Cardinals Carrying Momentum Of New Era
No one is immune from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. But when the Intercounty Baseball League (est. 1919) cancelled the 2020 season, you had to feel badly for the Hamilton Cardinals, who even now can’t catch a break.
With a solid new ownership group, a winning culture stretching from the clubhouse to the community, and nothing but optimism this past off-season, the Cardinals organization was preparing to make a run for their first IBL championship since 1978 – their only league title.
But, of course, all of that came to a screeching halt on July 9 when IBL commissioner John Kastner announced even a possible truncated campaign was a no-go.
In early-April, Hamilton was one of five IBL clubs – including the Guelph Royals, London Majors, Toronto Maple Leafs and Welland Jackfish – who stated they would play a shortened season. The defending-champions Barrie Baycats, Brantford Red Sox and Kitchener Panthers had already decided to shut it down for 2020.
Every IBL club is doing their best to engage their fans via social media and team websites. Some are staging events – following physical distancing regulations – at their ballparks. For example, the Royals and Jackfish are staging separate home run derbies – read about them here and here.
The Cardinals, meanwhile, have made huge strides in growing and pleasing their fan base since their new local ownership group came to bat prior to the 2018 season. But this summer, it’s three strikes for any Bernie Arbour Memorial Stadium events. That includes a planned youth baseball camp.
In September 2018, Hamilton-based CARSTAR Canada purchased the naming rights to the stadium’s field through 2023. The stadium was renamed CARSTAR Field at Bernie Arbour Memorial Stadium.
But the worn-out power transformer serving the entire Mohawk Sports Park will not be repaired “for at least a couple of months,” said Cardinals general manager Jeff Lounsbury. “It’s a much bigger deal than we had anticipated. We had plans for our camp and a few other events, but now that’s gone.”
So is any momentum from the breakthrough Cardinals’ 2019 season – at least, it has been put on hold.
Last season, the Cardinals finished third with a record of 20-16 (.556), the second-best regular-season mark in team history, and just five-and-a-half games behind the Baycats who captured their sixth-straight Jack and Lynne Dominico Trophy. Hamilton swept Guelph in a best-of-seven quarter-final playoff opener before bowing out in four straight to Kitchener in a semifinal.
“Winning a playoff series with new ownership over London two years ago was huge – a big step,” Lounsbury said. “Moving into third place in 2019 was another big step for us – moving into the top level of the IBL, amongst the top four teams.
“We were planning on having a strong enough team to make a good run in 2020. Ownership has given us the tools to do this, including bringing in some imports. And we’ve partnered with Mohawk College to give players a really nice place to stay during the season. That is where we are going.”
New Cardinals Era
The Cards almost folded like a cheap suitcase following the 2017 season. Then-team GM Dean DiCenzo, a Hamilton sports legend who played in the IBL for 19 seasons, reached out to the community for possible franchise saviours. Carmen’s Group CEO P.J. Mercanti stepped up to the plate, erased a debt of about $3,500 and, along with DiCenzo and another former Cardinal, John Foden, began to form a new ownership group.
“I reached out to Dean and called to congratulate him on saving the franchise. He says to me on the phone, ‘Funny that you called, you were the next call I was going to make. Can you be the GM of this new team?’ And that is how I got back into baseball as GM of the Hamilton Cardinals,” Lounsbury explained.
Lounsbury carries a ton of baseball clout, most notably stemming from a 20-year stint with the Brock Badgers baseball program. He retired in 2016 with a record of 507-234-5 – he was the second Canadian university coach to reach the 500-wins milestone. University of British Columbia’s Terry McKaig was the first to reach that mark.
Under Lounsbury, Brock won four U Sports titles, and two CIBA national championships (1998-99). He was U Sports coach of the year in 2005, 2012 and 2014, and in 2016 was named to the Niagara Falls Sports Wall of Fame.
Lounsbury had joined Brock as third base coach in 1995 when his friend, Mike McRae, took the team’s managerial reigns. One year later, McRae left for a U.S. college baseball post (he’s currently an assistant coach with NCAA Division I Virginia Commonwealth University) and Lounsbury took over as Brock bench boss.
