Stealing Home

By IAN WILSON

Election year.

Out-dated stadium.

Threats to relocate the team.

Brand new facility in Edmonton.

Sound familiar?

No, this isn’t another story about the Calgary Flames and their quest for a new arena, but there are parallels.

In October of 1998, Calgarians were set to go to the polls and Russ Parker – owner of the Pacific Coast League’s Calgary Cannons – was at odds with city council.

“It’s not a good time to be discussing public money with politicians in an election year, but I’m expecting the city to take the initiative and approach the club with a plan to keep the baseball club here,” Parker told Calgary Herald scribe Gyle Konotopetz.

“I for one will not be going to city hall begging for money. I just won’t do that. I’m sick and tired of hearing people like (Ward 1 alderman) Dale Hodges talk about that … Hodges is against anything that’s good for the city.”

After bringing the Pioneer League to the city in 1977 in the form of the Calgary Cardinals and later the Expos, Parker brought an even greater gift to baseball fans in 1985 when he purchased the Salt Lake City Gulls for $1.1 million US and installed Triple-A ball in southern Alberta.

The move set the stage for baseball bliss in Calgary, with on-the-cusp-of-greatness prospects taking the field alongside fading MLB stars at Foothills Stadium. The team was rewarded with average attendance that never dipped below 4,300 fans per game during their first 10 seasons.

IMG_0586
Foothills Stadium (2017)

By the 1990s, however, Foothills Stadium was starting to show its age. Opened in 1966 and renovated for the arrival of the Cannons in 1985, the 6,000-seat facility was no longer considered state of the art.

Parker spent three years consulting all levels of government about renovation funding and in 1994 the city-owned ball park finally got a $2.5 million facelift – with $1.65 million of that paid for by the Cannons. The remaining $850,000 tab was covered by the federal government, the province and a $150,000 investment from the city, which also offered to rent the facility to the team for just $15,000 per year.

ARE YOU SAYING BURNS OR BOO-URNS?

The result was the newly minted Burns Stadium, which included a modern scoreboard and improvements to the entrance, clubhouses, administration offices, concession areas and children’s playground. But the “grand” opening on April 20, 1995 seemed to foreshadow the never-ending work that lay ahead for Parker and the Cannons.

Off the field, workers were scrambling to finish upgrades to the clubhouses and the parking lot.

“When you come to Burns Stadium tonight – weather permitting as always – make sure to wear your work boots and make sure to buy a program,” wrote Herald columnist Allan Maki.

“The playing field will be ready. The seating area is pretty much done. The concessions were up and running for Wednesday’s stadium unveiling, so you know the beer will be cold. Everything else, though, will look like the backyard landscaping job you started last summer and didn’t finish.”

Thankfully, the results between the chalk lines were much more promising. Opening ceremonies, which included a performance by the Calgary Stetson Show Band and a ceremonial first pitch from Burns Foods president Ron Jackson, were followed by a 6-2 victory over the Phoenix Firebirds in front of 5,758 fans.

Parker expressed more relief than satisfaction following the unveiling of Burns Stadium.

“I feel good about today,” he told Herald columnist Tom Keyser. “Am I ecstatic? No. But I am relieved. The battle was worth it … I’ve had three pretty stressful years.”

Describing the process as a “piecemeal renovation,” Parker said he was disappointed the work was not completed in time for the season opener.IMG_0027

“It’s still not the ideal Triple-A baseball facility,” he said during his interview with Keyser. “Then you ask, ‘What would life be like without this place?'”

Parker did not have to look too far or wait too long to see what many considered an ideal ballpark.

Telus Field opened in Edmonton on May 2, 1995 on the site of the old John Ducey Park. Complete with luxury boxes and boasting a superior seating capacity to Burns Stadium, the $11-million ballpark drew a sellout crowd of 9,200 for the Trappers first game there, an 8-7 loss to the Tacoma Rainiers.

THE TURNSTILES DON’T LIE

Despite the renovations, attendance at Cannons games dropped from 297,981 over the 1994 season to 279,054 in 1995. It fell again in 1996 to 273,545 before bumping up to 291,918 during the 1997 campaign. But the team would never again match their pre-Burns Stadium attendance levels.

