Baseball facing a tough road to the CIS

You will not find many baseball fans in Montreal who recall the mid-’90s with anything but anger, despair or resentment.
This period of time is often associated with the beginning of the end for Quebec’s only Major League Baseball team, the Montreal Expos.
The 1994 season. 74-40. The labour dispute. The strike.
These words and numbers are enough explanation to Expos fans of what would become of their beloved team.
For a small faction, though, the mid-’90s represented not a time of contraction but instead of growth.
It was in 1995 that, for the first time, an organized baseball league was created at a Canadian university level. Given the climate of the sport in Canada at the time, the league was hardly grandeur. The league was obscure, low budget and still working out certain kinks. For example, aluminum bats were used for the first few seasons. The Laval Rouge et Or would win the first-ever championship.
Despite the hardships, this was the blossoming of Canadian university’s first organized baseball league, the Canadian Intercollegiate Baseball Association.
The CIBA has managed to stay afloat while navigating through some choppy waters, but the landscape of the league has changed very much in the last 10 years. The league’s relationship with both universities and the Canadian Interuniversity Sport still remains a precarious one.
While the league has established itself over the past decade, funding, promotion and quality of play are still concerns.
Howard Schwartz, manager of the Concordia Stingers baseball team since 1995, has been involved in the league since its inaugural season.
“It’s day and night since 1995,” he said. “The quality of the game has gone up and I would say the integrity of the league has gone up too. I think you could almost compare (the CIBA) to watching the NHL 20 years ago. Some guys who were stars then might not even make the league now because the quality of play is so much better and things have changed so much.”
However, if the league wants to continue its growth it seems that at some point baseball will need to become a member of the CIS. If baseball is serious about becoming a CIS sport, though, many hurdles will have to be overcome.
For starters, many of the schools in the CIBA are colleges, such as John Abbott College among others, and the CIS is strictly designated to only include universities.
Also, for a sport to enter into the CIS it needs to be played coast-to-coast. Right now, due to travel expenses, there is no baseball league in western Canada as established or developed as the OUA or CIBA. Additionally, after the Laval program folded, no French schools have participated in the sport.
“It’s a fairly sophisticated process,” explained Katie Sheahan, the athletic director at Concordia. “The CIS puts out a call to national sport organizations approximately every six years and asks those organizations to respond to a questionnaire to see if there is a national interest in those sports.”
“The last time (the selections were made) Baseball Canada did submit an application but was not selected,” said Marg McGregor, the CEO of the CIS. “We use eight to 10 different criteria to see which sports would be included. Those include things like number of participants across the country, the marketing potential, the number of officials, the number of coaches, the facility requirements and the gender equity of the sport.”
For now, those like Schwartz must focus on the tasks at hand, but it is difficult to improve the league under the present conditions.
“A team like Ottawa University gets very little financial support from their school,” said Schwartz. “They have to have run baseball camps for kids and sell products to raise money. Some schools can barely afford to buy bats.”
Neither Schwartz nor Sheahan would disclose the exact financials, but both confirmed that Concordia is the best-funded school in the CIBA. Schwartz also believed that a school such as Ottawa receives about 20 per cent of what Concordia gets in funding.
“The money adds up, too,” said Schwartz. “For us to go to the National Championship for four days (this year) would cost about $20,000. Factor in hotels, a charter bus, a per diem for the players, it adds up.”
For Schwartz, the biggest benefit of being welcomed into the CIS would be the exposure and quality of play in his league. “If there is any player who is interested or talented enough to play professionally and has an opportunity to play in the NCAA, I tell them to go play down there,” he said.
With more Canadians presently playing in the Majors there is hope around the sport that the interest in baseball will grow at the grassroots level leading to more interest at a university level. But for now, like an overmatched batter facing a tough pitcher, the CIBA will have to keep fouling off financial curve balls and bureaucratic change-ups in hopes that eventually they will hit one out of the park.

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