted to.

The aquarium was right next to the Rogers Center, so we decided to park the car there, as it would be a shorter distance for Nicole and Brendan, and the boys would walk the four or five blocks across town to get to our destination. It turned out to be a bad move for us though, as we got about three quarters of the way to Yonge Street and the rain started coming down in buckets. We made a mad dash for the entrance, but were a bit wet by the time we got there.

The Cathedral of The Game
The Hockey Hall of Fame is located at the corner of Front and Yonge Streets, in downtown Toronto. It is dedicated to the history of the game and is actually a museum and hall of fame, like its baseball counterpart in Cooperstown. It holds exhibits that center around the great players, and teams, the game has seen, as well as all of the records, memorabilia and trophies as.

Originally founded in 1943, by James Southerland, the Hall was supposed to be built in Kingston, Ontario, which was believed to be the birthplace of the game. The first Hall of Fame class was inducted in 1945 and included Hobey Baker, Charlie Gardiner, Eddie Gerard, Frank McGee, Howie Morenz, Tommy Phillips, Harvey Pulford, Hod Stuart and Georges Vezina. By 1955, however, the Hall had still not raised enough money to construct a permanent building in Kingston and the NHL withdrew its support for the Kingston location and NHL President Clarence Campbell reached an agreement to place the Hall in Toronto, at Exhibition Place.

By 1986 the Hall was bursting at the seams and it was decided a new building, and location, was needed. After a thorough search was conducted the Board of Directors decided to move the Hall to its current location, in the refurbished Bank of Montreal building. Today the Hockey Hall of Fame is operated as a non-profit business known as the Hockey Hall of Fame and Museum, is independent from the NHL and its primary revenue is generated through admission, which lists at about 300,000 visitors per year.

The Hall has a lot of exhibits that cover the history of the game, both  North American and International, as well as certain players, teams and tournaments. It also houses all the major NHL awards and the centerpiece is the Stanley Cup, which is the oldest continuously awarded trophy in all of professional sports.

Ryan and I At The Hall

The main entrance is located downstairs in Brookfield Place, which is a large shopping mall adjacent to the actual building. I don't know why this was decided upon, but I wasn't going to complain as it got us out of the rain and gave us a place to warm up and dry off while we waited for Andy.

 Andy is a friend who lives in the Toronto area, whom I met through the same online Springsteen community as Jeff and Cindy, but is someone we all had actually met before. He's also a huge hockey fan, and very knowledgeable about the game and its history, though he's an Edmonton Oilers fan which flies directly against our Islanders fandom. For all our back and forth, though, we do respect each other's teams and what they have accomplished.

Ryan and I With Ken Dryden

We met Andy outside the main entrance and after a quick hello, and recap of our trip so far, we headed inside. The first thing I wanted was a picture of Ryan and I at the Ken Dryden Statue. I have one of those from my first visit, in 1994, with two close friends (Andy and Frank), so this would be a nice bookend to that one.

Jacques Plante's Mask
As we stepped inside the first thing we saw was a history of the goalie mask and the men who wore them. The first goalie to wear one on a regular basis was Jacques Plante, of the Montreal Canadiens, in 1959. Prior to that goalies wore no protection for their face or heads, which Ryan found, rightfully, ridiculous. We meandered around the masks for a bit, taking pictures of Ken Dryden's, Billy Smith's, Gerry Cheevers' and a few others, before heading inside to see the first exhibit.

The Great One
# 4, Bobby Orr
The first thing we were drawn to was the exhibits on the individual players. We took our time and made sure to read the bios and see the memorabilia for Bobby Orr, Mike Bossy, Denis Potvin, Gordie Howe and, of course, Wayne Gretzky. Ryan was having a blast reading and learning about all the players he had heard about but never seen. He was fascinated by Orr and Gretzky, as they could be considered the two greatest players to ever lace up skates, but he was just as interested in the Islanders' players as they were from his favorite team.

A Bruins Fan In Habs Gear?
Ry Straps On The Pads
After checking out the player section we wandered into the recreation of the Montreal Canadiens' locker room, which was complete down to the most minute detail. We saw how the players' lockers would be laid out, where they would dress, how the room would be equipped with skate sharpeners and even had gear to try on. Ryan, of course, decided to put on a pair of Patrick Roy's goalie pads, which he almost fit into. Brian did the same, but Ry insisted that he looked better.