Meanwhile, in Edmonton, the Trappers investment appeared to pay off. John Ducey Park greeted just 272,631 fans in 1994 but the state-of-the-art Telus Field welcomed 426,012 during its first year of existence. Those crowd figures would swell to 463,684 in 1996 and 432,504 in 1997.

A frustrated Parker could only look on with envy.

The Cannons – once a model Pacific Coast League (PCL) franchise – were losing money and the prospect of selling the team was becoming a real possibility.

Inclement weather impacted business (the team lost 10 home dates to cold and wet conditions in 1997) but Calgary still displayed an appetite for baseball at times. The Cannons’ 1997 season-ending, four-game series against Eddie Murray and the Albuquerque Dukes drew a record 33,001 fans, including what was then a franchise high crowd of 8,811 in their last game of the year.

But Parker thought the only way to make things work long-term was more substantial renovations or a new stadium.

“The fact is that at some point this facility is going to have to be expanded and improved. Frankly, I’m worried that in the future we’re not going to have the standard of facility to allow the franchise to grow much more,” said Parker to Herald reporter Konotopetz following the 1997 season.

“For now, we can survive with this facility, but in the long-term we’re going to fall way short.”

Having recently received government assistance with the 1994/95 renovations, Parker seemed unsure where to turn.

“It was made clear then that we wouldn’t be getting any more help,” the 57-year-old team president told Konotopetz.

“I’m not getting any younger and I don’t have a lot of fight left in me.”

REALITY CHECK

By 1998, Parker dreamt of a new downtown stadium. He believed that would double attendance, but he also conceded that was likely “beyond reality.”

“That would cost about $25 million and I certainly don’t have the money. That would require the support of three levels of government and I seriously doubt it would happen here,” Parker told the Herald in advance of the Oct. 19, 1998 civic election.

Instead of dreaming big, Parker focused on Burns Stadium, figuring he would need between $4 million and $6 million to add luxury suites, upgrade the seating, expand concession areas and secure the club’s future in Calgary.

But having just shelled out for $1.65 million in renovations and government support highly unlikely, the future of Triple-A baseball in Calgary looked bleak.

LightsFoothills

The stadium debate was nowhere near the election issue it’s been for the Flames this year, but Calgary sports radio personality Mark Stephen was keeping close tabs on the situation.

“I wonder if the political will exists to upgrade or replace Burns Stadium. The 1994 city council vote to extend infrastructure money to fund the most recent renovations came down to a single vote …. One vote is not exactly a ringing endorsement of support at city hall,” wrote Stephen in a March 1998 Herald column.

“Has the municipal political landscape changed that drastically in the last few years? Let’s just say the Calgary Cannons will need to pull off the sales job of all sales jobs at city hall …. If Calgary is to stay in Triple-A, there is no doubt a new park is needed. Burns Stadium has fallen to the margins of Triple-A facilities. It is functional and nothing more. Actually, in some areas it is below functional …. Clearly, it is a situation that cannot go on forever. Other league members have addressed the revenue squeeze by opening new ballparks. Fully half the league members have recently completed or are about to open new stadiums. Is there the will here for a new stadium? If that will does exist, it must emerge soon.”

In the end, the political will did not emerge. The newly-elected city council of 1998, which included Hodges, did not support a new stadium or further renovations for Burns Stadium. Infrastructure needs, transit expansion and new roads were a higher priority for the rapidly expanding Stampede City.

A NEW HOME

The Cannons would eventually find a new home, but it was not what Parker originally envisioned.

In 1999, Parker put the Cannons up for sale and they played their last season in 2002.

The team relocated to Albuequerque – taking on The Simpsons-inspired moniker Isotopes – and into a brand new $25-million ballpark in 2003.

Affiliated baseball has never returned to Calgary and Foothills Stadium has not hosted professional baseball since the independent-league Vipers left following the 2011 season.

Looking back, Cannons beat writer Gyle Konotopetz said Parker gave the team a fighting chance but the departure seemed inevitable.

“I believe Russ Parker gave baseball a good shot in Calgary, but the writing was on the wall after a few consecutive cold, snowy springs,” Konotopetz told Alberta Dugout Stories.

“I always thought stadiums were overrated as drawing cards and then I visited Albuquerque a few years ago, and was in awe of the packed stadium and atmosphere.”

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