In the IBL, Lounsbury carries a lot of cred, too. In the late-1990s, he joined the rebuilding Cardinals as a coach under owner Brian Hanson.
“I took over a 3-30 team. The first year I was in Hamilton, Sean Reilly was now a full-time hitter. Our outfield was Josh McCurdy, an IBL Top-100 player; Raul Borjas, another IBL all-time player in the Top 100; and Jeremy Walker, who went on to win multiple championships with the Barrie squad. He just missed out on being in the Top 100. That was my outfield,” Lounsbury recalled.
“I was involved in re-building that team, and I’ve used that experience for coaching older players, and also in recruiting,” said Lounsbury, back with Hamilton since 2018 for a third time, and formerly skipper with the Burlington Bandits.
Read Lounsbury’s impressive baseball bio here.
Like the Cards, Lounsbury has had to overcome major struggles recently.
He told SportManagementHub.com, “This past summer (2019) was very difficult since I was fighting Stage 3 colon cancer and was having treatments during the season. But my assistant GM Larry Wood did an outstanding job with game-day operations and picking up my slack,” said Lounsbury, today ready to help lead Hamilton during this new era of Cardinals baseball.
“Hamilton has shown signs of promise in recent years, but the problem was we could never keep them together, and we couldn’t keep continuity between ownership, general manager and coaching. But that has changed,” Lounsbury told LondonOntarioSports.com. “I’ve been GM for three years. Dean Castelli (2019 Troy May Memorial Trophy winner as coach of the year) is back. So are our assistant coaches. So we have stability from ownership down.
“We also have returning players – veterans in their fifth-sixth-seventh year in the league,” added Lounsbury. “We’re building our team the right way – like the Brantfords and Barries of the league.” The Red Sox dynasty preceded the Baycats’ run, with six straight titles from 2008-13.
Click here for Hamilton Cardinals roster.
Lounsbury said each IBL club – as well as the league headquarters – have pulled up their socks as it begins its second century.
“In terms of planning for 2021, we are always working hard. To compete now in this league, you must. Everyone in this league has stepped up their game. I think it’s important that we continue to improve our on-field product, secure our players, continue to sign local players and continue to work with them to improve the team.”
Lounsbury said a lot of the principles now in place with the Cards were player-driven initiatives. That speaks volumes about how communication is now the key to success at 52-year-old Bernie Arbour Memorial Stadium.
“Attendance, too, is improving league-wide,” Lounsbury said. “Our attendance more than doubled last season, over the first year of new ownership. And we were in a position to move towards doubling attendance again, and fielding a stronger product on the field. All of a sudden, this franchise is moving forward in all aspects. We were doing very well with sponsorship, too, and then the pandemic hit. So we’ll continue to work hard in that area.”
Lounsbury said all of this success is “not by accident. During our league meetings, the approach is, ‘What can we do for the league?’ It’s not, ‘This doesn’t work for me.’ That’s a different mindset between the owners and general managers. A lot of the suggestions and improvements work that way now. We’re not selfish. The alumni association is an example of that.”
On Wednesday (July 22), the IBL announced the formation of its alumni association – click here for that news.
Hamilton, too, formed an alumni group in 2019. Allan Ross, who joined the ownership group last season, heads that effort.
“We had a very successful alumni breakfast in 2019, and had many events planned for this year. But all of that is gone now,” said Lounsbury of the world turned upside down by COVID-19.
Said Lounsbury, “I think anyone who supports the IBL from a sponsorship level must acknowledge the passion and the hard work that goes into running a team. When they do, hopefully they stay on board through thick and thin.
Now, we’re all waiting for the IBL to play ball.
Story courtesy of Jeffrey Reed, Editor, LondonOntarioSports.com
Reed has covered the Intercounty Baseball League for print and broadcast media, and now new media, since 1980. In 1994 he established the IBL media relations office and operated it for three seasons 1995-97 before joining the London Majors as pitcher and third base coach. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.