The grandfathers of summer hope to end a 63-game slow pitch slide in St. Albert

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ST. ALBERT, Alta. — In early April, the Esso B’s found a hopeful message from Charlie Brown in their inboxes.

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“Our baseball season starts today, and we haven’t lost yet,” the lovable loser proclaimed in a Peanuts cartoon that surely hit home with the sexa- and septuagenarians who last won a slow pitch game on Aug. 9, 2018.

The Esso B’s have endured 63 consecutive losses since, which might be a St. Albert Men’s Slow Pitch Association (SAMSPA) record for futility. The league was founded in 1980 but its website posts standings only back to 2010, so nobody can say for sure.

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The Esso B’s have lost close games by scores of 8-3, 12-8 and 10-5 and been blown out 15-0, 20-0 and 30-0 during the streak. The average result has been a 19-4 loss, twice a week, through 31.5 weeks.

What these grandfathers of summer have never lost, however, is perspective.

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“While the players are not proud of their game record, they do not lament so much as find humour in the predicament,” said manager Ken Crutchfield, who might turn an email phrase better than he does a double play.

If the Esso B’s were of a mind to recruit a patron saint for the 2022 season, which kicks off Tuesday at Meadowview Diamonds, weather permitting, they could do worse than Charlie Brown. He famously embraced the roles of manager and pitcher, and anybody who has herded 15 senior citizens or the Peanuts gang into a cogent lineup for an entire summer knows what it means to take one for the team. But more importantly, Charlie Brown believed in possibility, even after filling out a lineup card featuring the irascible Lucy Van Pelt in right field, Pig-Pen at third, Linus and his blanket at second, a pianist behind the plate and a beagle at short stop. Good grief, indeed.

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The Esso B’s celebrated a rare win on Aug. 9, 2018, heading to the St. Albert Legion for beer and nachos. Team members on hand that night were, left to right, Malcolm Parker, Bob Stewart, Cam Kaplar, Don Anderson, Al McGee, Rob Edmunds and Scott Doak.
The Esso B’s celebrated a rare win on Aug. 9, 2018, heading to the St. Albert Legion for beer and nachos. Team members on hand that night were, left to right, Malcolm Parker, Bob Stewart, Cam Kaplar, Don Anderson, Al McGee, Rob Edmunds and Scott Doak. Photo by Supplied Photo

The Esso B’s lineup is way better than that, and before the first pitch on Tuesdays and Thursdays from early May through late August, they believe in its possibilities. They will string together a few more singles and run fast enough to smother one more fly ball. Starting pitcher and head coach Malcolm Parker, though hobbled by cantankerous joints, will paint the corners and may even strike somebody out. The umpire, bless his myopic soul, will give them a close call at first base.

And just as they did on Aug. 9, 2018, the Esso B’s will win again. High-fives and Bud Lights to follow, or another order of celebratory nachos off-site, because you never know when the gods will smile again. That 7-4 victory over the St. Albert 60’s, which provoked a joyous post-game bite and beer at the St. Albert Legion, was just their fifth since the end of the 2013 season.

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And sure enough, when the last out is made on Tuesdays and Thursdays the Esso B’s are left instead to absorb another L. They make too many defensive mistakes and don’t hit well enough to score more than a few runs; a fatal combination in the high-octane offensive world of old guys slow pitch.

“The skill set is a bit lacking,” said Parker. “You might ask the question why. Well, every year we get a little bit older and the mobility and all that stuff just isn’t there.”

The list of missing stuff would include factory equipment such as knee cartilage and hip joints. Most of the Esso B’s don’t want to play in the outfield anymore; way too much real estate to cover, even with the addition of a rover allowed by SAMSPA rules in the older divisions. But they all have reasons to keep playing together.

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“It’s been a real winner for me in terms of my overall health from the very beginning and I can’t stress that enough,” said Bob Stewart, who along with Parker is an original team member from the 1980s. “Just getting out and being active has made a difference, a big difference in my life. With the work I’ve done over the years, not having a thing like this to participate in, I’m not even sure I’d be here today if it wasn’t for that.”

Win a little or lose a lot, there is joy to be had at Meadowview, a four-field, well-maintained complex built atop an old landfill and nestled snug by the northern bank of the mighty Sturgeon River. Under a shiny sun and baby blue sky, with a light breeze wafting in from the west, Meadowview provides perfect conditions for imperfect athletic achievement. There are 57 SAMSPA teams in eight divisions from open to 70-plus for 2022, with games played Monday through Thursday. The beer and B.S. in varying amounts of each are dispensed at a central concession area.

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“Everybody ribs one another about different things; receding hairlines and exceeding guts,” laughed Don Anderson, who was fresh off a hip replacement when Crutchfield recruited him during a chance meeting at the St. Albert Botanic Park, where both were admiring the locally famous rose garden.

Randy Mandryk prizes the game-day camaraderie so highly that he makes a 90-minute round trip from Mill Woods, a southern suburb of Edmonton, twice a week.

