A conversation about MLB, on the field, off the field.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

From the basement December 01

I've read that blogging is about the personal and media is corporate. Or somethin like that. Maybe Will Leitch could tell me, after all this medium belongs to his generation not mine, plus he's smarter than me. But I think I believe in that slogan - today I do - and that is why I have blogged in the past about AAA in my hometown. Somebody asked me why I blogged about AAA ( aka "The Lynx" until it moved at seasons end ), the inference being that there are subjects baseball more interesting than minor league ball in Ottawa. The person who asked me wasn't being snide or critical and they made a legitimate point. If I want baseball fans to read my blog shouldn't I blog about subjects baseball with a broader appeal? Point well taken but this blog is ultimately about me - again this is the 2.0 age of narcissism - and it's a big deal to me that independent ball is coming to town.


I'm thrilled. It was announced November 28 that May 22, 08 is Opening Day. Ottawa is officially bush league. The Canadian American Association of Professional Baseball ( CanAm League ) has reached an agreement with our city government to lease the baseball stadium for the 08 & 09 seasons.

I say bush league because that is how the independent leagues are perceived by most fans. I've never seen indy ball but I think the bush league perception is a bit harsh. I fully expect the ball to be well played and entertaining. According to Baseball Amercia "roughly 100 players" are signed to affiliated ball every season from the 60 + independent League teams. 8 million + fans attended independent league games this past season. For 15 seasons I watched many, many IL players with independent league experience. Amongst last season's Lynx with indy ball backgrounds were, Gary Burnham ( team leader in HR & RBI's ), Kane Davis & Chris Coste ( both who also played with the Phillies last season ), Jim Rushford and Pedro Swann. Edwar Ramirez began last season in the independent United League and was a member of the New York Yankees before seasons end. Joe Thatcher made his MLB debut last season with the Padre's, logging experience in the independent Frontier League in both the 04 & 05 seasons. A quick scan of CanAm League rosters spits up former big leaguers, Joel Bennett, Tim Bausher ( he was called up by the Red Sox but never played before being returned to AAA ), Rich "El Guapo" Garces - he pitched in the bigs in 10 different seasons, 341 1/3 IP / 296 K - and there are likely many more that I overlooked. Ok, I would prefer we remain a AAA city but CanAm ball has got to be a whole lot better than no pro ball at all. If nothing else, it gets me out of the basement.

The bush leagues. This is the present and the foreseeable future of professional baseball in Canada. Outside of Toronto only Vancouver ( formerly a AAA city ) has an affiliated team. The Vancouver Canadians play in the Short Season Northwest League. The other former AAA cities, Calgary, Edmonton and Ottawa are all now home to indy leagues. Winnipeg and Quebec City are indy cities as well.

Is indy ball in Canada to stay? Evidence abounds that we are losing interest in baseball as a spectator sport. The Expos died, TV ratings for the Jays are poor outside the GTA, the aforementioned departure of AAA from Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa, London is a former AA city, Medicine Hat & St. Catherines were once homes to affiliated ball... The independent CBL, despite it's nationalist appeal ( well, I guess ultimately there was no nationalist appeal ) folded mid season in it's inaugural year of 2003. Four clubs averaged fewer than 300 fans per game. I'm in the camp who believe that Indy ball is most viable in non NHL cities. The Goldeyes in Winnipeg are an enormous success. They lead all of independent ball in attendance in 07 with an average of 6,542 and are consistently amongst the leaders in all of minor league ball. Les Capitales de Qu├ębec are also successful, finishing 2nd last season in CanAm League attendance with an averge of 3,300 per game. I don't believe it's coincidence that these two former NHL cities enthusiastically support indy ball. Not to be snobbish ( hey, I was raised in Madoc ) but there isn't a lot of competition for the attention of sports fans, or even non sports fans, in these cities. Vancouver was 3rd in Northwest League attendance @ 3418 but in a market with a metropolitan population of 2 million +. The true comparisons for Ottawa as an indy ball market are in Calgary and Edmonton. Both are home to the NHL and are of similar size to Ottawa-Gatineau ( approx. metropolitan populations of 1 million ). Calgary @ 1551 and Edmonton @ 1792 were last & 2nd last in Northern League attendance in 07. By comparison Gary had the next worst attendance @ 3616 per game. Both Calgary and Edmonton have since moved to the independent Golden Baseball League .

Will indy ball survive in Ottawa? The optimists argue that AAA in Canada suffered from having to play in terrible April and early May weather. Valid point, most if not every opening day in Ottawa there was snow somewhere and you wore a toque & mitts. The optimists argue that the shorter CanAm season - Opening Day May 22 - and better weather is a significant advantage. As Neate Sager points out, Lynx attendance post June 1st typically averaged 2,000 +. Average CanAm League attendance is approximately 2200 per. Sounds good.

Will the same 2,000 of us who supported AAA support CanAm? Attendance in Edmonton has dropped dramatically post AAA. In 04, Edmonton's last season in the PCL, they averaged approx 3500 per game. Last season that had dropped to 1800 for indy ball. Similarly, Calgary averaged approx. 2600 per game in their last PCL season in 02. Last season that had dropped to 1500 for indy ball.

CanAm supporters also trumpet the local appeal - the team will have players from the region - Mike Kusiewicz being the first name mentioned. ( Will Yan Lachapelle get a call? Marc Charbonneau?) As mentioned, the CBL - which mandated a minimum # of Canadians on each club - flopped. Jeremy Ware is a Canadian and former Lynx player, I don't think anybody knew who he was when he played here.

