City of Calgary plans a major upgrade to McMahon Stadium’s baseball arena, forcing a potential end to the fabled Foothills Stadium
The City of Calgary has major plans to upgrade the McMahon Stadium area near Crowchild Trail and 24th Avenue. However, Calgary’s top baseball facility, Foothills Stadium, would be a casualty of the city’s plans. The stadium would most likely be demolished for the project to advance as planned.
City council has been asked to approve funding for a new fieldhouse to be built in the area, which would all but end the stadium’s time in Calgary.
With the dull outlook for Foothills, here is a timeline of the professional and amateur teams that have called the stadium home.
1966-1977: The first team at Foothills
Although the stadium was constructed in 1966, no professional team used it full-time until 1977.
1977-1978: Calgary Cardinals
In 1977, the Pioneer League planted the St. Louis Cardinals' rookie league team at Foothills. The Calgary Cardinals competed for two seasons, with a 71-68 record under manager and former MLB player Johnny Lewis.
After the Cardinals’ contract at Foothills expired, the Montreal Expos stepped-up and put their rookie league team in Calgary.
1979-1985: Calgary Expos
The Expos were the first team with any staying power in Calgary. The team also competed in the Pioneer League, where they lasted for six seasons, including two trips to the playoffs after first place finishes. They ended up losing in the Championship Series in both 1981 and 1983.
The Expos also gave Calgary its first taste of future all-star talent. Andres Galarraga played for the team in its first two seasons (1979-1980) and would go on to be a five-time National League all-star at the major league level. He also won the National League batting title playing for the Colorado Rockies in 1995.
Foothills stadium was first constructed in 1966, and has been home of many Semi-pro and recreational baseball teams throughout the city. Photo Credit: Zachary Worden
1985: Calgary Cannons Arrive
Once the Expos played their final game at Foothills Stadium, baseball in Calgary and at Foothills took a giant leap forward. The Seattle Mariners' triple-A team in the Pacific Coast League moved out of Salt Lake City and into Foothills Stadium. With the establishment of the Cannons came a name change for the stadium. Burns Stadium was the new name, thanks to a relationship with Burns Foods. Triple-A baseball was an automatic hit in Calgary. In the team's first season, they drew 272,322 fans over their first 63 games.
The fans were treated to a team that made the playoffs and featured future MLB players such as Danny Tartabull, who hit 43 home-runs, Harold Reynolds and Edgar Martinez. Ultimately, the Cannons lost out in the playoffs to the Vancouver Canadians. They were without Tartabull who had been called-up by the Mariners.
Ian Wilson, a co-founder of Alberta Dugout Stories, grew up in Medicine Hat but talked about the influence Foothills and the Cannons had throughout the province.
"Even if you were a casual baseball fan, you knew about the Cannons because it was the best thing we had in southern Alberta,” said Wilson. “I remember going and watching Tino Martinez and all the other guys going up or coming down. It was just a great way to interact with baseball."
1985-1994: The Seattle Mariners era
The Cannons are most well known for being a minor league affiliate of the Seattle Mariners. Some of the top Mariners’ players made their way through Calgary on their path to the Major Leagues. Other than Tartabull, Martinez and Reynolds, Calgarians were treated to appearances from all-stars Omar Vizquel, Jay Buhner, Tino Martinez, Bret Boone and most notably, the 1993 first overall pick Alex Rodriguez.
Drew Miller, homegrown Albertan and the all-time Calgary Vipers leader in most offensive categories, cited the ghosts of the MLB as one of the most appealing factors of playing at Foothills.
"I always wanted to play there because knowing that you're playing on the same field as A-Rod, Edgar and some of those other major league guys makes it a special thing to be a part of," said Miller.
In 1995, the Mariners decided to move their Triple-A team to Tacoma, WA. Despite the loss of the Mariners, the Pittsburgh Pirates would fill the vacancy at Burns Stadium, picking up the Cannons as their triple-A affiliate. The Pirates farm system didn't quite bring the same star power as the Mariners, but it still had its fair share of future MLB players. The most notable Pirates to spend time in Calgary were Tony Womack, Jon Leiber and Esteban Loaiza. Pittsburgh didn’t keep their roots in Calgary for long, as they traded triple-A facilities with the Chicago White Sox who brought their farm system to Calgary.
1998-1998: Short stay Sox
The Cannons' one season as the White Sox affiliate was one of their most successful seasons. They finished first in regular season play and made it to the Championship Series, before falling in five games. The most notable player to suit up for the Cannons in 1998 was Jim Abbott, a pitcher with only one hand who threw a no-hitter in 1993. His 1998 season was part of his MLB comeback attempt.
With the stadium starting to show its age, the franchise was given requirements to make renovations. The city and team had disagreements over who would pay for the field that put the future of triple-A baseball in Calgary in jeopardy. After an agreement was reached, renovations began in 1994 and were completed before the April 1995 deadline. The $2.5 million dollar renovations were funded through a joint effort of the Cannons, the federal, provincial and municipal governments.
