SPECIAL REPORT

BUSH LEAGUERS

FANS ARE FLOCKING TO THE MINORS

JAMES DEACON September 24 1990
SPECIAL REPORT

BUSH LEAGUERS

FANS ARE FLOCKING TO THE MINORS

JAMES DEACON September 24 1990

BUSH LEAGUERS

SPECIAL REPORT

FANS ARE FLOCKING TO THE MINORS

The Medicine Hat Blue Jays, a collection of raw 18and 19-year-old prospects with dreams of playing major-league baseball, had just defeated the visiting Gate City Pioneers from Pocatello, Idaho, by a score of 6-3. Rather than leaving the stadium, most of the 650 fans who had watched the Pioneer Baseball League contest on Aug. 9 stayed for the post-game show: a 90-foot-hotdog-eating contest. It featured 20 fans and 20 employees of radio station CJCY lined up on opposite sides of the infield. Between them lay the object of their affections, which had been cut into 2V2-foot sections and placed in an eavestrough. For almost half an hour, members of the two teams took turns eating. Blue Jays general manager Kevin Friesen declared the fans winners even though neither side finished its half of the hotdog. Said Friesen: “The fans really enjoyed it. We’ll definitely do it again next year.”

Although marketing and promotion are still considered essential to the success of minorleague baseball in Canada, team executives say that the popularity of the game has soared in

recent years. They point out that there are now eight minor-league franchises in Canada, and that more than one million fans watched minor-league games in Canada this year (the regular season ended on Labor Day). Ottawa is bidding for a Triple A franchise, and two Ontario cities, Kitchener and Brantford, have expressed interest in joining the New YorkPenn (Class A) League. And the price of teams has skyrocketed. Businessman Peter Pocklington recently sold his Edmonton Trappers, which compete at the Triple A level, one notch below the majors, for a reported $5.8 million. He reportedly purchased the team in 1981 for less than $800,000.

Boosted: According to some minor-league executives, the high public visibility of the American League Toronto Blue Jays and the National League Montreal Expos has boosted fan support for all levels of professional baseball in Canada. “It has opened the floodgates at every level,” said Ellen Harrigan-Charles, general manager of the Class A-level St. Catharines, Ont., Blue Jays. Indeed, there are now Canadian-based teams on every rung of the professional hierarchy—including rookie league, Class A, Double A, Triple A and the major leagues.

But some observers contend that Hollywood depictions of life in the minor leagues has helped create the continent-wide surge of interest in the sport. B.C. native Allan Simpson, editor and founder of the biweekly magazine Baseball America, which concentrates on the minor leagues, said that two popular baseball movies, Bull Durham in 1988 and Field of Dreams in 1989, rekindled the romance and nostalgia associated with small-town ball parks. Others say that the intimacy of minor-league parks, combined with ticket prices that rarely exceed $5 for adults, has made the game immensely popular. Said Robert Gilson, general manager of the Double A London, Ont., Tigers: “Where else can you take the family, spend $20 for an evening and have a great time?”

Triggered: In any event, minor-league baseball is now experiencing its greatest surge in popularity since the early 1950s. According to Robert Sparks, director of information with the Florida-based National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues Inc., the advent of televised sport triggered a huge decline in attendance in the United States that lasted for 25 years. Total attendance at minor-league games fell to fewer than 10 million in 1961 from nearly 40 million in 1949. Even as recently as 1975, attendance was little more than 11 million. Since the late 1970s, fan support has steadily improved. Last year, association officials say, total attendance exceeded 23 million.

Minor-league baseball in Canada has experienced the same slump and recovery. From the 1940s through the 1960s, Canada’s three Triple A-level teams, the Montreal Royals and Toronto Maple Leafs of the International League and the Pacific Coast League’s Vancouver Mounties, served as the final stops in the apprenticeships of many players who eventually became stars in the major leagues. Second baseman Jackie Robinson became the first black to play modern-day professional baseball when he signed with the Royals in 1946, and the following season he broke the color barrier in the majors when he joined the old Brooklyn Dodgers. Hall of Fame third baseman Brooks Robinson, a star with the Baltimore Orioles from 1955 to 1977, played 32 games in the 1959 season with the Mounties. Yet by the end of 1969, all three teams had folded.

