• By: OLM Staff

Playoff Baseball Returns to Ottawa

For the first time since 2003, before the Ottawa Lynx left town to become the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, there will be playoff baseball played at the Ottawa Baseball Stadium. The teams won’t be playing for the Governor’s Cup, awarded to the champion of the Triple-A International League and won by the Lynx in 1995; nor will they fight for the independent Can-Am League title, in which the defunct Ottawa Rapidz played one unfortunate season in 2008. Instead, the semi-professional Ottawa Fat Cats will celebrate their first Intercounty Baseball League playoff berth, finishing sixth in the eight-team circuit in their second season of existence.

The Fat Cats franchise was awarded to Ottawa by the IBL in January 2010, as a result of the tireless efforts of general manager Duncan MacDonald and the Ottawa Stadium Group to bring baseball back to Coventry Road. By opting to pursue a team in the more intimate setting of semi-pro ball rather than resurrecting the failed experiments of operating a minor league professional franchise, the OSG banked on spurned local fans to return to Canada’s second-largest baseball stadium. So far, the model is working: after a promising inaugural season, MacDonald was named the IBL’s Executive of the Year, and with their first playoff berth secured, the Fat Cats look primed to remedy Ottawa’s tumultuous relationship with the game of baseball.

Hard as it is to believe now, the Ottawa Lynx were once an eminent minor league franchise, serving as the top farm club for the Montreal Expos, the Baltimore Orioles and the Philadelphia Phillies, and winning the International League championship just three years after their establishment. Facing dwindling attendance numbers, however, owner Ray Pecor sold the team to two Pennsylvania businessmen in 2006, and following an acrimonious standoff with the City of Ottawa, the Lynx were whisked away to Allentown and rebranded as the Lehigh Valley IronPigs.

Eight months after the Lynx played their final home game, the Ottawa Rapidz of the independent Can-Am League began their first season of play. Originally christened the Rapids, the z was inserted following the club’s sale to movie rental company Zip.ca before the season began. From there, it was all downhill – the team limped to a miserable 31-63 record, finishing last in the league and averaging just 2,197 fans per game. The Rapidz shared none of the Lynx’s distinguished (if not brief) history, but saw their tenure in Ottawa come to the same wretched conclusion. After Rapidz management filed for bankruptcy, blaming the city for failed negotiations for the future lease of the stadium, the Can-Am League was unable to secure new ownership, and the team was dissolved in March 2009.

Fortunately for Ottawa fans, semi-professional baseball looks to be a far better fit than the high-level minor leagues or independent circuits. The city has began to embrace the Fat Cats’ sensible prices and fan-friendly entertainment, filling the ballpark with a vigour not seen since the early, more prosperous days of the Lynx. In their inaugural season, the Fat Cats led the IBL in attendance, averaging just over two thousand fans a game for a grand total of 25,611. This year, they surpassed that total with five home dates remaining on the schedule, eventually shattering their own Intercounty record with a total of 38,491 fans.

The Fat Cats are managed by Tim Nelson, a former third baseman in the Baltimore Orioles and Anaheim Angels organizations. After his retirement in 2005, Nelson served as an assistant coach with the Ottawa Canadians and the Canadian National Junior Team, and managed the Verona Knights in the Italian Premier League. He’s assisted by Rudy Vallejos, an Ottawa native who was the IBL Rookie of the Year in 2006 and played for the Fat Cats in 2010.

The Fat Cats’ pitching staff is headlined by the versatile Matt McGovern, a right-hander that posted two complete games and led the IBL with a sterling 1.83 ERA. (He also batted .290 with three home runs as a part-time infielder.) He’s complemented by righty Josh Soffer, the Fat Cats’ leader in innings pitched and Nelson’s go-to reliever in any pressure situation; and Danny Desclouds, a 29-year old Stittsville native who was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2001. Desclouds logged over 60 innings as the Fat Cats ace in 2010, but saw his role reduced this year as the club opted for more balance in the rotation, an approach that paid immediate dividends in the win column.

The rest of the staff is comprised of 20-year old right-handers William Sebastian (who led the team with 10 starts) and Brett Sabourin, as well as a quartet of lefty relievers: Tyler Durward, Kevin Gamble, Jordan Kritsch and Tyler Robinson.

With the club’s pitching duties in good hands, MacDonald and Nelson took advantage of the IBL’s import rule to attract a trio of Americans to spearhead the Fat Cat offense. With each team allowed up to three non-Canadian players on the roster, Ottawa features Charlotte’s Kevin Dietrich, an athletic center fielder who leads the club with 44 hits and 17 doubles; Tampa Bay’s Rick Howroyd, a first baseman and catcher with a powerful throwing arm and a .312 batting average; and midseason acquisition LaDale Hayes of Honolulu, a utility player with devastating speed (nine stolen bases in just 13 games), a lethal bat (21 hits and a .447 average) and the ability to play nearly every position (3.1 innings pitched and errorless in the field).

The Americans have fit in seamlessly among the Fat Cats’ veteran core, with six players (not including pitchers) returning from last year’s squad that finished out of the playoffs at 11-25. Infielders Mark Charrette, Chris Latimer and Cody Mombourquette have entrenched themselves as fan favourites, providing patience at the plate, scrappy play in the field and timely speed on the basepaths. Joe Stone, the oldest Fat Cat after Desclouds at age 27, has proven to be a steady, consistent presence in right field; catcher Eitan Maoz has swung a hot bat while alternating with Howroyd behind the plate; and Kyle O’Brien has excelled in short stints as the designated hitter. Catcher Travis Murdock and outfielders Mathieu Joly and Ivan Cherwinski round out a ball club with a decidedly local influence; besides the three Americans, every member of the Fat Cats hails from the National Capital Region.

By virtue of finishing in sixth place with a 16-18 record, the Fat Cats’ first-round opponent will be the third-place London Majors (22-13). Through the years, London has won nine league championships; a number of former major leaguers have sported the Majors uniform, including 1971 Cy Young Award winner Ferguson Jenkins, perhaps the greatest Canadian baseball player of all time. The Fat Cats can’t match London in terms of pedigree, and they’ll enter this year’s postseason as underdogs, having dropped three of five games to the Majors in the regular season. For now, though, local fans can celebrate the realization of the Ottawa Stadium Group’s initial goal: baseball is back in Ottawa, and here to stay. The next step begins this week.