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Vancouver Canadians success a home run for Blue Jays and baseball in Canada

The home of the Vancouver Canadians, Nat Bailey Stadium. (The Canadian Press)

As R.A. Dickey, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and the Toronto Blue Jays find their groove, the question in Vancouver is whether or not the next wave of Blue Jays stars are taking the field for their hometown Vancouver Canadians.

While the suddenly streaking Blue Jays play host to the Colorado Rockies on Monday night, Canada’s other affiliated professional team, the Canadians, will open their home schedule in front of a sold-out crowd against the Spokane Indians.

In a market dominated by the NHL Canucks and with strong followings for the CFL Lions, MLS Whitecaps, and WHL Giants, the Canadians have provided another alternative for sports fans in Vancouver. Affordable tickets, an entertaining on-field product, and a concerted effort to connect with the community have made the C’s a winner in more ways than one.

Just as far back as the late 1980s and early ‘90s, there were as many as 10 minor league affiliates across Canada. Today, the Canadians stand alone, but based on their success over the last few years, they’re making the case for minor league baseball to make a return to our home and native land.

When local owners Jake Kerr and Jeff Mooney bought the Canadians in 2007, they were investing in a struggling enterprise. Both avid baseball fans but with no experience running a sports franchise, they brought in Andy Dunn, a veteran major-league executive with the Marlins, Expos and then Nationals, to run the day-to-day operations.

Under the leadership of Kerr, Mooney, and Dunn, the Canadians are being recognized beyond Vancouver and Canada as the blueprint for how to run a minor league baseball team.

They were presented with the coveted Bob Freitas Award in 2011, an honour that goes to a select number of teams each season that best demonstrate how to run a minor-league baseball outfit.

The previous year, Canada’s two affiliated pro baseball teams finally decided to team up. The Blue Jays and Canadians agreed to a partnership to help grow the sport.

It was a move that had long been talked about and it’s been a positive partnership for both sides. The talent supplied by Toronto has won consecutive Northwest League titles for Vancouver while having an affiliate in Vancouver has helped raise the Jays’ profile on the West Coast in their mission to be a national commodity.

The first two years have gone so well that Toronto and Vancouver have extended their player development contract through 2016, guaranteeing four more seasons of Blue Jays prospects suiting up for the C’s.

The Canadians have set overall attendance records each of the past five years, the most recent spike which can be attributed to the relationship with the Blue Jays and the electric game day atmosphere.

One of the first actions taken by the Kerr and Mooney ownership tandem was to renovate and revitalize the Canadians home, Nat Bailey Stadium.

They achieved a perfect balance; modernizing an old relic with a state-of-the-art video board and while retaining the classic nostalgia-inducing features that gives some uniqueness to the 61-year-old stadium that has been home to Vancouver baseball since 1951.

Vancouver’s raucous fans and the stadium’s mystique made such an impression on MiLB.com’s Benjamin Hill that he placed the “Nat” among the top 10 ballparks in all of minor league baseball.

“Despite its distressing lack of affiliated professional teams, baseball passion is alive and well in Canada, and for proof of this, one only needs to visit Vancouver's Nat Bailey Stadium (home of the aptly named Canadians). Drenched in history and surrounded by mountainous splendor, this 61-year-old ballpark is a classic in every sense of the word. Beneath a covered grandstand that gives even the sunniest of days a dark-toned hue, fans pack themselves onto red wooden benches and commence to root for the home team with a vociferousness that would put most American fan bases to shame. This is baseball worth crossing the border for.”

Whispers persist of the potential return of a Triple-A club, but a couple of logistical hurdles and the tremendous success the organization is having at the short-season level, have put those plans on hold for the time being.

Through shrewd decision-making and a family oriented business plan, Kerr, Mooney, and Dunn have established the Canadians as a model franchise in their city, country, and league. For a growing number of Vancouverites taking in a game at Nat Bailey Stadium is becoming a summer tradition, and the home team is flourishing for all the right reasons.

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