11

All-time Canadian baseball rosters: the Calgary Cannons

My grandmother must have recalled the story to me a thousand times. Dutifully sitting about eight rows behind home plate at what was then Burns Stadium (now Foothills Stadium), my grandparents, like any other Calgarian baseball fan, player, or parent, endured snow, sleet, rain, and the pestering of Wabash to cheer on the Calgary Cannons. My grandparents were Cannons season ticket holders from the early- to late-nineties and saw some remarkably good baseball players come through the city.

However, there was a particular player who my grandmother revered with particular, pointed affection. When he would get on base, which was frequently, she would yell “that’s MY boy!” This became her favourite chant for her favourite player. But one day, following a particularly loud instance, a seemingly perturbed woman rejected her claim and clarified that he was actually her boy. It was Tino Martinez’s mother.

These stories are common across Canadian baseball stadiums, as Canada’s history with minor-league baseball has allowed cities like Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Vancouver to see Major League Baseball’s stars before they become household names. I grew up in Calgary, which had the Cannons, a team that had a AAA minor-league affiliation with the Seattle Mariners, Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago White Sox, and Florida Marlins. The Mariners connection allowed the recently-inducted Edgar Martinez to spend time in Calgary prior to his outstanding career in the big leagues.

Personally, I have no memories of the Cannons’ Seattle connections. The only big-leaguer I vividly remember watching at Burns Stadium was Tony Womack but Edgar’s induction, and a conversation with a friend from Vancouver made me wonder what each Canadian city’s all-time roster would look like?

The rules I have created for this exercise are slightly uneven. Rather than simply creating an all-time roster with one player at each position, I imagined that I, as God/Manager, had at my disposal each player in their prime and could use them as I wished to try and win a seven-game series. Frankly, it’s more fun that way.

I figured I would start with the team I knew best: the Calgary Cannons:

OUTFIELD

  • RF – Jay Buhner
  • CF – Danny Tartabull
  • LF – Cliff Floyd

There’s some interesting names here, including Jay freaking Buhner, making this a fairly decent trio. Buhner is easily one of the best players to come through Calgary, playing parts of two seasons there in 1989 and 1990. I had to move Danny Tartabull out of position in order to accommodate his bat, and in doing so I acknowledge the lack of a true centerfielder, but alas, a Manager’s life is tough.

Cliff Floyd, Baseball America’s number one prospect in 1994, didn’t play a ton in Calgary, but had three homers during the 1999 season. Floyd also played in Ottawa during his minor league career, so both Canadian cities can claim him as theirs.

INFIELD

  • 3B – Edgar Martinez
  • 2B – Alex Rodriguez
  • SS – Omar Visquel
  • 1B – Derrek Lee
  • DH – Tino Martinez
  • C – Dave Valle

Take a look at that infield.

Third base is easy. A lock. The now Hall of Famer Edgar Martinez. Then it gets a little tricky. Alex Rodriguez is changing positions for this team. A-rod is going to have be a second-basemen in order to accommodate Omar Visquel, who played parts of four seasons in Calgary and is one of the finest defensive shortstops in the history of the game. There isn’t a nice way of doing that, but it relegates Bret Boone to the bench.

First base was between Tino Martinez and Derrek Lee, but three Gold Gloves gives Lee the nod, pushing Tino to the DH spot. At catcher, the Cannons weren’t spectacularly deep and, though Dave Valle had a respectable major league career, he’s hardly worthy of the names that surround him in the infield.

PITCHERS

  • Jim Abbott
  • Estaban Loaiza
  • Paul Mirabella
  • Ryan Dempster
  • Chad Bradford

I decided to simply select the five best arms, regardless of their spot in the rotation or whether or not they were relievers. This is by no means because there was an abundance of pitching talent to choose from, as you can see from this list. The pitching in Calgary … wasn’t as strong as their infield, we’ll say. There’s a great line from Michael Lewis’ Moneyball that described the pitching situation for the Calgary Cannons during their days as a minor league affiliate:

his new home field was high in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies, wind blowing out. The place was famously hellish on pitching careers: the guy he’d come to replace had simply quit and skipped town … What should have been ordinary fly balls rocketed through the thin mountain air every which way out of the park. Still in the top of the first inning, and his team already down 13-0, the Calgary manager pointed to Chad [Bradford]. “When I see I’m next,” said Chad, “I’m thinking, ‘what the hell am I doing here?'”

This passage accurately reflects the relative lack of pitching success enjoyed by pitchers over the years with the Cannons. For that reason alone, and because he enjoyed a very solid major league career, Bradford makes the list. The front of the rotation is … a mess. Esteban Loaiza is going to have to carry a lot of the weight for this rotation and if you haven’t seen what’s happened to him recently, just look it up. It isn’t pretty.

Some solid Canadian content is there with Dempster though and I’m sure he would put together some decent innings for the all-time Cannons. Plus, Dempster just seems like such a calming presence; he is also a good candidate for player/manager.

There’s some good Jays content on the rotation as well, with Loiaza and Mirabella spending time with the Jays. But let’s be honest, that’s not a great selection of pitchers. Good thing they have those bats!

A fairly recent shot of Foothills Stadium

BENCH

  • Bret Boone, Tony Womack, Darren Bragg, Danny Bautista, Ivan Calderon, Bill Haselman

HONORABLE MENTIONS

  • Luis Castillo played four games for the Cannons in 2000 but I just didn’t feel right about including such a short stay. Otherwise, he would have been a lock. A career 29.1 WAR player, three-time All-Star, three-time Gold Glover, with over 6500 MLB At bats is a pretty impressive resumé.
  • Preston Wilson also played four games for the Cannons in 2001 and went on to have a pretty respectable career. But again, too small of a sample to merit inclusion, in my opinion.
  • A.J Burnett pitched five innings for the Cannons when they were the minor league affiliate of the Pirates. Again, this doesn’t seem like a long-enough stay to be included, otherwise he might be a top-of-the-rotation starter for the all-time Cannons.
  • Ramón Castro was a catcher for the Cannons and a fairly decent Major Leaguer. He is here mainly because the all-time Cannons roster is pretty thin at catcher. Also because I loved the way that in-stadium announcer Russ Peake said his name. Related: I was young.
  • Brian Simmons because he was an outstanding Toronto Blue Jay during the 2001 season (note: he hit below the mendoza line). In the interest of journalistic integrity, Simmons gave me a broken bat after a game when I was eight. I taped it up and kept it well into adulthood.

This jacket belonged to my grandfather who frequently took me to Cannons games, smuggling in licorice, peanuts, and Safeway pop in a backpack for me to eat during games. 

The Cannons are long dead, departing for Albuquerque in 2002 to become the Isotopes of Simpsons fame. I remember when the team was sold, it was known that the team would be moving, but no one was sure where at first. I distinctly remember thinking it was a joke when the name and city was announced but the hot dry New Mexico climate was surely better for baseball than the mercurial summers and relentlessly frigid springs of Calgary.

Other teams from other leagues came: The Outlaws, Vipers, and Dawgs, but none managed to become profitable in a stadium fitted to host a AAA baseball franchise. In many ways, Calgarians were spoiled with such a high calibre of baseball for so long and now are unable to see professional baseball of any kind. The intrepid University of Calgary baseball club inhabits Foothills stadium and endures the same conditions that Edgar Martinez did more than 30 years ago.

If you think I’ve missed any players or saw the Cannons play, let me know in the comments. Also, feel free to suggest other teams and players that played in Canadian cities, my plan is to do as many as possible.