By IAN WILSON
This isn’t your kid’s Little League game.
And it definitely isn’t The Show.
Somewhere in between, during this year that has resembled an episode of The Jerry Springer Show much more than it has Happy Days, is the Foothills Major Baseball Association (FMBA).
It seems fitting that this 10-team circuit playing senior men’s baseball in Calgary is one of the few leagues able to take the field in Alberta in 2020.
The rosters are full of misfits and grinders, grown men desperate to keep acting like children whenever they get the chance to step between the lines. Among the 233 players, you’ll find ex-pros and Major League Baseball (MLB) draft picks, as well as a mix of former and current college baseball stars. Hitters and pitchers who would normally be cheered on under the lights of the Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL) have found a home here alongside those who have converted from players to coaches.
If they aren’t the battered bastards of baseball, they are the plucky pitchers and sliver-handed sluggers of the sport.
“There definitely has been an influx of talent, particularly from leagues like the WCBL and the Sunburst League out of Red Deer and Edmonton. For this particular year it’s more a byproduct of those leagues not having been able to fire up yet, or in some cases at all. Guys who want to play are going to find places and find ways to play the game,” said FMBA vice-president of marketing and fundraising Curtis Smith.
“We’ve got guys from all walks of baseball life … they still want to play the game and play at a high level. The league has drastically improved in terms of depth and talent and parity.”
PROS VS. JOES
A scan of the FMBA leaderboard reveals some familiar names for Alberta baseball fans. Joe Sergent, a pitching coach with the Okotoks Dawgs and a former star with the Calgary Vipers, is one of the elder statesmen in the league still capable of ringing up batters. Former Edmonton Prospect Tony Olson, a defector from the Sunburst League who threw a no-hitter for the Edmonton Cubs in 2019, is a two-way threat with the bat and on the mound. Dawgs Academy graduate Michael Clapperton, meanwhile, has proved to be a fearsome batsman for Sidearm Nation, capable of hitting for power and average.
The star power is a mix of fading – but still effective – talents, and college-aged baseball addicts seeking the most competitive diamonds that will take them. During a pandemic year, with so many leagues limited by health restrictions or their seasons scrapped entirely, finding such a fix has not been easy.
“It was challenging, for sure,” said Smith of getting the 2020 campaign off the ground.
“We’ve got a couple advantages when it comes to other leagues across the province and Canada, in that we don’t share a facility with any other organizations or leagues, which makes it easier to control a lot of the variables.”
Under normal circumstances, the FMBA season would run from early May through the Labour Day holiday in September. The COVID-19 outbreak and rainy weather pushed the opening day back to July 2nd.
“The way that this year has looked is drastically different than how it would normally look, but so far it’s been pretty successful in allowing us to have some semblance of baseball for the guys to enjoy and take their minds off of things. Before we got word of the actual shutdown in March, we were in the process of putting together contingency schedules and contingency plans,” said Smith, who pitches for the Calgary Wolfpack.
“We were able to put together a quasi-schedule with breaking teams out into smaller divisions to limit how many people they’re crossing paths with. There were some on-field changes as well.”
Communal water and snack stations for the players were scrapped and the home-plate umpire no longer crouches within breathing distance of the catcher. Instead, he takes his place on the field in behind the pitcher’s mound. Washing stations have also been added for the portable toilets that are shared by players and fans.
TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME
Tucked among the industrial buildings of northeast Calgary, at 1401 25 Ave. N.E., is Glen Hansen Field, the home of the FMBA. A dirt-road entrance gives way to an uninviting row of power poles and layers of chain link fencing. Perched up the hill from Deerfoot Trail, the diamond has served the league since 1985 when it was built with donated labour and community funding. Vandals torched the ballpark in 1991, forcing the league to replace wooden fences with metal and meshing.
Those in attendance wander past well-worn batting cages before finding some plank seating that allows a majestic view of Calgary Tower and the tallest buildings downtown has to offer, framed nicely by the 330- and 365-feet markers in left and right field.
There is no charge to attend the games, which take place most summer nights – weather permitting – and during non-holiday weekends. A modest concession stand will serve baseball watchers during special events, such as the FMBA all-star game and home run derby, but fans are welcome to bring out their own portable grills and stock their coolers on other game nights.
You won’t find a Jumbotron or public announcer to update you each inning, so bring your pencil and your own scorecard if you wish to keep track.
“It’s pretty stripped down for now … we’ve got some projects on our to-do list,” admitted Smith, a graduate of Vauxhall Academy.
The no frills approach presents baseball for baseball’s sake. Watch the game and pay attention to the details … or don’t. It’s just as soothing to look out at the city skyline and listen to the sounds of the game.
Peer out at the pitcher’s mound and observe a mound that resembles Devils Tower. Inquire about the bump that is more cliff than slope and you’ll be told something about it leveling out when you look at it from centre field.
Cock your ear toward the field and concentrate on the player chatter, which is usually audible above the hum of Deerfoot Trail traffic. Attempt to ask about what happened during that last play as a low-flying commercial airplane screeches overhead on its way to Calgary International Airport.
Watch as a fan records a plate appearance on her phone, noting the hitter – who is also pitching on this night for the Longhorns – has not used this particular bat for years.
“It’s been sitting under our bed for protection,” she said.
After seeing it poke a hit down the first-base line off of a former pro who pitched in the Florida Marlins system, perhaps his bat storage is on point.
Spot the umpire sporting a referee shirt that reads “BEER GUY” on the back name bar and chuckle. No, he’s not working double duty and serving you a cold one between innings. Check your cooler for that.
Smile, because there’s a baseball game on … in Calgary of all places!
“As a self-diagnosed baseball junkie, it’s nice to just have the game be around again and I’m sure most of the guys in the league would express the same sentiments. There’s a bit of escapism to it, when you’re able to get into the dugout and even more so when you’re crossing the chalk line and getting on the field. It’s a two-and-a-half hour period where you’re focusing on nothing but the game. Whatever else is going on just seems to take a back seat,” muses Smith.
Keep grinning as you make your way back to your vehicle and spot some players shotgunning beer in the stands.
Laugh again when you notice FMBA team accounts chirping each other on social media, the on-field competition making its way online as players trade in their jerseys for shirts and ties. Pitchers and batters transformed into teachers, software engineers, sales representatives and accountants.
No, this isn’t The Show, but it’s not Little League either.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The FMBA regular season concludes on Aug. 15. Playoffs will take place through late August, with the championship scheduled for Sept. 4-5.