The State of Baseball in Ottawa

May 24th - Toronto Maple Leafs - 3,602 in Attendance

Back in 1992, baseball was the big thing in Ottawa. Some say that the Lynx’s first few years even over-shadowed the Senators’ return to Canada’s Capital. It’s hard to imagine that baseball would even come close to the popularity of Hockey at any time in Ottawa. Well, at least now that’s a hard thing to imagine.

Don’t get me wrong, though. 2010 is definitely not the lowest point in Ottawa’s baseball history. I would definitely say that that prize would belong to the late 90’s, where attendance plummeted despite the fact that in 1995, the Lynx won their league championship.

You would think that winning the top prize possible would give your baseball team’s fans a motive to come out to games, however instead, 1996 was the year when it became apparent that the Lynx wouldn’t last. After ’96, the Ottawa Lynx average  attendance would never again reach 5,000, and slowly but surely, they drifted into oblivion.

Others may suggest that the lowest point in baseball history for this city, was the last year that the Lynx were around, 2007. After all, at that point all the interest and energy that AAA Baseball had brought to this city was gone, plus attendance and sales were the worst in the franchise’s 15 year history.

However, while baseball wasn’t exactly the hottest ticket in town, one Lynx game showed me that Ottawa Baseball still had some life in it. Ironically enough, it was the last game that the Ottawa’s AAA ball team ever played. September 1st, 2007 was just another ordinary day, however with 7,468 fans in the stands, it was a great day for Ottawa baseball. In fact, when you looked at the Lynx demise in a positive fashion, it was a door opening to reveal a closet full of possibilities.

It wasn’t the same thing as AAA, but the next spring, Ottawa still had baseball in town. It was in the form of the Can-Am League’s Ottawa Rapidz. The Rapidz were an Independent ball club, which meant that they weren’t affiliated in any way with the MLB. This was another positive step for baseball in Ottawa, as the The Rapidz opened up to a crowd of 4,246. This was a great feat, considering the weather that day, and it seemed like a lot more then that were on hand to root for the Rapidz.

Despite the 6-0 loss, and the dismal 31-63 record that season, baseball had found new life in Ottawa. After the end of the season, the Rapidz were in the middle of the league in Attendance and seemed to be looking forward to another great season in 2009.

But then, the unthinkable happened.

Rob Hall, the team owner at the time, declared bankruptcy about 3 weeks after the season’s end claiming that the Can-Am League and the City of Ottawa owed him 1.4 Million dollars. Great season finale.

However, Miles Wolff managed to save Ottawa’s baseball team and the Can-Am League took over ownership of the Rapidz. They too, were looking forward to a great 2009 and even started to make some trades. One trade even included a ‘future considerations’ stipulation on Ottawa’s end, so it was clear that the now-Voyageurs meant business.

Or, at least, that’s what I thought.

In March of 2009–a few weeks away from opening day at the Stadium–the Atlantic City Surf had declared bankruptcy and handed the team’s ownership into the league. Wolff and the Can-Am League said that it was too much to run 2 teams, so the Surf ceased to exist after all that drama. It didn’t end there, either. According to the TEAM 1200 among other local news sources, Wolff and his cronies decided that it would be much easier schedule-wise, to go with 6 teams in the Can-Am League, rather that 7.

Since the Voyageurs were a League-owned team, Wolff had the power to shut the team down, and that’s exactly what he did.

So, once again, there were more questions than answers, and Ottawa Stadium was without a tenant. I expressed my interest in how this situation would be handled by the city council, by sending a letter to my riding representative at City Hall. I expressed my concern at possibly losing one of the best baseball stadiums in Canada, for a shopping mall.

In the Councillor’s reply, he agreed with me, stating that we have a beautiful stadium here in Ottawa, and that he’d hate to lose it. That, plus the efforts later in the year from Bob Monette and the Acting Mayors proved to me that this council is fairly pro-baseball.

Earlier this year, the doors of possibility opened again, and for a few weeks it looked like the Voyageurs were coming back. Ottawa and a couple other cities were in the hunt for a Can-Am league team. Those other towns included Pittsfield, Massachusetts; Trois-Rivieres, Quebec; and Burlington, Ontario. If you add Ottawa to this list, it’s pretty clear that Can-Am is trying to emphasize the ‘Can’ in their name–if you know what I mean.

While Ottawa didn’t get the team–which went to Pittsfield–a second ownership group looking to bring baseball back, managed to find a gem of a league, called the IBL. OSG and Duncan MacDonald found this semi-pro league, and in 2010 we would have baseball again!

The Fat Cats aren’t having the greatest year on the field, but off the field, it’s a completely different story.

See, most IBL Ballparks can barely hold 1,ooo people. Do me a favor and Google, “Jack Couch Baseball Park”. That is what Ottawa Stadium is up against. So, the Fat Cats obviously lead the IBL in attendance, but taking a look at the average attendance for the Can-Am League in 2010, Miles Wolff didn’t make a very good decision shutting down the old Voyageurs franchise.

