Canadian Baseball League

Saturday, November 23 2002 @ 01:24 AM EST

Contributed by: Coach

Here's how the Star covered the CBL launch, and here's the Clutch Hits discussion that (not surprisingly, given the timing of the undiplomatic "Bush is a moron" slur) kind of wandered away from baseball in Canada to a political debate that nearly went nuke-you-ler.

I did a little market research last night. One of my best friends is a musician, who doesn't "get" sports. When he attends a Jays game or two with me every year, he likes the JumboTron and the dancers and the vibe of a decent crowd, and he roots for the home team, but doesn't know, or care, whether a player is a star or a bum. He likes fun; the baseball is irrelevant. This guy, if he lived in the Niagara Region or London, is the customer the CBL needs to survive. When I promoted tiny Orangeville Raceway in the giant shadow of Woodbine, I knew my "regulars" by name and didn't need special events to get them in the door. So I did wacky things to attract -- and entertain -- newcomers. My suggestion to the new league and each of its teams is to follow the Veeck blueprint and sell the sizzle; the steak figures to be a bit tough.

I am not very optimistic about the CBL, though I hope I'm wrong. I would have avoided Montreal and Calgary; they haven't supported higher levels of baseball and let's face it, these rosters are coming from the shallow end of the talent pool. And I would certainly not have begun with four-team divisions, a continent apart. How do you generate rivalries, and fan interest in them? The hoped-for parity is unlikely, at best -- it will take no more than a month to identify contenders and also-rans -- so the "competition" angle is a sham. I prefer the concept of three (or four) divisions with eight teams, and wouldn't have launched with less than 18 teams nationally.

Admittedly, that would "water down" the talent level even more, but so what? It will be a rare and exciting event when any CBL player gets signed by a big-league organization; if the idea is to present this as high-level sport, it's doomed. Properly promoted as entertainment, in medium and small Canadian markets, it has a chance, with the illusion of meaningful competition secondary to giveaways, concerts, and other attractions. Again citing the "bush leagues" of harness racing, we needed races that were competitive -- the relative ability of the horses to each other, not to the sport's elite, was all the fans cared about. But even if I presented a great "card" of racing, the difference between 1,000 in the building and 2,500 was entirely due to the sideshow. Getting casual visitors to return depended not on the human or equine athletes, photo-finishes or the percentage of winning favourites, but making the "peripheral" stuff fun.

If the new league survives an inevitable shaky first year, vacates cities where it's ignored, and expands to a competitive size in greener pastures, it has a chance. The salary cap seems reasonable, and while I don't know what Jack Dominico pays Rob and Rich Butler or Paul Spoljaric to play 40-some games in the Intercounty League, I presume most teams will be sprinkled with similar "names" that are novelties, if not gate attractions. At least five Canadians on each roster will keep their baseball careers alive, which is a fine opportunity for talented young amateurs who go undrafted, and pros on their way back down the career path. Matt Stairs would be a draw in New Brunswick at 50, and I can imagine manager/pinch hitter Larry Walker of the 2020 Surrey Fringes. Please don't confuse my skepticism with negativity; I hope the CBL is a huge success and goes on forever.

Perhaps Craig B will join me on a Golden Horseshoe baseball immersion weekend next year: if the teams' (and our) schedules permit, we could scout those amazing Indians prospects in Buffalo, compare the new Stars to the established Leafs, maybe even attend a Jays game, then share our observations. Jordan can have his own excellent adventure in the Ottawa and St. Lawrence valleys, and we'll expect Western reports from Sean and Justin. Anyone else up for the Southern Ontario road trip?