Reborn Vancouver team proud to be Canadians
by Will Lingo
While the fall ended another successful minor league season and brought another taut edition of major league playoffs, it also meant the end of minor league baseball in Edmonton and major league baseball in Montreal.
The Edmonton Trappers (Pacific Coast) will move to Round Rock next season as the Express becomes a Triple-A franchise. Edmonton loses its franchise after 23 years in the PCL and moves out of a ballpark that's not even 10 years old. And we all know the sad story of the Expos and hope the move to Washington, D.C., doesn't run into any problems.
But while the pulse of Canadian baseball isn't exactly at a strong point, it's not flat-lining yet, either. The Blue Jays are the lone major league team now. While they're struggling to return to playoff contention and get the attention of fans in Toronto now, we can't forget how strong the franchise was just a decade ago. So it is possible.
In the minors, Ottawa (International) is hanging on for dear life in Triple-A and began its offseason with this banner headline: LYNX CONFIRM THAT THEY WILL PLAY THE 2005 SEASON IN OTTAWA. Not exactly what you're looking for in getting a fan base excited, but it's better than the alternative.
Independent baseball also has a couple of healthy Canadian franchises in the Winnipeg Goldeyes (Northern) and Quebec Capitales of the former Northeast League, which is changing its name to the Canadian American League and eyeing more Canadian markets.
One Team That Moved North
The real Canadian success story, however, comes from another abandoned Triple-A market: Vancouver. The former PCL Canadians moved to Sacramento for the 2000 season, and it's hard to argue with the success of the franchise there. But when the PCL franchise moved out, a Northwest League franchise moved in from Medford, Ore., with the Southern Oregon A's becoming the new and improved Vancouver Canadians.
Dan Kilgras has been with the franchise for all of his professional life, starting as an intern in Oregon 11 years ago and rising to his current position of president and general manager. He said people were skeptical about the team when it moved in, both because it's a short-season club and because they resented the PCL team leaving.
"People were angry about the previous team leaving, and they took some of that anger out on us," Kilgras said. "And when you have people coming in from out of the country there's always concern in Canada.
"But the philosophy we took was understanding the situation and being sensitive to the situation. We educated ourselves and our fans, and we talked to a lot of people. People eventually saw we were down to earth and had integrity."
The team has retained the same principal owner it had in Southern Oregon, Fred Herrmann, a former Cardinals farmhand who comes to every home game. And Kilgras said the team hedged its bets by keeping expenses down from the first day in Vancouver, an approach that has become increasingly rare in the modern minor league operation.
"We have to be creative sometimes, but we can go after good ideas without spending a lot," he said. "So even if we were to have a poor year, it wouldn't really kill us."
Building Community Support
Fortunately for the Canadians, they haven't had to deal with a poor year. The team drew 109,000 fans in 2000, its first season in the Northwest League. More significantly, it has increased its attendance in each season since, reaching 140,037 this year. That's an average of 3,685 fans a game, which is in the same ballpark as the average crowd of 3,833 that the PCL team drew in 1999. "Once we got people out here, then we were able to get them to come back," Kilgras said.
The most important aspect of the team's success has been its work with the community. After hearing that the previous tenants had a hands-off policy with Nat Bailey Stadium, the new Canadians have welcomed local amateur teams to use the ballpark.
The community support will come in handy as Vancouver wrestles with how to prepare for the 2010 Winter Olympics. Two development proposals for the neighborhood where the Canadians reside call for the ballpark to be torn down, with no assurances a new one would be built in its place.
Residents have formed a group called Friends of Nat Bailey Stadium, urging local officials to preserve the stadium no matter what Olympic facilities they build in the area.
Here again the Canadians are unique in their approach to the issue because they aren't using it as an opportunity to replace Nat Bailey Stadium, which opened in 1951 and is in need of a facelift.
"We really wanted to make sure we preserved this facility, first and foremost," Kilgras said.
They've already done a great job of preserving the market.
You can contact Will Lingo by sending e-mail to [email protected].