May 4, 2023
By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
Chris Robinson has played in some of the greatest major league stadiums and ballparks around the world, but he says the feeling he gets when he walks on to Royal Field, the Great Lake Canadians’ new state-of-the-art ballpark in his hometown of Dorchester, Ont., is special.
When he walks on to Royal Field, he feels grateful and fortunate, and even a bit of awe.
“Honestly, we come out here on a Saturday and we’re sitting in the dugout and sometimes we say, ‘This is pretty cool,’” said Robinson during an interview on the field last Thursday.
“Pretty cool” is an understatement.
Royal Field features a digital scoreboard, spacious bullpens, a batting tunnel, 50-foot brick-backed dugouts, a 400-seat grandstand behind home plate and outside of the Rogers Centre, it’s the only full turf stadium in Ontario.
“This is kind of the crown jewel of amateur baseball now in the country,” said Robinson, who serves as the director of baseball operations with the Great Lake Canadians. “And selfishly, I have to say that it’s pretty cool that this in Dorchester, Ontario.”
Robinson, who grew up and lives in Dorchester, credits fellow ex-big leaguer Adam Stern, the Great Lake Canadians director of player development, with the vision for the stadium.
“He’s got all of the ideas and he’s the one who sees the forest beyond the trees,” said Robinson.
Robinson had heard Stern talk about a full-turf field for the Great Lake Canadians (GLC) program.
“I think over time the more you’re here [in Dorchester], you saw games lost to some weather early in the spring and we needed the ability to extend our season and to play a little bit earlier and to play a little bit later in the fall,” said Stern, when asked about the turf in an interview on the new field last Thursday.
Through his contacts, Stern heard the Blue Jays were looking to unload the turf they had replaced prior to returning to the Rogers Centre during the pandemic in July 2021.
Robinson recalls that it was only about two weeks before the Blue Jays announced that they were returning to the Rogers Centre from Buffalo in 2021 that they were told the Blue Jays were willing to donate the old turf (valued at $300,000) to them, but that they needed to come and get it as soon as possible. That’s when Stern sprang into action, arranging for 19, 54-foot flatbed trucks to transport the turf to Dorchester.
“We had the logistics on that end and then the logistics of coming back here,” said Stern. “We had to offload it and some of these rolls [of turf] are 14,000 pounds. So, they were super heavy, but we were able to get it done. It was a full team effort on both ends.”
The end result is that the Great Lake Canadians and Dorchester minor baseball players are now able to play on the same turf that Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista belted his famous bat flip home run on in the seventh inning of Game 5 of the 2015 American League Division Series.
And the turf is not the only thing from the Rogers Centre that has been incorporated into Royal Field. Its outfield dimensions – 328 feet down the lines, 375 feet to the power alleys and 400 feet to centre field – are the same as those at the Blue Jays’ home stadium prior to the renovations before the 2023 season.
“It plays very similar to what the Rogers Centre would’ve before the renovations,” said Robinson.
Although a few games were played at Royal Field last October, it was set to have its grand opening, ribbon-cutting ceremony last Friday before rain washed out the festivities.
But a little rain won’t dampen the spirits of Robinson and Stern when they talk about their new ballpark, which was completed in under six months by 39 Seven, an artificial turf installation company headquartered in Guelph, Ont. Robinson says the first shovel went in the ground in late March 2022 and the first games were played on it on October 14.
“We’ve had a ton of support and the Municipality of Thames Centre has been incredible,” said Robinson. “And within the GLC family, we’ve had a ton of support in terms of financial donations and then locally with the local community businesses. We’ve had a lot of people jumping on board. So, it’s been really cool to see a lot of people rally around this.”
Royal Field is also a great 10th anniversary gift for the Great Lake Canadians, one of the top elite baseball programs in the country. Aside from Robinson and Stern, Jamie Romak, another ex-big leaguer, serves as the organization’s director of player performance.
Over the years, more than a dozen GLC grads have went on to pro careers, more than two dozen have suited up for the national team and more than 100 players have gone on to compete at the collegiate level. In 2022, GLC had the top Canadian selected in the MLB draft when infielder Dylan O’Rae (Sarnia, Ont.) was chosen by the Milwaukee Brewers in the third round. The previous year, right-hander Calvin Ziegler (Heidelberg, Ont.), another GLC grad, was chosen in the second round by the New York Mets.
Royal Field will twin well with the Great Lake Canadians’ other field built at the same Dorchester location. The new field will enable all of the GLC teams – from 14U to 18U – to play in Dorchester.
Robinson says the 50-foot brick-backed dugouts and the berm past the left field fence are his favourite features of Royal Field.
“I think when you come in here, it gives you a stadium feel. I love the berm in the outfield. I love the dugouts,” said Stern. “I love that you have everything here. You’ve got bullpens, cages, you’ve got stands . . . I think with all that, it doesn’t just feel like a baseball field. It feels like you’ve got a smaller college atmosphere when you come here.”
The Great Lake Canadians have secured sponsors for many of the stadium’s features, including the bullpens and batting tunnel. People can pay $1,000 to have their name affixed to one of 100 VIP seats behind home plate for life.
The field is named after Royal Fence, a local company that has gone above and beyond in their support of the project, says Robinson.
Stern and Robinson are looking forward to their first full season at Royal Field.
“We’re trying to host as many events as we can. The OBA is hosting their junior eliminations here in July, which is one of their bigger tournaments, so that will be cool to be using both of these fields. This will be the hub for it,” said Robinson. “On the CPBL (Canadian Premier Baseball League) side, we will host three of the playoffs here.
“And we’re hosting a huge showcase for two weeks in May where it will be the top draft prospects in the country coming here to play. It will be five games here a day and four games here a day and scouts and general managers and scouting directors, everybody will be here to watch the talent.”
Robinson, who grew up in Dorchester and lives in town with his young family, is also grateful that the local association has been so supportive of the project. Dorchester Minor Ball raised the money to pay for the digital scoreboard.
“I also want to make sure I help grow the game locally,” said Robinson, who serves on the Dorchester Minor Ball executive.
Dorchester has seen a rise in registration numbers in recent years.
“Many more local kids are going to be playing on this field,” said Robinson. “So that’s cool to have the elite guys [from GLC] and then also our own local guys playing on a local field.”
On top of the local talent and the Great Lake Canadians players, Robinson and Stern hope that the Canadian national team might train at Royal Field in the future.
“I think the goal is to get the highest level you can get here using this field,” said Stern. “So hopefully we’ll get some of the national events and hopefully one day we’ll get the national team here to work out, that would be a huge bonus.”
But that’s in the future, let’s let Robinson and Stern savor this gem of a new field for a bit.
“A year ago, this was a corn field,” said Stern, while standing on the field last Thursday. “Right now they’re putting the capping on the fence and finishing up the shed. Once all of the grass grows [around the stadium] and you sit here and you get some music going and some heat going, you get the summer and maybe some barbecues going out in left field, I think that will be the atmosphere we’re looking for.”