The early spin also promotes indy ball as fielding teams who are committed to winning as opposed to affiliated teams where the focus in not necessarily on winning but serving as a taxi squad ( AAA ) or developmental program for their MLB masters. Mike Veeck was quoted in SBJ earlier this year, "Affiliated ball is like running a movie theater. You provide the popcorn and the building and the ambience; the parent team provides the team. You can watch 13 games and see that your shortstop can't play, but in affiliated ball, your job is to keep and develop that shortstop. In independent baseball, that shortstop is gone. In independent, you're playing to win - to win for your respective town."

The CanAm is also promoting a stronger connection between fan and player. There is more roster stability in independent leagues, they are not the revolving door of AAA. Fans get to know players who return for multiple season. The "bush league appeal" of the Indy player is also being highlighted. The shitty pay, the long bus rides, the small crowds....these guys are in it for the "love of the game". ( I don't adhere to that. Jocks are jocks. They like to work out, play sports, hang out with the guys, party, fight and chase pussy. That's why a lot of "greedy" former big leaguers finish their careers in Indy, it beats being home with the wife and kids ).

Regional rivalries are also being pushed although I don't think many of us possess the required antipathy towards Quebec City. CanAm Commissioner - and the inventor of indy ball, baseball legend - Miles Wolff frequently expresses his desire to soon place a team in Montreal but as recently as 03 the aforementioned CBL couldn't find a suitable facility in the Montreal area. ( Welcome to indy, there was a Montreal franchise that actually played games but it never played a game in Montreal ).

It's the stadium stupid. I've written on this blog before that the principal factor in the unprecedented popularity of baseball in the US - record attendance at all levels, MLB and Minors ( both affiliated and independent ) - is the construction of new / retro style stadia across the US. SBJ tells us that attendance at independent league games has increased 49% from 5 years ago. "Many of those fans will visit a new or extensively renovated stadium, as nearly two-thirds of the clubs have combined to spend more than half a billion dollars on such projects since 1998." While the baseball facility in Ottawa is fine - AAA calibre - it does lack the retro / W.P. Kinsella esthetic that is so popular in the US. Views of a Canadian Tire parking lot and highway 417 doesn't give you that Iowa corn field vibe - no matter how good your drugs are.

Will Ottawans turn up their noses at the CanAm league? The CanAm is not one of the elite independent leagues. The best independent league is the Atlantic League which features many big league veterans including Carl Everett and Junior Spivey this past season. The Northern League has historically been a very strong indy league as well. Most won't realize, hell most never realized how good AAA ball was even after 15 seasons.

Who owns the Ottawa CanAm franchise? The league owns the franchise but what does that mean? Is Miles Wolff writing the cheques himself or are the other CanAm owners his partners? Mr. Wolff has expressed that he wants local ownership - not a surprise - but how long is he willing to wait? Mr. Wolff has speculated that potential owners could be Ottawa native Dan Aykroyd, Lorne Michaels or Henry Champ. ( There is a history of celebrities with interests in indy ball, most famously Bill Murray ) Are the optics bad in having your #1 rival - Quebec City - owned by the same guy who owns your team? Not necessarily, this is a model that works in some minor leagues. I.E. Didn't former Ottawa CFL owner Horn Chen own ALL the CHL franchises once upon a time?

If there is a long term future for indy ball in Ottawa we best be prepared for change. Indy ball is very unstable compared to affiliated ball, leagues & franchise come and go frequently. Some leagues, one being the CanAm, have fielded "road" teams in order to have the requisite even number of clubs necessary for scheduling. SBJ points out that over the 15 year existence of indy ball, "A total of 23 independent leagues have fielded clubs in 163 different markets over those years. Forty clubs folded after just one season of play, and more than a dozen didn't even make it that long." J.J. Cooper @ BA writes, "In indy ball every offseason seems to be a matter of leagues replacing weak franchises with potentially stronger ones in a perennial survival of the fittest."

What is the future of the stadium? In less than 2 years the CanAm lease with the city will expire. The arrival of the CanAm franchise resolves in the short term a problem for the city - they own a baseball stadium but had no team to play in it. But what happens after the end of the 09 season? The rent of $108,000 per year is peanuts - almost literally - to the 4th largest city in the country. Having Baseball Canada move their operation into the stadium would help some but don't all signs point toward the selling and development of the stadium? There has been speculation that it will be transformed into a domed soccer / concert facility but nobody including me takes it seriously. Governments build facilities for pro sports because it is popular with a certain segment of the population, namely sports fans. I'm an example. I've lived here for 27 years and the only time I've called my councillor was to express my support for the construction of the baseball stadium. It was entirely selfish, I have long believed that public contributions to stadium construction for the benefit of private owners is bad government but I really, really like baseball. But the days are gone forever when Ottawa set the IL attendance record and if only 2,000 or fewer of us are regularly attending will the political will exist to maintain the stadium? Can city council justify it? Will the lure of the value of the land and the development charges and property taxes be too enticing to pass up?

I hope I'm wrong but the reprieve for professional baseball in town will be short lived.

1 comment:

JS said...

I've been to many Can-Am games and they are definitely not 'bush league'. Not much different at all from an affiliated minor league.

Hope it works out in Ottawa.