When you think of baseball in the year 1951, Rookie of the Year Willie Mays might spring to mind. Or his teammate, Bobby Thomson, hitting the "Shot Heard 'Round the World" to propel the the New York Giants to the World Series. A lesser-known baseball event from that year, but
When you think of baseball in the year 1951, Rookie of the Year Willie Mays might spring to mind. Or his teammate, Bobby Thomson, hitting the "Shot Heard 'Round the World" to propel the the New York Giants to the World Series. A lesser-known baseball event from that year, but one that resonates to this day and will endure for decades to come, was the opening of Vancouver's Capilano Stadium. This ballpark, now known as Nat Bailey Stadium, is home to Canada's only remaining Minor League Baseball team, the Vancouver Canadians (High-A affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays).
Nestled in a bucolic setting -- Queen Elizabeth Park and its splendorous amalgam of mountain and city views is right across the street -- and imbued with throwback charm, Nat Bailey Stadium is revered by generations of Vancouver baseball fans.
The esteem in which it is held is easy to discern; this writer, during a visit earlier this season, talked to five ballpark regulars about the role it has played in their lives.
Gerry Williams, mustachioed and gregarious, has been an usher at Nat Bailey Stadium for 14 seasons. His ballpark memories extend well beyond that, however, as the first game he attended there was during its inaugural 1951 season. He had just finished his grade 8 school year -- that's Canadian for "eighth grade" -- and his dad brought him to the ballpark as a graduation present. It was then home to the Vancouver Capilanos of the Western International League, a franchise that had been in continuous operation since 1937. Gerry remembers "very little" of that initial outing, only that it made a positive impression, and that 72 years later, he's delighted to still have it in his life.
"It's my home. I get along with everybody. I kid everyone. It's a great place. You should talk to some of the old people here," he said, putting an exaggerated emphasis on the word "old." "I'm only 83. Some of these older ones are 95, and they've been coming here since the '50s."
Hans Havas does not meet Gerry's criteria for what constitutes an old person, but nonetheless he's been a stadium regular for a long time. Havas is originally from Holland -- and thus pronounces "Hans" like "Hands" minus the "d" -- but has been living in Vancouver for 50 years. One day, some 45 years ago, he and his wife were listening to a Canadians game on the radio and broadcaster Jim Robson mentioned that the team was looking for help housing its players. He went to the ballpark, applied, and "It didn't take 20 minutes. I had the job."
The Canadians had just begun a new era as a Triple-A Pacific Coast League team, starting out as an Oakland affiliate in '78 and then moving on to an eight-season stint with Milwaukee. Havas coordinated the rental of 20 units in a nearby apartment complex, and he and his wife began hosting players as well. Since he had his evenings free and had developed relationships with the players, he also began working as an usher. More than 40 years later, you can still find him roaming the aisles while his son, Tim, operates the pitch timer out of the press box.
"What it means to me now? It means the best thing in life," he said. "This is my life. I'm retired. Or as my wife puts it, 'I'm not retired. I'm repurposed.' This is, you know, the nicest little ballpark in Minor League Baseball."
In 2000, following 22 seasons at Triple-A, the Canadians became a Class A Short-Season club and remained at that level through 2019. The players were younger, often living away from home for the first time in their lives, and many of them stayed with host families during the summer. Carol Irving and her family, who live about a mile from Nat Bailey Stadium, hosted 44 players during this time. (Host families are no longer utilized in the Minor Leagues, as MLB now guarantees housing for the players.)
"We would start out with a [ballpark] barbecue, and we would get introduced to all the players and then they would tell you who you were going to stay with," she said. "So I brought them to my car and read them the riot act of what was expected."
The riot act?
"No swearing, no random girls back to my house. And that was just to have respect in my house, for our house. And everyone did wonderful," replied Irving, who, over the years, hosted future Major Leaguers such as Tim Locastro, Chase De Jong and Cavan Biggio. "Oh, and another thing in my household, we were not allowed to crack knuckles. So one game, I had three players at the time, the first baseman, second baseman and shortstop. During a pitching change, they all met over at second base. 'Ooh, Carol's looking.' And they all cracked their knuckles. Trying to get under mom's skin, you know? We had some good times."
There are plenty of good times to be had at the Nat, and that's a message Bob Kronbauer is dedicated to conveying. Kronbauer is the publisher of "Vancouver Is Awesome," a website and weekly newspaper that regularly includes the Canadians amid its wide-ranging array of hyper-local coverage.
"The paper goes out to 112,000 people every week, and [the Canadians] are on the front page a few times a year," he said. "My aim is to get more people interested. It's an American sport, right? Here, it's a little like it's the redheaded stepchild to hockey and other sports, and what I feel we're doing is just awareness, how awesome it is to come to a game."
Kronbauer can often be found sitting next to Ryan Beil, who writes a weekly Nat Bailey-centric column. His musings are often irreverent and light-hearted -- pro-geese on the field, anti-sushi race mascot Chef Wasabi -- but his love of the gameday environment is profound.
"It's such a gem," said Beil. "We're so lucky for the baseball that's existed here in a city that's hockey-obsessed. It's not going anywhere. Come out to the ballpark and enjoy yourself. Have an afternoon, have an evening."
Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes Ben's Biz Blog. Follow Ben on Twitter @bensbiz.