The International League soon may need to take the "Inter" out of its name.
The Ottawa Lynx, the lone full-season Minor League team still in Canada, could very well be playing their last season in the Triple-A League in 2006. There have been no secrets made about the desire of the team's owner and the league to move the club when it makes sense for everyone involved.
"I think both the owner of the Ottawa club and I have gone on record three or four years ago that the time in Ottawa is probably limited because it is not gathering the support that it needs to be successful there long-term," IL president Randy Mobley said. "We'll continue to take a look at options that avail themselves and when there is a better option that presents itself, we'll probably take it."
The Lynx, in existence since 1993, finished last in the IL in attendance with 160,544 fans in 2005. They have not topped 200,000 since the 2001 season. This is a far cry from the team that set an International League attendance record before a game was played (thanks to advanced sales) in its inaugural season. But as time passed, people stopped coming in droves.
"Canadians soon realized with 120 or so decent days do you want to spent 72 of them in a ballpark?," said Tom Valcke, president and CEO of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. "The honeymoon wore off."
It's not just waning attendance that will send Ottawa out of the country. Quite frankly, no one really wants to make the trip. Some time ago, the Pacific Coast League had three Canadian teams -- Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver -- so PCL teams could spend two weeks making a Canadian sweep. But heading up north just for a four-game series with the Lynx is not desirable, especially in today's political climate.
"Going into Ottawa for a four-gamer, no one wants to deal with the customs stuff, especially after 9/11," Valcke said. "I personally think Ottawa is one of the top three Minor League stadiums out there, but I don't see it flying. Between people not buying tickets and the IL not caring to cross the border, I don't see it lasting."
When -- and it does seem like when, not if -- Ottawa closes up shop and heads somewhere in the United States, it will in all likelihood close the book on a storied history for good. About to enter its 123rd season, the International League has had more than its fair share of great moments north of the border.
Head all the way back to 1914 for one of the best, and perhaps least known, of those moments. A young player playing for the Providence Greys, the IL affiliate for the Boston Red Sox, hit his first professional home run in April of that year. It came in Hanlan's Point on Ontario Island, and it landed in Lake Ontario.
If it sounds like a Ruthian blast that's because it was. Babe Ruth hit his first pro round-tripper in the International League (an interesting side note: the owner of the Red Sox at the time was a Canadian, and he soon purchased Ruth's contract. After the Sox won championships in 1915 and 1916, he sold the team to the man who sold Ruth to the Yankees to start the Curse of the Bambino).
When most people mention the International League and Canada, thoughts turn to Montreal and 1946. Jackie Robinson, after signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers, spent his first year of professional ball in Montreal (integrating the IL). The decision to send him to the Royals was not incidental.
"That whole story of Branch Rickey feeling more comfortable of bringing a black man into pro baseball there, part of it was that Montreal, then as [well as] now, was a very embracing city," Valcke said. "In his final game that year, they gave him a standing ovation, he had a curtain call. Then they were waiting for him after the game and chased him from the stadium. Rachel Robinson has said [it may have been] the only time a white mob was chasing a black man for good reason."
Montreal's rich history in this league didn't end there. Tommy Lasorda, known best for his years as the Los Angeles Dodgers manager, pitched nine years for the Royals, finishing as their winningest pitcher (107 victories). He's being inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame this June.
A future inductee may be Sparky Anderson. He played and managed the Toronto Maple Leafs baseball club, which, interestingly, was owned by long-time Washingston Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke. It was Cooke's suggestion, back in 1964, that Anderson hang up the spikes to become a manager. It was a career move that paid off as Anderson led teams in each league to World Series titles. (Toronto was some kind of future-manager breeding ground, with Chuck Tanner also spending time there as a player).
What kind of impact the departure of the IL from Canada will have, other than not adding any more chapters to the great history, remains to be seen. Valcke, as one deeply involved in Canadian baseball, is saddened on two fronts, the first coming from his view of the past.
"It's like getting two knives in your heart," Valcke said. "There's all this tremendous history. So many big names have played here. You should hear Lasorda talk about playing here."
But getting Lasorda to talk about his actual playing days there isn't as easy as you might expect. It's not that he doesn't have fond memories, he's just more focused on the diminishing presence of baseball north of the border.
"I really enjoyed playing there," says the Hall of Fame manager. "The fans were great. They loved baseball and supported their teams, there's no doubt about that. If they're not supporting a team it's because of the fact that there's no Major League team. With a big league team around, more kids would play baseball, more kids would try to emulate the players and more kids would try to play in the big leagues for their hometown team."
Valcke echoes Lasorda's sentiments. He points to the Team Canada club that recently defeated the U.S. in the World Baseball Classic. Many of the players on that team were 12 or 13 -- a time when many players up north typically quit playing baseball -- in the early 90s when the Toronto Blue Jays were winning titles and the Montreal Expos also were enjoying a solid run. All that had a trickle-down effect in a baseball pyramid. You need the top to get people to join at the bottom.
"When all that happens at the high end, more people are watching on TV, more kids are registering to play," Valcke said. "Because those kids didn't quit, it gave us the pool of players for the 19 Canadian players in the big leagues now and the players on Team Canada."
Now, says Valcke, the Expos are gone, the Blue Jays have struggled of late and the Lynx are headed out of town soon.
"Where are we going to be 10 years from now?" he asked. "I hate to say it, but I would strongly bet our players at the high end will decrease."