Les Capitales De Quebec: Canada's Other Baseball Powerhouse
Canada has never been a major force in the so-called "Great American Pastime" since the watershed years of 1992 and 1993.
In those days, the Toronto Blue Jays proved that a Canadian team can rule a league dominated by its neighbors to the south.
It would not be long before the Montreal Expos made their move to Washington, making the Jays the only beacon of hope for the Great White North in the majors.
But if one were to deduce that Toronto has the only baseball club that matters in Canada, he or she may be pleasantly surprised. Or unpleasantly surprised, depending on your side of Niagara Falls you choose to plant your feet.
And no, the waters themselves do not count.
In the history of minor league baseball, there have been teams from Canada that have accomplished this feat. The Winnipeg Goldeyes, who continue to play in the Northern League, have won seven division titles to go with a league championship in 1994.
This season, the Calgary Vipers won their first pennant as a member of the Golden Baseball League while maintaining a current streak of three GBL North Division titles.
More recently, a proud team hailing from Quebec City has claimed a league pennant of their own.
The Quebec Capitales, or Les Capitales de Quebec if you want to be technical (no rhyming pun intended), won the 2009 Canadian-American Association championship with a 7-4 victory over the Worcester Tornadoes.
The history of Les Capitales does not begin with their founding a decade ago, but rather in the wake of World War II.
Stade Municipal, the official home of Les Capitales, opened in 1938. Located in Victoria Park (Parc Victoria) at the heart of Downtown Quebec City, this ballpark holds 4,800 spectators and even more so, bears a rich tradition of baseball within its friendly, magical confines.
The first club from Quebec City to toss the old horsehide around was the Quebec Athletics, who competed from 1940 through 1942. From 1946 to 1948 the Quebec Alouettes competed in the Canadian-American League, which the Athletics also played in during the last two years of their existence.
Also competing in the Can-Am League from 1949 to 1950 were the Quebec Braves, who also spent time in the Provincial League up to 1951. And from 1971 through 1975, the Quebec Carnavals played as the Expos' AA affiliated, and continued on as the Quebec Metros until they folded in 1977.
Les Capitales outlived them all. Formed in 1999 as an expansion team in the Northen League, they have been the beacon of the capital of La Belle Province, if not the entire province itself.
Since 2001, Les Capitales have witnessed over 3,000 fans flock to their games. In addition, Les Capitales have been to the postseason in seven out of the last eight campaigns.
Not too darn shabby for team in their eleventh season, oui oui?
During their first four years, the Capitales did not make the postseason in their inaugural years and in 2001. In both of their playoffs runs, they lost both of their series to the Adirondack Lumberjacks 3-1 and 3-2, respectively.
A change had to be made. In 2003, Les Capitales moved to current incarnation of the Canadian-American Association, which was called the Northeast League at the time. In their first two seasons with their new league, the North Shore Spirit defeated Les Capitales 3-0 and 3-2.
Unfazed and unbowed, Les Capitales marched on into the 2005 season. There, they would eventually earn their first playoff series victory: en emphatic 3-0 sweep of the Brockton Rox. However, Quebec would be swept themselves, falling to the Tornadoes.
It would take four seasons before Michel Laplante's club would exact their revenge on Rich Gedman's couterparts.
The 2006 and 2007 seasons saw the highest highs and the lowest lows for Les Capitales. In their 2006 campaign, they had a 44-44 record, enough to make for the second-worst record in team history at the time. Nonetheless, they qualified for the playoffs.
It was not going to be an easy state of affairs. The North Shore Spirit were awaiting them, and were on the verge of completing another series of Quebec with a 2-1 lead.
North Shore was unable to capitalize, and Les Capitales rallied back to win 3-2. They would go the distance in their best-of-five with Brockton. In game five, Les Capitales rallied to defeat the Rox 5-4 and hoist the Arthur E. Ford Trophy for the first time.
2007 was a forgettable season, as the Capitales failed to make the postseason. Quebec was on the road back to supremacy in 2008, as they won their opening round series over the Atlantic City Surf 3-1, but lost the championship to the Sussex Skyhawks in a 3-0 sweep.
