Setting The Trap

By JOE McFARLAND

He may have just hit a triple, but Peter Pocklington couldn’t help but dream about crushing a home run.

The ink was still fresh on his acquisition of the Ogden Athletics of the Pacific Coast League (PCL) when Pocklington mused about something much bigger: Major League Baseball.

“That’s where the real dollars are,” he told reporters at a news conference on October 29, 1980. “But first, let’s check this out (Triple A) for five years.”

Riding a wave of popularity as the owner of the National Hockey League’s Edmonton Oilers and North American Soccer League’s Edmonton Drillers, Pocklington wasn’t just thinking about getting any team to Alberta’s capital.

Article found in the October 30, 1980 edition of the Edmonton Journal.

“If the interest is there and if the population grows as expected, Edmonton could be ready for a major league team under a dome.”

Before he could get the ball rolling on what he admitted was “still just a pipe dream,” a lot of work still needed to be done to make sure the newest team in his stable was ready to hit the field in April.

The new team still hadn’t signed a lease for Renfrew Park, which also needed to undergo a massive $178,000 renovation, the PCL still needed to sign off on the purchase, and the ball club needed a name, among other things.

However, given how fast everything had come together to that point, it’s hard to blame Pocklington and everyone else in the provincial capital to get excited about what lay ahead.

DREAMING BIG

Pocklington had only been in the fold to bring professional baseball to Alberta for a few weeks when the aforementioned news conference was held.

The original dream belonged to long-time Edmonton baseball ambassador Mel Kowalchuk.

The mustachioed Kowalchuk had made repeated attempts to bring top-tier baseball to the city in the late-1970’s, including trying to create an independent pro league in Western Canada, then putting plans in place for a Pioneer League team to join the Lethbridge Dodgers, Calgary Expos and Medicine Hat Blue Jays.

When those dreams were dashed, Kowalchuk started pursuing the idea of an even-higher level of baseball in early 1980.

It was a relatively quiet effort, done out of the limelight, until the spring.

COULD IT BE?

On May 21, 1980, Edmonton Journal columnist Terry Jones broke the story about the possibility of the PCL making its way to Edmonton.

“It says here the Pacific Coast League of Triple-A baseball is the best bet as the next professional team to come to this amazing boom town of pro sport,” Jones wrote. “And maybe, just maybe this column has discovered, a Triple-A baseball club could be playing out of Edmonton within two years.”

Jones had reached out to league president Bill Cutler, who admitted to hoping for an expansion both north and south, to Edmonton and Las Vegas.

“I hear nothing but good things about Edmonton,” Cutler said, cautioning the talk was only in its preliminary stages. “We’re certainly considering it.”

The league had been playing with 10 teams and the president wanted six teams in each division, with a minimum of interlocking play between divisions.

The weather was going to be a primary concern for any team hoping to start playing baseball in April, while another fly in the ointment was control of the concessions, with the City of Edmonton owning the rights at Renfrew Park.

“All our clubs own their own concessions,” Cutler said. “We don’t believe a team can make it in minor league baseball without control of the concessions.”

FIRST IMPRESSIONS

About a month later, Cutler made good on a promise to tour the facilities in Edmonton. While he was pleased with the excitement about what might be coming, he was less than enthused about a major aspect of the trip.

“The ballpark didn’t impress me,” Cutler said. “It’s far from Pacific Coast League standards. It needs better concession facilities, more lights…a lot of things have to be done to the ballpark. But it can be done because it was done in Vancouver.”

He also wanted more seats in the stands, as capacity at Renfrew was 3,200.

“Bill would like to see seating for 6,000,” Kowalchuk said. “But I’d like to get away with 4,000 – and possibly 5,000.”

Another small hiccup in the plans for seeing a team hit the field within a year was that a field in Las Vegas wouldn’t be ready for another two or three years.

50-50 CHANCE

On July 19, 1980, Jones had another scoop for his faithful readers.

“What would you say if I told you the Oakland A’s would play in Renfrew Park next year,” quizzed the scribe.

Jones had found out that the league wasn’t looking to expand in 1981, so if the Edmonton group wanted to get a team on the field sooner, they would have to go another route.

As it turned out, that route would be through buying and relocating an existing franchise. And it seemed as though there were some options on the table.

“All I can tell you is that we’ve been told our odds of getting in the PCL next year are up to 50 per cent,” Kowalchuk said. “We should know for sure, one way or another, by late August.”