If the Ottawa Fat Cats were an Indepedent ball club in the Can-Am right now, they would be in 2nd in league attendance, only behind the league’s powerhouse, Quebec. Oh, and the Pittsfield Colonials? They’ve pulled in a whopping average of 593 people per-game. Imagine how much more money that Can-Am could be making in Ottawa right now. It’s quite mind-boggling.

However, take a look at the positive side of this. Baseball in Ottawa has undergone a complete rebirth, and could be a star in the Indys in the near future. Another interesting fact, is that the Cats’ current average attendance–2,261– is the best in Ottawa’s baseball history since 2005. It’s a sign that baseball is alive and well here.

While I hope to see a Can-Am, GBL or SIB team call Ottawa Stadium home in the future, I definitely don’t want our current baseball team, the Ottawa Fat Cats to leave the city. What could happen to the Cats’ if a pro team returns to Ottawa? I would think that we could squeeze 2 teams into Ottawa Stadium. After all, the 10-home-date schedule that the Fat Cats had this year, isn’t exactly taking up this stadium’s time. We could even manage two games a day if they’re a few hours apart.

If keeping the Fat Cats at Ottawa Stadium would be seen as competition for the new Pro team, or other reasonings that could kick us out, I would like to tell you guys about a nice little place called Heritage Park. It’s a nice ball field in Orleans, that could have it’s bleachers expanded, a ticket office added, and bam, you’ve got the Cats a new home.Oh, and that’s only an example. There are so many expandable ball fields in Ottawa, that would and could welcome the Fat Cats with open arms.

Bottom line, is that Ottawa Baseball is in great shape to keep both the Fat Cats, and add on a little bit of Pro action to the mix.

    • Larry
    • July 2nd, 2010

    I think you were much more negative of Miles Wolff than he deserves. No real baseball league operates with an odd number of teams. It is simply not reasonable to try to create a schedule where each day has one team not playing.

    A league like the IBL can get away with an odd number of teams because they do not play series. Instead they play one-offs. They also don’t try to play many games. A real league can’t fit in the required number of games operating that way.

    Remember that Miles was willing to run a Can-AM team here this year. The problem was the city wouldn’t agree to a 2 year extension of the lease for the stadium. The city stalled, then went to city council. The city opened things up for bids, with a deadline that ensured no one would be able to get a team into a real league. Miles knew this was a recipe for disaster (you can’t leave the rest of the league hanging until something like Feb before they would know where the teams would be located), so they found a different city (Pittsfield) to host the relocated Defenders.

    If we get indy baseball back in Ottawa, Miles Wolff is a big part of that. Don’t believe any talk of the Golden League, that just makes no sense. SIB is just a joke, I can’t believe it will ever start up. It’s Can-AM or nothing for the foreseeable future.

    It will be very interesting to see what happens after this year. Personally I want indy ball to return (with the proper owners). OSG has not proven themselves to me (in fact, there is a lot of evidence that they have no idea what they are doing), so I would hope that there would be different/better owners. I have no problem with an IBL team also playing here, except to note that there would probably be some scheduling issues.

    • Pierre
    • July 2nd, 2010

    Good article.

    About 1995, winning the championship or not would not have changed anything in attendance in my opinion. What I’m trying to recall is if the Lynx promoted the fact in 1996 that they were the defending league champs. I don’t think they really did. Would it have made a difference? Probably not.

    Attendance figures
    1993 9772 (first year, made playoffs)
    1994 8929
    1995 6888 (won championship)
    1996 5377
    1997 4051

    1994 was the year of the major league strike which happened August 12, less than one month away from the end of the minor league season. The drop was affected by that event. It might partially explain the drop in 1995. The Lynx were barely a .500 team that year and only made the playoffs because of a late surge, as I recall a 10-game winning streak and were the better team going into the playoffs.

    After a championship season, you normally expect better attendance. Didn’t happen. At least if they had 6000+ but by then the novelty had worn off. Strange too since the Senators were still the worst team in the league. So that obviously had no effect. For the Lynx, it was all downhill after that.

    No, the problem is not a big enough baseball fan base. The first few years were a novelty. By the time 2000 came around, the attendance was what is to be expected for a team here. The Senators were a decent to good team and were the new talk of the town. It would have been interesting to see Lynx attendance if the Senators had fallen back. I don’t think it would have improved but we’ll never know.

    I think you put the year of 1996 that the Lynx wouldn’t last a few years early. But yes, it didn’t look good dropping another 1000 per game the year after.

    2007 the lowest point? Well, it wasn’t a good year for us baseball fans knowing for quite a while the Lynx were leaving.

    A few problems with the Lynx. First is obviously weather in April up to mid-May sometimes. Second, even for die-hards, 71 home games is quite a bit. Third, marketing. The last great marketing in my opinion was in 2003 for the $10,000 giveaway. Fourth, the problem of a shrinking parking lot although this could have been handled in a different way. The Fat Cats have a shuttle for example.