“It’s nice to be part of a team, that’s one thing, and I really like the guys. I’ve heard on other teams they bicker at each other. You don’t get that here, which I really appreciate,” said Mandryk. “I drive a long ways to get here. If it wasn’t a good team or I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t come out here.”

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A good team is full of good people who make good teammates. Alan Henry, who has been an Esso B for a decade, is also president of the Big Lake Environment Support Society. He said his teammates never say no when it’s time to volunteer for Bird Day. Parker, who served on St. Albert city council, was also SAMSPA’s longest-serving president, having filled the chair for 13 years. He takes pride in the health of the league and that theirs is one of the longest-tenured teams.

They were the Windowhill Broncs from 1982 until 1986, when Parker secured sponsorship from his employer, Imperial Oil, and the crafty S.O.B. picked the cheeky new moniker. They migrated from the open division to 40-plus in the late 1990s, then on to 50-plus and most recently 60-plus, and will celebrate their 40th anniversary this year by moving to 70-plus.

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“We have pretty good chemistry,” said Parker. “Nobody is a yo-yo, so that’s good. We said we want to stay together and play. We even said if we lose every game this year that’s ‘OK.’ I put that in quotes. Because it ain’t OK.”

They have already been there and done that; going 0-31 in 2019 and 0-25 in 2021, while COVID wiped out the 2020 campaign.

They are thankful SAMSPA bumped them up an age category, and the league also accommodated their request to play most games at 5 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., since half the team is still employed. The other 70-plus squads prefer the early bird special, with regular start times of 3:30 p.m. In return for schedule flexibility and age exemptions, the Esso B’s had to recruit enough fully retired players to ensure they could field a team for the handful of 3:30 p.m. games on their schedule.

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So how does a team on a 63-game losing skid, with a record of 28-295-5 since 2010, entice anybody new onto the roster?

You ask nicely. Ryan Markowski moved to St. Albert from the Crowsnest Pass and needed to balance his Edmonton desk job with exercise, so he put his name on the SAMSPA website’s “players looking for a team” list and Parker called him. The Esso B’s have won three of 151 games since Markowski joined up in 2016, but he’s as enthusiastic about playing today as he was half a dozen years ago.

“You can’t get down on the guys because they’re trying their best and that’s all there is to it, right? None of us are going to make it to the big leagues.”

If the Esso B’s are masters of anything, it is sportsmanship, because there is something to be said for not acting like a blockhead. If you show up on time, you play, no matter how poorly, and they all accept the result.

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Player/coach Malcolm Parker, a member of the Esso Bees team that will be playing in the plus-70’s slowpitch division this year hoping to end an 0-63 losing skid that dates back to 2018 in St. Albert, April 28, 2022.
Player/coach Malcolm Parker, a member of the Esso Bees team that will be playing in the plus-70’s slowpitch division this year hoping to end an 0-63 losing skid that dates back to 2018 in St. Albert, April 28, 2022. Photo by Ed Kaiser /20095665A

“You play to your level,” said Henry. “We’ve got guys who are good at certain things; some are batting, some are catching, some are running, but by and large when you get into the 70-plus league there is something materially wrong with your body and the reason we’re all happy I guess is because of the medicine we take.”

They enjoy one another’s company and hope it lasts, and they mourn former Esso B’s like Pat Bourgeois, Dan Evans, Frank Galbraith, Don Hopkins, John Johnson, Bob Johnston, Stan Kolomyjec and Gord Rowse, who have gone into extra innings on a higher plane.

“It’s like a carousel,” said Crutchfield. “We lose players when they pass away, but the carousel goes on. This year, we put out a call for guys interested and we picked up about four. The overall attitude was one of ‘I just want to play ball. I would sure like to win some games.’ But I haven’t heard one guy lay that out as a prerequisite for playing.”

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The Esso B’s twice won their division in the 1990s, but they have been out of their league in the 60-plus division for a while now and the move up should help close the gap.

“They’re quivering. They’re afraid. I tell you, they know we’re coming,” laughed Henry. “When we dropped down to the 60-plus, you get a person who just turned 60, he’s athletic and he can pound it over the fence with no problem at all. By the time we’re done, we’re dragging our wagon and it’s not really competitive for them. And for us, well it was (four) years ago we actually won a game. Fireworks went off, everybody bought beer, all the other teams came in and ragged on the guys who lost, and they were not happy puppies.”

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The losers that night, the St. Albert 60’s, moved into the 70-plus division, where they are now known as the St. Albert Seventies. SAMSPA does not award points for creativity.

The two teams are scheduled to face off May 19 at 5 p.m. on Diamond 4, and Henry joked it will be guaranteed-win night for the Esso B’s. That’s obviously a stretch given their history, but there will be hits, runs and errors, beer and B.S. aplenty, just like there is every Tuesday and Thursday from early May through late August.

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