Royals fans deserve better than this

February 11, 2011
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The news stings like a fastball in the palm of your hand. The Guelph Royals may hang up their cleats for the 2011 season?

Ontario’s Intercounty Baseball League has long dropped and added teams like some teenagers go through boyfriends. Teams have come and gone in Cambridge, St. Thomas, Niagara Falls, Waterloo, Windsor, Stratford and elsewhere. The league has run seasons with as few as five teams and as many as 11.

But Guelph is not some upstart expansion team. The Royals were one of the league’s four founding franchises back in 1919. Think of this as the Montreal Canadiens – without the financial success or massive fan base, of course – quitting hockey for a year, and you’ll start to get a sense of what this means to some die-hard fans.

This is a team that owes its roots to 1861 – six years before Canada was even a country – well before the Intercounty Baseball league ever existed. In the early days, their predecessor the Guelph Maple Leafs played teams both notorious and famous – including a squad of Klu Klux Klan members from New York and the early precursors to the St. Louis Cardinals and Atlanta Braves.

Through 150 years of baseball, the Royals have had moments of greatness. They’ve had times they’d rather forget, too. In 1980, they sat out the entire season due to poor attendance and low revenues.

They came back in the summer of 1981, and were promptly put on probation by the league. They were downright awful. Managers quit, players walked out.

They forfeited games and refused to play others, and in one particularly embarrassing outing against Kitchener, were pulled off the field in the fifth inning, down 18 runs.

In 2011, it’s not clear the owners even want to field a team anymore. Contrary to what the team had claimed, the city doesn’t appear to be blocking them from playing at Hastings Stadium – they’ve invited the owners to a meeting this week to resolve the problem. The mayor said she’d personally sit down with the owners to talk about what they need.

Yet team president Jim Rooney said he couldn’t make it, citing a “previous commitment.”  The other two partners are out of town and unavailable.

The city’s manager of parks said as late as last week the Royals could still book the stadium for a year, and let the boys in blue and white play while they work on a longer-term deal. The Royals management, however, doesn’t seem interested in doing whatever it takes to keep the team playing this summer.

If that’s the case, the owners ought to be up front with fans – if the cancelling the season boils down to financing, say so. Don’t try to paint the city as the villain. If low turnout is the main problem – they should get creative, start marketing this team, and give people a reason to come to the ballpark.

The Royals reportedly want a five-year lease that would give them a break on rent, the right to serve alcohol at games, and waive rental fees still owed from last year.

I don’t have a problem with any of that. The Royals give something to Guelph that can’t be measured on a ledger. If the team thinks it can draw more crowds by serving beer, as other teams in the league do, let them. If a new deal means the city takes a bit of loss on rent, it’s worth it.

This negotiation with the city and threats of cancelling the season has been another low point for Guelph’s most storied sport franchise. Here’s hoping this is just a footnote in the Royals long and colourful history.

Contrary to what you may have heard, they do have fans in this city. And they deserve better than this.

Greg Mercer is a Guelph-based freelance 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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