Picture a typical Vancouver summer morning. The sun rising just enough to add colour to the home across the way, dew on the grass, the early-to-rise birds all singing as a young man walks his dog on the far side of the street. Here at Nat Bailey Stadium, the purr
Picture a typical Vancouver summer morning. The sun rising just enough to add colour to the home across the way, dew on the grass, the early-to-rise birds all singing as a young man walks his dog on the far side of the street. Here at Nat Bailey Stadium, the purr of a warm engine welcomes a collection of groggy baseball players who moments earlier were dropped off at the ballpark to grab their gear and load it onto a bus.
The long winding roads of the Minor Leagues await and as the bus pulls away from the stadium - the deafening silence blankets the coach as players try and grab a few more moments of rest before they have to step back off the bus with passports in-hand.
There is a beauty to this moment. Players, coaches and a lone broadcaster all riding throughout the Pacific Northwest together. There are rules on the bus, some mentioned repeatedly while others never verbalized yet followed religiously. For the first 11 years as broadcaster with the Canadians I rode the bus along side the players before option to drive my own vehicle. Eventually I realized that by driving I could spend a bit more time with my family which over the course of a season is worth its weight in gold. But despite my love affair with those close to me at home - I hold those experiences on the bus as closely as anything else that this game has given to me because it brought me closer to the sport than anything else.
Knowing these players, listening to their stories, their journeys and seeing the realness of Minor League Baseball is something I believe you will never truly understand unless you have boarded the bus and traveled alongside these amazing young men.
Here is a small collection of moments that I have always held near and dear to my heart and maybe can help bring you perspective on why this game is so amazing.
Winless Until Idaho:
I have always loved the story of Julio Ramos, who back in 2009 had one of the Northwest League's best ERA's through the first half of the season for the Canadians and yet was 0-5. Not one win despite pitching wonderfully all summer long and now was on a bus heading from Vancouver to Idaho (approx. 12 hours) where a start awaited him against a hard-hitting Hawks club. Half way through the journey - on some desolate highway stretch in Central Washington a click, then a pop heard throughout the bus which was followed by a seizure of the bus engine. The Canadians were stuck in the middle of nowhere as the clock ticked toward game time.
A call was made by the bus driver back to his company in Vancouver and a second bus was dispatched - from Canada to come and retrieve the players to help them complete the trip into Boise. For seven hours the players waited on the side of the road, some opted for the sweaty interior of the vehicle to simply stay out of the sun.
The relief bus pulled up, the players helped exchange all of the equipment and personal items from the broken vehicle to the new ride and off they went destined for a game that now was just hours away.
It was the 29th of July, and the temperature at game time out at Memorial Stadium was 89 degrees (31 degrees). The Canadians bus rolled up and hardly had time to unpack before a stretch, batting practice and meal had to be crammed together in order to meet the 7:15pm first pitch.
After a quick inning, Julio Ramos, 0-5 took to the mound for Vancouver.
No one could have blamed the Canadians for losing this game. They had been on a bus or on the side of a highway for 18 hours and now were thrust forward against a well-rested Hawks team itching to keep pace in their division. Boise scored a pair of runs early and added a third run in the second inning as Ramos just looked deflated - which under the conditions were perfectly acceptable.
But there was a beautiful moment that took place as Julio came off the mound after the second inning as Canadians manager Rick Magnante walked out to meet him before he could sit down. I am not sure what exactly was said but if body language was any indication you could tell the veteran skipper was telling Julio to stay positive and keep his head up. Those words can be tough to hear for a pitcher that has yet to win all season long in a sport where numbers usually dictate promotion or demotion. Ramos was on his way to potentially becoming 0-6 now trailing Boise and relying on a fatigued and well-travelled offense.
Baseball is awesome.