Our next stop was going to be the Dynasty Room, where the Hall of Fame paid tribute to the NHL teams that had won multiple Stanley Cups in a small time frame. We got to see pictures, facts and memorabilia from multiple Canadiens' teams, the Edmonton Oilers, the Toronto Maple Leafs and, of course, our New York Islanders. Andy took some pictures of the Oilers stuff, but we were quick to steer him towards the Islanders memorabilia.

Russian Red Army Jersey
Rob and Ryan With The IIHF Mask
From the Dynasty
Room we went to the International Hockey Exhibit, which told the story of hockey across the globe. There were facts and figures about the European-born players, as well as the great teams from  the Czech Republic, Sweden, Finland, Germany and the greatest of them all: the Russian Red Army teams. We saw plaques about Anatoly Tarasov, Viktor Tikhonov, Vladislav Tretiak, the KLM line (Krutov, Larionov and Makarov) and, possibly the greatest Russian player of all time, Boris Mikhailov. I was familiar with all these names, as I had grown up in the 1970s and had seen the Russian teams up close, but to Ryan they were all new and he soaked up every bit of knowledge he could read.

1980 US Olympic Jersey
Voted All Time Greatest Hockey Moment
There were also stories about the great international tournaments as well. We got to read the recaps on every Olympic Hockey  Champion, the Canada Cup Champions and the Izvestia Tournament Champions, as well as the 1996 World Cup of Hockey Champions. Of all the things we saw and read, by far, our favorites were the 1980 Olympic "Miracle On Ice" US Team and the 1972 Canadian Summit Series Champions, who both defeated the mighty Russians to shock the world.

Our next stop was going to be the interactive zone, which Ryan was dying to see. Unlike the NFL Hall of Fame, interactive here means doing something more than playing video games and I had told him all about it. When I had first visited the Hockey Hall of Fame it was my favorite part and I had no doubt it would be his as well.

He Shoots, He Scores
I Still Got It
Our first stop was the shooting gallery, where you are given a stick and foam
rubber puck and get to shoot against a video screen, which projects your choice of NHL goalie. The object is to see how many of your ten shots you can score off the goalie in one minute. Needless to say we both chose Henrik Lundquist of the Rangers, so we could "embarrass" him in front of a crowd. Ryan shot first and did well, scoring six out of ten, but that wasn't enough to beat my nine out of ten. He vowed to beat me at the other challenge, where you actually become the goalie.

Ryan In The Net
B Waves To The Crowd
In this challenge you are given eye protection, a goalie sick, a blocker
and a catching glove. You are then positioned in front of a regulation-sized net, while a video board projects players coming at you who fire a foam rubber puck through the screen at the net. Your job is to save as many as possible and, trust me, the action is fast and fierce. Brian, Ryan and I all decided to try our hand at this and while I made, arguably, the most difficult saves, Ryan and Brian both stopped more of the shots than I did. In fact Ryan was the overall winner of the three of us, which made him the de-facto champion.
Save And A Beauty

Brian and Ry Broadcasting NHL Tonight
There was one last stop that Ryan "had" to make in the interactive room, at the CBC Sports Desk. It is here that you get to try your hand at being a sports announcer, who gets to call hockey highlights on Canada's version of ESPN. Ryan and Brian headed into the "booth" and sat in front of the microphones while detailing a hockey play that was being shown on the screen. Their "show" was broadcast to those on the outside and we could listen in as they gave us the play by play. I must say, they were quite good and got an actual round of applause as they exited the "studio."

Our final stop was in a room known as the Esso Great Hall, which is also known as the "cathedral to the icons of hockey." It is here that the Hall keeps every piece of NHL hardware, as well as the actual Hall of Fame plaques, containing portraits and biographies of every member voted into these hallowed halls. The centerpiece of the room is the Stanley Cup, which visitors are encouraged to hug, kiss, take pictures with, whatever their heart's desire. In the back of the room is the bank vault, which holds the original, 1893 Stanley Cup and the older bands from the trophy.

We walked into the room and it literally took my breath away, again, as it did the first time, in 1994. I walked in backwards, to see the expression on Ryan's face, seeing all this for the first time, and it was just as I hoped...wondrous.

"This is amazing," was all he kept saying, over and over.
"That's exactly what I said the first time I saw it, too," I smiled, putting my arm around his shoulder.
"Look at all the trophies," he said, eyes still wide and full of excitement.
"Don't forget all the plaques," I said, sweeping my arm wide, across the room.
"How long are we going to be here," he asked us.
"As long as it takes you to see everything you want," Brian told him, laughing.

