Inside baseball: Memories of the Stompers and Baby Jays
It’s almost impossible to fathom it has been 20 years since the St. Catharines Stompers left town.
George Taylor Field, formerly Merritton Community Park, was home of the Toronto Blue Jays’ New York-Penn League affiliate from 1986-1999.
The franchise was born as the St. Catharines Blue Jays and morphed into the Stompers when local ownership purchased the team and rebranded them with a new name and a cool green and purple colour scheme.
This is the 20th summer without the team, and between Major League Baseball’s attempt to contract some minor league organizations and the lack of a proper facility, the chances of seeing pro ball in St. Catharines ever again appear to be zero.
But instead of looking back in regret, let’s focus on the positive.
In honour of two decades without baseball, here are the top 10 best things/memories about the Jays/Stompers from the perspective of a fan who also had the privilege of covering the team for several years while I was a reporter for The Standard.
1. It was pro ball. No offence to the Intercounty League or local senior league, but the NYP was a pro league with MLB affiliates and legitimate pro prospects on the way up. You knew you could be watching the next star to make it big, rather than a bunch of retreads who were simply playing for the love of the game (not that there is anything wrong with that).
2. I got paid to go to the ball park. If there’s a better gig, I’m listening.
3. Ball park food. The Jays/Stompers didn’t have anything particularly special to offer — although Beaver Tails made a late entry on the menu — but a hot dog always tastes better at the ball park.
4. Following players as they moved up in the organization. It was always cool to look at the other Jays affiliates and see how players from past seasons were doing at the higher levels. It wasn’t uncommon to see players who thrived in short season single A begin to falter as they moved up the ranks. The demarcation line was generally AA where players either revealed themselves as prospects or were released.
5. The players. Generally speaking, most Baby Jays and Stompers were extremely grateful for the coverage and exposure and were great to talk to. Shannon Stewart, Adam Melhuse, Will Skett, Reed Johnson and Michael Young spring to mind as great guys who were always co-operative. Managers were usually cool too. J.J. Cannon was always respectful as was Duane Larson and Eddie Rodriquez. But Ralph (Rocket) Wheeler was the coolest. Rocket was a player’s manager who demanded full out effort and not much else. He was also great with the media and was one of the few managers/coaches who introduced me to the team before the season and asked them to treat me professionally and with respect. You don’t forget something like that. By the way, Rocket, who now works in the Washington Nationals organization, recently received a World Series ring from The Nats championship in 2019.
6. The road trips. Trips to cover/watch the team in closer locations such as Jamestown, Erie, Auburn and Batavia were always a highlight. In fact, I’ve made a point of going to Batavia at least once a year since the team left and still enjoy the experience. It still makes me shake my head in disbelief a small town like Batavia (about the size of Thorold) can have a team but St. Catharines is without one. I was also fortunate enough to travel with the team to Watertown and Vermont to cover the 1996 playoffs. Great memories, even if I did get a speeding ticket on the way home from Vermont while driving the Stompers van!
7. The people. This is an easy one. Pro baseball is such a unique and tight-knit community. Work in or with pro ball and you’ll likely make friends for life with many like-minded individuals. A trip back to Batavia is always cool if for no other reason than some of the press box workers still remember the Stompers/Jays and are always pleased to see anyone from St. Catharines. Others, such as Stompers general manger John Belford and his wife Kelly, along with public address announcer Rod Mawhood and Pistol Peter Kozela have remained life-long friends. Running into former owner Terry O’Malley and his wife Barbara is always a highlight as well.
On a related note, sorry to hear of the passing of former official scorer Marcel Landry recently. Marcel was a good guy (for a Yankee fan) who I often ran into at St. Catharines Falcons games and the topic of ball always game up. He will be missed.
8. The work. Back in the day before the Internet (I often wonder how we survived), covering a pro team was a huge challenge beyond simply writing the stories. Games had to be scored so a box score could be complied for the next day’s paper, all by hand. No computer programs to spit out the box score the second the game was over. As well, most papers had agreements with other news outlets to exchange information on how the runs were scored. A brief story also needed to be filed to Canadian Press. After all that was completed, then came the game story. It was a ton of work and I loved every single second.
9. Moonlighting on the radio. For a couple of seasons I was asked to provide colour commentary for the home broadcasts. It was my first foray into radio and I immediately fell in love with the medium. I normally worked with a rotating crew of Colin Bannister, Shawn McCart and Doug Hobbs, who were all very gracious to the newcomer and made my job that much easier. I received many compliments and was happy to add the experience to my resume.
10. Anything and everything else I didn’t mention.
BPSN and the COVID-19 pandemic
Like all small businesses dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, BPSN is not sure what the business landscape will look like when things return to normal. Our website is financed primarily through advertising revenues and partnership agreements with many local sports and educational organizations in Niagara. Our goal is to continue providing our readers with the extensive local sports coverage you have come to expect from our site. Since our inception, we have written more than 2,800 stories on our local athletes and teams. Many of our readers have given us one-time donations or send us monthly contributions to help offset our costs. We would be eternally grateful if others would consider doing the same by using the Support Us button located on the right-hand side of our home page below the mosaic.
Thank you for your continued support.
Bill and Bernie.