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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Is this heaven? No, it’s Vancouver.

The Canadians fans Andy Scheier, left, and Jake Sturkenboom sharing a giant hot dog at Nat Bailey Stadium.

By Kurt Streeter

So maybe this is why so many Minor League Baseball teams have left Canada.

I had come to the mountain-rimmed metropolis of Vancouver, British Columbia to watch baseball with the locals. This was the second game of the season for the Class A Canadians, part of the Toronto Blue Jays farm system and the last Canadian minor league team affiliated with Major League Baseball.

As the nighttime temperature plummeted — 50 degrees Fahrenheit to 45, to near 40 — my wool coat stood up to the cold about as well as a wet paper towel. I tried to take notes, but my fingers were too frosty to move.

There wasn’t much to note, as the home team lost to rival Tri-City 9-1 in front of 1,500 fans at little Nat Bailey Stadium.

It felt like heaven.

The charm of watching Canadians baseball at the venerable stadium got to me, with its swooping grandstand, its manual scoreboard, its views of a nearby park that will look like a verdant oil painting come summer.

I’m not the only one: When the weather heats up, Canadians regularly play to sellout crowds of 6,500 or so, attendance figures that rival Class AAA teams.

I was close enough to feel the intimacy of the place. The percussive thump of a line drive slamming an infielder’s mitt. A fan giving the business to an umpire, albeit in a courteous, Canadian way.

“I’ve seen better umpiring at a Little League game!” amounted to a bruising insult.

Despite the manifold recent changes to professional baseball in North America, the foundation of its narrative exists where it always has — in the minor leagues.

The Canadians might be minor league, but they possess what one fan told me was “a hold on Vancouver’s heart” — a sentiment I heard repeatedly during my visit.

Well before the major leagues took root in Canada, first with the Montreal Expos and then the Toronto Blue Jays, affiliated minor league teams spread across the country. Not long after World War II, roughly 10 such teams played in Canada, depending on the season, stretching from Victoria in the west to Quebec City in the east.

Vancouver’s team, then known as the Mounties, began playing in the 1950s at a newly built, concrete-based stadium near downtown that decades later came to be known as Nat Bailey, or, to locals, “the Nat.”

When the Mounties moved to Salt Lake City for the 1970 season, baseball went fallow in Vancouver for eight years, when the Canadians were born.

But by 2000, the big leagues began a full-tilt retrenchment from Canada. (A smattering of independent teams still play there.)

“The majors became less inclined to want their players playing in that cold,” said Jon Stott, a retired English professor at the University of Alberta who has written extensively about professional baseball in his home country. Stott recalled going to Edmonton Trappers games in the 1990s when the temperature seemed to hover near freezing. “But more than that, rich Americans were willing to come in and move our teams and build luxury stadiums in the United States for them.”

Nolan Ryan bought Edmonton’s team and moved it to Texas. The Calgary Cannons relocated to New Mexico. The Ottawa Lynx moved to Pennsylvania.

Soon enough, only the Canadians remained.

How long can they last? The economics of baseball churns now with significant change. MLB reorganized the minor leagues in 2021 and closed struggling ballclubs, shuttering 40 of them.

American business interests have set sights on minor league teams with greater fervor. Over the past few years, a private equity firm, Diamond Baseball Holdings, had purchased 16 minor league franchises, including some of the best known brands: the Oklahoma City Dodgers, St. Paul Saints, Iowa Cubs and Memphis Redbirds, to name a few.

Two weeks ago, the company announced its latest acquisition, the Canadians. The private equity firm purchased the team from a pair of retired businesspeople who bought it in 2007, spruced it up and are beloved figures in this city.

One of those owners, Jake Kerr, assured me that he would not have sold if he didn’t feel that Diamond Baseball Holdings would be a wise caretaker. But as one might imagine, a big-money American firm swooping in to buy a local institution raises eyebrows — and blood pressure.

“People in Vancouver take such great pride in this team,” said Dan Galazka, a retired educator who sat with his wife and teenage son during the game against Tri-City. He told me he’d been coming to the Nat since grade school. But now, he said, “There is a sense of worry about the loss of the Canadian essence. Now, we are moving into the unknown.”

What effect will private equity ownership have on Vancouver’s beloved baseball team? That remains to be seen.

For now, there is the beauty of the game to behold. Its beating heart lives on in Canada. Give me nine innings at the Nat on any night, even the frigid, frosty ones. Only next time, I’m bringing a portable heater.

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