Conn Smythe Trophy
Rocket Richard Trophy
The first thing we did was walk around the room and see all the different trophies: the Prince of Wales Trophy and the Campbell Bowl (given to the winners of the Eastern and Western Conferences), the Preisdent's Trophy (best regular season  record for the league), Hart Trophy (League MVP), Lady Byng (most gentlemanly), Vezina (best goaltender), Calder (Rookie of the Year), Art Ross (most points), Norris (best defenseman), the Maurice "Rocket" Richard (most goals in the regular season) and the Conn Smythe (playoff MVP). Ryan made sure to read every note about each trophy and he asked lots of good questions regarding the players who won them.

Mr Hockey
Next we moved on to the Hall of Fame player plaques, spread out through the entire room. I let him find a lot of the players that he knew of, and was interested in, such as Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe, Patrick Roy and Jacques Plante. Then together we sought out all of the Islanders players: Mike Bossy, Bryan Trottier, Denis Potvin, Billy Smith, and Clark Gilles, as well as head coach Al Arbour and G.M. Bill Torrey.

"For a team that's younger than you are, they sure have won a lot and had a lot of great players," he said, talking about the Islanders.
"They were great for quite a few years," I told him.
"Then they weren't, for longer," Brian butted in.
"Quiet you," I shushed him.

He thought for a moment, then asked:

"Who was the best player on those teams?"
"That depends on what you wanted" Andy told him. "Any of them could score, but if you needed a goal, you wanted Bossy to have the puck on his stick and you wanted Trotts to be the one passing it to him. If you needed your best defenseman out there, who was dangerous at either end of the ice
then Potvin was your man. If you needed some muscle, it was Gillies and there was no better 'money' goaltender than Billy Smith. I know; he single-handedly beat my Oilers in '83."
"Don't you forget it," I told him.
"How could I?" he wanted to know. "You'll never let me."

Mike Bossy
Denis Potvin
We spent the next few minutes comparing the Islanders dynasty
(1980, 1981, 1982 and 1983 Staney Cup victories, with semi-final losses in 1978, 1979, and a loss in the finals in 1984) to that of Andy's Oilers, who won the Cup in 1984, 1985, lost in the semi-finals in 1986, then won the Cup again in 1987, 1988 and 1990, and decided that it was too close to call. I did remind Andy that in the 1984 loss to the Oilers, the Isles played without Denis Potvin for the first two games and that both Bossy and Trottier were playing severley injured, and that if they had been at full strength the outcome might have been different. He grudgingly said it might have been, but that it didn't matter, as the Oilers had won.

The Original Cup
Original Base
Next we walked into the vault to see the original Stanley Cup, which had been donated by Lord Stanley of Preston, in 1893, to the winner of Canada's annual hockey championship. The trophy has been continuously awarded to this day, which makes it the oldest trophy in the history of professional sports and something that hockey fans take great pride in.

Original Bands of The Cup
"Check that out," Ryan said, pointing to the bands, encased in glass on the wall.
"Those are the original bands," I told him. "Every time a team wins the Cup the players have their names engraved on the bands that make up the base, so when they run out of room the bands come off and get placed here in the vault and new, empty, ones are put on it, waiting for the next set of winners."
"That's so cool," he said, aloud, to no one in particular. "That way they live forever."
"Exactly," I told him.

Finally it was time to see THE trophy, the Stanley Cup, which is the focal point of the room and something every hockey fan one day dreams of seeing his, or her, team hoist. I was lucky enough to have seen the Islanders win four championships, but Ryan was still waiting to see his first.

The Cup is centered on a pedestal and fans are encouraged to go up and "visit" with it. You can touch it, kiss it, hug it, put your arm around it, but you are not allowed to pick it up. The Hall of Fame can take a professional shot of you with the Cup, or you are free to take your own. Either way it's something of a pilgrimage for millions of hockey fans, who come from all over the world to do all of the above, and we were no exception.

Ryan and I With The Cup
Now I have a picture of Ryan with the Cup from 2003, when he was almost three years old (he was so small he had to be put on the table WITH it), so I most certainly needed another one now. We took shots of Ryan with the Cup, me with the Cup, both of us, and Brian with it. I think the folks behind us were getting a bit antsy, but I didn't really care. It had been 21 years since I had last been here, it was Ryan's first trip and we had come a long way, so I was in no hurry. Eventually we got every shot we wanted and then realized it was time to go.

We quickly went through the gift shop, where Ryan bought a shirt with the Cup on it, and then headed outside, to take one final picture, before heading back to meet Nicole and Brendan.

