While the demise of the Manitoba Senior Baseball League was hardly a shock, the end of the province’s only senior AAA loop remains a sad day for the people associated with it.
The 55-year-old league announced on Tuesday that after a year’s hiatus, operations were being suspended for good and the corporation was being dissolved.
Nate Andrews joined the Brandon Cloverleafs in 1992 as a 16-year-old catcher, and was one of the guys who helped rescue the league in 1995 by forming the Brandon Marlins to give it a fourth squad.
He stayed active in the league until it halted play last summer.
"It was nice to be able to come back in the summer and play against other college guys and compete at a higher level, as high as you could in amateur baseball," Andrews said. "It was always fun for me to have that level of play."
Ross Tycoles of Reston sat on the board of directors and was part of the difficult decision to close up shop when they were unable to find more teams.
He said Baseball Manitoba left the AAA section of its handbook open in case someone in the future wants to revive it. From his standpoint, it’s a time crunch for players that sunk the league.
"Part of the thing with the MSBL was the commitment of extra time," Tycoles said. "It was a little bit more of a finish league; there were imports allowed, the rules were pretty strict on completion dates, the standard was set. At the AA level it’s a little less structured and that’s what most guys seem to want now."
Shane Moffatt found about the news on Wednesday.
Moffatt, who was inducted into the Manitoba Baseball of Fame as an individual and as part of the 1999-2004 Birtle Blue Jays teams, also played in Brandon and Neepawa.
"I hope it’s remembered for the competitiveness," Moffatt said. "I think it all started when Riverside (Canucks) went down and you could almost see it slowly going away. Everyone is going to remember all the heydays because you still have the (Manitoba) Baseball Hall of Fame and you still have baseball teams going in there … I think it’s going to be remembered more that way than anything else."
Moffatt won titles with the Blue Jays in 2000, 2002 and 2004.
The team disbanded in 2006.
He agrees that the MSBL’s demise can be tied to a lack of commitment.
"At the end of the day, if you get rid of your Americans it would be a real high-end AA league," Moffatt said. "You had to commit to do lots of travelling. With the kids now with their work and commitment to making money, they don’t want to commit to doing all the travelling. I know that when I played back in the day with Neepawa and Brandon guys drove a long way and they drove two or three times a week and it wasn’t even an issue.
"Right now you can’t get anybody to go an hour down the road to play ball. They just don’t do it or don’t have the time."
Gladwyn Scott played with the Hamiota Red Sox in the early years of the league and was honoured for his years of service to the game with his induction into the Manitoba and Canadian Baseball Halls of Fame.
The Carberry resident said with the rise of the four AA leagues in Westman —the Santa Clara Baseball League, Andrews Agencies Senior AA Baseball League, South West Baseball League and Border West Baseball League — guys elected to stay home.
"They want to play in their local community and maybe not travel as much as we used to," Scott said. "…These smaller communities like to have a baseball team in town without seeing their guys go to a neighbouring town to play. I’m not surprised because the senior baseball scene, especially in western Manitoba, is very strong."
When the MSBL was originally created, it was the age of country hardball where each community had a team. The original league brought five of the strongest teams together, and they drew large crowds.
"It was the only show in town," Scott said. "We would draw 2,000 people when we played the Cloverleafs or Dauphin in Hamiota in those early years in the ’60s when the league was formed."
Scott said the AAA league served its purpose for many years but that it was time for it to cease operations.
"It was a very good league in its heyday, but like many things, it goes in cycles," Scott said. "They have to move on."
The age of tiered baseball — A, AA and AAA — came in the 1980s and allowed teams to play squads more comparable in ability.
Tycoles said it’s good that the AA baseball is strong, but added it is different than AAA.
"There is good baseball at the AA levels but it just isn’t that higher-end competitive," he said.
The MSBL sent a team to the AAA nationals every year, but Baseball Manitoba has already put a new plan in place.
A combined Winnipeg squad from Elmwood and St. Boniface from the Winnipeg Senior Baseball League will represent the province this summer, but Baseball Manitoba will hold a tournament in late June to decide the 2018 representative.
Any AA team can apply to go in or leagues can send all-star teams, but there will be an entry deadline and a subsequent draft where the teams can pick any player in Manitoba to further strengthen its entry. Each team can add three more players, with the entire process on a three-year trial basis.
Tycoles said it’s too bad the MSBL won’t be supplying the team anymore.
"In the last 15 years, going back into Birtle and those days, what happened is the number of teams got less and the calibre was still good but you could see it going down from 10 to five (teams)," Tycoles said. "I think it will be remembered as a very strong rural baseball league at a competitive national level. When you went to nationals the teams were a little better but they came from bigger centres. I was glad to be part of it."
The biggest difference, he noted, came on the mound. In part that was true because a good percentage of American players who came to Westman to play baseball were pitchers.
"The quality of pitching at the AA level is not as strong as at the AAA level," Tycoles said. "When you watched the MSBL, you saw good pitching most nights, where at the AA level there’s not. Every team has a pitcher but he doesn’t pitch every night."
While Andrews said he enjoyed his season of AA baseball last summer and the reduced obligations that it brought, he said it wouldn’t have been enough for him 20 years ago.
He remembers playoff games when the Marlins had 500 to 1,000 people in the stands.
"For a kid from Manitoba that got to play in front of that but also put a pretty good product on the field for the summertime, it’s just another fabric of our community that gets lost," Andrews said. "It was something that brought people together and baseball in all the towns that had it and had a key interest in seeing a little better level of talent. We’ve unfortunately lost something that brought the community together to cheer for."