There are more Canadians playing Major League Baseball than ever before, but the game at the highest minor league levels in this country is shrinking. In the last decade, nearly all of the Triple-A professional baseball clubs in the country have flown south for the summer, with the last one (the Ottawa Lynx) scheduled to depart at the end of this season. Sun Media baseball writer Adam Wazny set out to find out what happened to this once-popular specatator sport. Here's his look at minor league baseball in Canada -- where it stands, what the future holds, and why there's one lonesome success story smack dab in the middle of the country.
"It has nothing to do with geography, nothing to do with the travel, nothing to do with the Canadian economy. The main problem was they couldn't draw 6,000-7,000 fans a night."
-- Randy Mobley, president of the International League on Ottawa's move to Allentown, Pa., at the end of this season. (Canadian Press, September 2006)
The above is a logical statement, but for minor league baseball in Canada -- specifically high-level affiliated ball -- there are many reasons for a mass exodus which has resulted in all but six franchises going the way of the dodo.
In fact, the argument can be made that the number of fannies in the seats will not ensure the viability of a team north of the border.
Fifteen years ago, it was a different story. Triple-A clubs in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, and Ottawa were thriving. Major League organizations viewed successful affiliates as an indication of a strong operation. The occasional headache of distance and travel was just a part of doing business back then.
Now, rather than deal with the headaches, MLB clubs have chosen to avoid the discomfort all together. Why would they deal with booking multi-stop flights, the delay and paperwork of getting a player through the border every time, and any other small costs associated with having a farm team in a different country if they didn't have to?
If the houses were packed in those previously mentioned markets every night, it might not be enough now.
Say the Winnipeg Goldeyes, who toil in the independent Northern League and are one of the most successful indy franchises in North America, wore a Triple-A label. Would the MLB parent care that they play to near-capacity crowds each night?
"If we were a Triple-A club, and (the organization) determined there was a city that was viable and closer to the big club, and it was an hour drive instead of a flight with connections to get a guy to the bigs, then they would always look at that," Goldeyes GM Andrew Collier said. "It just makes business sense. Despite our success in this market, we would still be in danger of losing the club.
"You're at the whim of the owner and the parent club's wishes."
While Triple-A might be dead in this country, minor league baseball still has a shot. Affiliated ball (Single-A) is still working in Vancouver and indy ball is solid in Quebec City (Can-Am League) and Winnipeg. After slow starts in Calgary and Edmonton, the Northern League is starting to make inroads there, too.
As for Ottawa, its baseball future remains cloudy.
With the Lynx leaving at the end of this summer and the city stuck with an empty ballpark, there are rumblings the Can-Am League will set up shop there in a year or two. There's also a rumour the Toronto Blue Jays Double-A affiliate in New Hampshire (the Fisher Cats) is considering a future move up to the nation's capital, as well.
"If any team is going to survive in Ottawa, it would have to be affiliated with Toronto," said Lynx fan Carl Kiiffner, author of The Unofficial Ottawa Lynx Blog. "I don't see how anything else would work. The kids love the Jays, they know the players with the (Syracuse) Chiefs who have played in the big leagues. An independent league team ...I'm not so sure people would be interested."