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Official Review by Scott Montesano, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
Unless you’re an avid hunter or camper there likely has never been a reason for yourself or your family to venture anywhere near Thunder Bay, Ontario. This is arguably one of the most remote communities of more than 100,000 people on the continent as it’s located at the end of a winding four hour drive from Duluth, MN to the southwest. It sits eight hours east of Winnipeg and six hours west of Sault St. Marie. However, it’s a prime shipping port for Lake Superior and its pristine wilderness draws in outdoor enthusiasts.
The community also has a hidden gem of a ballpark, Port Arthur Stadium the home of the Northwoods League’s Thunder Bay Border Cats. Thunder Bay’s location has never had it comfortably in the footprint of any league, but since the 1990s, the now-defunct Northern League and now the Northwoods League, have extended their Upper Midwest geography north and into Canada to take advantage of this park’s potential. The park dates back to the 1950s and was used exclusively for local town ball teams and also the occasional Canadian junior tournament until the professional Thunder Bay Whisky Jacks arrived in 1994.
The team’s clever nickname, and teal-based colors, were a reflection of the 1990s and the team was a cult favorite in magazines but never a success at the box office. The team left after 1998, but along came the Border Cats in 2003 who enjoyed moderate success at first, but who now mostly play to crowds in the low hundreds as well.
It’s a shame, because while the park clearly shows its age, with chunks of concrete missing, the overall condition of the facility is amazing. The main grandstand extends from base to base wrapping around home with seats 3,000, all individual plastic seats. The seats begin five feet off the ground and extend up 20 rows, with all fans walking up to their seats. A roof covers all but the last few yards of seats down both baselines and a press box sits atop the roof. A drawback is that mesh netting runs the length of the seating structure.
The staircases are very narrow (a throwback to the 1950s), and some steps have worn away so it can be dangerous in spots. The interior of the grandstand is also very tiny, with a hallway that is only slightly bigger than that inside a home, expected to flow fans to concessions and restrooms, but remember this wasn’t built for professional baseball. Still, the interior is painted bright white and red and the facilities underneath are kept clean.
While concessions exist under the grandstand, there is also a standalone building past the first base side and a single-level party deck down the left field line.
A rickety wood bleacher is up the right field line, but is rarely ever needed with the small Border Cat crowds.
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Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Canada can be expensive and expect to pay $1-$2 more than what you would find south of the border. The standard items are served here, and not much else.
Unless the Border Cats are playing a playoff game (where sellouts are frequent), the crowd on most nights will top out in the low hundreds. On nights where it's cool that number might even been in the dozens. Still, the sightlines are nice and the roof contains the sounds of the game and creates a stereo effect for your ears. It's a relaxing night, even if it can be dull.
The ballpark is located in Port Arthur (Fort William is the other city that combined to form Thunder Bay in the early 1970s) and you'll hear plenty of untrue rumors about safety. The stadium itself sits next to the 1981 Canada Summer Games Aquatic Centre, which is still used as a city recreation center, and also a small hockey rink (this is Canada). Beyond right field is a former little league field that has been allowed to go into disrepair and is now used as a dog park.
Just beyond centerfield is a major commercial strip that includes everything from chain restaurants and mega stores to a gentleman's club.
Sadly, there just aren't many. Thunder Bay has had a checkered past of supporting teams for not only baseball but also hockey (though Lakehead University has been a box office success recently). The excuses are plentiful and the dozens of fans at the game you attend will be quick to tell them to you from weather, to the lack of media exposure.
Unless you fly into Thunder Bay (which is very expensive), your likely trek will be from Duluth, MN and hugging Lake Superior. On a map it doesn't look far, but because it's a two-lane road in the wilderness it takes up to four hours and that doesn't include the 10 minute stop at the border.
Getting to Thunder Bay is a hassle, but at the end is a gem of a ballpark that otherwise wouldn't have been seen. Port Arthur Stadium isn't one of the classic minor league ballparks, nor should it be considered as such, but is worth a visit as it's been fairly well maintained. Just noticing how small the aisles and hallways are further brings into perspective how much bigger society has gotten in general.
Thunder Bay is home to the largest grain elevators in North America and they provide the backdrop/skyline of Thunder Bay beyond centerfield. The city itself also offers a number of picturesque views of Lake Superior and the wilderness that surrounds the civilized areas. If you're one into hunting or fishing or camping, this is definitely a place to checkout and maybe make the ballgame something that is done on a day into town.
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735 Hewitson St
Thunder Bay, ON P7B 5V5
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439 Memorial Ave
Thunder Bay, ON P7B 3Y6