“Nothing worth having comes easy.”
Russ Parker might have heard that famous Theodore Roosevelt saying, but he must have been asking himself if he could catch a break at all in trying to bring a Triple-A franchise to Calgary.
The city’s “Mr. Baseball” first brought affiliated baseball to Calgary in 1977, when the Pioneer League Cardinals came to town. Two years later, they switched affiliations to the Montreal Expos, where they would make it to the league championship in 1981 and 1983.
READ MORE: The Pioneers – Calgary Cardinals
Unbeknownst to many, he had been kicking tires on getting an even bigger brand of baseball into his city. After all, it made a lot of sense given the Pacific Coast League’s Edmonton Trappers had already debuted in 1981 and won a league championship in 1984.
Using his connections, track record and aspirations for the next best thing to Major League Baseball, Parker embarked on a journey that featured many twists and turns.
As one headline in early 1985 proclaimed, “Parker didn’t shut up, he put up.”
His actions led to nearly two decades of Triple-A baseball in the city, which took to the field for the first time in this province 35 years ago this month.
It started as nothing more than a rumour that originated some 2,628 kilometres away.
In May 1984, a Tucson television station aired a story that the local Pacific Coast League (PCL) team, the Toros, were going to be moving to Calgary.
It forced Toros’ owner Bill Yuill to issue a 500-word statement denying the move. Yuill also owned the Pioneer League’s Medicine Hat Blue Jays and didn’t have rights to put a team in Calgary.
“He couldn’t come in to Calgary without clearing the territory and he doesn’t operate that way (without clearance),” Parker, the Calgary Expos president, told the Calgary Herald. “He needs approval from both the PCL and Pioneer league.”
Parker went on to say he hadn’t talked to Yuill so the rumour would have to be buried. As writer Daryl Slade pointed out, it was ironic that the Toros had almost been sold to Parker the previous fall, but Yuill “stepped in and bought the club with the assurance that he would keep it in the Arizona city.”
That didn’t mean Parker wasn’t interested in bringing a PCL club to Calgary, especially with his neighbours to the north in Edmonton going so far as to say they wouldn’t block any owner who wanted to move a club to Calgary. But with the Pioneer League season set to start in a little more than a month, he seemingly had his priorities set on his Expos.
Or did he?
CROSSROADS OF THE WEST
Just over a week after clearing the air on the Tucson situation, Alberta’s baseball scene awoke to news that another deal was on deck.
Salt Lake Gulls owner Roger Russell told a local newspaper that he was “considering a Calgary offer for the franchise” and that offer was made by Parker. He had purchased an option on the franchise the previous December and was looking at closing the transaction.
Slade wrote that Parker had hoped to “keep a tight lid” on the deal for months for a number of reasons, including that Russell was still trying to operate the team in Salt Lake for the rest of the 1984 season.
“But he spilled the beans,” Parker said. “So what can I say?”
But there were a number of hoops that Parker would have to jump through, including a major renovation at Foothills Stadium.
“If the city needs a commitment from me in order to go ahead with upgrading the park to Triple-A standards, they’ll have it the moment the purchase is completed,” Parker said of what was said to be a $1.5-million facelift. It would include expanding the seating to 5,000 as well as adding new dugouts and lights.
The alternate plan would be to keep the team in Salt Lake or move it elsewhere, but given all he had invested in the baseball scene in Calgary, his first priority was seeing a team on his home turf.
“I think it would be fantastic for the city,” Mayor Ralph Klein said. “It was originally my motion to encourage the previous council to wholeheartedly endorse this concept based on Mr. Parker’s securing of a franchise.”
Everything seemed good to go.
Less than a week later, the first in a series of bean balls started getting hurled at Parker.
According to the Herald‘s Larry Wood, Russell called Parker to say “the deal is fine” but that he was postponing it as his wife was seriously ill and faced possible surgery.
The same night, Russell called a news conference in Salt Lake where he broke down and wept while announcing he was trying to keep the franchise and that a written agreement forwarded to him by Parker’s lawyers wasn’t the same one he had agreed to in the beginning.
“I don’t know what game he’s playing,” Parker said. “But we can always go back to the original one.”
Another cloud was lingering over everyone and that was a deal Russell had made two years previous with the former ownership group of the Salt Lake franchise, headquartered in Nashville. According to the article, Russell was in default on the transaction “to the tune of $400,000” and that group had threatened Russell and the PCL with legal action.
All four of the interested parties later sat down in hopes of hammering something out but came away empty-handed. But a June 15th deadline was put in place for Russell to accept Parker’s deal.
A few days before that deadline, Parker emerged to breathe that long-awaited sigh of relief.
“It has been a frustrating, very trying and certainly interesting three weeks of negotiation,” Parker said. “I can now say it has been successful and I have now officially purchased the Triple-A franchise known as the (Salt Lake City) Gulls.”
COUNCIL BATS IT AROUND
On the same day Parker had announced he had avoided the first bean ball, he had to square up another pitch.
He had to go to the City of Calgary’s finance and budget committee to firm up the details of the renovation. Parker also had the task of putting together a lease for Foothills Stadium.
The report recommended the team be asked to sign a five-year agreement, including $15,000 annual rent for the park and a $10,000 fee for the right to handle the facility’s concessions.
Parker was in agreement with most of the terms, but he wasn’t overly impressed with one aspect: the franchise make an additional payment to the city of 5% of gate receipts.
“I have seen the report and I can’t live with the conditions of that lease,” he told the Herald. “It’s a little pricey. The five percent figure is something we haven’t discussed. It is something to overcome.”
Sure enough, that led to another twist in the story. City council delayed its decision on the lease, as Parker suggested few members of that committee were aware the baseball club would be taking over operations of the stadium.