All season long the C's offense sputtered with Ramos on the hill and yet on this warm Idaho night Vancouver caught fire. Hit after hit, run after run - the Canadians scored 15 on a Hawks team that was likely stunned at the resolve of the weary team from north of the border. Vancouver would go on to a 15-5 victory and the winning pitcher? Julio Ramos who like the Canadians opted not to go out after the game heading back to the hotel to simply call it a night.
I sat beside Julio on the ride back to the hotel for just a few moments before I was summoned back to the front of the bus and I asked him "How about that?" He responded by saying "I had nothing left tonight and I needed these guys." Those guys responded with their biggest offensive output of the season after spending nearly a full calendar day simply trying to get to Idaho.
What makes the story even cooler? Ramos never lost again finishing the season 6-5 with one of the top ERA's in the Northwest League and was named Canadians Pitcher of the Year.
The 2011 Vancouver Canadians had missed out on the North Division first-half pennant on a tiebreaker with the Eugene Emeralds meaning the C's had to start the whole grind over again in the second half and look to punch their ticket to the post-season the hard way. The fight this year's club had in them was second-to-none and you could see the desire for Vancouver to get into the post-season despite having challenges offensively at times.
You could feel the pressure building on the bus as the season drew closer to its conclusion. Losing the way Vancouver did in the first half took its toll as the Canadians stumbled out of the gates and took nearly a full week to start to play like they were capable of down the stretch. Vancouver rattled off four wins in a row heading into the final week of the second half putting them in a position to lead but those last six games were mild torture for C's fans as a five-game series at Boise yielded just one win. The final game of the regular season saw Vancouver get drubbed by the Boise Hawks 8-2 knowing if they could have simply won that game they would have advanced to meet Eugene in the Division Final. The loss meant that the players had to board the bus, drive 12 hours back to Vancouver and hope that they could get a little help from above in the standings in real time as the opposing game would take place while the C's were on the road.
We left Idaho via bus and began to drive upward through Washington State as players and coaches began to try and find the game on the radio. Bryan Longpre, a pitcher with the Canadians, had his dad listening on-line was relaying inning-by-inning scores to the entire bus as Vancouver awaited the outcome. We actually drove right past County Stadium in Yakima with the game in progress and asked manager Rich Miller if we could stop and watch - he denied which in retrospect made sense.
The game got to the 9th inning and Yakima was holding on to a slender lead.
Now on the Canadians bus, several players were around Longpre's seat as he relayed information to everyone.
"Strike One," and the bus would roar in approval.
"Fly ball to right, he got it - one out!" Longpre said as every person on the bus hung off his every word.
Eventually it got to the final pitch and Longpre shouted "Strike three, we're goin' to the playoffs!" and the Canadians bus erupted!
I am not sure how the drive actually kept the bus on the road as players hugged, jumped up and down and high-fived. The music got turned up and the Canadians now began to prepare for the Eugene Emeralds the team that topped them in the first half.
Vancouver hosted Game 1 of the best-of-three series and got blown out by the Emeralds who laid claim to the best overall record in the Northwest League at 46-30. The Canadians were in at 39-37 and after a 8-3 loss at home, now had to board the bus headed eight hours south to Eugene where they would stun the league beating the Emeralds in two straight before topping Tri-City in the Championship.
More than 12,000 kilometers travelled with 23 player changes over the course of 2 1/2 months all lead to Vancouver's first-ever Northwest League title. The following summer our bus pulled up with a fresh Championship Logo on the side of it and C's owner Jake Kerr presented our bus driver Ferm with the same ring all of our players received. Well deserved for keeping our team safe all summer and en route to an amazing title run.
The beauty of the journey is so much more than wins and losses - its learning about these players and the coaching staff, seeing how hard these overnight trips are and the effort that goes into being a professional athlete. I have seen sleeping positions that I didn't know existed and late night snack runs in some of the most remote gas stations in the Northwest. I have smelled things I would rather not mention and laughed more than any kid at a playground. The buses are a grind - but they are what makes the journey so enjoyable.