By: Andrew Hendriks
Canadian Baseball Network
Built atop an old diamond adjacent to Merriton High school in the cities west end, St. Catharines Community Park serves both as a reminder of the New York-Penn league’s brief but successful renaissance in the Great White North, and an interesting footnote in the history of Canadian baseball.
Today, the old yard remains relatively intact despite a 17-year hiatus from the professional game. Looming high above the left field wall stands an old scoreboard, void of any advertising, scores or sounds. Quietly falling into disrepair, it watches over a steel grandstand speckled with four rows of familiar blue seats.
It wasn’t always this quiet at the corner of Seymour and Merritt.
Looking to relocate one of their low-level minor-league affiliates closer to home for logistical reasons in addition to a means of side-stepping certain visa restrictions, the Blue Jays tasked then administrator of player personnel Gord Ash with finding a suitable landing spot within Ontario.
Toronto’s future GM entertained the idea of bringing the team to a handful of different cities, but chose St. Catharines after he was impressed by the enthusiasm of the region's business and development officer Bill Lefebvre in 1985.
Lefebvre convinced the city to chip in $168,000 earmarked for the construction of new clubhouse facilities, a field overhaul and a grandstand that would seat upwards of 2000 fans. Additionally, St. Catharines secured a $23,000 Wintario Lottery grant while the Blue Jays paid $80,000 themselves and Labatts, the Blue Jays majority owner, sent another $100,000 for ballpark expenses and marketing of the fledging club.
Player accommodations were also taken care of in the deal as those who were sent north were put up in Brock University’s nurses’ residence during their stay.
As for a league, the Blue Jays purchased a struggling franchise in the New York-Penn circuit and moved the club across the border. In doing so, St. Catharines became the NYPL’s first Canadian outpost since league executives stripped Hamilton of their beloved Red Wings in 1956.
Looking to capitalize on the Blue Jays re-kindling of baseball hysteria in Southwestern Ontario, team officials opted to name the club after its big-league counterpart ahead of its first season in 1986. This also helped keep expenses down, as St. Catharines, like Toronto’s other Canadian affiliate in Medicine Hat, was shipped old uniforms and other team-branded equipment for their on-field personnel. This was a common practice for the time.
For a historical note, 1986 represented the first time the city fielded a professional team since future Philadelphia Phillies infielder Mickey Haslin starred with the C-level St. Catharines Brewers as a 20-year-old in 1930.
It also marked the first, and only, time Toronto’s NYPL affiliate would capture the league title.
A total of seven future major leaguers appeared on that championship club, including Willie Blair, Xavier Hernandez and a 17-year-old right-hander named Pat Hentgen to name a few.
After drawing over 46,000 fans during their first inaugural campaign, the Blue Jays covered their initial operating budget and subsequent startup costs before beginning to turn a respectable profit in the years that followed. Their overall success at the gate would inspire other Canadian cities to actively peruse a NYPL franchise, and, by 1989, both Welland and Hamilton wound up securing teams as affiliates of the Pirates and Cardinals, respectively.
As a whole, St. Catharines embraced their baseball team.
“With a considerable amount of talent, time and energy now being expanded on sports and games, it’s no small wonder that the Blue Jays have risen to such a pervasive and important position in the community life of the City of St. Catharines” wrote Mayor Joesph McCaffery in a public address ahead of the 1988 season.
“Here in St. Catharines we’re known as good sports. It’s a reputation we are proud of, and one which organizations like the St. Catharines Blue Jays have helped build for us”.
They were “treated like celebrities” said St. Catharines Blue Jays general manager Rick Amos of the prospects sent to the Canadian NYPL outpost when interviewed for Larry Millson’s 1987 McClelland and Stewart publishing: Ball Park Figures: The Blue Jays and the Business of Baseball.
“St. Catharines was a beautiful town” remembered Carlos Delgado in an interview with the CBN ahead of his 2015 induction into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St Marys, ON.
Arguably the team’s greatest alumni, Delgado spent parts of two seasons in Vineland prior to advancing to Myrtle Beach in 1991.
“I remember my first year there when we all rented bikes. You know, we didn’t make enough money to have a car, so we rode our bikes to the stadium to get our meal tickets," he said. "There was this little Greek restaurant, I don’t remember the name of the street but the lady’s name was Tula. Every day for lunch we went to Tula’s place to eat and it was great.”
From 1986 through 1999, St. Catharines remained as a Blue Jays stronghold and served as a launching pad for a number of future stars such as Chris Carpenter, Reed Johnson, Michael Young, Vernon Wells, Shannon Stewart, Woody Williams and a handful of other prominent up and comers.
After falling interest resulted in strained attendance figures, the New York Mets purchased the rights to the St. Catharines franchise and relocated the club to Queens, New York in 2000. Uniquely, the Toronto Blue Jays remained as the parent club for one more year prior to signing a NYPL player development deal with Auburn, New York in 2002.
Professional Baseball hasn’t returned to the Garden City since.
These days, when the Brock Badgers aren’t in action, the park is used for local amateur teams and competitions.
Re-named George Taylor Field in honor of a local resident, the park is now maintained by the city and looks nearly identical to the way it did when a handful of prominent Blue Jays (and other MLB) prospects received their first introduction to professional baseball in Canada.