Canadians set for Vancouver return after two years of tumult for Blue Jays affiliate

People walk past Nat Bailey Stadium during a fan batting practice session hosted by the Vancouver Canadians minor league baseball team, in Vancouver, on Thursday, September 3, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

TORONTO – As a sports fan growing up in North Delta, B.C., Brent Lavallee’s allegiances were wide and varied. He loved the Vancouver Canucks, especially of the Trevor Linden, Pavel Bure, Kirk McLean vintage, cheered for both the Toronto Blue Jays and the Ken Griffey Jr.-era Seattle Mariners and followed the Montreal Expos, too, because his dad supported them.

His family was also into the Vancouver Canadians, who were the triple-A affiliate of the California Angels, as they were then known, when his grandparents first started taking him to games in the early 1990s. Garret Anderson, Jim Edmonds and J.T. Snow were among the future stars to make an impression on the young Lavallee during those visits to Nat Bailey Stadium.

“Seeing the guys that ended up in the big-leagues and the list of famous people that have played for the Canadians brings back a lot of memories,” he says.

That’s part of what made being hired by the Blue Jays to manage the Canadians in 2020, at the time a short-season A-ball affiliate, so meaningful for Lavallee. Getting to Vancouver wasn’t a specific goal, but it sure was a cool entry point into pro ball after 15 years as a player and coach with Louisiana State University Shreveport, especially given the affiliation with Canada’s team.

He was pretty stoked about coming full circle.

Then the pandemic hit, preventing Lavallee and the Canadians from closing the loop. Two long years and several detours later, they’ll finally get to do just that Tuesday night, when Vancouver, now a full-season high-A club, hosts the Eugene Emeralds in its first game at Nat Bailey Stadium since Aug. 30, 2019.

There will be lots of feels all around.

“My thoughts go to the players and how cool that's going to be for them and then for the city and the community and the baseball fans in Vancouver,” says Lavallee. “Everyone's gone through such a tough time the last couple of years, and Vancouver and Canada has done such a good job controlling the pandemic, that I’m just happy for people to watch good live baseball back in Vancouver again.”

Arriving at this homecoming hasn’t been easy for either Lavallee or the Canadians.

The initial pandemic shutdown left minor-league baseball in total disarray and eventually the 2020 season was completely cancelled. In the midst of the resulting financial hardship and chaos, Major League Baseball re-organized the entire structure of the minor leagues, culling 40 teams while realigning the affiliation map.

For the Canadians, that meant significant changes, as the Northwest League was switched to an advanced-A loop after the short-season A level was eliminated. In theory, the promotion was ideal, as top prospects like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette would no longer skip the level for a full season at low-A Lansing, but it also totally transformed the team’s business model.

Suddenly, rather than beginning the year after the weather’s turn in mid-June, there was an extra 2½ months of schedule to accommodate, including games in April’s erratic conditions.

On top of that, the Canadians nearly lost their affiliation to the Blue Jays, who under MLB’s initial plan were to bump low-A Lansing up to high-A while Vancouver switched over to the Oakland Athletics. Instead, the Blue Jays intervened, logic prevailed, Lansing went to the Athletics and the Canadian connection remained.

As it all played out, the Canadians had little to no control over their fate.

“One of the things they looked to do in Major League Baseball was to cluster organizations to cut down on travel,” says Andy Dunn, the Canadians president and partner. “But I think it makes great sense for us to have a club in Vancouver prior to the guys potentially getting to Toronto so they can understand the culture and the country and that the Blue Jays aren't just Toronto's team, but Canada's team. I've always said the Blue Jays do a great job of marketing themselves almost as like an Olympic brand instead of a Major League Baseball club because they do capture and represent everyone.”

Once that was settled, the tumult didn’t end as the same border restrictions that forced the Blue Jays into exile impacted the Canadians, too.

So while the parent club opened up the 2021 season in Dunedin – where Lavallee was named manager of the club’s Complex League team – the Canadians were found refuge in Hillsboro, Ore., where Ron Tonkin Field’s artificial turf and extra clubhouse allowed them to tenant with the Hops, an Arizona Diamondbacks affiliate.

The arrangement meant the Canadians could at least play a season, but their rootlessness was obvious, especially when they were at their makeshift home. Their attendance in 59 home dates was just 15,822 – a total they should surpass during their opening homestand in Vancouver this week. For context, the Hops were second in the league, drawing 110,384.

“It turned into almost extended spring games a lot of the time because who the hell wants to watch Vancouver play Tri-City in Hillsboro?” says Dunn. “We got through it economically, the books were ugly, but we got through it, guys got work in that was critical to their development and that's what you have to do sometimes.”

While the Blue Jays went through stops and starts before eventually gaining a National Interest Exemption from the federal government allowing them to play in Toronto, the Canadians did the same legwork without the payoff. Dunn calls dealing with the possibility of a return to Vancouver “the toughest part” of the season as the team had several returning members from 2019 “and they knew what they were missing.”

“Being in Hillsboro, which was a tough environment but we got to play, they were like, 'Andy are we going to go back, are we going to go back?'” recalls Dunn. “And I'm telling them, ‘It looks possible. We're working on it,' and then it doesn't work out. And there were just so many challenges – start, stop and then pause and then hurry up and get ready, then pause – turning the emotion on and the emotion off was really tough.”

The organization fought through it and now normalcy looms.

The Canadians did their best to maintain a presence in the community during their absence, maintaining game broadcasts, ensuring a steady flow of information and inviting fans to take batting practice at Nat Bailey Stadium every Thursday.

Still 961 days between home games is a long time and they had hopes that Orelvis Martinez, one of the Blue Jays’ top prospects who finished last year with the Canadians, might return and get a look at Vancouver. But he opened this season at double-A New Hampshire, taking some star power away from a promising group that includes infielders Leo Jimenez, Miguel Hiraldo and Addison Barger plus right-handers Sem Robberse, Adam Kloffenstein, Trent Palmer and Chad Dallas.

Lavallee will lead the way, promoted after managing the chaos of the Complex League, where everyone from rehabbing to big-leaguers to just signed draft picks were under his watch.

As a bonus, he’ll get the chance to manage the Canadians at the same Nat Bailey Stadium that once helped nurture his childhood dreams. He’s looking forward to catching sunsets from right field, the snow-capped mountains off in the distance and the way the crack of the bat echoes on the field.

“The bat to ball is really wonderful in that stadium and I know a big point for the guys is just looking out and seeing how beautiful it is,” says Lavallee. “It did sting a little bit thinking this opportunity was possibly gone. That wasn't why I became a Blue Jay and it didn't tie me to that, but I'm very, very happy that it turned out the way it did now. 

“We're very happy and looking forward to playing in front of 4000-6000 fans, putting a good product out there and playing hard for people all season long.”

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