Vipers president quits, citing 'deteriorating financial situation'
"Take me out to the ball game. Buy me some peanuts and cracker jacks. I don't care if I never get back."
Judging by the current state of baseball in Calgary, it appears no one will ever get back — or at least not in the immediate future.
The Calgary Expos, Cannons and Outlaws have all struck out trying to provide locals with a respectable level of baseball.
And now looks like the Calgary Vipers, who play in the independent North American League, may be next.
Despite being around since 2005, the team has struggled to draw fans and now faces an uncertain future with the recent news of president John Conrad stepping down early September.
"I came here to help my friend, (owner) Jeff Gidney, re-organize the team and was appointed president," Conrad said, reading from a prepared statement in early September. "Mr. Gidney's capital strength and commitment to the Vipers was one of the key reasons I accepted the position.
"That funding is no longer available. I have tried to make the best of a deteriorating financial situation."
Conrad said he had a deal in place to buy a portion of the team at the beginning of the season. However, the deal was never finalized, despite Conrad footing the bill for funding and operating the team this past season.
"What the Gidney family does with the team is a decision for them to make," Conrad said.
Gidney is currently facing a life-threatening illness in Victoria, B.C., further complicating the situation.
"The Vipers organization will assess its future opportunities and restructure accordingly," the Gidney family said in a statement, early September.
John Traub, former general manager of the Cannons and now current general manager of the Albuquerque Isotopes, sees an alternate and possibly drastic solution to the problem.
"There has to be a couple things happen if it (baseball) is going to make a comeback in the city— number one: baseball has to leave here for a while," Traub said. "People have to have a chance to miss it."
With the Vipers playing in an independent league, are fans just not interested in watching a lower grade of baseball?
"It's not surprising to see that people don't like the quality of independent baseball," Traub said. "I'm not saying the quality of baseball is not very good, but that instant identification of players either who have already been in the big leagues, or on their way to the big leagues, is just not there."
AN OLD BARN
The Cannons called Calgary home from 1985 through 2002 and were the highest-ranking affiliate of four separate Major League Baseball (MLB) franchises, including the Seattle Mariners and Florida Marlins.
Still, even with strong ties to MLB, the team left Calgary in 2002 and moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico due to stadium concerns, a low Canadian dollar and harsh weather.
"I'm operating one of the most successful franchises in all of minor league baseball — am I doing anything differently then when I was in Calgary? No, "said Cannon. "It comes down to your resources; it comes down to your weather.
"It comes down to things you don't have any control over."
Foothills Stadium, which has housed every professional baseball team to come through Calgary, was built in 1966, and has gone through almost half a dozen renovations since then.
But it's still out of date.
"That old ballpark there is a bare bones, 1970s-style stadium," Traub said. "The business model has changed so much that just a set of bleachers and seats just doesn't do it anymore.
"It has run its course in terms of being a viable location for a professional baseball team."
Being part of an independent system, the Vipers face a distinct challenge the Cannons never had by being affiliated with MLB.
"We didn't pay our players, they were paid by the major league clubs," Traub explained, referring to the financial advantage the Cannons had over the Vipers.
"And that's huge. If you have to pay your players at the professional level, it's going to significantly change your pricing structure for seating, for marketing, for sponsorships, for advertising."
Mike Burns, who pitched for the Vipers this past summer, has played in the big leagues and although he enjoyed his time in Calgary, realizes the challenges the city faces.
"It's not much of a baseball market," the former Milwaukee Brewer said. "But I don't see it being far off of one."
"At times we drew pretty good fans when the weather was nice."
But, as Burns said, you can't control the weather.
In 2002 — the final year the Cannons played in Calgary — the team faced 19 rainouts. Over the 18 years they were in the city the total postponement tally reached 155, or just under nine a year.
"There were a number of things that were obstacles in the way we operated, the weather was just one of them," Traub stated.
This past season, the Vipers and their fans faced 10 rainouts and 12 games where the temperature was less than 10 degrees Celsius.
As Conrad pointed out, 44 per cent of the scheduled season games are played at home so when the weather doesn't cooperate it creates a challenge.
Looking in on the situation now from an outsider's perspective, Traub said the sport needs support from the city itself, like funding for a new stadium, to ever stand a chance.
And with the likely event of a new Saddledome being built for the Calgary Flames in the next decade, it's not hard to realize how low the importance of building, much less renovating a new baseball stadium would rank on the city's agenda.
A rundown stadium, little to no identifiable or up-and-coming names, and an erratic weather system gives new meaning to the final line of this infamous baseball sing-along.
"For it's one, two, three strikes, you're out at the old ball game."
- By Derrick Newman