Monday, June 1, 2009

Victoria Seals bring baseball home

Seeking salvation in the T-shirt toss. Photograph by Deddeda Stemler.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
June 1, 2009


The mayor stood on the mound, tossing a baseball in the air with his left hand. He rubbed the ball as if for luck before reaching back to throw a ceremonial opening pitch.

Dean Fortin’s aim was true, though a little high. The crowd at Royal Athletic Park roared its approval

After a hiatus of six seasons, professional baseball returned to the British Columbia capital this weekend.

“It proves there’s a God,” said Howie Siegel, a restaurateur and well-known local baseball fanatic. He was accompanied by Monte Prior, a lawyer whose father, Bill, was a star pitcher in Victoria in the post-war years.

Fans of the summer game, long deprived of their favourite pastime, flocked to a modest but intimate park.

The city-owned facility has been spruced up by $80,000 in improvements, though the sound system remains as muddy as Cadboro Bay at low tide and lineups at the concession stand were as slow as the Colwood Crawl.

A $400,000US scoreboard bought by the team arrived too late from the manufacturer to be installed before the inaugural home stand.

A near-capacity crowd of about 4,000 attended Friday night’s game, which began after Opening Day ceremonies that included brief remarks by Darren Parker, who owns the Victoria Seals with his father, Russell.

“I know you guys didn’t come here to listen to me speak,” the son said. “You came to watch a ball game. So, let’s get on with the show.”

Joining the on-field dignitaries was Holly Graham, a 26-year-old aspiring singer and songwriter from Cranbrook whose sash proclaimed her to be the reigning Miss Petite British Columbia. Earlier, she distributed free souvenir pins marking the occasion to customers milling in the concourse behind the grandstand.

A quartet called The Dixieland Express, dressed in period red-and-white striped outfits, performed “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”

Fans posed for photographs with club mascot Seamore the Seal, an anthropomorphic pinniped who wears uniform No. 09. Among them was Chris Gainor, an author of several books on the space program, who joined other wags in teasing the mascot about the Governor General’s recent experience in arctic cuisine.

“I was wondering if Michaelle Jean was going to throw out the first pitch,” Mr. Gainor quipped. “Of course, she’d have to throw to the heart of the order.”

Seamore performed an onfield softshoe routine, using a bat instead of a cane, showing himself to be surprisingly nimble on his flippers.

Nearby, fans browsed such memorabilia as cow bells ($3), foam fingers ($5), toques ($15), hoodies ($40) and ball caps ($20). A $3 program revealed such secrets about the players as infielder Brian Rios’s ownership of a tanning salon, outfielder Chris Van Rossum’s dual American and Greek citizenship, and left-handed relief pitcher Graham Campbell’s heart surgery at just seven days old.

Mr. Campbell, who turns 24 on Friday, is a hometown boy and the only Canadian on a 22-player roster filled mostly by Americans, the majority from California.

The lefty threw in relief on Opening Day, his pitches judged by home-plate umpire Ian Lamplugh, a former major-league umpire who also hails from Victoria.

The Seals play in the Golden Baseball League, an independent circuit with nine clubs in two provinces and three states. Last year, the league sold 25 player contracts to major-league teams. The league is the brainstorm of David Kaval, who hatched the idea as part of a project while attending Stanford Business School.

Victoria, a city better known for its support of old-country sports such as rugby and cricket, has a long and colourful baseball history.

The Seals follow teams named Bees, Blues, Tyees, Mussels, Chappies, Athletics, Capitals, Islanders and Legislators in attempting to win the loyalty of local rooters.

Baseball was introduced to British Columbia by American prospectors who came north in search of gold. The game was played at Beacon Hill Park in Victoria as early as 1863.

The first professional match was played here in 1896. In 1911, the Victoria team signed a fleet outfielder with one of the oddest names in baseball history. The son of prominent Washington State judge E.C. Million was dubbed Ten by his eccentric mother. He had a sister named Decillion, which is one followed by 33 zeroes for those of you keeping score at home. She was known as Dixie. Back in the days when Ten Million was a name and not a salary, the outfielder hit a respectable .276 for the Victoria Bees.

Baseball was first played at Royal Athletic Park more than 70 years ago. Among those who cavorted on the greensward were such baseball notables as Lou (The Mad Russian) Novikoff and Gil McDougald, an Athletic in 1949 who two years later won rookie-of-the-year honours in the American League while playing for the New York Yankees.

In 1978, the comedian Bill Murray from “Saturday Night Live” played a single game for the Mussels. He was a kooky infielder who razzed the umpires. He even managed to hit a bloop single in a screwball act that succeeded as comedy but failed as a publicity stunt. The game failed to sell out. The Mussels performed well on the field but poorly at the box office, remaining Victoria’s secret until the club folded after three seasons.

Before yesterday’s game, the Seals had a record of one win and eight losses. They were already in last place in the four-team north division.

Before the 88-game season ends, Victoria manager Darrell Evans, 62, who hit 414 home runs as a major leaguer, might well be tempted to pencil himself into the lineup. After watching the bullpen surrender many runs, he might also want to sign the mayor as a relief pitcher.

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