Brian, Rob, Andy, Me and Ryan, At "The Dasher"
Right outside the Hall there is a sculpture of what is supposed to be the boards in a hockey rink, with youngsters of all ages climbing over to get on the ice. The last time I was here I loved this sculpture so much I made Andy and Frank, grudgingly, take a picture of all of us in front of it and now I wanted to do that again. It was still raining out but everyone was a good sport and agreed to take the shot, so we asked a passerby to please take one for us. He was none too happy to stop in the rain, but he did it for us and I was happy that I had my picture.

We all walked Andy over to Union Station, where we said goodbye and he caught his train. Then it was back to the car, where Brian grabbed his bag, caught a cab and headed to the airport to catch his plane back to Boston. This left Rob, Ryan and I with nothing to do for the next hour, so we decided to head over to the Steam Whistle Brewery and see if we could catch a tour. Unfortunately there were none available, so we decided to grab a beer, a soda for Ryan and walk around to kill sometime while we waited for Nik and Bren to get out of the aquarium.

Bren In The Dangerous Lagoon
Bren and Nicole Enjoying The Aquarium
Eventually we all found one another and headed back to the car, for the trip back to Waterloo. Brendan had a blast at the aquarium and for the next hour regaled us with tales of their exploits at Canada's "Fishy Zoo," which is something he used to call aquariums and has stuck ever since. He told us he saw a lot of things, but his favorite of all the exhibits was something called "The Dangerous Lagoon," which is an underwater tunnel with a moving sidewalk that propels you thorough the tank as sharks, stingrays, turtles and all kinds of fish swim all around you. He also really enjoyed "The Discovery Centre," where they were able to touch all kinds of aquatic life, including small sharks, stingrays, horseshoe crabs and many other species. As I have said before, Brendan is very much my animal kid, so every time we have a chance to get him to a zoo or an aquarium we do so. It's a fun way that we can make these trips inculsive and over the last few years we've had the chance to visit the Bronx Zoo, the National Zoo (Washington, DC), the National Aquarium (Baltimore, Maryland) and, now, the Toronto Zoo and Aquarium. I know for a fact he's looking forward to getting to the San Diego Zoo and Sea World when we get to the West Coast.

When we got back to Jeff and Cindy's it was still raining and Cindy was beside herself. She had planned for Jeff to grill up some steaks and for all of us to hang out on the deck and in the back yard, but the weather had played havoc with her plans and now she had to fall back on Plan B, which was to do everything indoors. We kept telling her not to worry about it, as we were happy with anything, but being such a great hostess she was frustrated.

A Fun Night For All
Jeff did end up grilling outside, though under an umbrella, and the steaks turned out just fine. Cindy set a beautiful table and for the rest of the night we ate, drank, laughed, told stories, and enjoyed the warm hospitable atmosphere they had so generously provided. After dinner we helped clean, and put away, the dishes, before heading off to the living room for some more adult beverages and a fantastic rest of the evening.

Happy Girls

Before we knew it the clock was striking one and we decided to call it a night before someone turned into a pumpkin. Tomorrow was going to be a long drive home and everyone wanted to get a modicum of sleep before getting on the road, but no one wanted the evening to end. Finally we all traipsed off to bed, turning in somewhere around 2 a.m.

July 28: The Long and Winding Road

Breakfast With The Watkins
Sunday morning came way too soon for all of us, but when we got downstairs, around 8:30, there were Cindy and Jeff, once again waiting for us in the kitchen. There were more Mimosas and Irish coffee, but we didn't really partake as we did have to drive back to New Jersey. There was a huge spread on the table: bacon, eggs, Canadian bacon, peameal sausage (we finally found out what it was and had some), hash browns, English muffins, toast and all the juice and coffee we could drink.

We stuffed ourselves silly on all the great food, and before we knew it the time had come to hit the road. No one was happy about it; there were sniffles, tears and the promise that we would all get together soon, this time down by us. The boys were especially unhappy that they were leaving their new friend, but we promised it wouldn't be long before they saw each other again. It's amazing how a group of folks who had only known each other through the internet and over the phone could become so close, so quickly, and have such a great time doing so. A lot of people don't understand how these kind of friendships can occur, let along inviting six strangers (and, trust me, there's no one stranger than us) to stay in their home, but I am here to tell you that not only does it happen, but it does so on a regular basis. We have been blessed to have met some great people, such as Cindy, Jeff and Kyle, and it is a testament to them for what a great time we had.

