THE LYNX THAT WE WILL GO TO
FiredUp Network Sports Writer
Sunday, April 17, 2022
THE LYNX THAT WE WILL GO TO
As we all get older, our bodies and our minds seem to develop rhythms that coincide with the time and the weather. As sports fans, we do the same thing. As June turns to July and July turns to August, we know that football season is either intensifying or its impending arrival is near, depending on which side of the 49th Parallel one resides.
As fall hits us, we know the cold weather will be coming and with it, the real hockey season will be approaching. After that, the squeaking of rubber soles and the bouncing of basketballs will not be far behind. And as winter begins to leave us, we know that soon, the sounds of a horsehide sphere meeting an ash bat will be soon quite audible as well.
For people in Canada’s capital, the playing of professional baseball in earnest once occurred in the 1950s when Ottawa was the home of the New York Giants’ farm team and then the Philadelphia Athletics farm club after they departed. When the A’s left town for Ohio after the 1954 season, it seemed that pro ball was gone for good.
It was gone for a while, but not forever. There were a few people over the years who wanted to resurrect professional baseball in Ottawa, but when it finally came to putting rubber to the road, one man stood out: Howard Darwin.
Darwin was the man who was the head of the consortium that brought the Junior ‘A’ Ontario Hockey Association to the nation’s capital with the 67s back in the Centennial year of 1967. He had a thriving jewellery business and he was also a sports lover. When it came time to put Ottawa back on the baseball map, it was Howard Darwin that was preferred by the powers that be to be the man to do it.
It was not easy, however.
The road that had to be travelled was a long and winding one with many bumps and unforeseen hurdles to get over. The story of how Ottawa got baseball again was one of persistence and determination, but it also contained disappointment, and there was a point that Darwin declared himself out of the picture, no longer wanting to fight the uphill battle, only to eventually find himself back at the wheel again.
The story starts in April of 1988. Darwin was working at his jewellery store when he got a mid-afternoon call from the Mayor of Ottawa, Jim Durrell. Durrell’s call was short and to the point. “Howard. Why don’t you come down to my office for a chat.” At that time, Darwin’s only business with the city was with his Ottawa 67s using the city’s biggest arena, the Civic Centre.
Was it something about the lease his team had with the city? Durrell gave him no details in his original call. Darwin got into his car and drove over to City Hall and saw the mayor. To Darwin’s surprise, the little meeting was not about the 67s’ lease, but instead, it was about baseball.
If you don’t know Jim Durrell, you don’t know what a massive sports fan he is. He knew everything and everyone involved in Ottawa sports. (On at least one night in the late 1990s, as I was walking from the parking lot into the Civic Centre to host a 67s game for local television, Durrell would sidle up and walk beside me to make small talk about the goings-on in the local sporting sphere.)
Anyway, Durrell explained to Darwin that baseball was big and that minor league baseball, after going through a dry period in the 1970s, was currently going through a period of resurrection in North America. There were a bunch of cities in Canada and the United States that were vying for teams and there might not be an opportunity like this for the city again.
Durrell was of the opinion that Ottawa needed a Triple-A Baseball team and the best person he could think of to help bring that team to the city was Howard Darwin. Durrell had done his research and he told Darwin what it would take. A stadium would have to be built and the cost of buying a franchise would be approximately $1.2 million according to the mayor.
He explained to Darwin that acquiring a team would be good not just for fans of pro ball, but it would also foster expansion of the game throughout every age group. The stadium could be used for concerts and for baseball teams at every level as well. Darwin promised to think about this whole idea and get back to Durrell.
Evidently, through the course of 1988, Durrell and Darwin had been in touch with one another concerning this baseball suggestion. They didn’t make it public, however. In October of that year, Durrell’s office announced that the city would send a delegation to baseball’s winter meetings in Atlanta to make a presentation to the executives of the Triple-A baseball clubs about the viability of putting a franchise in Ottawa.
By December of 1988, Darwin made it public that he wanted to purchase a minor league team and have it play its games in Ottawa. That, of course, would require the city to finance and build a stadium and for Triple-A owners to agree to any deal. The question was which would come first?
