As recently as 1993, Canada fielded nine Minor League Baseball teams. They were spread out across the entirety of the country, operating in cities both big (Edmonton, Calgary, Ottawa) and small (Medicine Hat, Lethbridge).
But fast forward to the present day, and only one entity remains: the Vancouver Canadians. And even they exist at a reduced level, having switched to the Class A Short-Season Northwest League in 2000 after 22 seasons in the Triple-A ranks. The reasons for Canadian professional baseball's precipitous decline are manifold, and some of the common factors cited include cold weather, an increasingly unfavorable exchange rate and heightened border security.
My Minor League travels in the Northwest brought me to Vancouver last week, the final stop of a six-city road trip that had originated in Eugene, Ore. I was eager to experience baseball north of the border. Would I be witnessing the last gasps of a dying culture or something closer to renaissance? After attending two ballgames at 60-year-old Nat Bailey Stadium -- both were sellouts -- I can report this much with certainty: In Vancouver, Minor League Baseball isn't just surviving, it's thriving. Call it a renaissance.
It certainly helps that Nat Bailey Stadium is a wonderful place to attend a ballgame. Built in 1951 (and named after a local restaurant magnate who passionately supported Vancouver baseball), "The Nat" makes up for what it may lack in modern amenities with an old-time atmosphere. The bulk of the stadium's seating is comprised of red wooden benches (no armrests!) situated beneath a curved roof that blankets the spectators in shade. This lends the ballpark a cloistered, nocturnal-even-in-the-daytime feel. And though it's not a great environment for the claustrophobic among us, the acoustics are indisputably phenomenal: chants, heckles, PA announcements and the cries of beer-selling vendors combine into a reverb-drenched ballpark symphony, the likes of which cannot be found, or even hinted at, amidst the wide-open layouts of more modern-day facilities.
And the fans! It was with a sense of wonder (and, yes, some shame on behalf of my American counterparts) that I observed the singing of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the seventh-inning stretch. This was the most full-throated and joyous rendition that I'd ever observed at a Minor League Baseball game, with all able-bodied fans standing and belting it out with uninhibited fervor. That this was occurring in Canada, where baseball isn't even the national pastime, served as a reminder of both the sporting enthusiasm of Vancouverites as well as the lackluster efforts that are often observed here in the states. (I'm not going to name names, but I've been to plenty of parks where the majority of fans couldn't be bothered to stand, let along sing.)
But singing just seems to be something that Vancouver fans enjoy. Canadians president Andy Dunn, who came to his position after a long career as both a Minor and Major League executive in the U.S., marvels at what occurs during each of the team's post-game fireworks displays.
"People up here seem to love having fun at the ballpark, and singing is part of it," Dunn said. "We play a lot of big-hit wonders, and people started singing along a couple of years ago. So now when we put together our music for the fireworks, we play these huge anthems and everyone knows them and it becomes this 5,000-person sing-a-long for 20 minutes during the fireworks show. It's something that we think is a great takeaway and a great memory from spending a night here at the ballpark."
There are plenty of opportunities for daytime memories as well, thanks to the distinctly Vancouver phenomenon that is "Nooners at the Nat." The weekday afternoon contest has proven to be wildly popular, and this season no fewer than nine of the Canadians' 38 home games are of the "Nooner" variety. (To avoid confusion, however, it should be noted that its because the gates that open at noon. The games don't start until 1 p.m.).
"[The Nooner] is something that we inherited when we took over the franchise," said Dunn, who assumed the Canadians presidency in 2007 after a local ownership group bought the franchise. "There was a tradition of playing day baseball in Vancouver. ... So we'll play six to nine of these on what equates to getaway days over the course of the summer. We're averaging 4,500 or 5,000 [fans] an opening, and the promotion is day baseball. There's no giveaway, there's no comp tickets, there's no discount. It's just that people in Vancouver love coming out on a bright blue summer day and watching a little baseball."
It really is that simple. Professional baseball in Canada may be on life support, but the Canadians, paradoxically, are thriving thanks to a classic stadium, a proactive and deeply engaged ownership group and front office staff, and, above all, a passionate fan base. And, of course, their recent affiliation switch to the Toronto Blue Jays (Major League Baseball's sole Canadian entity) has only helped matters.
"It's unbelievable," said Dunn, as he took in the waning moments of the August 24 'Nooner' against the Boise Hawks. "I sit here and I just smile."