Anthony (Dutche) Iannetti was putting a batting cage together near home plate on May 3 as the wildfire approached Fort McMurray. It was four weeks before Iannetti's Giants were scheduled to play their first game in the city's recently constructed baseball stadium.
Ianetti's wife Dianne called and urged him to get back to their family-run business at the south end of town. In a few hours, the blaze would burn a mobile home park across the road from the commercial laundry where the Iannettis have cleaned the soiled coveralls of oilfield workers since 2004. In a matter of days, the fire would destroy the home beside theirs, and a house across the street in hard-hit Saprae Creek.
Iannetti left the unfinished batting cage on the ball diamond and rushed back to work. The Giants' new uniforms, bats, balls and other gear were left behind, too, when the Iannettis and 80,000 others evacuated that evening with flames at their heels.
"I had no real expectation of when we might be back," he says.
JASON FRANSON/for The Globe and Mail
A month later, he still doesn't know. The Fort McMurray Giants opened their season last Saturday night in Edmonton, a four-and-a-half-hour drive south, where they are sharing a stadium with one of their rivals in the Western Major Baseball League. The Edmonton Prospects have taken them in and invited the Giants to make themselves at home; the Giants name and logo have even been painted on the scoreboard at Edmonton Ballpark.
"Most of our stuff is locked up at our field – it wasn't a high priority at the time we left," says Jayne Kenny, a displaced Fort McMurray resident who volunteers at the ballpark gift shop where Giants and Prospects souvenirs are sold side by side. "The fact that the Prospects opened up their field for us makes you want to cry. It looked like we were not going to be able to play this year."
The Giants plan to stay in Edmonton through the end of June – and perhaps the entire, two-month season if their return home is further delayed. It is more complicated than simply playing games – their roster mostly consists of American players on summer break from U.S. college teams. Arrangements had been made for them to live with families in Fort McMurray, but some of their hosts have been burned out of their homes. More than 2,400 structures were lost to the massive forest fire.
"It's not about when people can go back, it's when the community can support the Giants in Fort McMurray," Iannetti says. "It's important for our team, and for our kids, to have fans in the stands."
More than 4,700 people attended the Giants' first game last Saturday. The Prospects were the home team, but Fort McMurray residents filled more than half of the seats. The crowd was the largest for a home-opener in the history of the summer collegiate league, and the largest for a baseball game in Edmonton since the Triple-A Trappers left town in 2003.
JASON FRANSON/for The Globe and Mail.
"It was just an amazing night," Kevin Kvame, the league president, says. "I think it was a rallying cry for the community to come together and to cheer for something after a really hard month."
Brian Jean, leader of Alberta's opposition Wildrose Party, was there – his family lost its home as fire raced through the northern municipality. So was Melissa Blake, the long-time Fort McMurray mayor. And so were so many other displaced residents, many seeing friends and neighbours for the first time since fleeing with only the clothes on their back.
"It was a unique opportunity to be on a foreign field and call it home," Blake says. "It was really jovial, and a fun way for our citizens to connect with one another. We have gone through a lot for a long time, and still have a lot more to go through. Singing
Take Me Out to The Ball Game takes you away from that."
Several teams expressed interest in helping the Giants, but Kvame says that sharing facilities with the Prospects made the most sense. Edmonton is their nearest rival, and the city is full of evacuees.
"I thought it was something we had to do," says Pat Cassidy, the Prospects owner. "In the face of adversity and tragedy, it was a good thing for both of our teams."
The Giants were drubbed 16-3 by the Prospects in that first game. That is no surprise – some of Fort McMurray's players didn't arrive in Edmonton until the night before. It wasn't until after the season started that they were able to even practice with a full team.
So it has been an inauspicious start. The Giants have lost two games and seen two rained out. They will try again Friday night in Okotoks, near Calgary. But winning is not the only thing.
"It was a great opener," says Kellen Camus, the Giants' acting head coach, a former assistant coach at Washington State. "Both teams gathered on the field for a photograph after the game. It was more than just a baseball game."
The Giants have four players on their roster from Fort McMurray. All were away at school when the fires broke out.
"Friends from back home were calling me and crying in the phone," says Matt McPherson, an outfielder playing his college ball at the University of Calgary. "I felt completely helpless."
The baseball season has begun, and for now the fires are back of mind. The Giants' players, most of whom have never been to Fort McMurray, are wearing Alberta Strong patches on the shoulder of their jerseys.
The blaze was getting close to his business when Iannetti finally bailed out. He could hear propane tanks exploding in the distance. Winds ahead of the firestorm were whipping through the parking lot.
"Every day, when I come to the ball field, it's like medicine for me," Iannetti says while watching his team. "The hardest time for me is driving to and from games. That is when I have time to think about the community I love."
Tears form in his eyes.
"It is hard to talk about that," he says.