Sometimes I look at Jake Kerr, Jeff Mooney and Andy Dunn and think back to when they all first arrived on the scene here at what was then known as just Nat Bailey Stadium. I was a reporter at News1130 AM here in Vancouver and I watched from the newsroom as Jake and Jeff purchased the Canadians from Oregon businessman Fred Herrmann. They'll tell you that they overpaid and made every mistake in the books when they first got here, but, I know better.
Jake was a lifelong baseball fan and had made his name in the business world with both a lumber and finance brand, operating the successful company, Lignum. Jeff was a lifelong sports fan as well, and as Chairman of A&W Food Services Canada, was a more than suitable partner for the purchase and challenge that came with a professional baseball franchise.
They were quick to act, landing Partner and President Andy Dunn who had a background with strong and notable ties to the Montreal Expos, Florida Marlins and Washington Nationals in no particular order. Fact was Jake and Jeff reached for the stars and didn't have to settle for the moon when they landed Andy, as his name and understanding of the game both on and off the field brought with it an instant credibility within Minor League and Major League Baseball.
Now, as fancy as all of that is, there was one question that faced all three of these industry giants. What could they do to shift a city's psyche when it came to the Vancouver Canadians.
The challenge stemmed from the fact that back in the 80's and 90's, the Vancouver Canadians were a Triple-A, Pacific Coast League franchise, that saw players bounce back and forth between the Minors and Majors with regularity. You could come to the ballpark on any given night and likely see at least a few former or soon-to-be Major Leaguers in the line-up and for a fairweather baseball city like Vancouver, that would suffice.
After the old Canadians left at the end of the 1999 season, winning the Triple-A World Series ironically, the city of Vancouver was left with a void -- one that would follow the Class-A, Short-Season Canadians through almost a decade of trying to convince fans that this classification of baseball still was worth coming to the park to see. It was and it wasn't if we are speaking honestly.
As I covered this team in the media for its formative years at the Short-Season level, the Canadians brand was weak and really disregarded. I got to work with the team briefly in 2001 and felt immediately the backlash that they were facing when I tried to pitch this team to the media, many of whom were my own friends and colleagues. They just couldn't get past the fact that this brand wasn't 'that' brand and the disconnect grew larger by the season.
Fast-forward to 2006 and Jake Kerr began the process of looking into the purchase of the Canadians. At first it was with his brother before he opted to spearhead the purchase with longtime friend Jeff Mooney. There was one glaring positive with the purchase that could be seen a mile away.
They were local.
It's amazing to me how you can watch something change so dramatically by simply having someone listen and pay attention. Herrmann was rarely in Vancouver as he ran his other businesses from Southern Oregon. Kerr came to Nat Bailey Stadium, went to the University of British Columbia and lived just minutes from the ballpark. He knew the park was in trouble and what it needed to do to bounce back and most importantly -- whom to surround himself with to simply get it done.
I doubt anyone will ever truly realize just how close baseball was to extinction here in Vancouver. It was literally a signature away from leaving as Nat Bailey Stadium was on the City of Vancouver chopping block and few were willing to stand in its way other than a handful of loyalists that believed in the historical baseball structure located at the base of Queen Elizabeth Park.
Jake got what others could only have dreamed of when it came to a 25-year lease with the City of Vancouver basically saving the venue for generations to come. Kerr, Mooney and Andy Dunn then got to work on a complete overhaul of the stadium ripping it apart from the inside out to bring it up to standard and then some. They would build on a partnership with Scotiabank that eventually saw the naming rights get snapped up for the first time since the ballpark was called Capilano Stadium. The new moniker Scotiabank Field at Nat Bailey Stadium was further proof that not only was the fanbase starting to warm up to the ownership change, but so too was the corporate community.
As the resurrection of the Vancouver Canadians brand was becoming more noticable to all, there seemed to be one piece missing. The championships would come as would the Toronto Blue Jays, all part of an overall winning formula that we have since enjoyed for the past several years. This piece however came before that chapter, and in my opinion was really the final turn of the key into the slot of trust for baseball fans across the Lower Mainland.
It came in 2008, when as a relatively new employee with the Canadians (yes, I came back for a second go around) I was heading home one night and had just come off of the skytrain. Shuffling along with the rest of the masses, I couldn't help but notice a child holding on to his father's hand as they whistled through Pacific Centre Station. The child could hardly keep up and that I think is what made me notice his shoes. The right one was completely ripped open and his dirty white sock was both wet and exposed. I am not sure why it bothered me the way that it did, but it made me want to walk up to the father and subtly offer him money for a new pair of footware.
I think we all know that simple pride would likely have taken this gesture in any of a thousand ways that could have gone wrong -- but I never forgot thinking to myself the helplessness of not being able to do something.
A simple note to Andy was all it took.
Now, I never knowingly saw that child again, but I can tell you this. Working for a company and a group of people that shares your core values and beliefs is one of life's subtle rewards. If you ever find that, hold on to it as long as it lets you because its not the norm unfortunately.
I spoke the following day passionately about exactly what I just described and didn't deviate from the images in my mind at all. The child, the footwear and the inability to help at that exact moment.
My hope was to go to Andy and see if we could somehow create a footwear program for children across the Lower Mainland. I didn't have a plan, a system or an understanding of what that would entail. Andy however, did. He was already one step ahead of me and the wheels of motion had already started on something much bigger, much more impactful.
"What if we could help more than one hundred kids?" asked Andy as I squinted with a combination of confusion and intrigue.
Andy's vision, one that he had gone to both Jake and Jeff about was the creation of an entire baseball league, hosted and funded by the Vancouver Canadians as part of a new Foundation. Here we would find children from all across the Lower Mainland, not just one's getting dragged along at Pacific Centre, and feed, cloth and provide them with the chance to play organized baseball - cost-free.
Here is what I look back on nearly ten years ago in that moment and this is why I believe in the Vancouver Canadians Baseball Foundation as passionately as I do. The vision was never one of political gain or to show well. It was built from the ground up with passion and the understanding that something like this was our responsibility as caretakers of professional baseball in Vancouver.
How could we in good conscience open our gates each summer and ask for your hard earned money and commitment if we weren't willing to give something significant back. It was a promise kept and a legacy laid out.
Almost a decade later and look what our supporters have all done together?!
We have welcomed more than 1,500 local children out to historic Scotiabank Field at Nat Bailey Stadium and fed, clothed and educated each and every one of them. We have provided more than 20 scholarships to local student/athletes who wanted to become educated at The University of British Columbia while playing for Canada's most distinguished collegiate baseball program. And, we took Challenger Baseball under our wings as they developed into a brand that is now worthy of inclusion under the umbrella of the Toronto Blue Jays and Jays Care. Heck, the commitment was so strong with Challenger Baseball that an entire Field of Dreams was built just steps away from our ballpark to ensure that children of all abilities and challenges had a home.
All of this because of three individuals who loved the game and our city -- listened. And, all of this because you believed in us and came back to baseball in Vancouver.
We often talk about legacy in sports and what will be left behind once a player and/or personality moves on in life. Maybe its the journalist in me -- but I would like to think that as we come together this week to celebrate the game of baseball, and the road that we have all travelled together, that the legacy left behind from the Vancouver Canadians Baseball Foundation was karma for not staying quiet that damp afternoon when a little boy wore a pair of shoes that ended up changing everything.