“I love this town. I think a ball club would be good for the town,” Darwin told the esteemed Ottawa Citizen columnist, Eddie MacCabe. “It’ll bring money in, create business and jobs, make the place livelier. We have to get a franchise to get a stadium, and I think a stadium would be good for Ottawa. I mean a nice one, 10,000 seats, lots of parking, right up to date, state of the art.”
“I don’t mean only for baseball, but for all kinds of things,” Darwin continued. “And it won’t mean so much for us, for our generation, but for my kids, and their kids. It’ll be good for Ottawa, and minor league baseball is doing well all over the continent.”
Also, the price for a franchise had risen from the $1.2 million that Darwin and Durrell had discussed back in April, to between $3 million and $5 million. Darwin seemed determined, though, to press on.
The city was on board with the idea as well. Don Gamble was the city’s Commissioner of City Culture and Recreation and in January of 1989, he declared that Ottawa needed to study two sites for a possible baseball stadium for Triple-A baseball in town. That study would cost approximately $36,000. The city also needed to study the feelings of Ottawa residents toward having such a team. That study would cost about $10,000. At this point, there were some people on city council who were already opposed to such a venture. The studies were approved, nonetheless.
Through the course of 1989, Darwin was travelling back and forth between Ottawa and various cities in the United States talking with people about the notion of buying a Triple-A team. In the meantime, city council had been considering three locations for a possible stadium: the Lebreton Flats, west of the Parliament Buildings and the Supreme Court of Canada, the city’s Bayview Road maintenance yards and a site in Riverside Park.
The early favourite was the Bayview Road site but costs of building a stadium there were around $15-$16 million. The city and province would each be supplying approximately $4 million of that and the remainder would apparently be coming from corporate sponsorships and/or the prospective owner. City council was not at all unanimous on the idea. Concerns with rising property taxes and hidden costs were the source of the opposition to the proposal.
Darwin was fairly set on the Bayview Road site as the home of his prospective venture. That hope didn’t last long though. In December of 1989, council rejected the proposal by a count of 9-7. Jim Durrell blamed the decision on “petty politics”. When the Lebreton Flats site and the Riverside Park location were also rejected, there wasn’t much hope left. For his part, Darwin was upset and angry. “That’s it. It’s done and I’m done.” But, as Yogi Berra used to say, “it’s never over ‘til it’s over”.
There was a good portion of the Ottawa populace that wanted the city to have baseball and they were heartened early in 1990 to learn that Darrell Kent, one of the members of city council who supported the idea, had been meeting with members of regional government to discuss the possibility of assisting in bringing a team to the city.
Then, in March, after a meeting in the east end of Ottawa, Jim Durrell’s driver, Lenny Cregan made a turn on to the Vanier Parkway, near the old RCMP headquarters and Highway 417, which was then still known as The Queensway. Cregan’s nickname was “Snake”. I don’t know why and I don’t ask questions about that.
Durrell saw a 19-acre patch of land on Coventry Road, across the parkway from the RCMP complex, that was being used as a snow dump. “Snake, there’s the perfect place for a baseball stadium,” Durrell told his driver. Once back at city hall, the mayor had someone find out who owned that land. It turned out to be the federal government. He then began talks with the Ministry of Public Works to try to acquire the barren patch for the city.
As the spring began to give way to the summer, and the city was still in negotiations with the feds over the land on Coventry Road, plans were unveiled for a 10,000 seat baseball stadium at a public meeting in June. The expected cost of the stadium was to be $21.5 million. The land itself had an appraised value of $11.5 million. In return for the land, the city would assume responsibility for maintaining various parks, roads and bridges from the National Capital Commission.
The following week, Randy Mobley, the commissioner of the Triple-A Baseball Alliance, was in Ottawa to announce that there were a dozen cities in North America that were vying for two expansion teams. With a building site and a construction plan, suddenly, Howard Darwin, Jim Durrell and the city of Ottawa were back in the running for a ball team.
A week and a half after Mobley’s visit, Ottawa city council voted to support the Coventry Road stadium proposal. Along with that came the prospect of spending between $10 million and $11 million to repair federal roads like the Queen Elizabeth Driveway and Island Park Drive, but that was the cost of doing business.
Reports at the time suggested that residents of Overbrook, the area of the city where the stadium would exist, were divided on the whole idea. But, the location of the stadium, with its proximity to the Queensway, the Vanier Parkway and Coventry Road, which to that point, had largely been more or less industrial land, would have little effect on Overbrook as a whole.
