Little League takes centre stage in a place deep in baseball history

If you needed a reminder of what baseball means to Montreal, look no further than Vladimir Guerrero Sr.'s induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame this past weekend.

The Dominican-born right-fielder spent his first eight Major League seasons in the city, the last great Montreal Expo in a line that had its share. 

Guerrero Sr. departed Montreal following the 2003 season, the Expos followed suit a year later. 

But despite the absence of MLB the past 14 years, baseball remains alive in Montreal. 

Starting Thursday, the Canadian Little League Championship comes to Mirabel, Que., about an hour’s drive from the Expos’ former home at the Olympic Stadium. The tournament runs through Aug. 11 and the winner will represent Canada at this year’s Little League World Series in Williamsport, Penn. later in August.

Montreal's baseball history stretches back well over a century with the Montreal Royals' formation in 1897 as a class-A team. It later became the minor-league affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers, where a young Jackie Robinson played his first pro ball in 1946, a year before breaking Major League Baseball's colour barrier.

Jackie Robinson as a Montreal Royal in 1946. (John J. Lent/Associated Press)

But as a French-speaking province, Quebec has always had its challenges in playing host to mostly English speaking players, as well as some from the Caribbean and South and Central America.

Toronto Blue Jays analyst Joe Siddall was born in Windsor, Ont., and broke into the majors as a catcher with the Expos in 1993. But even the advantage of being Canadian couldn't completely erase the differences of playing in what is a unique part of North America.

"It was an adjustment because of the culture," said Siddall. "I took French in high school so I could get by. [But] a lot of my teammates would turn to me about my country and the culture. I was kind of split. Yes, it was my country. But I didn't know a lot about the French scene and Montreal. So I was embracing it just like my other teammates were." 

Toronto Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin grew up playing Little League Baseball in Montreal's Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood, Martin says those memories growing up on the diamonds with his father, Russell Sr., are still some of his fondest. 

"All those childhood memories with my father, just playing for fun with him and my friends, they are great memories," Martin said. "I think hockey is still No. 1 for the majority of people in Quebec. I think people still have good memories from the Expos and going to games. In the summer, there isn't much hockey. Now it's not there anymore. It's not as much fun." 

The Little Leaguers in competition this week won't have time for anything other than baseball.

The tournament features seven teams from across the country – six regional champions and the host team.  They are:

  • Mirabel Diamond Little League – Mirabel, Que. (Host)
  • Whalley Little League – Surrey, B.C. (Team B.C.)
  • Lethbridge Southwest Little League – Lethbridge, Alta.  (Team Alberta)
  • Regina Kiwanis Nationals – Regina (Team Prairies)
  • Toronto High Park Little League – Toronto (Team Ontario)
  • Valleyfield Little League – Valleyfield, Que. (Team Quebec)
  • Glace Bay Little League – Glace Bay, N.S. (Team Atlantic)

The team from White Rock, B.C. won last year's Canadian championship and represented Canada at the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa. (Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press)

Last year, the team from White Rock, B.C. emerged as a Canadian champion. They didn't lose a game on their way to earning a spot in the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa. There, the team came within two victories of reaching the final Little League World Series – the best a Canadian team has finished at the Little League World Series in close to two decades.

No Canadian club has ever won the Little League's top prize; only Stoney Creek, Ont. made the final in 1965.

Despite all the pressure of the cameras, Martin has a few words of advice.

"Baseball is a game. You have to have fun," he says. "Do what you have to do to have success. Think about your preparation. Take the time to warm up. Take batting practice, ground balls. But at the end of the day, it's about having fun. Nothing else" 

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