Stompers a distant memory
Community Park, the former home of the St. Catharines Stompers. Photo by: DIGITAL BALLPARKS
With the New York-Penn League underway again for another season, those with long memories may recall the St. Catharines Stompers.
The team began play in 1986 in St. Catharines as the Blue Jays and was renamed the Stompers when local owners purchased the team in 1995. The team left St. Catharines after the 1999 season to become the Queens Kings.
That’s a whopping 20 years ago, which is hard to fathom for those who followed the team.
To put it in perspective, the internet was only in its infant stages and most teams didn’t even have a presence on the web. That’s hard to believe considering how much teams now relay on the internet to provide information and market to their fans.
I was fortunate enough to cover the Stompers from their incarnation in 1995, right through to the bitter end in 1999 as the beat reporter for The St. Catharines Standard. It was a plumb assignment, one I never took for granted as I followed in the footsteps of colleagues Mike Hamilton and Peter Conradi.
With no presence on the web, fans turned to the newspaper for information on the team and I was more than happy to oblige.
That meant night after night at Community Park, as well as occasional road trips to destinations such as Batavia, Jamestown and Erie. There was also a brief period when Hamilton, Welland and Niagara Falls, N.Y. had teams in the NYP. It was a minor pro ball fan’s dream.
Spending so much time at the park, it was only natural to become somewhat attached to the organization and those who worked there.
On the field, the Stompers and Baby Jays had their share of success and failure, but it was the players who fans came to see.
Carlos Delgado, Jeff Kent, Michael Young, Vernon Wells, Pat Hentgen, Shannon Stewart, Woody Williams, Derek Bell — the list is long and impressive.
Many went on to long and distinguished careers in the major leagues after beginning at Community Park.
The tough part is that there are now virtually no ties left to the Baby Jays or Stompers still active.
Former Stompers manager Ralph “Rocket” Wheeler is still grinding in out as a minor league manager in Washington’s system while infielder Abraham Nunez is a minor league hitting coach in the Royals’ system. There may be one or two others scattered around, but that’s about it.
“There are still a lot of strong memories but when you think back to how long it’s been, it’s a lot of water under the bridge. A lot of things have changed,” former Stompers general manager John Belford said. “You really realize how long it’s been when you see guys go to the majors, have long careers, and now are retired. That really hits home.”
A generation of baseball fans have no clue what it was like to have a pro team in their backyard. It was prestigious and something I feel was never fully grasped by most local fans or politicians.
“Once you lose it, it’s tough to get back,” Belford added. “You think about how many places across North American the name St. Catharines popped up in sports standings. The team’s name was taken across the Eastern seaboard. It was a lot of exposure in national publications and transactions wires. Mentions on Blue Jays broadcast. The name St. Catharines was out there. I can only image what it would be like now with the internet.”
So what would it take to get a team back?
No organization would even consider coming back without a top-notch minor league stadium. Community Park wasn’t really up to snuff 20 years ago and today would never be in contention to house a minor pro team.
“I think if you really wanted it, it would take a lot of people coming together and moving in the right direction,” Belford said. “Using the Meridian Centre as an example, it took going to an event to a whole new level. It’s the creature comforts that attract people from all ages. They know it’s a quality place to go and to market a minor league team properly in this day and age, you have to start with a top-notch facility.
“You can’t go in half-measure. Entertainment options are too vast now. They need a reason to go.”
A new park would like cost in the area of $40-50 million dollars. Considering how long it took to get approval for that type of investment for the Meridian Centre, it’s hard to believe the community would have the stomach for another major investment for a sports facility.
It’s a shame. Having a pro ball team was an honour, a privilege and a way of life for the summer most communities don’t have a chance to experience.
At least there are the memories.
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