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Sports This Week: Goldeyes are a Canadian minor baseball success

Begin their 2022 campaign May13
Canadian pitch Landen Bourassa by Dave Mahussier  Winnipeg Goldeyes
Canadian pitch Landen Bourassa of the Winnipeg Goldeyes.

YORKTON - When I was reading Canadian Minor League Baseball: A History Since World War II by Jon C Stott recently – reviewed May 11 in Yorkton This Week – one team which caught my attention was the Winnipeg Goldeyes. 

The Goldeyes have long been what one might call a passing interest. 

Over the years I have heard, and read, many good reports of the atmosphere of taking in a Goldeyes game, and while it’s not a very glamourous ‘bucket list’ item, I do want to get to a game or two some weekend. 

The team also became notable when local area pitcher Phil Sobkow spent parts of the 2005 and 2006 seasons with the Goldeyes. 

In the case of Stott’s book, Winnipeg received some extended coverage, in part because while teams from the Montreal Royals of old to the more recent Edmonton Trappers and Calgary Cannons have come and gone, the Goldeyes have continued to field a team for years. 

In fact, the Goldeyes will begin their 2022 campaign today (May13), hosting Fargo-Moorhead in the independent American Association. 

In part it might not be a surprise the teams have persevered considering baseball has a long history in the Manitoba city. 

“Winnipeg had enjoyed baseball on-and-off since 1902, and was last home to a professional team in 1970 when the Winnipeg Whips were the Triple-A International League affiliate of the Montreal Expos,” notes the Goldeyes website. “The Goldeyes moniker itself had been used on two previous occasions, and in both cases, the team was part of a different version of the Northern League. The first incarnation of the Winnipeg Goldeyes played in the Northern League (Class A) from 1954-65 as an affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals. The Goldeyes won championships in 1957, 1959, and 1960. Hall of Fame left-hander Steve Carlton is regarded as the most notable Goldeyes’ alumnus. The Goldeyes returned for a one-year stint in the Northern League (Short Season-A) in 1969 as an affiliate of the expansion Kansas City Royals.” 

The current incarnation of the Goldeyes arrived in Winnipeg in 1994, when they joined the now defunct Northern League. The Goldeyes replaced the Rochester Aces (Rochester, Minnesota), one of the Northern League’s original six members from the league’s inaugural 1993 season. 

But I was still curious why the team has succeeded so long in a sport where minor baseball franchises come and go as often as most people change their socks. 

“I think it’s a combination of a lot of things,” offered Steve Schuster of the Goldeyes. “There’s some good fortune involved for sure.” 

Schuster said when the team arrived in 1994 ownership “had a clear vision of what he wanted to bring here to Winnipeg.” 

Initially, the Goldeyes began playing in what was essentially a football field, but even that worked. 

“It wasn’t the best facility, but people still came out because they were starved for baseball,” said Schuster. 

In fact, in the years on the football field the team was regularly drawing 4-5,000 fans. 

Then the team got a shot in-the-arm with a new baseball stadium being built in downtown Winnipeg. 

Schuster said at the time Winnipeg’s downtown was already evolving and when the stadium was opened in 1999 it really helped take development “to the next level.” 

The team saw a bump in fans too in the early years of the new park with crowds up to 7,000, although it was back to 4,000 in 2019, the last normal season pre-COVID-19. 

“We’re really fortunate to have a really diverse and loyal group of fans,” said Schuster. 

Schuster said it was a fortunate development in terms of there being a large enough parcel of land available to make it happen, and then when the Winnipeg Jets home was built downtown too everything really fell into place. 

Still the team had its challenges. The Northern League would fold after 2010, and while the Goldeyes were still successful they were without a league, but they landed in the American Association, their home loop since. 

Through the years the league roster of teams has changed, but they start 2022 with a dozen teams in the fold. 

The new season promises to be more normal for the Goldeyes, the last two seasons being anything but normal amid the pandemic. 

In 2020 half the league chose not to play, but Goldeyes owner Sam Katz chose to keep the team on the diamond, although crossing the border was not workable, so the team played all its home games in Fargo, N.D. 

Schuster said by playing stateside “it allowed fans to at least follow us from afar.” 

Season 2021, and the Goldeyes were playing out of Jackson, TN., to start the season, getting back to Winnipeg for some late season games. 

The fans were waiting with 3,000 out for their first game back amid the continuing concerns with COVID-19. 

Schuster said it has always helped to hold interest because the league plays good baseball. 

“The competition is really high,” he said, adding they recruit with one thing in mind. “We’re really just looking for the best players.” 

Sometimes that has meant a spattering of Canadians, at other times, there are none. It is simply who is available who can best help the Goldeyes win. 

“The Canadians we do get have typically gone to U.S. colleges,” he said, adding they have been drafted and want to move up as high as possible in pro ball, “but have hit a speed bump,” and are looking for a restart in independent baseball. 

When it comes to recruitment Winnipeg is “a dream destination for players,” said Schuster, adding it’s the experience of a vibrant summer community and great crowd support.