Some Overbrook residents were invited to Ontario Municipal Board hearings on the proposal and were questioned by councillors about their thoughts on the impending stadium construction. One of those residents, Ian Wright, told me recently that he and his wife, Darlene, and his brother, Alan, were there and that he was quizzed by city councillor Jacques Legendre, who was opposed to the idea of the stadium and having baseball in Ottawa.
“We had gone to the OMB hearings that took place when he (Darwin) was trying to get the stadium built and spoke in support of the idea,” Wright told me. “During the OMB hearing, the group opposed to the Lynx Stadium, led by Jacques Legendre, made a comment to the effect that it would be a shame to pave over valuable green space. When I spoke, I reminded those present that the space was actually a snow dump and there wasn’t much that was greener than a baseball outfield.” Well played, Mr. Wright.
So, Darwin had the commitment from the City of Ottawa in his pocket as he headed down to the Triple-A All Star Game in July in Las Vegas. More meetings followed the game as well. In August, Darwin made his formal application for one of the two expansion franchises and sent his non-refundable cheque for $5,000 to the Triple-A Alliance offices in Columbus, Ohio. His application was the first one they received.
In November of 1990, Durrell, Darwin and Don Gamble headed to Chicago for the expansion meetings. The trio made an hour-long presentation to the group there and according to the reports at the time, it went well. The biggest question at that time was the lack of a current stadium and where the money would come from to build it. Would it be private sector money? Would it be taxpayer money? As of that moment, those questions had no real answers.
Regardless, it was expected that the announcement of the new expansion franchises would be made at the 1991 Triple-A All-Star Game. The one thing that gave Darwin and Durrell confidence was the fact that they had had a number of very positive meetings with Randy Mobley in the past and, given that their presentation went well, they were feeling good about their chances.
In February of 1991, though, Darwin was hit with a surprise. Jim Durrell was resigning from his position as Mayor of Ottawa. In December, he had joined the new Ottawa Senators hockey club as president of the franchise group. He had tried to maintain his role as mayor as well, but pressures from groups claiming that the two positions were a conflict of interest, forced him to leave his job as Mayor of the city. Darwin had lost the man who was his “biggest booster on council”.
While this was going on though, Ottawa Triple-A Baseball Inc. was printing season ticket pledge applications in local newspapers. Fans were able to pledge $25 to get the first shot at a season seat for the 1993 Ottawa baseball team.
All along, Darwin and the city of Ottawa had been expecting that the province of Ontario would be into the project for about $4 million. In August of 1991, they learned that the Bob Rae-led New Democrats, who were in power at the time, were only going to supply $2 million to the project. This was absolutely a cause for concern. Darwin was assured though that the city would reallocate funds to ensure that, if Ottawa was awarded the expansion franchise, the stadium would be built.
Sure enough, on September 28, when Mobley announced the awarding of the two new Triple-A franchises, Ottawa was one of the cities that was on the receiving end. Charlotte, North Carolina was the other. All of the time, money, effort and concern that Darwin had expended over the previous three-plus years had been worth it. “I said all along that if somebody could convince me Triple-A baseball was bad for Ottawa, I’d call it quits. Nobody did,” Darwin exclaimed emphatically afterward.
This may make it seem that the road to getting the franchise was easy. But it was not. Nine times, Darwin brought proposals to Ottawa city council and six of those times, council rejected him. Darwin himself referred to this road as the most difficult and the most significant of his business accomplishments. There were times that he wanted to quit, but he didn’t. He persisted and he eventually succeeded.
Darwin already had an agreement made with the Montreal Expos, that if Ottawa got the expansion team, then the Expos would make Ottawa their top minor league affiliate. One thing though stuck out for Darwin. Back in April of 1988, when he and Jim Durrell began talking about baseball for the city, they figured the expansion fee would be about $1.2 million. The actual figure was $5 million. His down payment was now due. It would be $1.5 million. He sent the cheque.
A contest was held to pick a name for the team. (Of course, I entered the contest and submitted what I thought was the perfect name – Ottawa Voyageurs. It’s the same whether spoken in English or French. Voyageurs were the French explorers who trekked and mapped much of the Eastern parts of Canada and the United States in the centuries before Confederation. Many of them paddled through the Ottawa and Outaouais areas, so it had a local connection as well.) The winning name was Lynx. (Booo!)
