Whistler’s Field of Dreams
Whistler prepares to host the Co-ed C Slo-pitch Nationals, but is Spruce Grove ready?
Photos by Don Anderson
By David Branigan
It's 5 o'clock any weekday in Whistler. Slowly a quiet grove of giant Spruce nestled off Highway 99 just behind Fitzsimmons Creek awake from their daytime slumber to watch the nightly ritual valley residents enact en masse. Over the next half hour the dusty parking lot starts to fill as corporate presidents, lawyers and city councillors take the field alongside construction workers, cabbies and servers.
The game is the great equalizer. On the diamond everyone has their social identity stripped away by the requirements of the team. The game is Whistler's most popular team sport. The game is slo-pitch softball.
There are some unique characters who take starring roles in this nightly drama, including umpire, Freebase tour manager, caretaker and general colour commentator Rick Felix, a.k.a. Flex, one of a weird and wonderful array of carded umpires who monitor the nightly action under the capable leadership of Garibaldi Umpire Association head Bill Russel.
Most nights the first to the park to rake the fields and lime in the foul lines, batter's boxes and on deck circles is Whistler Baseball Association Administrator Tim Houlihan. A decade ago when Tim and I put together the original Longhorn Big Red Machine we never would have envisioned how baseball in this valley would grow up. We're still only in adolescence but full maturity beckons.
Back then we played on two shoddy fields adjacent to Village Gate Boulevard, where the Delta Whistler Suites and the Cascade Lodge now sit. There were no fences and gophers often made the best catches, popping out of leg-breaking holes in the outfield. In those days Norm Trottier ran the Molson 5000, which was the biggest tournament of its kind, and Dave Asher was the league president, but even then we had three divisions of slo-pitch teams.
At the 1988 WBA banquet Houlihan received an award for most abrasive and mouthy player. It was a softball with deranged eyes and a lizard mouth, which quite suited this obsessive ballaholic. A decade later Houlie is still a fierce competitor to play against but he is also the man who single-handedly brings 1,000 league slo-pitch games a summer to 50 teams in four divisions playing in the stunning surroundings of Spruce Grove and Meadow Park.
Whistler Baseball is vibrant today thanks not only to Houlie but to all the predecessors who built up the game, including former league chairmen Paul Woodside and Max Kirkpatrick. Kirkpatrick especially was a driving force behind bringing the local game to a new level of organization and improving the facilities. As a municipal councillor and WBA chair he spearheaded the development of Spruce Grove. The master plan you see at the park's entrance is a testimony to his vision and love of the game.
Unfortunately for ball fans since Max lost the mayoralty race in the fall of ’96 and stepped down from the WBA, Spruce Grove seems to have gone off the fast-track. Whistler has an incredibly active development agenda and without some political backing things fall quickly by the wayside.
To be fair one of the delays in implementing the master plan was a rather ornery lawsuit between the Buzzard family, the former owner's of the KOA campground and Greenside Developments, the developer of the Spruce Grove subdivision. That five year legal quagmire froze development, which meant no power or water to the fields of dreams.
With the suit finally settled this spring has seen the erection of lights all around the park. Recent weeks have seen workers dialling in the wiring for these rather alien looking sky pods, with the intent being to turn them on for the National Co-ed C Division Championships, July 31-Aug. 3.
The primary reason we have lights, at a cost of more than $250,000, is to be able to host huge, high profile tournaments like the Nationals, which will bring 45 teams from across the nation here for the weekend and produce close to a million dollars in tourist revenue for the valley. But there has been some question as to whether the lights would be ready for the Nationals.
As of Wednesday, July 15, Dave Paterson of the Public Works Department, felt the lights would be ready in time for the tournament.
"All the electrical work in the park is complete," Paterson said. "We’re waiting for Hydro to pull the lines into the two kiosks. The primary kiosk is ready, the distribution kiosk should be ready any day now.
"Once the kiosk’s in place it takes about a day to hook it up. When that’s done we can notify Hydro and they guarantee they’ll do the work within 10 days.
"We’re two weeks out now; we should make the long weekend deadline. That’s been our deadline all along."
That sounds like good news, providing Hydro responds, but that’s the whole crux of the issue. With power we run concession out of the fieldhouse, click on the lights for night games and set up a PA to announce the action for the feature games in the best park in baseball. Without power we look like Ozark Mountain Hillbillies with dark lights, boarded up Harlem houses and a concession set up from an underfunded rave.
Speaking from the heart, I find the movement or lack thereof on the potentially amazing facility at Spruce Grove quite snail-like. I'm told that the municipality is understaffed and overstressed. This year they had hoped to have the parking lot paved, lights powered and the fieldhouse functional. Halfway through the summer they're 0 for 3. This is despite the fact that in 1998 they have raised user fees at Spruce Grove 300 per cent for weekend tournament organizers.
Keith Bennett of the municipal Parks Department, who is also a WBA board member, tried to answer some of these concerns.
PIQUE: What about the completion of things such as the parking lot and KOA building?
K.B.: The parking area will be developed this summer. There is a summer contract out there on that work and we have people looking at the KOA building to determine how to best renovate and make use of it. There has been some discussion of it being used as a youth centre but it won't be available for use until next summer.
PIQUE: What about the completion of the master plan, with the addition of the soccer pitch/volleyball court and two more ball diamonds?
KB: Well that was in the original park master plan but that development is on hold right now until a need has been proven. There are simply more pressing priorities. Those diamonds would have been earmarked for minor league play and right now the minor league baseball is served quite adequately by Myrtle Philip’s fields, while there are a number of volleyball courts in the valley. So I don't foresee any movement there in the near future.
The goal is to have Spruce Grove and Meadow Park pay their own way. While I agree fully with that intent there are better ways to fund the completion of Spruce Grove Park than hitting up taxpayer's and hiking user fees, namely a stadium licence.
If you look at the big baseball complexes in the city you'll find many of them hold stadium licenses. Even the Takhini Complex in Whitehorse, where I learned to play under the midnight sun, has a stadium licence. A stadium licence basically means that you can't bring liquor into the park, as it is licensed. It means that the concessionaire sells beer and cider along with burgers, dogs and assorted other sundries at a reasonable price. It means that the concessionaire takes a cut of the profits for operating the concession but the bulk of the profits are redirected into upkeep, or in this case development, of the stadium.
In essence, with a stadium licence Spruce Grove could pay for its own development, including the two new diamonds overlaid on a soccer pitch and a volleyball court, paving the parking lot and renovation of the KOA building. It would also pay for field maintenance, insurance and the WBA administrator’s salary.
As it stands now there is no concession open during the week. On weekends most tournament operators apply for a Special Occasion Licence with a charity beneficiary to run a weekend beer garden set up inside a fenced area behind the fieldhouse, which is neither here nor there it's just unnecessary weekly paperwork.
Bennett says: "There has been some discussion in regards to (a stadium licence) but we've yet to see a detailed proposal from any outside operator. If we did receive such a proposal it would have to go through council, the RCMP and the BCLD to determine whether that suits the needs of the Park and the surrounding community."
So for the next two weeks tournament organizers cross their fingers, hoping Hydro will come through with the power. Some time after the Nationals the parking lot should be paved. And eventually the whole park will be completed.
Meantime the cast of characters continues to gather nightly, marking the foul lines, raking the infield, checking lineup cards and waiting for that magic feeling that comes when you connect perfectly with a belt-high pitch.