On the first day of the baseball season the stadium really is a field of dreams. Everything is potential; the harshness of reality has yet to take hold.
Thursday night the Ottawa Champions took the field for the first time in 2016. (Starting the season here before mid-May leaves you at risk for snow. I know, I’ve been through it.) The optimistically named Champions failed to make the playoffs last year, the team’s inaugural season. This year the fans and players both hope things will be different.
The Champions play in the Can-Am league, which is independent baseball – no affiliation with the major leagues. There are probably dozens of similar circuits around North America, places where players go while chasing a major-league dream that is probably unattainable. But they love the game, and they aren’t ready to give up on the dream just yet.
Every so often someone from this league will catch the scouts’ eye and make it to the big leagues. It has happened, but I doubt if it is even an annual event. These players are a lot more skilled than I will ever be, but they aren’t major league skilled. My guess is that it isn’t their fielding skills that hold them back, but their hitting abilities. But it is professional baseball, and it is fun to watch. Professional means the players are being paid, but it isn’t much. A major leaguer making the minimum salary will make more than both these teams together.
The Can-Am league has six teams this year, three in Canada and three US based. I looked on the league website, and have never heard of the American communities those teams are from. The reverse is probably true for American fans, though I would hope they have heard of Ottawa. We are the national capital after all.
The opening pitch to New Jersey Jackals left fielder Michael O’Neil is a ball, and the season is underway. He works the at-bat, fouling off pitch after pitch, working the pitcher to a full count before a lazy pop fly out to shallow left field sends him back to the dugout. The season has begun.
The crowd looks sparse, but there are several thousand in the stands, not a bad turnout for a Thursday night in May with rain in the forecast. The stadium almost always looks empty. It’s the largest in the league, built for AAA baseball, and holds 10,000 people, about three times the capacity of the other parks in the league. Don’t get me started on the history of professional baseball in Ottawa and the political bungling involved. It’s an ugly story. For example there was no baseball in 2013 or 2014 as the Ottawa Fat Cats were denied use of the stadium. City council wouldn’t give the Fat Cats a lease because they thought that there was a possibility a AA team might relocate to Ottawa. That of course didn’t happen.
Thursday’s outcome? After falling behind 2-0 the Champions tied it in the eighth inning. Then, with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, a two run homerun from designated hitter Danny Grauer gave the Champions a 4-2 victory and sent the fans home happy. Maybe they will live up to their name.