The prime target right out of the gate was Ogden, Utah, with possible partners in Salt Lake City and Hawaii also on Kowalchuk’s radar.

But the situation in Ogden was different, with owner Dennis Job being unable to pay the previous owner, San Jose’s Bob Piniccini, most of the money he owed.

“It wouldn’t surprise anybody here if they moved,” Ogden Standard-Examiner sports editor Ensign Ritchie told Jones. “This city just isn’t big enough to support Triple-A. To tell you the truth, I’m surprised they’ve lasted this long.”

Ritchie said the size of the city was one thing, but the ballpark wasn’t great and the team had seen a high turnover of general managers in its short existence.

As for the reference to the A’s, Ogden was Oakland’s Triple-A affiliate. At the time, the agreement signed by all Triple-A affiliates included having their MLB squad play one exhibition game against each other at the minor league team’s park.

“Right now, I have to believe there’s a 50-50 chance that the Oakland A’s will play in Renfrew Park next year,” Jones concluded.

MAKING IT 70-30

Over the next couple of months, the rumour mill ramped up in anticipation of what would happen with minor league baseball in Edmonton.

“One bad word in the press right now could kill the whole deal,” Kowalchuk told the Edmonton Journal in September 1980. “But if you want me to give you a percentage, it’s 70-30.”

Rumours were still swirling over what team might be heading north, which now included Spokane. But Ogden still remained the likely candidate.

“We’ve been after one team since we were turned down on expansion,” Kowalchuk said. “But in the meantime, we’ve also talked to three other teams. I’m not saying all want to sell, just that we approached them.”

While Cutler said the league would “probably approve” the deal for Ogden, it seemed as though it wasn’t going to be that easy to sway Job.

Another month went by with Kowalchuk having to say he couldn’t get the papers signed on a deal, leading some to wonder if it would ever happen.

By early-October, frustrations started to mount and chief negotiator Abe Silverman told the Journal he had quit bartering for the A’s.

“As far as I’m concerned, this case is closed,” Silverman said. “The owner of the Ogden team isn’t dealing in good faith. We had agreed after some lengthy negotiations on a deal, but when the time came to sign that deal, the documents were altered substantially.”

He said the new terms weren’t economically feasible, and that if Job wanted to make the transaction happen, he would have to get it done soon.

“If they’re prepared to accept our offer to purchase under the conditions negotiated, I’m still interested in purchasing the team,” Silverman added. “However, we’re deducting $1,000 a day from the purchase price for every day that goes by after the deadline.”

That October deadline had already come and gone.

While Silverman was handling the negotiations through the media, it appeared Kowalchuk was still talking to Job.

“I’d rather not say where I’m at,” was all that Kowalchuk offered.

DONE DEAL

Kowalchuk might have been coy about his whereabouts because it wasn’t just baseball stadiums that he was visiting.

He had also been in the ear of Pocklington, and on October 28, the revelation came into the spotlight as reporters learned the entrepreneur was getting involved.

“I don’t know Mel, but he’s kept at me daily,” Pocklington admitted. “He’s as bad as the tax man. And with that type of patience and dedication, I’m definitely leaning his way.”

The prominent businessman was still on the fence about what he was hoping to get out of a meeting with Kowalchuk and Job.

 “I’m still asking myself, ‘Do I want another bloody sports team?’” Pocklington said. “I honestly haven’t made up my mind. I won’t until after the meeting.”

Job had made his way to Edmonton, under no delusions of what was on the table. He knew his time in Ogden was over, as the lease wasn’t being renewed and his battles with “a very negative city council” which he believed didn’t appreciate what they were trying to do.

“I don’t know whether to bring it up here myself or to sell the ball club,” he said. “If I have a choice, I’d like to bring the ball club here, but I’ve got to make a decision in the next two or three days because we’ve got to get moving.”

The following day, the parties involved held a news conference confirming the long-awaited news that a deal had been signed. Kowalchuk would stay on as the team’s president, while Job was named general manager.

“This is more than fulfilling,” Kowalchuk said, admitting he offered to drop out of the picture after everything was worked out. “I wanted to be involved, but on a very, very minor scale. This is exceptionally nice of Mr. Pocklington.”

One big piece of the puzzle was also solved that day, as Jones reported that “the provincial government will propose that beer will be made available at professional sports events in the province,” something Edmonton and Calgary had been pushing for.

The dream of enjoying a cold beverage at a professional baseball game in Edmonton was finally coming to fruition.

