By Matt Betts
Canadian Baseball Network
The year was 1999. June 4th to be exact.
David Wells pitched the Toronto Blue Jays to a 6-2 win over the Montreal Expos in front of 24,147 at SkyDome. The floundering Expos were on their way to a 68-94 season.
Yet professional baseball in Quebec was about to take off.
Michel Laplante, president of the Quebec Capitales of the Can Am League, remembers that day vividly. It was the day the Capitales played their first home opener.
“June 4 was pretty special personally,” Laplante said. “We knew we had to be right to give a good first impression.”
Laplante’s view for the first pitch of the Capitales first game in Quebec City didn't come from the press box. It came from sixty feet, six inches from home plate at historic Stade Canac. Before his days as general manager and president of the team, Laplante was a 24th round pick of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1992 draft. He spent four seasons in the Pirates system before embarking on the independent ball ranks. From there he was off to Taiwan to suit up for the Chiana Luka in 1997. He returned in time to take the ball for the first ever home game for the Capitales. Laplante knew the start up franchise had to be on their game.
“I was the pitcher that day and remembering the hours before the game where we worked so hard in order to sell that game, sell the product and now you have to deliver,” Laplante said. “That was extra pressure.”
The pressure didn't get to the Capitales and the team has been rolling ever since. The franchise has won seven league titles and 10 division crowns in just 20 seasons. Not bad.
Laplante has seen a lot in the game. He grew up in Val d’Or but played junior baseball in St. Eustache. After playing for the national team, including the 1991 Pan Am Games, he was drafted and began his professional career. After going 11-2 with a 2.06 ERA for Quebec in 1999 he went on to play in the Expos and Braves organizations, making it to triple-A with the Ottawa Lynx in Montreal’s system in 2000. He would return to Quebec later that year, going 2-2 with a 3.10 ERA before a shoulder injury derailed his career. He made 11 appearances from 2002 to 2007 with Quebec but his main focus was on managing the club starting in 2005.
“I started to work with the organization at the debut in 1998. It was fun to be beside Miles Wolff (current Can Am League Commissioner),” he said. “I learned about starting a professional team, the identity, sales, management and then I was also a pitcher and I had a decent season in 1999. I went back to organization ball with the Braves and with the Expos, and finally stopped because of an injury in my shoulder. I was able to come back as a pitching coach a few years later and I became the manager of the Capitales in 2005”
His first season at the helm of the Capitales ended with a 57-34 record. The team would lose in the league final. The following season the team went 44-44 and finished 4th. Despite their .500 regular season record they would go on to win their first championship in franchise history. They knocked off the North Shore Spirit 3 games to 2 in the opening round before defeating the Broxton Rox 3-2 in the final.
“Our first championship was something special,” Laplante said. “After six years people were waiting for it.”
Laplante finished his Capitales managerial career with a 261-200 record from 2005-2009.
Over the years the team and city have welcomed some impressive players. Laplante points to Eddie Lantigua as having some of the best stats. Lantigua played the 1999 season in Quebec and returned to play from 2002 to 2009. He hit .343 during the 2006 championship season with 11 home runs and 61 RBIs.
Eric Gagne was one of the biggest names to don the Capitales colours. The 2003 National League Cy Young Award winner and Montreal native helped the team to its 2009 championship.
“Goefrey Tomlinson was that great athlete to watch, Karl Gelinas has been great for more than a decade now, the Cuban Yordan Manduley who won the batting title this year is a MLB caliber shortstop and we had one of the best leaders in Jordan Lennerton.” Laplante said.
Five of the franchises seven championships came during a magical run from 2009-2013 when they won five consecutive titles.
The current president wants to continue to grow the game in Quebec.
“I think it means a lot, the Expos left in 2004, well they were almost done between 1999 and 2004 and there was a little bit of negativity when we were mentioning baseball and the subscriptions were at their lowest in years,” he said. “For the last few years baseball is growing and we hope to think that we’ve been helping.”
Being involved in the community has been key to the teams success in their first 20 seasons.
“I would say trying to be involved in the community as much as we can,” Laplante says about what has made his team a hit. “We also had good teams and have always been able to compete to keep seasons interesting for the fans. We have been supported tremendously over the years. We are supported by great corporate partners and have good coverage from the media.”
Laplante says he enjoys his time building the team from the front office as much as he enjoyed his time competing on the mound. He wants to see both the team and the league continue to grow. He knows what direction he wants his team to go in.
“Just to keep going like we are would be outstanding,” he said. “We would also love to play against Montreal or against a team from the Toronto area, that would make it a great league.”