Sunday, 17 January 2016

EDMONTON EXISTENTIAL

A Ballpark in the Dead of Winter

Down on the river flats here in Edmonton beneath the south-facing windows of the Hotel Macdonald perched on the precipice of the valley’s northern slope is a ballpark. Depending upon your seat relative to the lines stretching from the apex of home plate, the view above and beyond the outfield fence may offer you downtown’s skyline, the Alberta Legislature, the stacks of the decommissioned, massive brick Pink Floyd power station or the green canopy shading the city’s extensive river-side leisure path network.

The modest yard, at once bucolic, urban and industrial was precariously and publicly financed and engineered by a local character, one who might be politely described euphemistically as a ‘flamboyant businessman.’

In the mid-90s AAA minor league baseball got too big for its britches because clubs that had once traded hands for a dollar were suddenly deemed to be worth a million of them. Ergo, existing rickety wooden parks and the paltry amenities they offered were required to upgrade in order to enhance the fan experience and ownership revenue streams – same difference – because the main event, a game, was now secondary to the bells and whistles of the facility. The clown, the mascot and the Blues Brothers tribute act could stay for the seventh inning stretch provided they covered their costs.

The pro arguments for what became Telus Field included the civic prestige associated with Pacific Coast League baseball and the incalculable yet positive effects of economic trickle down provided by pro sports. The cons were just those, convoluted within bluffs and threats of relocation. Canadian PCL sister cities Calgary and Vancouver were held up with the same gun but did not raise their hands above their heads.

The Trappers, affiliated variously with the White Sox, Angels and Marlins, despite having their demands met, headed south anyway, as did Calgary’s Cannons and Vancouver’s Canadians. Some said it was because of the weather. Some said it was because of the geography. Some said it was because of the value of the Canadian dollar. Some said the local market of hardcore seamheads was just too small, although maybe they tired of the vacuum hose in their wallets and the endless idiot distractions between innings. Some said it was just a business decision pure and simple; a bigger cash grab was to be had elsewhere. Some agreed it was all of the above.

The failures following the PCL’s exit mounted: the Canadian Baseball League, the Northern League and the Golden League were all dead on arrival. Telus Field is now used maybe 30 times each summer by the Edmonton Prospects, a low level collegiate operation which cannot afford to replace the signage all of the defunct franchises left in their wakes. You can count the fans with your index finger. The most memorable moment in recent seasons was when my pal Tim, who always enjoys a visit to a ballpark, was in town from Calgary. He announced between pitches that he was eating the worst hamburger he’d ever eaten in his 50-plus years of existence. God bless him, he somehow managed to swallow every last bite. Rancid food became the new normal, it never used to be that way.

As white elephants go, Telus Field is a mouse compared to Montreal’s decrepit Olympic Stadium (Hello, Brazil! Is this a bad time to call?), the recently vacated 20-year-old pro football dome in St. Louis or even Edmonton’s own recently renovated though soon to be abandoned NHL arena, Rexall Place. It’s strange to contemplate, but of all the structures that comprise a city, venues dedicated to professional sports seem to have the shortest life spans.

State of the art gets old fast when the game being played is no longer the prime attraction, when the competition is the ease and comfort of a den equipped with a hi-def flat screen TV, when a rooted for team has no compunction about pulling up stakes on the whiff of a sweeter deal. Edmonton’s possibly transformative and as yet unfinished new downtown hockey rink will likely be derided as an inadequate relic by its main tenant a quarter century hence even as we hail sports arenas as our new and great public undertakings.

The first visit from the edge man is always a cheery one, rife with friendly advice. NHL boss Gary Bettman was in Calgary last week attempting to extort civic support for a massive, pro-centric athletic facility on contaminated land that in no way could be ‘cost-justified’ as a strictly private venture, according to Bettman; Calgary’s hockey team also owns a junior hockey team, the Canadian Football League’s Stampeders, a lacrosse team and a nightclub. Construction of the Flames’ existing home ice was completed in 1983.

Telus Field was built but nobody goes there anymore and not because it’s too popular. The City of Edmonton now faces a dilemma regarding its fate. The under-used and neglected ballpark is situated on prime inner city real estate. The least sentimental and most sensible solution is demolition. And after the developers have moved in and thrown up their mews and carriage homes on the flood plain somewhere, perhaps near the stack of super mailboxes, there will be a plaque that echoes Sinatra: There used to be a ballpark here.

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