    The Rapidz year was a positive one until the Hall bankruptcy and other claims. Almost 2200 in attendance, over 5000 the last game. Those are the kind of numbers to expect in Ottawa.

    Last four years of Lynx:
    2004 2352 (year after making playoffs)
    2005 2396
    2006 1915 (people knew they were leaving by now)
    2007 1922

    Remember these are for the whole 71 game season from April. The following numbers are for games starting May 20, about the time the Can-Am starts and the IBL already has started its season:

    2004 2743
    2005 2510
    2006 2347
    2007 2267
    2008 Rapidz 2197

    Interesting what the Rapidz did, isn’t it? Oh, and the Fat Cats after yesterday’s double-header: 2283. That’s just a bit higher than the Lynx their last year (which includes that 7500 for the last game).

    I was worried before that people wouldn’t come and see the Fat Cats. I’m not anymore and like you, am very happy with the way things are turning out. It’s a good sign especially with the Can-Am series two weeks away.

    And whatever the Team 1200 may have said, they obviously don’t know much about baseball. In a pro league, teams play every day. You cannot have an odd number of teams. The Can-Am could not afford to run two teams (the other would have been a road-only team, the players taken from the Surf). So Miles Wolff is not to blame at all. Instead, Hall is as if he had stuck longer and did things differently, we could now be enjoying a Can-Am team still today. Oh, and the city missed the boat too for this year. We could have had the Colonials here this year.

    All and all, we are showing that there’s an interest in baseball. Not enough for a AAA team, but for a short-season A team or independent league. And looks like for a semi-pro team too.

    Good job with this and expressing your views which I mostly agree with. One error you have. There was never any talk of a Can-Am team going to Burlington, Ontario. There was a rumour of Burlington, Vermont (Lake Monsters, formally Expos) as their stadium is not adequate (it wouldn’t be for the Can-Am as well) and the NY-Penn league told them to fix it or get out. This is likely their last season there. Don’t forget too that Wolff is trying to get a team in Montreal, a real feather in his cap if that happens. It was not Wolff’s fault at all, he had no choice given the circumstances.

    The OSG did a phenomenal job in the short time they had to get the Fat Cats off the ground in difficult circumstances. So congrats to them too. No matter what happens, you could say they might save long-term pro baseball in Ottawa.

    • Phil
    • July 21st, 2010

    The IBL is the perfect fit for the Ottawa market. If you look at the attendence for the Rapidz and the Lynx the smallest crowds were during the week. There are several reasons for this. First Ottawa is not a spectator town it is a participation town. Look at the CFL two teams did not succeed however we have the largest minor football program in Canada, most cities struggle to keep one Jr. Football program afloat, however we have 3 teams (Jr Riders, Sooners, Cumberland Panthers).

    Looking at baseball the NCBL is one of the largest men’s baseball leagues in Canada at 35+ teams. NCBL has also been home to many Fat Cats in the past including; Desclouds, Dale, Charette, Latimer, Stone, Neil, Barnes, Steffler, Levac, Charbonneau, Farago, McGovern, Leduc, Vallejos, just off the top of my head. Add into that all the Slow-pitch leagues around town and you will cut into your fan base as if given the choice between going out and playing vs watching most will go play. Also the casual fan is more likely to attend a game during the weekend than on a weeknight.

    I know the IBL also has plans to expand into Eastern Ontario and Quebec with the most logical locations, being Peterbouorgh, Cornwall, Sherbrooke, Laval, Valleyfield, and maybe Three Rivers. I left Kingston and Brockville out as the Kingston Ponies seem to have a firm grasp in that town, and Brockville doesn’t have a suitable place to play.

    If given a full year to prepare for the season I have no doubt that OSG will be able to draw more fans and tidy up areas that need improvement.

    • Thanks for the comment!

      You’re right, there is no doubt that Ottawa is a Sports City. You could even add the Ottawa Invaders (Semi-pro Football team) to your list of currest football in the Ottawa area that is being kept afloat with ease. Mind you, it doesn’t take much too keep those Teams afloat, since usually it doesn’t require much to keep Semi-pro sports teams running. The Fat Cats are unique, though. Not only because of the market that they serve, but because of the huge lease on their tab from the Stadium.

      That is the reason why I think that the Fat Cats may be able to do better in the smaller baseball fields around this area – not immediately, but in a few years when some of the stress is taken off of their back when the east division program kicks in. For now, they need the extra revenue that comes from residing in a 10,000 Baseball Park.

    • Rick
    • April 5th, 2011

    Just one comment, something that for me affected attendance in the Lynx,

    Yes we all know the foibles of being a AAA ball club, the talent can get called up, and of course that is THEIR goal, the best example of upsetting a fan base however, The Expos one of the seasons called up Gallaraga up to the majors for what? To sit on a BENCH, Lynx best hitter that seasons days away from the making the playoffs and they pulled him to sit on the bench…

    This cost the Lynx and we failed to make the playoffs that season. So is it fair to the fans? No, is it the way things occur? Yes of course, but you cannot expect attendance not to be affected when you pull stunts like this.

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