Poutine and cracker jacks: Baseball continues

A day at Stade Municipal proves baseball is alive in la belle province (Will Lew/Sportsnet Magazine)

A day at Stade Municipal proves baseball is alive in la belle province

It’s the inexplicable feeling, the one of being both young and old at the same time, that brings Gérard Duplain to the ballpark 50 times a year. Hobbled, ever so slightly, by his 86 years, he arrives at the Stade Municipal and heads for his seat, just as he first did back in 1939, when his father brought him here to watch the Athlétiques de Québec play long-dead rivals like the Renards de Trois-Rivières in the old Quebec Provincial League.

He shuffles through the turnstile surrounded by fellow spectators funnelling one-by-one into a stadium that has sat in a park near the south shore of the Saint-Charles River for as long as anyone can remember. In the most historic city this side of the Atlantic, the Stade Municipal has become one of the many things that have always been here, like the canons, ramparts and the old château up on the hill beyond the left-field wall.

For Duplain and others, this 75-year-old ballpark is a place in which to escape time, reality and the tourists who clutter up the old town on hot summer nights. He passes vendors selling poutine-topped hotdogs and makes his way through a blue corridor, one of the many he helped salvage and paint some 20 years ago. He climbs up the ramp to the stadium’s second level, to his place 10 rows behind home plate and takes his seat.

No one knows how many times Duplain has taken to these stands for a ball game. He himself lost count many years ago. But for a hiatus from 1977–99, when professional baseball wasn’t played in the city and the Stade Municipal was condemned, Duplain has always been here. He was here when the stadium played host to minor-league clubs with links to the Brooklyn Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, New York Giants, Boston Braves and Montreal Expos. And he was here in the mid-’90s when fans cleaned up the abandoned park in an effort to lure minor-league ball back to the city. He has seen things from his perch above home plate, spectacular things, which he struggles to recount to those who weren’t there. Like the home run he watched Hank Aaron hit over the outfield wall on an otherwise uneventful Tuesday in May 1955.

“I remember watching it happen, but I can’t remember if it went over the right-field wall or left,” he says.

Memories fade. Teams and players come and go. But the Stade Municipal looks pretty much the same as it did all those years ago. An old-fashioned ballpark in an old-fashioned town where fathers and sons, and mothers and daughters, gather to drink beer and pop, shell peanuts, down hotdogs and watch le baseball as if it were a well-established French-Canadian pastime.

It’s Aug. 6, 2013, a Tuesday in the Basse-Ville. Duplain and 4,331 others have come to cheer on the Capitales de Québec. They’ve come from across the Eastern Townships and both sides of the St. Lawrence River to pack the stands and watch as the five-time and reigning champions of the Can-Am League take on their upstart rivals, the Aigles de Trois-Rivières. They’ve come even though it’s the middle of a work week and this is just minor-league ball. They’ve come because despite what you may have heard, baseball still means something to the people of Quebec.

Minutes to game time and the Capitales, Canada’s most successful pro baseball franchise of the past 15 years, are in the clubhouse, finishing up bowls of homemade spaghetti and discussing their intention to not simply beat the Aigles but to stop a three-game losing streak in front of their hometown fans, whom they can hear getting drunk and rowdy at an outdoor patio bar off the third-base line. Hundreds of spectators have been at the ballpark for two hours, downing Molson Ex and all-they-can-eat toasted hotdogs and pulled pork sandwiches while listening to a bar band play ballpark tunes, including a French-accented rendition of “Sweet Caroline.”

It’s three months into a four-month season and the Capitales are leading the league, but they’ve been struggling of late, especially with the Aigles, an expansion club owned by the National League’s 2003 Cy Young Award–winner Éric Gagné and former NHLer Marc-André Bergeron.

The Aigles, founded last year, may lack the lineage and fan following of the Capitales, but they are one of only five pro clubs in Canada and the only other Canadian team in the Can-Am League. Already a rivalry has begun between the two clubs. To some, it’s the most recent incarnation of an old feud that dates back to 1938, when Maurice Duplessis built identical stadiums in the two cities. To others, it’s just the natural progression of a friendly competition that has existed between the original settlements of New France for 400 years.