“He’s chased a dream, this man, and he deserves to have it fulfilled,” Jones said of Kowalchuk. “If it all works out today, a lot of people will be buying Kowalchuk a lot of beer this summer.”

GET YOUR TICKETS HERE

A day later, Kowalchuk was still in shock over what had transpired over the previous few weeks.

“The excitement is starting to build, but it hasn’t dawned on me yet,” he told the Journal. “I’ll probably wake up tomorrow yelling at the top of my lungs – ‘it’s done!’”

After racking up more than $200-a-month in phone bills and over $7,500 just investigating the possibility of bringing a PCL team to town, Kowalchuk still had a few hoops to jump through.

Not only did the league have to approve the deal, which they did in November, but then he had to worry about the field improvements, the roster, a team name, and selling tickets.

He also had to hammer out an affiliate, as the Athletics decided to stay a little closer to home with the Tacoma Tigers. The Houston Astros were a possibility, as they were at odds with the Tucson Toros and some thought the Chicago White Sox would jump into that.

Pocklington was hoping for something a little more Canadian.

“I don’t want to tie my hands for more than one year,” he said of an affiliate contract. “Who knows. If everything goes great, then maybe we can get the (Montreal) Expos.”

In early-December, the team launched a “Name the Team” contest as well as a major ticket drive.

Dubbed “the greatest promotion in the history of pro sports,” the Edmonton team began selling tickets with a 1981 Ford Escort being given away for every 100 season tickets sold. The one caveat: a maximum of 100 cars or 10,000 season tickets.

NEW YEAR, NEW TEAM

With just a few months remaining before first pitch, the new team’s identity finally started to take shape.

In mid-January 1981, the team-naming contest came to an end with Trappers becoming the official moniker, with the winner being 16-year-old Keith Wells of St. Albert.

Not only did club officials like that the name showcased the city’s early beginnings as a fur-trading centre, and that the “trapper” is another name for a first baseman’s glove, but they also thought the name would “project a rugged image that is ‘perhaps a bit rascally,’” the Journal’s Norm Cowley reported.

In that same news conference, the team also confirmed a one-year player development contract with the White Sox, and that Gordie Lund would be their first manager.

“At least I can live with it,” Job said of the White Sox agreement. “A few bucks here and a few bucks there can really add up at the end of the season, so I tried to be really cheap.”

A couple of weeks later, the club unveiled its schedule as well as its logo and jersey designs.

Images found in the Edmonton Journal from February 1981.

“Considering we couldn’t get the ballpark for the first part of August (because of the Intercontinental Championships), except for one roadtrip we couldn’t switch, I’m happy with the schedule,” Kowalchuk said. “Especially with the beginning, it’s really light at home.”

Which was good news for baseball fans who were concerned that Old Man Winter might try to make an unexpected visit in the middle of April.

The Trappers were slated to open the season on the road versus Portland on April 14, with their home opener set for April 22 against Tacoma.

With most of the off-field logistics worked out, it was time for officials to start focusing on the on-field product, as Spring Training was just around the corner and, with it, the start of the minor league season.

PLAY BALL!

The Trappers’ brass waited with baited breath to see which players the White Sox would keep in the bigs and which would be assigned to the new squad.

They got their first glimpse at some of the talent on March 27 when the Trappers opened up their exhibition schedule with a 17-2 romp over the Portland Beavers.

Rod Allen led the way with four hits and two runs batted in while Chris Nyman drove in three with a double.

They continued their winning ways through most of the pre-season schedule, adding new pieces as the White Sox fine-tuned their roster.

READ MORE: In The Cards – 1981 Edmonton Trappers

“We’re playing good baseball,” Lund told the Journal on April 3. “I’m more worried about that than our record.”

As the team performed well on the field, news from home was positive as well, with the grandstand at Renfrew Park being sold out for all home games, accounting for more than 1,750 season tickets.

OPENING DAY

At long last, Opening Day meant something different for Edmonton baseball fans.

After months of waiting, the day had come for their team to take to the field. And they would be able to listen to the opener on the radio, as CFRN Radio was set to broadcast the game with Al Coates doing play-by-play.

“Right now, it seems as far away as it really is – 1,000 miles,” Kowalchuk said, as he awaited his team’s debut.

It wasn’t going to be an easy task, as they would be facing the Portland Beavers, who were sending long-time MLB star Luis Tiant to the hill.