The 2009 season would be etched as another magical year for Les Capitales. And it began when a fallen star from Montreal took advantage of a second chance, re-energizing Quebec's hopes for the Can-Am championship in the process.
That man was Eric Gagne. Remember him?
The closer from the Dodgers from 1999 through 2006, and who is part of that gang of Mitchell Report steroid juicers?
Oh yes, it should ring a bell.
After spending additions stints with the Texas Rangers, Boston Red Sox and Milwaukee Brewers, Gagne became a pitcher/coach for Les Capitales.
Offensively, Quebec was led by first baseman Pete LaForest and outfielder Alex Nunez. LaForest led the team in home runs with 24 bombs and 82 runs batted in, while Nunez notched 104 hits to go with a solid .314 batting average.
The missing piece to puzzle was Gagne. "It took a year-and-a-half to sort of get over things," he said. "Quebec was the best place to start over from scratch."
It was a golden opportunity. A Gold, Blue and White opportunity.
Of course, Gagne's pitching arm didn't fail him in the Can-Am League. He had a modest 6-6 record to go with a 4.65 ERA and 64 strikeouts. Michel Simard led the team with 81 punchouts, while Jason Schutt was the Gagne of the team, leading the closers with 10 saves.
The payoff was imminent. Laplante's decision to hire Gagne was a solid move, praising his expertise in mentoring the team and improving their performance as the season went on.
One of the members of the pitching staff, St. Luc's Karl Gelinas (who played a key role in securing the 2009 title for Quebec), was impressed.
"He'd always been an idol, a role model, but I'd never really met him," Gelinas said. "He really treated us well; filet mignon [after games] lots of times. He was really great with everybody.
"I think he was pleasantly surprised with his stay here, too. The city, the team, the league, himself, everyone benefitted. I know I really found the fun of playing baseball again. I've been here three years, but this year was special."
Special it would be. With a renewed commitment to play in the clutch, Les Capitales went go on to win the second half of the season. Once again, Brockton awaited them.
But the Rox, who finished with the best record at the end of the regular season, had no answer for Quebec. They were able to win Game 3 6-5 in the doubleheader on Sunday, Sept. 13, but proceeded to lose Game 4 by the score of 5-3.
So it was on to the League Championship, and a chance to exact payback on Worcester. The Tornadoes weren't going to lie down that easy, winning 8-7 in Game One. A 12-inning offensive slugfest put the best-of-five on level terms, 12-8, in Game Two.
Les Capitales drove four unearned runs past relief man Eddie Pena in the top of the 12th after Worcester rallied in the bottom of the ninth. It was a sign of things to come.
With series moving back to the friendly confines of Le Stade Municipal, Eric Gagne put on his best performance as a member of Les Capitales in Game Three.
Used primarily as a closer when making the rounds in the majors, he took his role as starter the same way one should take a bull-by the horns.
Gagne pitched a complete game, striking out eight, and solid fielding and timely hitting culminated in a 5-1 victory. For Gagne, it was redemption deserved. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he was chaired off the field before a standing-room only crowd of 5,011, one of the largest crowds to attend a game at Stade Municipal.
"If that was the end, it was really a beautiful ending," Gagne said after the game to the National Post. "To finish somewhere where people like me, and people want to see me...I needed it.
"It was a thank you to them for having stayed with me and supported me 100%. You could see it at every game. They were so positive; it was really incredible.
"I got the confidence back that I had lost the last two years, and I found the fun of playing baseball again. That was my goal, and I did exactly what I wanted to do."
In the decisive Game Four, Les Capitales did exactly what they needed to do, too. They pounced on the Tornadoes early and often during the first two innings.
With a 5-2 lead, Quebec never looked back as they secured their second Can-Am Championship before 3,744.
It's teams like Les Capitales de Quebec that prove that baseball is never dead and irrelevant in Canada.
Continuous tradition, consistent loyalty to those who wear the shirt regardless of their past misdeed, and a never-say-die attitude in the wake of clubs forming and folding have ensured that while the Montreal Expos are consigned to the dustbins of diamond history, Les Capitales have fared well in having the torch passed to them.
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