By Andrew Hendriks
Canadian Baseball Network
It was 13 years ago this week, Seattle Mariners farm hand Matt Erickson scored the go-ahead run that effectively closed the books on Calgary’s long standing history with regards to affiliated baseball in Western Canada.
Although the play, an errant pick off throw at first base, helped the Cannons walk off their provincial Pacific Coast League rivals from Edmonton, it was a bittersweet moment for baseball fans from Cow Town and its surrounding area.
“It was like a funeral for the Cannons” said Alberta native, Jonathan Hodgson, who, at 10 years old during the time of the clubs final home-stand in 2002, still holds fond memories of the organization that introduced him to the grand old game.
“Foothills Stadium was my first park and the Cannons were my first team. (Their) games were my picture of what baseball was.”
To truly appreciate the Stampede City’s contributions to minor league ball, one must go back to the beginning. A beginning that started at the turn of the 21st century, when the Western Canada League fielded a D-level team named the Calgary Bronchos.
From 1907 to 1914, and returning in 1920 through ‘22, the Bronc’s featured an array of future major leaguers such as Chicken Hawks, Del Paddock and Pete Standridge. All of which, prior reaching the pinnacle of their athletic aspirations in the years that followed, began their professional careers playing in the Alberta hub.
With exception of 1954 and 1955, pro ball ignored abandon the Canadian city between the years of 1923 and 1976, expelling the local fan base from their neighbor’s national pastime.
In an effort to bring the pro ball to their deserving population, city officials opted to construct a 8,000 seat gem of a ballpark in 1966, 11 years after the affiliated ball fled from the city due to a lack of general support, curbed financial interest and a serviceable venue.
Nestled deep within the shadows of McMahon Stadium (home to the Canadian Football League’s Stampeders) Foothills Park serves as a vivid reminder to what once was for the Calgarian baseball fan.
Similar to the expansion of Toronto’s Exhibition Stadium in 1976, Foothills -- then named Burns Stadium -- was built with the intentions of luring pro ball back to a city that once fielded a prominent and successful club of their own.
However, unlike Toronto who landed the MLB Blue Jays in 1977, the ballpark and the thriving city of Calgary would have to wait 11 before it could bring the professional game to the city.
Undoubtedly swayed by an established facility and peaked interest in baseball thanks to the games recent Canadian expansion in both 1969 and 1977 respectively , the St. Louis Cardinals opted to place a rookie affiliate within Calgary prior to the start of the 1977 campaign, In doing so, the National League staple sent to Alberta a roster of coveted draft picks who then formed the Pioneer Leagues Calgary Cardinals.
One of these 1977 draft picks was a fourth round right hander out of Hollywood CA by the name of Jim Gott.
If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Gott broke in with Toronto during the 1981 season and, posting modest numbers on a club that was only beginning to show promise, spent parts of three seasons in the rotation. He registered his first win in Game 1 of Cal Ripken’s consecutive-games played streak.
Although lucrative, the Cards would be replaced by the Expos in 1979 and with the affiliation changeover came the arrival of an 18 year-old Andres Galarraga, who, in hist first season of professional ball, hit a modest .214 prior to being promoted to West Palm Beach of the A level Florida State League.
Gallaraga would go on to reach Montreal during the 1985 season, becoming the first product of the Calgary Expos outfit to crack the Majors.
From 1977-84, the Calgary Expos went 254-243, reaching the playoffs in 1981 and 1983 respectively. Over their seven-year run, the Cal-Spos, like their predecessors, would employ a handful of future big league talent including Esteban Beltre, Randy St. Claire to name a few.
With the Expos deciding to relocate their rookie affiliate to Utah at the end of the 1984 season, Calgary would lose yet another affiliation, in turn receiving a significant upgrade in the calibre of ball available to local fans.
The next season, 1985 saw the first year of Calgary Cannons baseball, a triple-A affiliate originally held by the Seattle Mariners prior to the arrival of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago White Sox and Miami (Florida) Marlins in subsequent years.