Sharpen: Southern Alberta fostered the revival of minor-league baseball in Canada when, in the early 1970s, the Los Angeles Dodgers put a Pioneer (Rookie) League team in Lethbridge. Within a couple of years, Pioneer League teams had moved into Medicine Hat and Calgary. In 1978, Vancouver acquired its Triple A team, now known as the Canadians. Since then, baseball fans in this country have watched dozens of players sharpen their skills in preparation for the major leagues. Oakland Athletics right fielder Jose Canseco toured Canada’s three Triple A cities in 1985 during his apprenticeship with the Tigers of Tacoma, Wash. Current Toronto Blue Jay catchers Pat Borders and Greg Myers, pitchers John Cerutti, Jimmy Key and David Wells, and outfielders Junior Felix, Rob Ducey and Glenallen Hill all started out in Medicine Hat.

Despite growing fan support and the presence of future major-leaguers, most general managers say that marketing and promotion are vital to the continued success of minorleague baseball in Canada. Gary Arthur, general manager of the Triple A Calgary Cannons, said that teams sell radio rights and advertising on the outfield fences. They sell sponsorships to sections of their stadiums, to games or even to entire seasons. They also sell so-called corporate nights, when companies buy the stadium for a game, distribute tickets, stage pregame softball matches and throw out the first pitches. Said Arthur: “The people who are operating minor-league baseball nowadays are much more marketing-oriented than they were in the past.”

Some executives also rely on offbeat or unusual promotions. While Medicine Hat’s Friesen organized the 90-foot-hotdog night in early August, the Class A Hamilton Redbirds staged a camel race as part of an Aug. 20 doubleheader against the Blue Sox of Utica, N.Y. Redbirds sales and marketing director Anthony Torre said that the club rented two camels from a local farmer. A comedian from a Yuk Yuk’s Komedy Kabaret managed to ride his camel around the perimeter of the diamond. But the other animal bolted, and team trainer Robert Harrison, who had dressed up like an Arab for the race, had to run along behind it. Torre said that promotions like the camel race have contributed to the Redbirds’ box-office success. The club drew 74,544 fans in 35 games this year, up from 61,154 in 1989.

Pledged: With their changing fortunes, minor-league clubs have become hot commodities. In addition to Kitchener’s and Brantford’s interest in joining nearby Hamilton, St. Catharines and Welland, Ont., in the New York-Penn League, Ottawa is competing with as many as 24 other cities for a Triple A franchise, and its bid will be reviewed at a meeting of the Triple A expansion and realignment committee from Sept. 22 to 24 in Toronto. The Ottawa bid is supported by Mayor James Durrell, who has pledged to build a 10,000-seat stadium that would cost between $16 million, if it has a grass playing surface, and $21 million with an artificial surface. Jeffrey Polowin, the mayor’s director of communications, said that businessman Howard Darwin, co-owner of the Ottawa 67s junior hockey team, is prepared to buy a Triple A franchise for up to $5.8 million.

As the demand for franchises has grown, owners have been able to sell for premium prices. Vancouver Canadians president Norman Seagram said that the Molson Cos., the owner of the team, has received a serious offer for the club. But he would not confirm reports that the offer is from a Tokyo-based company for $5 million. Similarly, Edmonton Trappers president and general manager Mel Kowalchuk has refused to disclose how much New York City businessman Michael Nicklous paid for the team.

Refused: Kowalchuk said that he advised Pocklington to accept Nicklous’s offer because the team was just barely profitable. He said that the Trappers averaged crowds of 4,000 per game this year but need a new stadium, which the city refused to build. As well, the Trappers had high travel expenses because the team played in such distant locales as Albuquerque, N.M., and Phoenix, Ariz. Kowalchuk said that the new owner was expected to move the team to Memphis, Tenn., where a larger stadium and lower travel costs should mean higher profits. However, he said community efforts to keep the team in Edmonton may yet save the franchise. But, for Canada’s growing legions of baseball fans, the loss of the Trappers is a stark reminder that the professional game is still a precarious business in some parts of the country.

JAMES DEACON with NORA UNDERWOOD in Toronto

JAMES DEACON

NORA UNDERWOOD