On April 1, 1992, a couple of days after he had closed his jewellery business for good, Darwin hired his general manager. Tom Maloney had been the 1991 minor league executive of the year with the Triple-A Denver Zephyrs of the Pacific Coast League, so he had some success behind him. Maloney joined Darwin’s right-hand man, Joe Fagan, in the front office of the newly minted ball club.
In June, ground was broken and construction began on the new stadium. They had to hurry to get it completed for opening day, in April of 1993. But the summer of 1992 was one of the rainiest in memory and two labour stoppages held things up. It was touch and go as the big day approached. While, that was going on, 5,000 season ticket holders were selecting their seats.
“Plenty of times, I thought we’d never make it,” Darwin told Rob Sinclair of TSN in a February, 1993 interview. “I thought we’d never get the thing started after -- it’ll be five years this coming April that we started it and it’s a reality now. Next thing is to throw out that opening pitch.” In the same TSN piece, the team’s GM, Maloney, assured everyone that construction was right on schedule.
Darwin didn’t yet have players for his team, but he was putting people into their places around the building. Former Ottawa 67s trainer and equipment man John Bryk was joining the team as the clubhouse manager. Jack Darwin was in charge of stadium operations. Nancy Darwin oversaw the team boutique and Rupert Darwin was in charge of program sales. The team’s first field manager would be Mike Quade.
Ottawa weather can be a frightful puzzle in April and it was probably a good decision to have the Lynx open up their season on the road. On April 8, 1993, they played their first International League game in Charlotte against the Knights. Ottawa won the game 8-6. It was an emotional moment for the team’s owner.
Barre Campbell covered the team for the Ottawa Sun and he wrote about what happened after the game in his article. “The owner made his way to the dressing room where, true to form, he introduced himself to his players. There was no pomp and circumstance. No formal introductions. As more of the players came to Darwin and clenched hands with him, the more difficult it became to hold back his emotions...He paused, grabbed a handkerchief from a jacket pocket and wiped the collection of tears from around his eyes and cheeks.”
The Lynx had ten scheduled games on the road in Charlotte, Richmond and Norfolk to start the season. Because of weather, they managed to play seven of them and got back up to Ottawa with a record of four wins and three losses. They were tied for third place in the five-team East Division on the morning of Saturday, April 17, but they were just a half-game out of the top spot.
The weather was not great that morning, but you knew that with all the buildup and all the tickets sold, that they were going to play the game to its completion, no matter what extenuating circumstances might come up around the game. The game would take place on that Saturday evening and the scheduled starter was Mike Mathile for Ottawa.
I remember having to be at the park on the Saturday morning to meet my cameraman so we could get interviews that could be used later on the baseball broadcast and other shows on the channel. We walked into the Lynx' clubhouse and there was a table at which four guys were playing cards and a few other players were standing around. One guy turned around and looked at me and said, “Who the f*** are you? What the f*** do you want?” That player was Matt Stairs.
(Little did I know, at the time, that Stairs had been optioned down to Ottawa the week before and was REALLY not happy about the decision. I was the one who took his ire.) Anyway, pitcher Gil Heredia came over and said, “Don't worry about him. I’ll do an interview with you.” Heredia was great. We got interviews from other players as well.
Barre Campbell remembered that opening day in 1993 for me as well. “Great day…Overcast, cold, damp and a mist over Ottawa all day. Despite the lousy weather, the atmosphere was charged with excitement and anticipation. Sitting in the press box, it was astounding to watch the seats fill to capacity, (I) felt like part of history and something special.”
“(I) also remember (Rough Riders’ owner) Lonie Glieberman shagging flies in centre (field) pre-game and not being able to see the ball, then mayor Jacqueline Holzman tossing the ceremonial first pitch, Wayne Kirby for Charlotte taking a called strike from Lynx pitcher Mike Mathile.”
“What a summer that was. The amount of baseball talent that entered that stadium just in that opening season: Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome in the first game for Charlotte. Chipper Jones, Ryan Klesko, Javy Lopez and Tony Tarasco for Richmond. Later in the season, Rondell White and Cliff Floyd for the Lynx. Then in later seasons, guys like Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra, Deion Sanders, Tim Raines, Jose Canseco, Curtis Granderson, Chase Utley, Mitch “Wild Thing” Williams.”
