“When Crash hit his 247th home run, I knew the moment it happened, but I’m sure nobody else did. And The Sportin’ News didn’t say anything about it.”
– Annie Savoy, from the 1988 movie Bull Durham
By IAN WILSON
It was an underappreciated moment for an underappreciated ball player, who was playing in an antiquated ballpark.
But when Cam Williams went 4-for-4 on April 27 against the Thompson Rivers University (TRU) WolfPack, it was also a record-setting day for the 21-year-old third baseman.
Playing in relative obscurity for the University of Calgary Dinos of the Canadian College Baseball Conference (CCBC) – a six-team league featuring post-secondary student athletes from Alberta and British Columbia – Williams was well aware of the record he was chasing.
And he was hunting the milestone on hallowed baseball grounds in Calgary … at Foothills Stadium. Edgar Martinez, one of the best designated hitters Major League Baseball (MLB) has ever seen, manned the same third base area that Williams crouched at that Friday night.
Martinez occupied the infield during the 1980s, at a time when thousands of baseball fans filed into the ballpark to watch the Triple-A Calgary Cannons of the Pacific Coast League.
The Dinos, who now call Foothills home, are lucky if they draw 100 fans to the diamond for a home date. Those in attendance looking to the scoreboard for answers on Williams’ big night were out of luck. If it does work, it doesn’t appear that it’s been activated for some time. No visual indication of the inning or the score was evident, never mind an update on how specific players were faring.
The public address system was working … sort of. If nothing else, it was audible. In between half innings, baseball fans were given high-volume, distorted updates that the scoreboard simply refused to provide.
As for concessions, baseball watchers were left to fend for themselves and find sustenance in whatever they brought with them.
The “Snake Pit” signs still hang on a shack under the bleachers, reminding passers by of the time when they could still buy merchandise for the Calgary Vipers – an independent professional team that called Foothills theirs from 2004 to 2011.
This ballpark ghost-town – haunted only by fans with enough true grit to show up for the stripped-down thrill of baseball for baseball’s sake, and two teams of players who would willingly play almost anywhere, just so long as they can enjoy what the game itself has to offer – provided the backdrop for Williams momentous night.
Williams entered the contest in pursuit of the all-time record for career hits for the Dinos, a record held by his former teammate and current roommate, Colin Rintoul.
When the moment came to take sole possession of the record, the 5-foot-11, right-handed batter made the most of the opportunity. With the count at three balls and one strike, Williams smacked a fastball to the opposite field for a double.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit nervous going into it, but I was able to get myself into a good hitters count and got a pitch I could handle, which is what you try to do as a hitter every at bat,” said Williams, who will play for the Weyburn Beavers of the Western Major Baseball League (WMBL) when his CCBC season comes to an end.
Williams’ feat was announced over the speaker system, giving him a chance to tip his hat to an appreciative crowd.
“I’ve heard stories about how great this ballpark was and has been. It’s nice to see even games like this again,” Williams told Alberta Dugout Stories after the game, which ended up being a 12-2 Dinos victory.
“It’s been a while since there’s been good, lively baseball in Calgary, especially at this stadium … this is by far the most lively game I’ve seen at this stadium. It’s been a lot of fun to see how this program’s growing and hopefully it will keep growing.”
Teammates of the Coquitlam, B.C. native also helped salute the achievement of the only senior on the team.
“I did get the (record-breaking) ball. My teammates were on top of getting it for me and giving it to me after the game,” said Williams.
“I’ll see if I can find a mantle or case for it. It’s something that means a lot to me and I’ll cherish for a long time.”
Williams – who is tied for the single-season hits record with Rintoul – also holds the single-season and all-time school records for doubles and is closing in on the all-time RBI mark, held by former Dinos first baseman and outfielder Wylie Johnston.
Former U of C head coach Colin Moro – who recruited Williams and played at Foothills as a Viper – was excited to hear about his former player becoming the new hits leader.
“I knew it was a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’ he would break the record,” said Moro.
“From day one, I knew he would be a special player for the program and he continues to show it. Cam came in with a lot of knowledge of the game already and picked up more information every day by dedicating himself to getting better.”
Current head coach Geoff Freeborn – another former Viper – also praised Williams’ achievement.
“He’s been swinging it pretty well, but right at people so it was good for him to go four for four,” said Freeborn.
“The ball is just flying off his bat. All season he’s been barreling up the baseball … it’s been fun to watch.”
Williams, a kinesiology major, isn’t the only player whose baseball abilities are flying under the radar in Calgary.
“Basically our starting lineup that you saw tonight are all going to the WMBL,” said Freeborn, who also owns and operates Sidearm Nation.
“There’s still some talent in the CCBC. Guys that probably could’ve gone down and played JUCO (junior college) down south and chose to stay here. From a baseball perspective, there’s lots of talent in this league. Maybe it gets overlooked because a lot of kids want to go down to the States.”
Williams said he had the option of pursuing baseball opportunities in the U.S. but he preferred what Calgary had to offer.
“My parents always stressed the importance of school, and nowhere really compares to UC academically, at least in the world of college baseball … at the end of the day, I love it here in Calgary and I think it’s worked out for me in the long run,” said Williams, who wears No. 19 in honour of former Vancouver Canuck forward Markus Naslund, an athlete he idolized growing up.
“I think there’s been a lot of very good players to play for the U of C, guys who have put up remarkable numbers in the WMBL or moved on to NCAA or NAIA schools and had great success. Many of these players may not be as appreciated due to our win-loss record of recent years, or just baseball in Calgary in general, but it’s definitely an honor to be recognized atop all the great players that I’ve played with, or who played prior to me being with the Dinos. I’d also like to think there’s a lot of mutual respect between me and players around the league.”
SEASONS IN THE SUN
While the regular season has not gone as planned – the Dinos sport a 5-16 record and have lost a lot of close games – all CCBC teams qualify for the post-season and Williams thinks the U of C can make some noise in the playoffs.
“We’re really starting to play some better baseball as of late, and I think we have the depth to really put a dent into the CCBC championships,” said Williams, who also expects the Weyburn Beavers to be a front-runner for a WMBL championship this summer.
“I’ll play out there my last summer and then after that I don’t know. I’d like to keep playing and see where it goes. I’ve got a couple of connections overseas, in Australia and whatnot, but we’ll see how the summer goes and I want to graduate first. Get that piece of paper and then hopefully maybe keep playing. I’m not ready to be done yet.”
Moro said Williams “will be a great coach” when his playing days are over.
Whatever the future holds for the hard-hitting third baseman, it’s promising.
If only the same could be said for Foothills Stadium.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Williams finished his University of Calgary baseball career by pushing the school’s all-time hits record to 196 (good for a .342 batting average), and as the program’s RBI leader, with 105. In addition, he holds the single-season records for RBIs (35) and doubles (16). He also finished second on the home run list, with eight round-trippers.