Second baseman Jay Loviglio was the first to step into a batter’s box with a Trappers uniform on, and must have forgot who he was facing. Loviglio opened up the game with a triple, then scored on a Leo Sutherland single.

In all, the Trappers shelled the 40-year-old former MLB All Star for eight runs on six hits over two innings. One of those hits including the Trappers’ first-ever home run: a grand slam off the bat of Gary Holle.

“I’ve hit a few grand slams before, but I don’t think as much of the grand slam as I do hitting it off Tiant,” Holle said after the 12-5 victory. “We were psyched for the game just because it was Opening Day. Tiant just added to it.”

The Trappers would end their road trip with a record of three wins and four losses, setting the stage for their inaugural visit home.

HOME SWEET HOME – KIND OF

Amidst questions of whether everyone spoke French in Edmonton and how cold the weather was, the Trappers arrived in a place many had never heard of, let alone been to.

A place they would call “home” for the next few months.

“It’s tough on an individual or a team to come to a city you know nothing about, not knowing your way around, or what to expect of anything,” Lund admitted.

They weren’t arriving to familiar faces waiting at the airport and the players had to arrange their own transportation to get to the downtown Holiday Inn.

The Trappers were set to welcome the Tacoma Tigers to Renfrew Park. Just 1,500 seats were left for sale, which wasn’t overly-surprising given it was the same night as an Oilers game.

On April 22, more than 4,400 fans went through the turnstiles to welcome the new hometown heroes.

“There were guys betting us today there wouldn’t be 3,500 fans,” Kowalchuk explained.

Some fans were still hoping to pay attention to both, bringing portable radios and televisions to keep the Oilers game on the periphery.

John Ducey, nicknamed “The Rajah of Renfrew,” threw out the first pitch. He was a bat boy for teams that played the Western Canada Baseball League’s Edmonton Eskimos in the 1920s. Ducey played the game for a while before umpiring professionally for 15 years and later serving as a baseball executive, general manager, scout, and coach in numerous capacities.

“I hoped it (the return of pro ball) would happen, but I had reservations that it could happen,” Ducey told the Journal. “Baseball’s been a great therapy and tonic for me.”

Former football stars Jackie Park and Rollie Miles were also in attendance, as was former Oilers captain Al Hamilton, as the Trappers hammered the Tigers 8-1.

The box score from the first Trappers game found in the April 23, 1981 edition of the Edmonton Journal.

After the game, the players sang the praises of their fans, but were torn on the state of the playing field.

“It’s awfully uneven,” John Poff said of the outfield grass. “But I’ve seen a lot of minor league parks at the beginning of the season that aren’t in this good of condition.”

“It was pretty good…I liked it,” Leo Sutherland added. “I was surprised, because when I took a look at it yesterday, I thought it was kind of bad. Those guys must have done a super job out there. You’ve got to give those guys a lot of credit.”

Lund agreed that the field was in better shape than what he saw the day before, going so far as to say it didn’t look playable. He was still concerned about the infield grass, which Loviglio called “contoured with dips and valleys.”

THE REST IS HISTORY

The Trappers would finish their inaugural season with a 62-74 record, finishing fourth in the six-team Northern Division.

While they didn’t qualify for the playoffs, Lund’s crew was still a big attraction that summer, drawing more than 187,000 fans to Renfrew Park. That number would consistently rise over the years as Kowalchuk’s work led to a 24-year relationship between the City of Edmonton and Triple-A baseball.

The Trappers renewed their contract with the White Sox for one more season before continuing on with the California Angels (1983-1992), Florida Marlins (1993-1994), Oakland Athletics (1995-1998), Anaheim Angels (1999-2000), Minnesota Twins (2001-2002), and Montreal Expos (2003-2004).

As it turned out, Jones wasn’t wrong that the A’s would eventually team up with Trappers, and Pocklington’s hope for the Expos eventually followed suit.

The Trappers went on to win four PCL championships (1984, 1996, 1997, 2002) and allowed fans see many future MLB players take to the field.

A number of future big leaguers also suited up with the Trappers, including Fernando Valenzuela, Devon White and Tim Salmon.

“Probably Ron Kittle is my favourite,” Kowalchuk later told the Edmonton Sun. “I’ll never forget when he hit the 50th home run. And I remember a couple of towering shots that went over the light standards!”

However, the dream of seeing a Major League Baseball team calling a domed stadium in Edmonton “home” never materialized.

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