He said some didn’t understand the team would be taking over things like cutting grass and paying utilities.
Alderman Craig Reid voiced concerns about there being no contingencies for the city if the team folded or was relocated in the near future.
All concerns were put to bed when, on June 25, council voted 10-3 in favour of spending the $1.5-million needed to renovate the ball park.
“It’s the greatest day in baseball history in this city,” Parker proclaimed.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
Over the next several months, Parker assembled the pieces needed to get the team off the ground.
A “name-the-team” contest was held, generating 500 suggestions. The most popular names were the Chinooks and the Rockies.
In October 1984, he announced the club would be called the Cannons and they had hired long-time baseball mind Jon Richardson as the general manager.
Another mystery was solved a few days later, when the Seattle Mariners came to town to confirm they would be affiliated with the Cannons. The M’s had previously been with the Gulls but weren’t enthusiastic about heading north.
“The climate (in Calgary) would be a consideration. It’s not heaven in Salt Lake in April and May, either, but it has nice summers,” Mariners farm director Jeff Scott had said to the Herald in May. “Going across the border is another problem – tax laws and all that malarkey.”
His stance had eased substantially when the affiliation announcement was made.
Scott said the Mariners had options to move elsewhere. Moving to Canada seemed to be a deterrent, but the proximity to Seattle was a major benefit.
As for the Cannons, Parker had been kicking tires but was hopeful this would be the end result after finding out that both the Toronto Blue Jays and Montreal Expos were happy with their Triple-A affiliations.
“To be honest, I had very few discussions with any other organization,” Parker told the Herald. “I spoke with three other clubs, besides Montreal, and they were brief.”
Parker was also pleased with the Mariners’ approach to development, comparing it to the Expos in the mid-1970s with Andre Dawson and others coming together to be competitive in the early-1980s. He wanted to see the young players come through and not just become a dumping ground for has-been MLB players.
“We’ll put a competitive team in Calgary,” Scott proclaimed. “We always attempt to win as many games as possible.”
SNOW DAY FOR BASEBALL
The hope was that many of the players who were on the 1984 Salt Lake Gulls team would make the trek to Calgary.
Featuring the likes of Danny Tartabull, Harold Reynolds, Dave Valle, Darnell Coles, Mickey Brantley and Bob Stoddard, the Gulls went 74-66 on their way to losing to the Edmonton Trappers in the first round of the PCL playoffs.
In the spring of 1985, Parker, Richardson, manager Bobby Floyd and the Cannons staff made their way to Arizona for spring training to see what kind of talent they would be dealing with.
They were impressed, even witnessing their squad play the Mariners to a 3-3 tie.
On April 11, the Cannons embarked on their inaugural roadtrip, kicking it off with a 6-2 win over the Phoenix Giants.
Tartabull clubbed the team’s first-ever home run in the top of the second inning, a 420-foot shot to centre field. Brantley also homered in the contest, finishing up the day with a 2-for-5 effort, while Jim Lewis picked up the win in a solid eight-inning performance.
The Cannons posted a 6-2 record over that stretch before they were met with one more curveball.
Well, more like snowballs.
Instead of playing their home opener on April 19, the club was welcomed to the sight of a cold, snow-filled Foothills Stadium.
It was a novelty for some like Paul Serna.
“I’ve seen snow before but I’ve never seen it falling and I’ve never seen snow this soft,” the California-born infielder smiled. “This is fun for me and I’ve certainly gotten my money’s worth today.”
Parker wasn’t so pleased, left speechless while scrambling to figure out the scheduling while keeping a keen eye on the weather forecast.
The whiteout might have helped in one regard: the players were given a day off to go apartment hunting.
“The Cannons have their rooms paid at Village Park Inn until Sunday,” wrote Herald scribe Gyle Konotopetz.
Knowing how Alberta weather can be, Parker was having visions of seeing the entire four-game series against Tucson being wiped out by Old Man Winter.
The original plan was to have a doubleheader the next day before finishing off the weekend set as planned.
The snow and cold had other plans, forcing the team to keep postponing.
Finally, a glimmer of hope on April 22, as the umpires agreed they would be able to try for a doubleheader featuring two seven inning contests.
With the thermometer sporting a temperature of nine degrees Celsius, Parker received a standing ovation as he tossed out the ceremonial first pitch to Klein.
It had been a long time coming with many forks in the road, but Triple-A baseball had arrived in Calgary.
The pitch that actually opened the game was thrown at 5:36 pm local time, with Stoddard inducing a ground ball off the bat of Toros’ outfielder Eric Bullock, which Tartabull took and threw to first baseman Pat Casey for the out.
The two teams would battle in a back-and-forth affair, with the Cannons emerging with a 7-6 extra innings win. Brantley, who had been swinging a hot bat to start the season, once again led the way with four hits including a walk-off single to score John Moses in the bottom of the ninth inning.
Catcher Donnie Scott picked up a couple of the notable firsts in that opener, including first hit (a double down the right field line) and first run (scored that same inning when Serna grounded into a double play).
Reliever Dave Tobik picked up the win after giving up five runs on ten hits in over three innings of work. Tobik also registered the team’s first save during their opening roadtrip against the Giants.
“I thought it was a great game for any home opener,” Parker beamed, also impressed with how boisterous the crowd was. “Maybe they were making a lot of noise to keep warm, although it was pleasant at game time.”
They weren’t treated to the second game of that doubleheader, as it was deemed a little too cold to continue. The conditions would eventually get better and the Cannons would go on to post a 71-70 record before being swept by the eventual champion Vancouver Canadians.
It was a good start for the new Pacific Coast League squad, who would stay in town until 2002.