The name is the same, but almost everything else about the Vancouver Canadians has changed over the winter. Fans will soon see that for themselves when Nat Bailey Stadium opens its doors to another season of Northwest League baseball action on June 19.
Local businessmen Jake Kerr and Jeff Mooney purchased the single-A Canadians from their Oregon-based owner, Fred Herrmann, in November, and ever since they've been hard at work trying to breathe new life into the franchise and the 53-year-old stadium in which it plays.
"I guess the biggest difference is that Fred was the whole thing. He had a certain style that he brought from Oregon with him; it was very much a hands-on, entrepreneurial, do-it-yourself type of approach which worked fine," Kerr tells the Straight in a telephone interview. "We bring somewhat of–and I don't want this to sound in any way negative–a more corporate view to it. We're here with a 25-year lease. We needed that kind of commitment in order to make the kind of capital expenditures we're going to make. And we're going to, hopefully, bring a more modern approach to running the ball club."
The lease was the key to the whole deal. For far too long, people have referred to Nat Bailey Stadium as "the prettiest little ballpark in North America". And, certainly, it has some charm, though most of it comes from being situated at the foot of Queen Elizabeth Park. But anyone who's spent any time in the park, the bleachers, the concourse, or the washrooms knows that much of the lustre has been missing for some time now. In fact, before Kerr and Mooney got the lease from the city, the most colourful thing about the Nat was the layers of bureaucratic red tape that served as an obstacle to any significant upgrades.
Kerr, who owns 70 percent of the ball club, says crews have been busy–almost around the clock–working on most areas of the facility to get it ready for opening night. He says he likes what he's seen so far, and he thinks the paying customers will be impressed too.
"It was never Fred's fault, because he never had more than a one-year lease, but to put it bluntly, the place was a dump," he says. "People came because they loved the experience of going to the Nat. That's why we needed the long-term lease. If it [the fan experience] was at zero last year, I'd say it's going to be at 70 percent this year. And we have an agreement with the city to put a bunch more money into the final solution. But I think you'll be amazed."
Kerr says the first thing people will notice will be the outside of the stadium, which has been repainted and now includes 18 large panels of baseball art (by noted local artist Jennifer Ettinger). The exterior also includes retro 1950s-style printing, giving it a nostalgic baseball feel.
Inside the park, the outfield fence has been repainted and moved forward about four metres in hopes of producing a few more home runs. The original scoreboard has been removed and replaced by a replica that is now embedded in the outfield fence (and still requires someone to manually hang the scores inning by inning).
And all chainlink fencing has been removed down the first and third base lines, bringing people much closer to the action.
"You'll never again feel like you're sitting in a wire cage to watch a ball game. We still have some netting behind home plate, but the fans that are down the first and third base lines are going to feel like they're on the field," Kerr says, well aware of the fact there are both pros and cons to the new setup. "The good news is they [spectators] are going to feel like they're on the field; the bad news is they're going to have to be wide-awake and have their gloves with them because they're going to be much more in the action than they ever have been before."
Kerr figures the biggest improvement his crew has made to the Nat Bailey experience is at the concessions. The food-service areas have been given a complete face-lift, Kerr says the paying customers will get far more bang for their buck this year.
"We're not raising prices, but we are improving quality, and we're certainly in some cases improving quantity," he explains. "Last year's 16-ounce beer will be 20 ounces for the same price. And the hot dogs and the bratwursts will be a heck of a lot better, we think."
Kerr, who figures his ball club has 950 to 1,000 season-ticket holders, knows that at the end of the day, wins and losses aren't what will keep people coming back to minor-league baseball. It's everything that goes on around the action on the field that determines whether or not you can keep the fans you've already got and add new ones. That's why he's gone what he hopes is the extra mile to make the 2007 Vancouver Canadians season a success regardless of the team's record.
"If you study what's going on in minor-league baseball right now, what you see is a transition between the Fred Herrmanns of this world”¦to less mom-and-pop and more 'Let's get out and really promote the team in the community' and that type of stuff," he says. "Our two main things will be what's the attendance like and we'll do a lot more professional polling to make sure that the fan experience is as good as we think it should be. If we get good response from the people in terms of turning out, and when they're asked how it goes and they like it, then that's a success for us."
Kerr is big on the idea of local ownership for Vancouver sports teams, and he says he plans to be at as many of the Cs 38 home games as possible. And the ones he can't make, he's quite certain his partner, Jeff Mooney, will be at. After all, they ponied up a reported $7 million to buy the ball club and have sunk a whole bunch more in all of the upgrades; they want to be around to see the fruits of their labour. And they won't have to wait long with opening night just around the corner.
"The excitement level is pretty high. There's still a lot to be done, and there's a lot being done. I'm not used to, frankly, being in a business where opening night is June 19 and the show goes on no matter where we are," Kerr says of learning the ropes of professional sports ownership. "We're going to be ready, but there's a lot of work to get done and we're pretty excited about it."
And soon we'll find out if the local baseball fans feel the same way.
Jeff Paterson is a sportscaster and talk-show host on Vancouver's all-sports radio, Team 1040. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.