THUNDER BAY, ONTARIO ? ?Wanna go to the baseball game tonight, eh??
This phrase hasn?t been uttered in Thunder Bay since 1998 when the then Whiskey Jacks of the Northern League called the mid-sized Lake Superior port city home. The Jacks flew South after the ?98 season for Schaumburg, Il. to forever be nested in the luxury boxes of Alexian Field.
Port Arthur stadium has been silent ever since.
That is until tonight when the Madison Mallards (2-2) go international as they tangle with the Thunder Bay Border Cats (0-3). Port Arthur stadium hasn?t hosted a baseball game at this level in five years and the fans in Ontario will be riled up tonight.
?This is a community that is hungry for baseball,? explained Border Cats General Manager Dan Wolfert. ?There is a lot of baseball history here and the fans are really excited.?
That enthusiasm for hardball could have been questioned back in 1998. The City of Thunder Bay had a municipal strike in May and June that caused a number of Whiskey Jack ?home games? to be played in North Dakota. Grand Forks and Minot were the temporary beneficiaries of the Jacks being displaced. When the team finally got back into their own stadium, the fans didn?t follow.
Out of those dark days in ?98, the Border Cats look at history and see that there is hope for the future of this new franchise.
?In Madison, they lost the Black Wolf just three years ago and everyone said baseball in that city was dead,? said Madison Mallards General Manager Vern Stenman. ?Now, we hold the record for attendance not only in the Northwoods League but for the entire country for our level of play. There?s no reason why that success can?t be duplicated in Thunder Bay.?
The press in Canada seems to agree. Here is an article taken from the Thunder Bay Chronicle Journal earlier this week:
THE Border Cats win the pennant, the Border Cats win the pennant, the Border Cats win the pennant . . . (repeat five more times).
Well, maybe not quite yet, but the magical day has arrived for Thunder Bay to be put back on the baseball map. The Thunder Bay Border Cats will take their inaugural Northwoods League pitch tonight against the Rochester Honkers at Mayo Field.
Can?t you just feel it? Although season ticket sales wouldn?t indicate it, you get the buzz that Port Arthur Stadium will once again come alive this summer since the departure of the professional Whiskey Jacks in 1998.
Home runs landing on High Street, wind-blown popups behind second and screaming foul balls down the left-field foul line that spectators have to battle peering into the sun and the shiny roof on the Canada Games Complex. It?s all back.
Maybe people aren?t lining up at the ticket window because they don?t know what kind of product they?ll be seeing just yet. In the Northwoods League, everybody basically starts from scratch each season except for a few holdovers. We know going in that it?s going to be a mixed bag.
If last week?s Sports Celebrity Dinner is any indictation, you?ve got some strong forces at work. During the intermissions between speakers, Border Cats coach Mitch Dunn and general manager Dan Wolfert were furiously scribbling out batting orders in preparation for today?s opener. Now that?s dedication, so don?t be surprised if you see a decent team take the field at a polished P.A. Stadium for their home opener on Saturday.
All we can say is give the Border Cats a chance. Their ticket prices are reasonable and they?re going to surprise you with their ability. You have to remember that these guys are hungry. They?re still chasing the ?golden goose? of sports and won?t be taking any days off. You?re getting these players before they become clubhouse lawyers, shun the media and have off-field problems. They?re still just kids, for crying out loud!
And if you?re having trouble getting up for baseball again, just keep saying to yourself, ?The Border Cats win the pennant, the Border Cats win the pennant, the Border Cats win the pennant . . .?
Hopefully, the winning will come later as the Mallards make their only trip into Canada this summer. Game time is 7:05pm (8:05pm EDT) and can be heard on 91.7 WSUM.