Professional baseball has returned to British Columbia's capital, ending a 23-year hiatus and reviving tales of games long past.
The Victoria Capitals of the fledgling Canadian Baseball League have moved into Royal Athletic Park, the scene of more than one baseball foreclosure. The Capitals are hoping to build a following in a city more often associated with genteel cricket and old-boy rugby.
Most of the players are unknowns, with the possible exception of 31-year-old starting pitcher Steve Sinclair, a Victoria-born left-hander once again on the comeback trail.
Some years ago, a frustrated Sinclair returned home after languishing for five seasons in the Toronto Blue Jays farm system. A summer as a doorman at a swanky downtown hotel convinced him his valuable left arm could be put to better use and his comeback attempt in 1998 eventually took him to the parent club and, later, to the Seattle Mariners.
Now, he's once again near the bottom of the baseball ladder, hoping to make the long climb back to the bigs. He's 0-1 with a 7.27 earned-run average in two starts this season.
Others on the Capitals' staff are happy simply to be paid to be in uniform.
Brad Rogers, a refugee from the Baltimore Orioles system who is blessed with a rainbow curveball and a peppery fastball, pitched seven solid innings against Calgary on Saturday, allowing one run in a 4-1 12-inning loss.
Before the game, Rogers's father, Dan, threw out a ceremonial opening pitch, as did his former teammate, Roy Moretti.
Those two had formed a battery on the last professional ball club to call Victoria home, a ragtag team of long shots and local heroes financed by the maxed-out credit cards of owners who were not much older than the players.
In 1978, the Single-A Northwest League had seven teams and needed an eighth. So Victoria was added to a circuit that included such hot spots as Eugene, Ore., and Walla Walla, Wash.
On the drive back to Canada, the new owners, giddy with the unfamiliar responsibilities of baseball entrepreneurship, decided to call their team the Victoria Mussels. The logo featured a bivalve mollusk flexing its biceps.
"It was probably the first stupid name of all time," said Jim Chapman, who, at 28, was one of the Mussels' owners. At 53, he is now the Canadian scouting supervisor for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
"We were the initial idiots on that bandwagon."
The Mussels provided a home for baseball rejects and castoffs, among them a pitcher known for doctoring the ball and a lanky California kid desperate to learn the knuckleball.
The first baseman entertained his teammates on the bus and in the clubhouse with dead-eye impressions of John Wayne and other stars. He sang a bit and danced a little soft shoe, but in one game, an opponent spiked his Achilles' tendon and his playing days were over.
The team was Victoria's secret, averaging 252 fans at home games and finishing in a three-way tie for first place.
"We never drew great," said Dan Rogers, a former Mussels catcher who is now a firefighter in Nanaimo, B.C. "The crowds were sparse."
The most famous player on the Mussels roster played a single game in 1978.
The team was playing well because of several players recruited by Van Schley, a businessman from Malibu, Calif., who moonlighted as an independent baseball scout. But desperate to increase attendance, the club's owners asked Schley to invite one of his Tinseltown friends to play.
So one night, Bill Murray of Saturday Night Live took the field.
Murray was a kooky infielder, razzing the umpires and playing to the crowd. He even got a hit on a bloop pitch. It was the screwball act he later honed in movies like Caddyshack, as well as in guest appearances at golf tournaments and minor-league ballparks. In his Victoria game though, the umpires had him tossed.
But the publicity stunt failed. The game didn't even sell out. The Mussels were folded after three seasons.
Over the years, Victoria was also home to the Athletics, the Bees, the Chappies, the Islanders and the Legislators. A team called the Tyees played in the 1950s. The club's nickname came from an aboriginal word meaning chief. It was also used to describe a large chinook salmon, making Victoria the only city ever to have had two teams named for seafood.
Some top-notch talent played in Victoria, although the city's two best current baseball players are unlikely to appear in a hometown uniform anytime soon. Flame-throwing right-handers Rich Harden is at Triple-A in the Oakland system, and Vince Perkins is in the Blue Jays farm system.
The best hitter to come from Victoria was Doug Peden, a basketball silver medalist for Canada at the 1936 Olympics. He teamed with his brother, Torchy, to become champion cyclists, specializing in six-day races. Doug Peden also played baseball for the bearded House of David team, a barnstorming troupe of whiskered wonders who were sponsored by a religious sect.
Some of the players to have patrolled the grass in Victoria include daffy outfielder Lou (The Mad Russian) Novikoff; 1951 American League rookie of the year Gil McDougald; George (High Pockets) Kelly, a Hall of Famer with the New York Giants, who began his pro career in 1914 as a 17-year-old outfielder with the Bees; and Ed Runge, a part-time shipyard worker who became the patriarch of three generations of major-league umpires.
In 1911, Victoria signed a fleet outfielder who was the son of prominent Washington State judge E. C. Million and his eccentric wife. She had dubbed the boy Ten, as in Ten Million. (In those days, that was a name, not a salary.) He had a sister named Decillion, which is 33 zeroes if you're keeping score at home. She called herself Dixie.
Ten Million hit .276 for the Bees and was signed by Cleveland of the American League. Injuries kept him from the big leagues. For a time, he played outfield for the Robin Hoods of Moose Jaw, Sask.
Even some of the Mussels went on to fame.
Moretti was immortalized as the dependable relief pitcher of the Utica Blue Sox in Roger Kahn's memoir, Good Enough to Dream.
The lanky kid learning the knuckleball? Tom Candiotti mastered the tricky pitch and enjoyed a 16-year major-league career. He now provides analysis for Blue Jays TV broadcasts on Rogers Sportsnet.
The pitcher who doctored the ball? Dale Mohorcic made his major-league debut as a 30-year-old rookie in 1986. He lasted five seasons. Once an umpire frisked him looking for a foreign substance, but found nothing. After the game, Mohorcic complained of a sore throat. The big right-hander had swallowed a piece of sandpaper.
The slugging first baseman who did impressions? Danny Gans had a role in the movie Bull Durham on his way to becoming one of the biggest stars on the Las Vegas strip. Gans has a 1,250-seat theatre named for him at the Mirage Hotel & Casino, where the cheapest ticket is $80 (U.S.) and he draws bigger crowds than the Mussels ever did.
You can look it up.
Tom Hawthorn is writing an anecdotal history of baseball in British Columbia.