1999-2002: The Final Run
The Florida Marlins were the final franchise to be affiliated with the Cannons. Calgary wasn't the first Alberta city the Marlins had been affiliated with, as the Edmonton Trappers were their Triple-A affiliate from 1993-1994. The Cannons saw some very good future MLB players pass through town during their time under the Marlins. Derek Lee, Kevin Millar and Ryan Dempster were all part of the 1999 Cannons. The following season pitchers Brad Penny and A.J Burnett suited up for the Cannons before starting their careers at the big-league level.
2002: Goodbye to the Cannons
Citing financial losses and the outdated stadium, the owner of the Cannons, Russ Parker, sold the team to a group from Albuquerque, NM. 2002 would be the Cannons 18th and final season. In their final game, they fought for a 14-13 victory over the Trappers from Edmonton. The stadium sold out, all 8,512 seats.
2003-2005: The New Normal
In Calgary's first summer without professional baseball, two teams attempted to fill the void left in Foothills Stadium. The Calgary Outlaws of the Canadian Baseball League (CBL) only made it halfway through their season before the entire league folded due to financial complications. The Outlaws were named champions of the CBL, as they were in first place when the league shut down. Burns Stadium played host to the All-Star Game that year and was decided by a home-run derby because the game was tied after 10 innings.
After the Outlaws’ time using the stadium, the Calgary Dawgs, a summer collegiate team, used the field until the arrival of the Calgary Vipers, forcing them to move to Okotoks.
2005-2011: Calgary Vipers
The Calgary Vipers of the independent Northern League took over Foothills in 2005. Foothills was renovated for the Vipers who would not qualify for the playoffs in their first season of play despite being relatively successful, finishing the season with a record of 51-44. The team played in the Northern League until the end of the 2007 season, after losing in the Championship Series. Despite the Vipers being a professional baseball team, Wilson said there was a notable difference in the level of baseball between the Cannons and the Northern League teams coming through Calgary.
“After having AAA baseball, the Vipers weren’t just quite the same,” Wilson said. “You also didn’t get the same crowds that you did with the Cannons when they were at their peak.”
2008-2010: Golden League and first professional championship in Calgary
The team spent its years in the Northern League gaining momentum. For the 2008 season, the team moved to the Golden Baseball League where they enjoyed most of their success. In 2008, they reached the finals once again, but couldn't come away with the championship, losing in five games once again. The following season, the team captured the 2009 Golden Baseball League Championship, the first ever professional championship in Calgary.
Miller, a member of the championship team, noted winning the championship in front of the Calgary fans was one of the highlights of his baseball career and his most cherished memory at Foothills.
“Just remembering Mac [Suzuki] strike the last guy out and winning the championship was by far one of the most amazing things. After losing in game five the previous two years when we could have won the championship, that was one of the biggest most exciting things ever done at the stadium,” Miller recalls.
2011: Final season
The Vipers changed leagues once again for the 2011 season, joining the North American League and eventually losing in the playoffs to the eventual champion, Edmonton Capitals. After the season it was announced the team would be folding, leaving Foothills unoccupied by a professional team.
2012-2018: Dinos baseball
Since no professional team has taken up Foothills since the departure of the Vipers, the City of Calgary rents out the stadium to the University of Calgary baseball team and youth leagues around the city.
Dinos head coach and former Viper and Dino player Geoff Freeborn thinks the field needs to have the time and care put into it for there to be a chance for it to survive.
"If we could take care of the field ourselves, the field wouldn't be unsafe and hopefully the city realizes this used to be a triple-A field and puts some time into it if they decide not to go through with the fieldhouse."
2013: Fieldhouse proposition
With the $200 million fieldhouse proposition for Foothills Athletic Park, there has been no action or plans set in stone for when the fieldhouse will be built. It feels like a foregone conclusion that Foothills Stadium is slated for the wrecking ball.
Some of the Dinos Baseball players commented on the possibility of losing their field and what it would mean for their program.
"For me personally, the field has grown close to my heart,” said fifth-year first-baseman Mike Ozga. "We're lucky to have a facility that's right across the street from the university. We're one of the only programs in the country with a field that is pretty much on campus and so accessible for guys who live in residence."
Matt Korman and Dan Lavery, born and raised Calgarians added on to Ozga's thoughts.
"Foothills has always been the stadium to go to or play at for me growing up," Korman said.
Lavery added on by saying, "growing up it made us feel like we were that much closer to the big leagues and if the field was shut down, there isn't anywhere in the city for kids to see the MLB in their backyard."
Miller shared the sentiment of the players.
“For kids not to have that next level to look up to, they don't have that next level to strive to," he said. "Seeing that professional level is so important in pushing younger kids to get better and set loftier goals and without that stadium or professional baseball to remind us, we wouldn't have those reminders.”
- By Sajan Jabbal