Between 1985 and 2002, the Cannons would field a plethora of rising stars including Jay Buhner, A.J. Burnett, Esteban Loiza, Edgar Martinez, Ryan Dempster, Jason Grilli and some kid named Jose Bautista (the pitcher).
In addition to an impressive list of upcoming talent, the Cannons also featured a pair of fringe Hall of Famers in the slick fielding Omar Vizquel and one of the games most polarizing sluggers in the 600+ home run hitting Alex Rodriguez*, who, playing in triple-A as an 18 year-old prospect in ‘94, hit .311 over 32 games with Calgary prior to breaking in to the Show with the Mariners.
Unfortunately, ownership flaws, dicey weather conditions and the strike of 1994 all wreaked havoc on the Cannons gate receipts in the years that followed the teams glory seasons of the early ‘90’s.
Eventually, these hardships gave way to the end of triple-A’s reign in Calgary as, in ‘02, affiliated ball once again withdrew from the “Heart of the New West”. Leaving in it’s wake a heart broken base of passionate ball fans both young, and old.
“There was a man who would usually stand by the gates and play ballpark music on his saxophone as fans entered the ballpark, and again as the left” explained Hodgson. “I remember passing him on my way out after the final game had ended, and hearing him play the slowest, saddest rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” I had ever heard.”
Realizing the potential for continued gains within the region, the affiliated Cannons were quickly replaced by the ill-fated Canadian Baseball League’s Calgary Hitmen in ‘03 and later by the independent Vipers (Northern/Golden/North Baseball League) in ‘04.
Despite numerous stadium upgrades in addition to boasting one of the finest manicured diamonds in Western Canada, the Vipers too fell victim to the numbers game, succumbing to financial restraints following the 2011 season.
In 2015, Calgary entered its fourth season without a professional baseball club.
In its absence (with exception to the University of Calgary’s Dinos and an odd recreational team from time to time) Foothills Stadium has sat vacant, silent and perpetually awaiting for the return of professional ball once again.
As it stands, the old ball yard remains in admirable shape save for a few minor areas.
Painted in faded shades of apple wood red and sky blue, it’s shackled fences are beginning to show signs of neglect, faintly rusting under the high Alberta sky.
Overlooking left field, the front office building has since been repurposed. Now being used, fittingly, by the city’s athletic department.
Once covered in advertisements featuring both local investors team sponsors, the 20-foot high outfield wall stands bare. Although still intact, It’s plywood facade now sits blank and fading, exposed to the harsh elements of Calgary’s ever-changing weather.
As a final disheartening touch, the million-dollar “Viper Vision” scoreboard (installed in 2003) also remains in place, silently looming above the left field wall. It’s impressive 30 foot video screen dimmed only by a lack of Calgary based luminary to display.
In a way, it’s almost as if the old yard is simply frozen in time.
Talks of converting the site into a venue geared towards soccer did, at one point in time, draw it’s share of attention from local sports fans. In essence, those involved in the proposal had wanted to convert the stadium’s dimensions with the intentions of possibly drawing a Major League Soccer club to the city, similar to the way Burns Field helped lure the Cardinals in ‘77.
To some, the idea poses an interesting concept. But one that has yet to come to fruition, keeping those hopeful of professional baseball’s return to Calgary patiently waiting in the wings.
Could the city support a pro team despite it’s spotted, yet equally prolific, past?
Hodgson, thinks its possible.
Having spent the better part of the last eleven seasons working in a variety of different roles with the Okotoks Dawgs of the Western Major Baseball League, he knows just how passionate baseball fans are in Western Canada.
“Professional baseball has shown to be a tough sell in the big cities in the years after the Cannons and Trappers, but the teams in these smaller cities are doing an outstanding job of reinvigorating their fans and their youth, which will inspire the next generation of Canadian baseball.”
That generation, sparked by the efforts of the provinces smaller market ball clubs, in addition to the resurgent Blue Jays of 2015, may be the ones who see Foothills brought back to life.
But for now, the clock is ticking on this slice of baseball heaven as, vacant, it slowly begins to fade into obscurity.
-Follow Andrew Hendriks on Twitter (@77hendriks)