We hit the road a little after ten and headed straight back to Niagara Falls. We still had to hit the Canadian side of the falls and it only made sense to do it this way, as we had to go back that way to get home. It took us about two hours to get there from Waterloo, because of the weather and the traffic, but it was the perfect break in the drive, which was going to be about ten hours.

Brothers At The Falls
As we headed for the parking lot we could tell right away we had made the right choice on breaking the Falls up into two trips. There looked to be a lot of walking and vantage points from which we wanted to see the sights. It would have been overkill to have tried to do both sides, lunch and head to Toronto in one day, and doing it this way allowed for a different perspective after a few days away.
Our first stop was the visitor's center, right above Horseshoe Falls, and it provided an amazing view that you couldn't get from the American side. We stopped for a while to admire the view, take some pictures and discuss what we thought the differences were between the two different sides.

Panoramic Shot From The Canadian Side
We decided that since we had taken the Maid of the Mist boat tour on the American side we needed to do something equally as fun on the Canadian, so we could get the feel of both. We didn't want to do another boat ride, so in the end we opted for taking something called The Journey Behind the Falls, and ended up being very happy we did.

Journey Behind The Falls
All Of Us "Under" The Falls
The Journey Behind the Falls is, essentially, a walking tour that takes you behind the Horseshoe Falls. You take an elevator down to the base of the falls and then walk through a tunnel that penetrates about three-quarters of the falls itself. The tunnel is what you would expect it to be- dimly lit, wet and cool- but there are photos and captions along the walls that tell the story of the falls and the people who have interacted with them over the years. There are also two "alcoves" that allow you to stand directly behind the water, rushing down, where you can get a good sense of the immense power behind one of Mother Nature's greatest creations. At the end of the tunnel is an exit that puts you outside, next to, the falls, and allows you to stand up close and see how large this wonder truely is. We stopped, took a few pictures and made sure we stayed covered; after all the day was overcast and drizzly, and no one wanted to be wet for the remainder of the car ride.

Bren As A Mountie
Ryan On Patrol
After our excursion behind the falls we decided to run through the gift shop and see if there was anything the boys wanted as a souvenir. Much to our amusement they each tried on Mounties' hats, but in the end we settled for a few trinkets to remind them of their trip. We did, however, tell them we could go into the Duty Free Shop, at the border, and they could get something "Canadian," so they would have a memento. Ryan chose some pure Canadian maple syrup and Canadian chocolates, while Bren decided on just chocolate and I had to have moose jerky.

With that it was time to hit the road; we had a long way to go and didn't want to be home ridiculously late, so we pointed the car eastward and plugged "home" into the GPS.

The ride back took us about eight hours, because of the weather, the traffic and the fact we stopped outside of Binghamton to grab a bite for dinner. Rob had gone to school there and told us we had to try a particular sandwich, called a spiedie, so we stopped at Lupo's S & S Char Pit and gave it a shot.

Apparently a spiedie is a local culinary treat made up of marinated, grilled meats, served on a crusty Italian-style bread and topped with your choice of veggies, sauces and cheeses. We let Rob create ours; after all he knows this neck of the woods and you can't go wrong letting him pick out a meal, and he nailed it. Every single morsel, even the crumbs, were devoured and nothing was left on the plate. I must say, I think one of these shops would do well down by us and if I'm ever in the area again, I'll be sure to stop and grab a few.

With full stomachs and a few drooping eyelids, we all made our way back to New Jersey. Both boys used Rob as a pillow on the way back, but the ride went quickly and we pulled into the driveway a little after 10 p.m. We were glad to be home, but sad the trip was over. We had done, and seen, a lot of great things, met up with some old friends and made some great new ones and that's exactly what this journey is all about. I was also glad Nicole and Brendan had the chance to go with us, and that they enjoyed these five days as much as the rest of us had. It gave them a chance to see exactly what we did on our trips, but at a much slower pace, and squeeze in things they enjoyed as well.

As I got ready for bed, I glanced at the calendar on the nightstand; it was June 28th, 2015. Suddenly it struck me. In less than one month we would be on a plane, heading for Colorado and the next leg of our journey. I smiled and silently nodded, as I couldn't wait to get back on the road and see what was in store for us. I quietly flipped off the light, pulled the covers up, and snuggled in close to my wife, who was already fast asleep.

The plan: Fly to Colorado, drive back to New Jersey and see ballgames in Colorado Springs, Denver, Kansas City, St. Louis, Memphis, Nashville, Pulaski (VA) and Frederick (MD). I couldn't wait.

Next Stop:
Friday, July 24, 2015
Denver, Colorado
Coors Field
Cincinatti Reds vs. Colorado Rockies