Campbell also gained a bit of notoriety of his own later in the team’s existence. He would go out and sing the national anthems on four occasions. “Twice in Ottawa and twice in Rochester. I did O Canada in French and English,” Campbell told me. I asked him if he experienced any nerves at all. “A bit,” he told me, laughing.
Bernard Potvin covered the Lynx as a stringer for newspapers from the cities of the visiting teams. He told me that the Charlotte radio guy called Campbell “The Singing Scribe”. Potvin also looked back fondly at what the team brought to the city, especially for that fleeting time when the team’s popularity was at its peak in those first three seasons. “You know, seeing that place packed, hottest ticket in town for awhile, the luxury boxes, the bar. The vibe there was so good.”
At game time on that Saturday evening, the temperature was 5 degrees Celsius and it was raining. The umpires had come from New York and had been delayed on their trip, so the first pitch didn’t come until 7:51 pm. Mathile threw a strike to Wayne Kirby. The Ottawa catcher, Tim Laker, tossed the ball to his dugout so it could be preserved as a memento of history.
Laker would later double and come in to score the Lynx’ third run of the game. Kirby would come up after that with the game tied 3-3 and hammer one out off Ottawa’s Doug Simons to give the Knights a 4-3 victory. Though the team had lost their first game at home, the fans were not deterred. They would come out in droves all season long.
That year could only be characterized as a success for Darwin and the Lynx. The sellout on opening night would be the first of 43 on the year for the team and they would smash the league attendance record as they drew 693,043 fans over 72 home games. Their season record was respectable as well as they finished 73-69 but bowed out of the playoffs losing in the first round to the Rochester Red Wings.
In 1995, the Lynx would advance to the International League final and would win the Governors’ Cup by defeating the Norfolk Tides in the series. The old Expos’ infielder, Pete Mackanin, was their manager that year. After 1995, the team would qualify for the postseason only once more. They lost in the first round to the Pawtucket Red Sox in 2003.
In 1994, the Lynx had 36 sellouts but attendance in the second year fell by almost 100,000. And even though the team won the league championship in their third season, they sold out only eleven games and had just under 512,000 paid tickets. Howard’s son, Jeff, wrote a book in 2015 about his father’s life. In The Ten Count, Jeff says that by the fourth season, “the Lynx were bleeding red ink”.
In June of 2000, Darwin sold the Lynx to shipbuilding magnate Ray Pecor for $5.5 million. Pecor kept the team in Ottawa until the end of the 2007 season. The team moved to Allentown, Pennsylvania and began play in 2008 as the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs. With the money he got from the sale, Darwin paid off the remaining balance on his commitment to the city of Ottawa for the construction of the park.
He lost a lot of money developing the site for the city. Over the course of his time owning the Lynx, Darwin submitted more than $17.5 million to the city. Jeff Darwin wrote that “with his financial obligations to local taxpayers now paid in full – Howard felt compelled to carry a copy of the City’s full and final release with him, signed by Mayor Jim Watson and City Clerk Pierre Page.”
“The document was necessary to counter the few politicians and columnists who had forgotten that this stretch of Coventry Road had only a derelict former bottling plant and a snow dump before Howard Darwin and Jim Durrell brought professional baseball back to Ottawa.”
The whole episode of the Lynx’ existence in Ottawa is a reminder that the sporting community in the nation’s capital is like a small town. Everybody knows each other and if you don’t know somebody, then, you know someone who knows them. Jim Durrell and Howard Darwin were central figures in the local sporting community in their respective times.
There are people in that community who are ensconced in it and then, too, there are folks who will never gain access to that little enclave. The folks on the outside can never understand how the community works and will forever be excluded from it. Howard Darwin always knew the people he was talking to. He could work with them. Thankfully, for the sports fans of Ottawa, he was able to bring his people the sports and the teams that they wanted. He wasn’t always rewarded with the same respect from those outside the sports community though.
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You can listen to Howie and his co-host Shawn Lavigne on The Sports Lunatics Show, a sports history podcast, right here on the FiredUp Network, or on 182 different platforms wherever you find your podcasts, including Alexa.
From 1993 to 1999, Howie was the colour commentator for Lynx broadcasts on local television.