By IAN WILSON
Theo Fleury will never be remembered for his baseball career, but a decade ago he proved he could go from gold-medal winning hockey player to Golden Baseball League outfielder with relative ease.
And looking back on the publicity stunt, the former Olympian has nothing but fond memories of his conversion from NHL sniper to Calgary Viper.
“It was amazing. I was in heaven,” said Fleury.
“I always say to people, ‘I retired with a .333 batting average, which is Hall of Fame numbers.'”
So, how exactly did the Calgary Flames’ legendary winger – who sits second in career points and goals for the team – end up trading in his hockey stick for a baseball bat?
Fleury remained active after he left the NHL in 2003. He played for the Belfast Giants of the British Elite Ice Hockey League in 2005-06 before returning home to take a run at the Allan Cup, awarded each year to Canada’s senior amateur hockey team.
By 2008, with his substance abuse issues behind him, Fleury had started a family concrete coating business, as well as a clothing company – Fleury’s Artistic Kustom Enterprises (FAKE).
“I approached the Vipers to see if they had any interest in what we were doing and if they liked any of our designs and stuff like that,” said Fleury, adding he knew Viper president Peter Young from his broadcasting days when Young covered the Winnipeg Jets.
“And they said, ‘why don’t you come play a couple games for us?’ I said, ‘are you serious?! Yeah? Awesome.’ So that’s how it happened.”
The Calgary Vipers had played in the Northern League – an independent league – since 2005, but in 2008 they joined another indy circuit, the Golden Baseball League, along with the Edmonton Cracker-Cats.
It had been tough sledding for the Vipers, who poured $2 million into renovating Foothills Stadium in 2007 and had yet to see their annual average attendance top more than 2,000 people per game. The team was losing money and they also faced competition in Okotoks, where the Dawgs had set up shop.
“We were really a threat to them and they did everything in their power to chase us out of town,” said Dawgs’ managing director John Ircandia in 2017, in advance of the team’s 10th anniversary season in Okotoks.
The Dawgs had shared Foothills Stadium with the Vipers in 2005, but a bitter feud between the two clubs prompted the summer collegiate team to set out on their own and build Seaman Stadium. After a 2006 season without a home, the Dawgs opened their state-of-the-art, $16-million facility in 2007 and attracted an average of 1,500 fans each game.
The Snakes were drawing similar crowds at that point, but team officials knew they had to do something to compete with the upstart Okotoks squad. That’s when the publicity stunts started. On May 20, 2008, the Vipers traded pitcher John Odom to the Laredo Broncos for 10 Prairie Sticks baseball bats, a move which garnered headlines across North America.
FLEURY OF ACTIVITY
And what better way to bring people to the ballpark than to have one of Calgary’s biggest sports icons in the batter’s box?
The Vipers teased sports fans with Fleury’s arrival – he took batting practice in front of the media before the team’s 2008 home opener and the 5-foot-6 product of Russell, Manitoba threw out the first pitch at Foothills Stadium on May 29th as the Vipers welcomed their first crowd of the year.
Young told reporters the Vipers were still working out contract details with Fleury and mused about whether he would play just one game or become a more permanent presence in the Calgary dugout.
But fans would have to wait until August to see No. 14 step to the plate.
The Vipers sent out a media release on Aug. 6th announcing that Fleury would be taking batting practice and participating in a press conference the next day, where he would be signing his long-awaited contract and answering questions about his professional baseball debut, which would take place on Aug. 9th during a double-header against the Yuma Scorpions.
“We are thrilled to have him with the team,” said Young in the news release.
“He’s an incredible athlete and while we anticipate that his time as a Viper will just be these three days, you never know what can happen in this wonderful game.”
THE MAIN EVENT
For Fleury, he didn’t care if it was all just a publicity stunt. There were two reasons for that – one, he was having a blast and, two, he felt prepared for game action.
“I spent the whole entire week with the Vipers before I actually got out on the field. I took batting practice every day and shagged balls … they gave me a lot of advice and pointers on how to approach hitting,” Fleury told Alberta Dugout Stories.
“By the time I got an actual at-bat I was very prepared.”
That at-bat came in Game 1 of the doubleheader, when he entered as a pinch hitter for Jorge Tang in the 5th inning.
The resulting single and the celebration were vintage Fleury.
“If you’ve seen me play hockey, I didn’t do anything half-assed. As athletes, we have a sense of pride,” said Fleury, who reportedly traded two steak dinners to Viper second baseman Jorge Mejia for the privilege of wearing his familiar No. 14 on the diamond.
Viper outfielder Drew Miller, who hit .343 with 19 home runs and 70 RBI that season, said Fleury’s exuberance was contagious.
“The joy and excitement he showed after touching first base was amazing,” recalled Miller.
“He has gold medals, a Stanley cup ring, played with some of the best hockey players to have ever played, and it looked like this was on par with all those accomplishments.”
Fleury, who won Olympic gold at the 2002 games in Salt Lake City and a gold medal before that at the World Junior Championship in Moscow in 1988, was just thankful the pitcher he faced didn’t bring any real heat.
“Thank God the guy I faced was only throwing 85 miles per hour and not 95,” laughed Fleury, who ran the bases with as much chutzpah as he swung the bat.
Fleury was held hitless after that, striking out in two more at bats, but he did see time in left field, where things got adventurous, but he was able to record an out.
After the doubleheader, the 40-year-old’s new teammates presented him with his base-hit ball and he could not have been happier.
“The smile on his face was like a kid at Christmas. It was an experience that I won’t forget,” said Miller.
Fleury, who grew up playing the game and remains a huge Blue Jays fan, could not have asked for a better experience.
“That week I got to hang out in the sun and have fun and have a few laughs and be part of a team again. It was really cool and the guys were unbelievable, they really were,” said Fleury, who didn’t attend Cannons games often when he played for the Flames, but did go to New York Yankee World Series games during his time with the Rangers.
He also took batting practice at Shea Stadium, the former home of the Mets.
“That was a neat experience. I hit one out … I have warning track power,” deadpanned Fleury.
HANGING UP HIS CLEATS
Despite his modest success with the Snakes, Fleury had no illusions about playing beyond the doubleheader.
“I was 40 years old at the time and I was really stiff and sore, especially after the first day,” said Fleury.
But the Vipers weren’t quite done with him. Still hoping to get the most out of their prized publicity asset, the team announced “Theo Fleury Retirement Night” would take place on Aug. 21st.
“We’re going to retire his number 14 jersey, at least until somebody else asks for it,” quipped Young in a press release declaring the event.
For his part, Fleury remains thankful for his baseball cameo 10 years ago and these days he is content to watch the game more than he plays it.
“I watch probably 90 games a year … I love the game, absolutely love the game,” said Fleury, who is now 12 years sober and remains an active advocate in the field of trauma, mental health and addiction.
“Baseball has always been a big part of my life and will be for the remainder.”