The bar band stops. The Aigles and the Capitales grab their gloves and make their way to the edge of the dugout for the national anthem. The sound of 4,000-plus voices chanting is the final warning for Nicolas Drolet, 15, to take his position at the Stade’s manual scoreboard. He climbs a ladder behind the centre-field wall and readies himself to spend the next three hours mounting numbered placards the size of his torso onto the board.

Cheers, whistles and a man dressed in a lion suit dancing above the dugout signal the start of play as the Capitales pitcher—Jeff Duda, a 28-year-old Surrey, B.C., native who, like most on the field tonight, never made it to the show—takes to the mound and prepares to launch his 90-mph fastballs. All is going according to the Capitales’ pre-game plan until the top of the second, when 230-lb. Aigles first baseman Brett Flowers knocks a double off Duda and then scores on a sac-fly.

The heckles begin as Alexandre Dupont, a 32-year-old groundskeeper at the ballpark, puts away his garden hose, dons a Roman centurion’s helmet and takes the lead in shouting down the Aigles’ starting pitcher, Jeff Shields, a one-time prospect of the Arizona Diamondbacks. “Le lanceur sais pas lancer, doo-da, doo-da. Le lanceur pense à sa blonde, doo-da, doo-da.” The chants have little effect on Shields, who frustrates the Capitales batters through seven innings.

Win or lose, this is a big night for the Capitales and their fans. But not because of anything happening on the field right now. No, tonight is a big deal because at this moment, 2,400 km away in Kansas City, a former Capitales pitcher is making his MLB debut with the Minnesota Twins. As the fans rise for the seventh inning stretch, an announcement rings through the stadium alerting all in attendance that Andrew Albers is well on his way to his first MLB win. Albers is just the second player in the team’s history to graduate to the show, and his former fans and teammates clap at the news coming out of Kansas City.

Few of the players on the field tonight harbour any real notions of following Albers to the majors. This is independent ball, and to get here most players have to first get cut from affiliated ball. “When you first arrive, this is the last place you want to be,” explains Sebastien Boucher, a 31-year-old Gatineau, QC., native and former Mariners and Orioles prospect who has spent the past five summers patrolling centre for the Capitales.“I’ve been around the game a long time and played in a lot of parks. This place is special. Being here has really helped me fall back in love with the game.”

By the bottom of the seventh, the Capitales are down 4–0. The man in the centurion’s hat has gone quiet, but Miles Wolff has taken up the cause, clapping loudly for the Capitales from his front-row seat behind home plate. Wolff, the man who resuscitated the Durham Bulls in 1980 and grew them into America’s most recognized minor-league franchise, is among the Capitales’ strongest supporters. The only American ever to be inducted into Quebec’s Baseball Hall of Fame, Wolff is the man most directly responsible for bringing minor-league ball back to the city in 1999. Having owned the team through its first 12 years, he now serves as commissioner of the Can-Am League based out of Durham, N.C. But he still makes it north for most of the Capitales’ games. “There’s something special here,” he says. “I don’t know why it is, it just is. It’s a very similar atmosphere to what we had with the Bulls. The fans here are as good as I’ve seen anywhere. They will cheer, dance, sing. They are very passionate—it may be the best baseball crowd I’ve ever dealt with.”

A crack of one of the Capitales’ Canadian-made yellow birch bats illustrates his point. Josue Peley, the Capitales’ catcher, sprints home from third and scores one for the home team. It’s 4–1 and suddenly the crowd returns to life. The chants recommence, the lion starts dancing again and the fans begin screaming for someone—anyone—to hit a homer.

It doesn’t happen. The eighth inning comes and goes without much action. The excitement in the crowd holds into the bottom of the ninth all the way to the Capitales’ last at-bat. But it disappears as the batter grounds out to first.

This game is done. The boy by the scoreboard grabs another placard, the last of the evening, to record the ninth-inning tally. The Capitales have lost. But no matter. The fans and the players will be back again tomorrow. Because this is Quebec. And baseball still means something here.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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