(Scotiabank Field at Nat Bailey Stadium - Vancouver, B.C.) - You're not really suppose to mention the old Vancouver Canadians because some fear that it conjures up memories of a 'better day' for local baseball fans who still remember the C's of the Pacific Coast League. The 22-year run of the Triple-A Canadians had a number of great moments that some still smile upon when asked about professional baseball here in Vancouver during the late 70's, 80's and through the 90's. There's no point turning your back on that era as when it comes to baseball, it's all about tipping your cap to the past as you evolve with the times.
The Canadians would stay down at the Coast Hotel out by the airport during homestands and charter out to cities like Albuquerque, Las Vegas and even Hawai'i once in a while. Players like Garrett Anderson, Troy Percival and a host of others would slide on the red, white and blue of the C's all in hopes of one day getting the call up toward the bright lights of the Major Leagues which back then was just one step away. Vancouver had a number of affiliates during that 22-year stretch including two go-arounds with Oakland (1978, 1999), Milwaukee (1979-86), Pittsburgh (1987), Chicago's White Sox (1988-1992), and the California/Anaheim Angels (1993-1998). Three times the Canadians won Pacific Coast League titles (1985, 89 and 99) before the organization packed up and head south toward Sacramento, California.
Many remember the good times during that stretch of just over two decades - but from a business perspective, the Canadians stumbled toward the U.S. border as three different companies took stabs at Vancouver's baseball franchise before finally the last one loaded up the truck and head down to shiny, new Raley Field in Sacramento.
Fact was, the Canadians were struggling at the gates, and a lot of that had to do with the inclement weather that in April and May put ownership into the red and saw them working night and day to make up ground when The Nat finally wrung itself from the cold and soggyness of the region. That smile usually reappeared on the faces of the staff and players right around the first week or so of June.
Gary Arthur packed up the C's and shipped them south - leaving fans in Vancouver wondering just how professional baseball would ever be able to come back. The Nat was getting long in the tooth, the weather and field weren't always cooperative despite the best efforts of the grounds crew - and simply put, the PCL was dying north of the border with a poor Canadian dollar and a dwindling fanbase.
But baseball found new life in Vancouver thanks to the most unlikely of characters as Oregon-based businessman Fred Herrmann saw the chance to move up from Medford, Oregon along with his Class-A Northwest League team and in the blink of an eye - baseball was back and hardly missed a beat.
A ROUGH LANDING:
In 2000, the Canadians operated out of Nat Bailey Stadium and wore the same uniforms that the Triple-A Canadians wore the year before as there wasn't much time to get things organized and it was one of the few inventory items that Arthur left behind after heading down to California with many of the franchise's more treasured pieces.
Herrmann just wanted to get into the city and be as ready as he could for Opening Day which was no longer in the first or second week of April, but now in the second week of June. He had skipped the rainy months that sunk so many before him and was suddenly open for business just as the sun began to peek out from behind the clouds. It seemed like a match made in baseball heaven.
But the first few years at Class-A were not an easy road for the staff and its players as fans from all across the Lower Mainland snubbed the lower classificiation after 22 years of a more consistent brand of baseball. Fans weren't ready to trade in players on the cusp of stardom for those 'prospects' just dipping their collective toes into the professional game. Media, fans and anyone asked to join the new era of baseball just couldn't pallet the relegated feel of the new look Canadians.
In 2000, the C's drew just over 109,000 fans (2,880 per game) - which was a sharp decline from the more than approx. 164,000 fans that came out to Nat Bailey Stadium a year earlier (164,000 taken from June to September of 1999). Under Herrmann's ownership, the Canadians would see a modest increase in attendance in each of his seven years at the helm, before he saw that the ballpark wasn't getting any younger and the product had perhaps hit its peek. He would put the Canadians up for sale and that is when the game suddenly took a change for the unexpected.
LOCAL BUSINESSMEN FIND DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH:
There is thought within the sports community that nothing beats local ownership and for soon-to-be owners Jake Kerr and Jeff Mooney, the dance of purchasing the Vancouver Canadians lasted nearly a year with a lease, assets and a player development contract all needing to be worked out in advance of the 2007 season. It got done and when the curtain was pulled back on the Kerr/Mooney era it didn't come without challenges at nearly every turn.
Self-admittedly both Kerr and Mooney quickly learned that operating a professional baseball franchise was a stark contrast to what they had previously encountered in their business lives - but quickly found that with the help of Canadians president Andy Dunn - they were sitting on something special and just had to smooth out a few long-standing wrinkles.
A massive renovation saw the entire concourse gutted bringing the stale, off-putting decor out to pasture replaced by vibrant esthetics that brought back memories of Vancouver's rich baseball tradition. A museum, now known as the Bud Kerr Museum, brought Vancouver's century-old history to life - countless points of sale replaced the long line ups that hampered the fan experience in previous years. Most importantly, the pencils sharpened with a business plan put in place that ensured baseball in Vancouver would no longer have to endure the almost expected ownership changes that had riddled the ballpark for nearly a decade.
