Once a longshot, Quebec City's baseball team celebrates 20 seasons

On Thursday night, the Capitales began their 20th consecutive season, a milestone not many expected the team to reach.

No one expected the Capitales to endure, and thrive, two decades on

Members of the Quebec Capitales (and mascot Capi) line up for the national anthems ahead of the season opener Thursday night. The team is celebrating a milestone this year — its 20th season. (Radio-Canada)

When Michel Laplante decided to help bring a baseball team back to Quebec City, he didn't expect the idea to be met with resistance.

It was 1998. The last baseball team had left town in the late 1970s due to poor attendance and consistently bad weather, and no one was longing for a new team take its place.

On top of it all, the Nordiques hockey franchise had packed up for Colorado three years earlier. People were feeling scorned by pro sports, and cynicism was rampant.

"We would have this long list of possible season ticket holders. We would call them, [and say] 'Are you interested in having a pair of season tickets for $250 for this upcoming season?' and people would just hang up on me," said Laplante, who is now the team president.

Despite the dark mood, some still believed a baseball team could be successful in the Vieille Capitale.

The Quebec Capitales played their first game in 1999. Laplante was the starting pitcher in the home opener.

The Capitales have now captured 10 division titles, seven league championships, and even made history in 2014 when they became the first team in Canada or the U.S. for which Cuban players were legally allowed to play.

On Thursday night, the Capitales began their 20th consecutive season, a milestone not many expected the team to reach.

An inauspicious start

The first pro baseball team in Quebec City took the field in 1923. Since then, there have been others — the Braves and Carnavals among the most notable — but none lasted longer than seven seasons.

The Capitales are members of the Can-Am league, a six-team, professional independent baseball league based in Canada and the U.S.

Michel Laplante, president of the Capitales, says he now prefers working in the front office over pitching, the position he played years ago. (Pascal Ratthé/Radio-Canada)

Many of the players in the league aren't young guys. They were drafted by Major League Baseball teams only to bounce around in the minors before landing in Quebec City, looking for a place to keep their MLB dreams alive.

Part of the community

A few years into the team's existence, despite the fact that the team had started to win division and league titles, the money still wasn't coming in.

But by midway through 2000s, the front office figured out that when no one shows up to games, it's not because of the win-loss record, Laplante said.

The real issues are usually that the promotion isn't good enough, the in-game entertainment is wrong, or, the most important factor — the team isn't involved in the community enough, he said. 

"If you're part of the community at every stage, people won't let you down. That's not going happen. Even when you lose, they will be behind you."

So the players started holding clinics with coaches and young players, even handing out medals at local tournaments.

Daniel Papillon, a baseball writer and historian, says that family atmosphere has a lot to do with the team's success.

Its biggest triumph, he says, is giving young players from Quebec a local team to aspire to play for, which became even more important after the Montreal Expos left the province.

He said there are a lot of players on the team from the U.S., Dominican Republic and some from Cuba, but the Capitales always find room for hometown guys.

"People identify with those players, and it helps maintain the team's success," he said.

A stadium made for baseball

These days, the people who attend games aren't only baseball fans — some are just looking for a fun way to spend their evening.

There are 2,500 to 3,000 people at the games on average. A sellout crowd is about 4,000, so there is still room to grow, Laplante said.

Stade Canac has been home to every professional baseball team in Quebec City's history. (Radio-Canada)

The Capitales' home, Stade Canac, hosted its first game in 1939. Every professional baseball team that has played in Quebec City has played at that stadium.

It fell into disrepair after the Carnavals folded, and there was talk of tearing it down before a group of citizens banded together to save it.

"People are so much more proud of it than they were a few years ago. They realize that this is a jewel. It's in the middle of the city. We have trees that are over 200 years old in the outfield," Laplante said.

"Even if you wanted to build something like this in 2018, you couldn't."

Last year, they ripped up the field's natural grass and replaced it with turf. In the winter, they erected an inflatable dome over the field.

It was a $4.3-million project that exponentially increased the number of hours the stadium could be used — from about 400 hours a year to roughly 3,800.

Students in sports-études programs were able to practice at the stadium over the winter, thanks to the dome. (Éric Careau/Radio-Canada)

It is now a place that benefits more than just the professional and junior-level players who use it regularly. Young baseball, soccer and even Ultimate Frisbee players can take advantage of it year-round.

Thanking the fans

As part of the season-long anniversary celebrations, the Capitales will recognize those who have been with the team for the last two decades and play a game against players from the Dominican Republic.

And since Laplante believes a baseball game was always meant to be an affordable outing, the team tries to keep concession prices low — a beer, for example, is $5.75, not the $10 to $12 often seen at major sports events.

Ticket prices range from $9.50 for a child to $38 for an adult, which includes access to the outdoor terrasse. For a few nights this season, the price of admission will be the same as it was in 1999 — between $5 to $8.

It's a thank you to the fans who, in spite of the initial skepticism, have turned the team into a success, Laplante said.

"We might not make tons of money over all this, but the people are [loyal], and that's good for us."