Press-Republican

June 14, 2013

Le Chef's field of dreams

By PETER BLACK, Canadian Dispatch
Press-Republican

---- — There’s an apocryphal story that Maurice Duplessis, who ruled Quebec for nearly 20 years (some say with an iron fist), was such an ardent baseball fan that on his dying day in September 1959, he was wondering if his Yankees had won the night before.

True or not, there’s no doubt the man they called “Le Chef” was a serious Yankees fan and a devotee of the sport, who, according to one biographer, would have liked to have been a professional ball player had he not been drawn into law and politics.

Duplessis, though, would surely be pleased that his love of baseball has been one of his lasting legacies, in a way he may not have imagined. This season, after an absence of some 36 years, professional baseball has returned to his home city of Trois Rivieres.

That’s thanks mainly to his desire to see his city equipped with a first-class baseball park. So, 75 years later, the diamond that Le Chef built is still standing, indeed recently given a major renovation, and a few weeks ago welcomed a new professional baseball team, Les Aigles (Eagles).

It’s been 36 years since fans in the historic city, halfway between Quebec and Montreal, were treated to high-level baseball. The last minor league team to take to the field was an earlier version of the Aigles, a farm club of the Cincinnati Reds, which had on its 1972 roster eight future major-leaguers, including Ken Griffin Sr.

The association with the Reds ended in 1977, capping a period that had seen teams affiliated with the Philadelphia Phillies, New York Yankees (to Le Chef’s delight) and Brooklyn Dodgers play in the city.

Ever since, the vintage park had fallen into decline, though amateur leagues kept the sport alive in a city with a rich baseball history. Ironically, it was thanks to another stadium Duplessis built that baseball has now returned to Three Rivers.

This year, the Capitales de Quebec are celebrating their 15th anniversary, as well as the 75th anniversary of the stadium — a near identical twin to the park in Trois Rivieres.

The Capitales are the creation of a busy and influential figure in minor-league baseball in the United States and Canada, Miles Wolff. On a trip to Quebec City with his Franco-American wife, Michelle, he came upon the municipal stadium, at that point being eyed for demolition by the city.

Wolff is the former owner of the “Durham Bulls,” of Hollywood fame, among other minor-league teams; owner and publisher of Baseball America magazine, purchased from a Canadian; and a master at marketing hometown baseball.

Years later, with the help of local interests, Wolff launched the Capitales in Quebec City, which prompted renovations and a reprieve for the city’s classic ballpark. Since then, while never being a money-machine, the team has brought in the fans and won a string of championships playing in the Can-Am league.

While Wolff no longer owns the Capitales, he remains Can-Am commissioner and has shared the local desire to have baseball return to that other gem of a ball diamond in Trois Rivieres.

With the backing of a group of investors, including Cy Young winner Eric Gagne (who pitched a few games for the Capitales last year) and NHL player Marc-Andre Bergeron, the Aigles took flight last fall.

In what is most likely a first for male professional sports, the Aigles general manager is a woman, Marie-Christine Boucher, a Trois Rivieres native with years of experience in sports marketing, notably with the Montreal Canadiens.

With players hailing from all over the United States, from New York to California to Texas, plus some Canadian and Quebec lads, the Aigles are a mix of veterans looking for a last shot in pro ball or young men hoping for a call-up to major-league farm clubs or even, as Kevin Costner so movingly explained to Tim Robbins in “Bull Durham,” the show.

So the show, Trois Rivieres-style, has returned, and Le Chef, smiling down from the stands in the sky, would understand the line from another iconic baseball movie starring Costner: “Build it, and they will come.”

Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at pmblack@videotron.ca.