A league of their own

How an upstart local hardball league is creating community one strikeout at a time (and what it has in common with a long-dead predecessor)

Our city may not be ready for a Major League Baseball team just yet, but based on the East Van Baseball League’s opening day weekend it’s more than ready for some semi-serious hardball. The stands were packed for the first slate of games at the southwest corner of Strathcona Park, one that even included a ceremonial first pitch delivered on Saturday by CBC’s Grant Lawrence. It’s a long way from where the league began in 2013, a casual charity game between what would become its founding teams, the East Van Black Sox and the Isotopes Punk Rock Baseball Club, that raised money for the Food Bank. “We had walk-up songs, we had an announcer, we sold hot dogs—it was just a ridiculous amount of fun,” says EVBL commissioner Sean Elbe. “And people said we had to do it next year.”

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East Van Black Sox captain Sean Elbe (right) and Isotopes Punk Rock Baseball Club’s Justin Banal shake hands before the season opener Friday. 

Well, they did. And in the two-plus years that followed Elbe and his fellow EVBL pioneers—Courtney Overgaauw, Justin Banal, and Evan Wansbrough—added more games, more structure, and finally more teams. This year the league expanded from two teams to five with the addition of the Mount Pleasant Murder, the Strathcona Stevedores, and the Railtown Spikers, and there’s a 26-person team of players who couldn’t find a spot for 2016 called the All City Ringers. “We’ve had to turn away over two teams worth of players,” Elbe says, “and I’m told by my other team’s manager, who is the registrar of the Lower Mainland Baseball Association, that they could feed us 40 players minimum annually. There is huge unmet demand for organized hardball locally.”

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Elbe thinks that’s because the existing options available to people who wanted to play hardball were very limited—and limiting. It’s really restrictive if you want to play hardball. You either have to be exceptionally good or you can’t play, and that’s really what we’re trying to change.” And why not softball? “Softball is too easy, so you get guys that go into softball and they take it way too damn seriously. One of the cool things is that everybody who plays in East Van Baseball is at a slightly different level, but everybody’s playing their hearts out, and everybody is improving and competing. We’ll have people who haven’t played since they were 15, and they’ll have just as much fun and get just as many hits and make just as many plays as guys like me or others that have played at a more competitive level.”

The key to the league’s success, Elbe says, is the culture that’s behind it, one that carefully balances that competitive drive with a commitment to having fun. “We have a rule that if anything physical happens, you’re out of the league. We’re just going to hand you your money back. That’s not the type of league that we want.” What they do want is a league whose influence extends beyond the playing field and which further integrates and connects the local communities that it draws its energy from. That goal is pretty clearly being met, given its growing list of local sponsors and supporters that includes Postmark Brewing, What’s Up? Hotdog!, and Sorrento Barbers. “I think true friendships are being formed. I think people are revisiting their passion for this game in a way that I’ve never seen. And really, really meaningful partnerships are coming out of it.

Elbe gives full marks to the people at the Parks Board as well for supporting the league and enabling its expansion. “They had no idea what sandlot baseball was, and we barely were able to articulate it, he says. “But they worked with us to find fields that were what we were looking for—and Strathcona is absolutely perfect.” Elbe says that the field, which is located at the southwest corner of the park near the intersection of Hawkes and Malkin avenues, personifies the league’s punk-rock, DIY spirit. “We told them, ‘We’re a baseball team, but we don’t need a fence. Sure, base paths are okay, but we don’t need a mound.’ It took a while for them to wrap their mind around it, but they’ve been awesome.”

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Now, with a home field in hand and a growing roster of players and fans, the league faces a new challenge: how to grow without compromising the culture that they’ve created. Fittingly enough for a league that has so many musicians playing in it, Elbe says that they’re approaching it the way a band might deal with their own surging popularity. “As a band, you can have some merch, and you can build a local fan base, and still remain pretty true to your roots. That’s how we’re trying to approach it.” That means no teams on the west side of the city, and almost certainly a limit on the number of teams in general. “We want it to be competitive, because people get really excited about it. But I think the failing of other recreational leagues is that people get too competitive, and I think if we expand too much we won’t be able to keep that culture.”

 That’s certainly what happened to the Kosmic League. Like the EVBL, the Kosmic League sprung up organically around a group of artists and journalists—although it leaned more towards painters and poets than punk musicians—in the 1970s, and it too found a way to blend competition and play. George Bowering, a former SFU professor and Canada’s first poet laureate, played for the Granville Grange Zephyrs in the league’s early days, and he remembers the first—and last—championship tournament that was played at Nat Bailey Stadium between the Zephyrs and the Teen Angels, a group of local DJs and radio personalities. “Terry David Mulligan was their star. And they beat us. But they were declared non-kosmic, so the trophy was given to us.” What did “non-kosmic” mean? Among other things, they wore matching uniforms (and, more perniciously, allegedly hired ringers to play for them). “There were some people who were thought to be not kosmic enough,” Bowering says.

That culture—one that privileged play and joviality, even the occasional bit of physical theatre, above winning and losing—was what defined the Kosmic League at the time. “We sort of had a tacit agreement about whether we were going to play seriously or not seriously,” Bowering says. “In some cases, when you saw that you were way better than the other team, you’d do all kinds of things. For instance, if you got the bases loaded, all three runners would steal the mound—they’d all slide into the pitcher. Or a double steal. A Kosmic League double steal meant the guy on first and the guy on second traded places.” There were all sorts of other odd local rules and one-off acts of improvisation, from the automatic strike rule (on a 3-0 count the next pitch was called a strike regardless of where it went) to the fact that in a blow-out game left-handed hitters would often have to bat right-handed, and vice-versa. And then there were the costumes: one team had a catcher who always dressed up as a mummy (bandages and sunglasses) while another short-lived team called the “Dirty Old Men” would come to the field wearing underwear and overcoats. Performance-enhancing drugs, meanwhile, were a fairly common sight. “There was quite a lot of dope used on the field,” Bowering says.

The Granville Grange Zephyrs after winning the first Cosmic League championship. George Bowering is facing away from the cameracosmic2

Bowering even covered it for the Georgia Straight at the time, under the pseudonym of “Erich Blackhead”—a nod to Eric Whitehead, the sports editor at the Province. But his coverage was in keeping with the league’s mischievous and subversive spirit. “One of our greatest headlines was Z’s Blow Early Lead—and then it turns out that “Early Lead” was the name of a rookie player on the other team, like Early Wynn .” So why, given that culture and public coverage, did the league die off before the decade was over?  Bowering thinks it’s because the balance between play and sport fell out of whack. “It was probably getting too big for its britches,” he says. “People started coming with better equipment and semi-uniforms, and there would be these teams from some bank who would want to play us. It just got to be un-kosmic and less poetical and painterly.”

It’s unlikely that the EVBL will make the same mistake. Yes, they already have the team uniforms and business sponsors that Kosmic League heavies like Bowering would have almost certainly declared “un-kosmic,” but that’s what defines their league’s culture—local partnerships and local pride. As such, while the Kosmic League quickly grew to have an east and west division, the EVBL plans to stay firmly rooted in the soil that it sprung from. “Any growth will happen in a managed way, and be representative of the diversity in east Vancouver,” Elbe says. “Each one of the teams has a bit of a story behind it that we’ll continue to flesh out, but it’s really about the neighbourhoods—and it’s great to have a board that really understands that and wants to make sure that culture remains intact.”

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