The Ottawa Champions of the independent Can-Am League did the Toronto Blue Jays a solid this week by selling them the contract of Venezuelan right-hander Wilmer Font, who is expected to start for the triple-A Buffalo Bisons on Friday.
Finding pitching mid-season is never easy, even at the minor-league level, and the Bisons were left in dire straits by the recent recall of Drew Hutchison, the trade of Wade LeBlanc to the Seattle Mariners and the release of Roberto Hernandez at the right-hander’s request.
Font, 26, has five big-league appearances under his belt from 2012 and ’13 with the Texas Rangers and has been a stability pillar for the Champions, sporting a 2-2 record, 3.13 ERA and 1.160 WHIP over 10 games, nine starts, with 61 strikeouts in 60.1 innings.
Maybe he’s a stopgap for the Bisons, maybe he’s more. Right now, he fills an organizational hole.
"For Wilmer it’s great, he gets to go to triple-A, and I think it helps validate the quality of baseball we play here, that our starting pitcher is going to start at triple-A," says Miles Wolff, Champions owner and Can-Am League commissioner. "But of course when you lose your best pitcher, it’s going to be difficult to replace him at this stage in the middle of the season. So we’re working hard to try and see who’s out there, but all in all I think it’s more a plus that he’s going.
"It makes us feel good that we’re doing some good things here in Ottawa."
The Champions also get a fee from the Blue Jays since Major League Baseball honours Can-Am contracts, but the bigger benefit may come from the exposure the transaction has generated for a team in its second season.
Born out of city council’s 2013 decision to support a team in the Can-Am league rather than investing more money to land a double-A squad that would align with the Blue Jays, the Champions are the latest iteration of pro ball in Ottawa.
The Ottawa Lynx of the International League served as the triple-A home for the Montreal Expos, Baltimore Orioles and Philadelphia Phillies from 1993-2007, but after some initial success the team left amid the exodus of affiliated ball from Canada.
The short-season A-ball Vancouver Canadians are the sole remaining affiliated team north of the border, but there are Can-Am teams in Quebec and Trois-Rivieres along with Ottawa, while the Winnipeg Goldeyes play in the independent American Association of Professional Baseball, of which Wolff is also commissioner.
Independent ball is often the last-chance stop for pro players getting washed out of the sport, something Wolff believes makes their games more compelling for fans.
"That was the whole reason I started the first independent league, I had owned affiliated teams, the Durham Bulls and some others, but their purpose wasn’t to win games, it was to develop players for the big-leagues," Wolff explains. "I think fans like to root for a team that’s out there to win. That’s not to say affiliated teams don’t want to win, but if you’ve got one shortstop hitting .300 and another shortstop hitting .150 but the .150 hitter got a million dollars to sign, the .150 hitter is going to play. In independent ball, whoever produces plays. The intensity-factor I think is so much more in independent ball, because they’re not worried about getting hurt – this is their last chance and they need to put everything on the line. It’s a much more intense brand of baseball."
Wolff is a pioneer in the unaffiliated game, having founded the first modern independent league – the Northern League – in 1993. There was the Northeast League from 2003-2004 and the Central League from 2002-2005 and now the American Association, the one in which Winnipeg plays, which features 12 teams in the American Midwest.
The Champions are the Can-Am League’s second run at Ottawa, the Rapidz going one and out in 2008 in the wake of the Lynx’s move to Allentown, Pa. Through 25 home dates, the 27-20 club is averaging 2,483 fans at Raymond Chabot Grant Thornton Park, good for third in the six-team loop.
"The best thing is that we’re growing," says Wolff. "The first year people weren’t sure what the product would be, a little skeptical because baseball had failed in Ottawa before, but now they’re seeing it’s a good product, we’re going to be here, we have a 10-year lease, the stadium is in great shape, so we’re really pleased with the growth, we’re on an upward trend."
The primary second-year gains on the business side have come in increased sponsorships, and better recognition among corporations and businesses, says Wolff. Boosts to the entire Can-Am League have been provided by the tours of the Cuban national team and Japanese squad Shikoku Island through the loop.
A handful of Cuban players have also signed with Can-Am teams, the Champions landing first baseman Alexander Malleta and third baseman Donal Duarte.
"That’s been really good for us," says Wolff. "We’ve got two of the best players out of the Cuban league, they’re older players. One reason we believe the baseball federation sent them is they probably won’t defect because Major League Baseball is interested in younger players, but we’ve got two really good players and the Cubans play a little bit of a different brand of baseball so they’re a little more demonstrative, always having a good time, so it’s been a big plus for our team."
The Champions averaged 2,228 fans over their 52 home dates in their inaugural season, and Wolff believes there is more upside in the market. That’s why he pushed for, and invested in, a team.
"It’s a city a million people or more, it’s got a beautiful stadium, and when the Lynx first came here, they did very, very well – we just thought the city was ready to try it again," says Wolff. "There are just so many good elements to this city, it’s a good sports city, there are lots of activities in terms of professional sports so that means people are going out and spending their money on sports, that’s a plus for us. All the elements were in place for us to give it another go.
"We’re pleased with what we’ve got (in terms of attendance). It’s a growing market that I think Year 3 we’ll see what we really can do, what the level will be. For the first year and a half, we’ve been pleased with how things have gone."