By 2009, the Canadians had secured a multi-year stadium naming rights deal with Scotiabank and had added a high-resolution video board which provided fans of the C's a completely new way to enjoy baseball out at The Nat.
While ownership was working to improve things behind the scenes, the Oakland Athletics were sending prospects north of the border to try and develop the next generation of white-cleated Major Leaguers. From Sean Doolittle (2007) and Jeremy Barfield (2008) through to Dan Straily (2009), Bo Schultz (2009) and A.J. Griffin (2010), the Canadians who were led by long-serving manager Rick Magnante - would provide countless memories on the field while being fantastic and responsible within the community. No championships during the Athletics 11-year Short-Season run in Vancouver - but a tremendous working relationship that saw Vancouver and Oakland tip caps to each other at the end of the 2010 season.
OK BLUE JAYS:
Shortly after the 2010 season, the Canadians would file 'open' meaning that they were willing to explore a new partnership with a potential affiliate and as luck would have it the Toronto Blue Jays had just wrapped up an affiliation in Auburn, New York paving the way for Canadians only Major League team to connect with Canada's only affiliated Minor League franchise. It was from a fan's perspective a 'match made in baseball heaven' as Alex Anthopoulos, Phil Lind, Paul Beeston and a collection of Toronto brass all flew out to Vancouver for the new multi-year player development contract announcement. Beeston acknowledged it as a "four-year deal that he expects to be renewed so long as the Blue Jays are around."
Toronto wanted to make an impact in Year One of the new PDC sending an embarrasment of riches to Vancouver including Aaron Sanchez, Noah Syndergaard, Kevin Pillar and a host of players that would help the Canadians do something that they had never done at the Short-Season level - win a Northwest League Championship!
In 2012, a year later, Marcus Stroman, Dalton Pompey, Roberto Osuna and Dwight Smith Jr. would help Vancouver defend its title with a second straight ring and then - in 2013, a three-peat as Matt Dermody, Dawel Lugo, Ian Parmley and local standout Tom Robson helped Vancouver top a Boise Hawks (Cubs) team that was littered with future stars including Kris Bryant.
Three years, three titles and almost a fourth consecutive as Vancouver met Hillsboro in the 2014 championship with Rowdy Tellez, Ryan Borucki, Tim Mayza and Franklin Barreto. The Hops would best the C's in the final ending more than 1,100 straight days as Champions of the Northwest League. Rich Miller, John Schneider and Clayton McCullough would all lead Vancouver to championship runs over that stretch.
MINOR LEAGUE BASEBALL'S BEST:
While the Canadians were winning titles with the future of the Toronto Blue Jays, the organization had created a Foundation, made countless community appearances and reach a new attendance record each and every season as by the time the 2013 season ended, Vancouver had found more than 184,000 fans to come out to revamped Scotiabank Field at Nat Bailey Stadium - a noticeable jump from the 109,000 fans that veered toward 33rd and Ontario St. when Short-Season baseball first arrived.
Minor League Baseball had taken notice and shortly after the 2013 wrapped up announced that for the first time in the award's 40-year history, that a Canadian-based franchise had received the coveted John H. Johnson President's Trophy presented to the most complete organization in all of MiLB. 160 clubs, one recipient. Safe to say that the Canadians led by Kerr, Mooney and Dunn had ironed out the wrinkles.
From introducing a mascot (Bob Brown Bear) and then adding a few more including several pieces of sushi - to dancing mascots, A&W Family Fun Sundays, Scotiabank 'Nooners and more - the rest of the baseball world was suddenly looking in at Vancouver as the template of how to build a consistently evolving brand.
Just when you thought the Canadians might rest on its laurels and take a breath, approval came from the City of Vancouver and the Vancouver Board of Parks & Recreation for the addition of new seating that wrapped around the left field wall out at Nat Bailey Stadium. More seats for a fanbase that was now buying tickets weeks in advance for what had become the hottest summertime ticket in town. The ballpark attendance went from 5,100 to 6,500 and that didn't stop the Canadians from selling out game after game as the combination of Short-Season Baseball (great weather from start-to-finish), the Blue Jays affiliation and the improved ballpark experience brought ownership to new heights. The Canadians had finally found the recipe for business success with a sport that relied heavily on sunshine in a city not known for it. The "hey y'all!" Porch brought the stadium into the light making it feel truly like a stadium and by Opening Day, the entire season had been sold out when it came to the outfield seating.
This year (2019) marks 20 seasons of Canadians baseball in Vancouver at the Class-A level, nearly matching the length of stay that the Pacific Coast League enjoyed from the late 70's through the 1999 season. With more than 239,000 fans cramming into the ballpark in each of the past two seasons (98.1% capacity for the year) - life at the Short-Season level seems to agree with Vancouver's rabbid fanbase.
Imagine that. Going from 109,000 bitter ballpark fans to 239,000 fans buying tickets week's ahead to ensure they can get into the same stadium. Alot has happened in 20 years - and we can't wait to pull back the curtain on this year's season and see what awaits us on the other side.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.