CANADA

Magic in the summertime

JENNIFER HUNTER August 10 1998
CANADA

Magic in the summertime

JENNIFER HUNTER August 10 1998

Magic in the summertime

CANADA

FOCUS

JENNIFER HUNTER

The heat is hellish. The thick, steamy air rises to the last row in Vancouver’s Nat Bailey Stadium and hangs over the spot where Harold Hanson and his sister, Ann Brend, are playing cards—row 17, directly above home plate. The 7:05 p.m. baseball game between the Vancouver Canadians and the Tacoma Rainiers of the Pacific Coast League won’t start for another 20 minutes, so Hanson and Brend have brought along their cribbage board and a deck of 52. The 36° C heat is unexpected, unusual in normally temperate Vancouver, but they refuse to move down to where the air is cooler. ‘Too many kids,” mutters the 75-year-old Hanson. Big sister Brend, 79, just shrugs. She only comes a couple of times a year, but he is a regular, making the 10-minute drive from his east-side home to the midtown stadium at least 40 times a season. The Canadians are the cellar dwellers in the league, with a record of 38 wins and 66 losses, but even though it is a losing game in Vancouver, baseball is Hanson’s passion.

Last month, however, the management of the Vancouver Canadians announced the team was up for sale. The price: $12 million. That raises the possibility that the team— started in 1978 by late sports mogul Harry Ornest—could leave Vancouver. Tiere is increasing competition for Triple-A franchises and glamorous new stadiums are being built to accommodate them, like the new $ 12-million facility in downtown Edmonton or the $60-million one in Oklahoma City. Nat Bailey, built in 1951, is quaint but small, a fact that, coupled with the shrinking dollar, could impel new owners to move the Canadians, the farm team for the Anaheim Angels. For Hanson, summers would never be the same. “I’m a miserable old hermit,” says the retired plasterer with a wry smile. “These baseball games are basically all I go to now.”

A few seats away, Jim McMurtrie says he too is worried about the possibility of the team leaving. “That would really hurt,” says the 58-year-old retired bakery worker. ‘You could get rid of any other franchise in the city, the Canucks, the Grizzlies, and I wouldn’t

care. But this would really hurt.” It would hurt more than just McMurtrie and Hanson. Each year, over 300,000 Vancouverites flock to Canadians games, drawn by the magic of Nat Bailey Stadium and the chance to watch potential major leaguers on the way up.

In spite of the stadium’s drawbacks, there is something glorious about watching baseball at Nat Bailey, named after the man who founded the White Spot restaurant chain, and once called the “best little ballpark in North America.” There is the manicured, real-grass field, the immediacy of home plate and the evocative sounds—the crisp echo of the bat cracking the ball and the ball thudding into the catcher’s mitt. There is the scenic view of Queen Elizabeth Park with its rolling, treed hills; the excitement of the dozens of families who spend summer evenings watching ball, the kids slurping their garish blue and red snow cones or munching hot dogs.

And there are the characters in the rooftop press box, who concurrently act as reporters, scorekeepers, public-address announcers, and unofficial historians of

Vancouver baseball. Pat Karl, 58, has been coming to the stadium since 1978 to report on the Canadians and also act as scorekeeper. He and his friend, freelancer Jim Bennie, can rattle off innumerable statistics, anecdotes, scores. “Half the fans here couldn’t even tell you what the starting lineups are,” says Karl. “But it’s a beautiful stadium, a place where you can relax and have a beer. It’s sad to think next year could be the last season.”

General manager Gary Arthur will not give many details about the possible sale. But the team’s owner, Japan Sports Systems Inc., which picked up the Canadians for $8 million in 1990, is being buffeted by a weakened yen, and last year sold an A league team it owned in Visalia, Calif., just north of Fresno. “As beautiful as this park is,” says Arthur of Nat Bailey, “it’s the smallest park in Triple A.” Seating capacity is roughly 5,000, versus 10,000 in new Triple-A stadiums. The Vancouver Canadians always seem to turn a profit of at least $200,000 a year, but, Arthur says, we “need more toys”—box seats, better eating facilities, more luxury.

It is unlikely to happen at Nat Bailey, which is owned by the City of Vancouver’s cash-strapped parks and recreation department. “That’s the rub,” says Arthur, who grew up in Vancouver and watched the previous minor league team, the Vancouver Mounties, play here. He too will be disappointed if the team leaves, because like other Vancouverites he revels in the romance of Triple-A ball. “We’re not ashamed to admit we’re the bush leagues,” Arthur says. “Minor league baseball may be the last bastion of innocence in pro sport. There’s no commercialization, less pressure on the players.”

That is the reality that the 1988 baseball movie Bull Durham portrayed so well: older, seasoned players like former Blue Jays pitcher Erik Hanson, 33, bounced from the majors because they are performing poorly or recovering from an injury, rubbing shoulders with hot prospects like powerful 22year-old infielder Troy Glaus, who has been called up to the Angels. Being on a Triple-A team means carrying your own bags up to your room at the Quality Inn, instead of the porters and Sheraton hotels experienced by major leaguers. It means having a per diem of $27 a day, compared with $100 in the major leagues, and an average salary of $45,000 as opposed to about $1.5 million for major leaguers. “In the majors a player gets new shoelaces if his look ragged,” says Canadians pitching coach Greg Minton, who used to play for the San Francisco Giants and hopes one day to make it back to the big leagues as

a coach. “Here, if we need shoelaces we have to go down to the drugstore and buy them ourselves.”

Only one baseball Hall of Famer ever passed through Vancouver on his way to the big leagues: Brooks Robinson, who played a sparkling third base for the Baltimore Orioles in the 1960s. Moving down can be “brutal,” says former Giants pitcher Trevor Wilson, who had a shoulder operation three years ago and is trying to make it back to the Angels by doing some rehab time with the Canadians. “It’s not fun,” he adds. “The road trips are terrible, the money is terrible. Nothing about the minor leagues makes you want to stay.”

The spectators don’t see it that way. Parents bring their sons and daughters, re-creating their own childhood experiences. With tickets ranging from $3.50 to $9.50, a ball game can be cheaper than a movie. Keith Mason, Hélène Lapointe and their two sons, Sammy, 10, and Freddy, 8, sit in the cooler part of the stands. ‘When I was in Grade 4 or Grade 5, I used to take the bus here with my friends and watch the Vancouver Mounties play,” Mason says. “I can still remember how good the french fries were.” Now, he comes three or four times a season with his wife and boys. “It’s something you can do without taking out a bank loan.”

Up in the press box, Pat Karl continues to muse about the possibility of the Canadians leaving for a bigger stadium elsewhere. “I’m feeling scared,” he says. ‘Who would want to keep a team here in a park that’s considered inadequate?” Bennie adds: “My gut feeling is there are a lot of American cities willing to build a nice stadium.” The Coloradobased president of the Pacific Coast League, Branch Rickey III, whose grandfather was the architect of the farm team system, says the facilities at Nat Bailey don’t fulfil some of the requirements of the professional baseball agreement between the major and minor leagues—such as minimum seating of 10,000. “The largest city of our 16 metro areas is Vancouver, but because of the size of the stadium it is drawing the second-lowest attendance,” Rickey says. “In today’s game, it is very difficult to make a go of it financially if you don’t have all the right elements.”

But selling the Canadians may not happen quickly. With other Triple-A teams on the block, there is other competition: the Edmonton Trappers are on sale for $12 million, a consequence of owner Peter Pocklington’s need for cash. When the Mounties folded in 1969, Vancouver had no team for nine years. Baseball did eventually return to Nat Bailey. And there are those who believe it always will. □