Big names draw big crowds to Nat Bailey Stadium

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      The roars have returned to Nat Bailey Stadium as another Vancouver Canadians Northwest League baseball season is under way. And although the action on the diamond is heating up, so far the loudest cheers at the venerable old ballpark at the base of Little Mountain have emanated from the front office.

      The noise has nothing to do with wins or the on-field performance of the two-time defending NWL champions but rather who the Canadians have been able to nail down to headline this year’s Superstar Series of big-name ballplayers coming to town for promotional appearances.

      Now in its sixth season, the Superstar Series has joined the team’s famous nooners and fireworks nights as the most-popular games on the Canadians home schedule. And this year, it appears the Canadians have knocked things out of the park with Larry Walker, Joe Carter, Tim Raines, Ernie Whitt, and baseball hall of famer Rollie Fingers all scheduled to be on hand for a Canadians game in the coming months.

      “When we confirmed Larry Walker, I was like: ‘Oh, my God, I can’t believe we got him,’ ” Canadians general manager Jason Takefman tells the Georgia Straight by phone, recalling his reaction to confirming the appearance of the pride of Maple Ridge and the most prolific Canadian to ever play in the major leagues. “We listen to our fans and find out who they want to meet, is what it comes down to. We try to tie it into players who’ve made a contribution to baseball in Canada, but really it’s a matter of who would you want to see. And we think every guy on this year’s list falls into that category.”

      In past years, Takefman and his staff have been able to deliver greats like Andre Dawson, Roberto Alomar, Jesse Barfield, and Lloyd Moseby to the ballpark. But this season, the Canadians feel like they are taking the Superstar Series to new heights.

      Walker’s night will be August 13, and fans will surely pack the Nat to salute their hometown hero. But Takefman thinks that Carter’s night a week later (August 20) will be a special night too, as the Canadians honour the 20th anniversary of Carter’s game-winning home run that gave the Toronto Blue Jays their second straight World Series title in 1993.

      “We’ve wanted to bring Joe Carter in for a few years but really thought we should tie it into this special anniversary of his home run—the most-famous home run in Canadian baseball history—so that’s what we’ve done this year,” he explains. “Sometimes it can take a year or so to get the players we want. They’re all over North America and have busy schedules and sometimes the dates just don’t line up. Some of them don’t do a lot of appearances, and really we don’t have that many home games. So it can be difficult to coordinate schedules.”

      Working with agents and major-league teams, the Cs offer the superstars a nonnegotiable appearance fee that basically covers their expenses to make the trek to town. Takefman says that in all of his years of wrangling talent, he’s never been snubbed or had a deal break down because of the money involved. In exchange, the ball club has a small list of demands of the players to allow the team to maximize its promotion.

      “We fly them in the day before and give them a chance to see Vancouver,” Takefman says. “Most of them usually bring their families with them. On game day, we get them to do a little bit of media, ask them to say a few words to our players and the manager before the game, throw out the ceremonial first pitch, and then they sign autographs and meet the fans during the game. The players love it and the fans love it too. So many fans have great memories of the guys we bring in. [Former Blue Jay] Kelly Gruber was shocked a few years ago at how many fans remembered the fact he did a rehab stint here in 1994. And Moseby and Barfield told me when they were here they’d never been thanked so many times in their lives.”

      In the world of minor-league baseball, wins and losses matter but not as much as putting people in the seats. And the Canadians have tried to be as creative as they can with game-day giveways and theme nights at the Nat.

      But Takefman has learned over the years that sometimes it takes more than a free batting glove or a commemorative team photo to put people in the seats. Simply stated, the superstar visits bring people to the ballpark. In other words, these guys are good for the bottom line, and the Vancouver Canadians have to use all tools available to them to compete for the sports-and-entertainment dollars being shelled out in this city.

      “So many people have wanted to meet these guys for years, and the thing is baseball fans here know that they’ll have so few times in their lives to actually meet these players,” he says.

      And so the Cs are counting on the big names to draw big crowds on July 11 (Raines) and August 14 (Whitt), as well as when this year’s Superstar Series begins: with a visit from Fingers on July 3.

      “We’ve tried to get him [Fingers] in here for a while,” Takefman says. “We thought we had him a few years ago, but for whatever reason it didn’t work. But he’s coming this year, and we’re just thrilled to be able to cap off our Canada Day long-weekend home stand with a baseball hall of famer.”

      Years from now, some of the players on the Vancouver Canadians current roster may become household names for baseball fans everywhere. But this summer, the biggest names at the ballpark will be those on hand for the Superstar Series.

      Jeff Paterson is a talk-show host on Vancouver’s all-sports radio Team 1040. Follow him on Twitter @patersonjeff.