Take me out to the ball game

July 29, 2010

Guelph Mercury, 07/28/10 baseball-field

Let’s hear it for the Cambridge Cubs.

The upstart junior team one town over has the gumption to play (gasp) baseball. Ever heard of it? It’s a game of wooden bats, balls and strikes, and the Cubs are trying to reverse years of its decline in these parts.

Not everyone has been thrilled. When the team was created last season – after a four-year hiatus from their town – the local junior league that includes the Guelph Silvercreeks told the Cubs they weren’t welcome. So the Cubs looked east and joined a rival league that plays in places like Brampton, Oakville and Milton.

What matters though is that coach Michael Schenk and his squad of young men are bringing a higher level of baseball back to Galt’s historic Dickson Park, which is about as charming a baseball shrine as you can find in these parts. It’s got an old classic grandstand, worn wooden bleachers, and no centrefield fence.

When it costs $10 for a plastic cup of watery American beer at the empty Rogers Centre, there’s something incredibly welcoming about walking into an old ball park and taking a seat in the grandstand without anyone asking you for money.

This is baseball unspoiled, without the inflated salaries and egos.

If you want to laze under the shade of a tall maple tree on a hill overlooking the leftfield line, you can do that, free of charge. If you want to sit on a cement block next to the dugout and spit sunflower seeds or lean up against the chain-link backstop, you’re welcome to do that, too.

Dickson Park is one of those great places where if you squint just right, you can almost imagine that it’s not 2010. From home plate you can see the faded brick warehouse of the Waterloo South Agricultural Society and the big steel train bridge that spans across the Grand River.

Once was a time the Guelph Royals played here. But while our Intercounty Baseball League franchise has survived the game’s downturn in southern Ontario, Galt’s did not. They folded the local club in the 1970s. The Royals may not draw the crowds they used to, but at least they’re still playing in Exhibition Park.

We like to think of ourselves as a hockey nation. But baseball was once a big deal here, too. Our Royals trace their roots back to 1861 – six years before Canada was even a country.

Once owned by George Sleeman (from our city’s famous brewing family), the Royals competed with professional teams from across New England and New York. They were the first Ontario team to hire top players from the U.S. and played a big part in forming Canada’s first professional baseball league.

Long before baseball ever appeared on black and white televisions, there were bitter rivalries between the Ontario cities that would see 5,000 fans or more come to the games by train, buggy and jalopy. Cities held parades before the first pitch and kids would fight for a spot along the outfield fence.

The Cubs are trying, in some small part, to breathe a little life back into a game long past its prime in this region.

They’ve got a long way to go. Before Tuesday night, the Cubs had only won three regular season games in their two-year history. And not one of those wins came last year.

But still they play on. Because they love a game that used to mean something here. A game that used to pack ’em in by the thousands. A game of rawhide and wood and dirt and grass that once had us all squinting out into the sun, wondering if it was going, going, gone.

Greg Mercer is a Guelph-based writer. His column appears Wednesdays. He can be reached at greg_mercer@hotmail.com, and past columns can be read at gregmercer.ca

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