• By: OLM Staff

Minor League Baseball: Back to Ottawa?

Last week, the Ottawa Citizen reported that two deep-pocketed local bidders are currently in talks with the city of Ottawa to obtain a Double-A baseball franchise by 2013 or 2014. According to city councilor Rick Chiarelli, negotiations are progressing rapidly, with one Toronto party and one American party expressing interest in partnering with the local candidates and assuming majority ownership of the team. Reportedly, all prospective owners would like to affiliate the Double-A club with Canada’s only Major League Baseball franchise, the Toronto Blue Jays.

The Blue Jays are currently affiliated with the New Hampshire Fisher Cats of the Double-A Eastern League, a partnership they’ve held since 2003. Blue Jay officials had previously expressed a general interest in establishing another minor league franchise in Canada, and if negotiations are, in fact, proceeding as reported, it could spell the end for Toronto’s association with New Hampshire, either through relocation or the founding of an expansion team in Ottawa. (The Fisher Cats, originally named the New Haven Ravens, relocated from Connecticut to Manchester, New Hampshire in 2003.)

First things first: it’s clear that any discussions about bringing Double-A baseball to Ottawa are still preliminary, but if they carry any degree of truth whatsoever, there could hardly be a better Major League franchise to partner with than the Toronto Blue Jays. This season, Toronto’s stodgy, veteran lineup has been revitalized by an infusion of youth, as a series of inspired trades by general manager Alex Anthopolous have made the Jays a more competitive and exciting team to watch.

Anthopolous’ managerial acumen has permeated the entire organization, as the Jays’ front office has demonstrated a newfound commitment to strengthening each of the franchise’s eight minor league affiliates. The club has tabbed several former major leaguers to oversee the development of their prospects, with Fisher Cats manager Sal Fasano the most notable hire. The Las Vegas 51s of the Pacific Coast League are home to the top players in the Blue Jays’ system (they’ve also produced the two most recent PCL MVPs – former Toronto designated hitter Randy Ruiz and current Jays catcher JP Arencibia), while the Vancouver Canadians of Short-Season A are, at present, the lone Canadian affiliate of an MLB franchise.

The Jays have several heralded prospects playing for the first-place Fisher Cats, including pitcher Deck McGuire, catcher Travis d’Arnaud and outfielder Anthony Gose, not to mention shortstop Adeiny Hechevarria (recently promoted to Las Vegas). None of them will still be in the Eastern League by the time the Ottawa move would be consummated – and if they are, they’d hardly be considered blue-chip prospects anymore – but with Anthopolous confidently restocking the farm system, they’ll be no shortage of potential star power at any of the Jays’ minor league affiliates.

The local bidders were undoubtedly motivated by the success of the semi-pro Ottawa Fat Cats, who are set to play for the Intercounty Baseball League championship against the Brantford Red Sox. The Fat Cats continue to lead the eight-team IBL in attendance by a vast margin, and according to the Citizen, the prospective Double-A owners believe that the support cast behind the second-year franchise would translate to high-level pro baseball.

Any proposal to revamp Ottawa’s sporting scene would not be complete without its opponents, of course. Skeptics have already cited the failure of the Triple-A Ottawa Lynx and an extended schedule as reasons that professional baseball can’t work in Ottawa. The International League, home to the Lynx from 1993 to 2007, plays a 144-game schedule from the start of April until Labour Day weekend, while Eastern League teams play 142 games over the same time frame. Conversely, the Fat Cats played 34 regular season games from early May to late July, with their 17 home games condensed into just seven weekends.

The same aspersions have been cast upon Ottawa’s future CFL franchise, substituting the short-lived Ottawa Renegades in place of the departed Lynx. These concerns aren’t entirely fair – the Renegades and Lynx were done in by the mismanagement of their respective ownership groups, and early indications are that both fans and potential owners will do their part to ensure the success of football and baseball in Ottawa. Just as Ottawa 67s owner Jeff Hunt and a collection of local businessmen are committed to the return of the CFL to Lansdowne Park, reports of deep-pocketed local investors eager to land a pro baseball team should be welcome news to sports fans in the nation’s capital.

Again, until anything is set in stone, it’s best to err on the side of caution when discussing the establishment of a Double-A franchise. The Ottawa Baseball Stadium is in desperate need of upgrades, with a scoreboard that’s been out of commission for the entire 2011 season at the top of the list. Still, there’s ample reason to be excited over a potential partnership with the Blue Jays, one that would benefit both clubs, Ottawa fans and the state of Canadian baseball as a whole. The Fat Cats have captured the hearts of a city spurned by baseball, and the hope is that a minor league franchise could do the very same.