15 June 2009 05:27
Later this week, the Vancouver Canadians baseball team will play its much-anticipated season opener at Nat Bailey Stadium.
Expect the scene to be an upbeat one — from the singing of Take Me Out To The Ball Game to Little Leaguers cheerfully chasing foul balls in the bleachers.
But not far away, in the Downtown Eastside, a far less happy baseball story is being played out.
At Oppenheimer Park, in Vancouver’s old Japantown neighbourhood, the historic playing field of the Asahi baseball team is being demolished. The City of Vancouver is removing the ball diamond as part of its renovation of the park.
The Asahi team, formed in 1914 and comprised of Japanese-Canadian players, was a premier baseball team in the Pacific Northwest, having won numerous championships. In contrast to the home-run heroes of the modern era, their winning style was marked by stolen bases, bunts and deft fielding — all of it steroid-free.
Tragically, with the internment of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War — and players forced to scatter across the province and the country — the team disbanded.
Forever, it turned out.
But the Asahi baseball legend lived on. The team, after all, was the touchstone for a community that had been ravaged by racism and, ultimately, forced relocation.
All of this made their home turf on Powell Street less a field of dreams, and more a field of memories — memories steeped in glory and melancholy.
Which is why the demolition of the diamond has some folks, including Downtown Eastside activists and citizen journalists Hendrik Beune and April Smith, fuming.
They note that in recent years, the Japantown community had resumed a baseball tournament on the grounds to honour the team.
But Beune tells me his pleas to save the diamond have been met with silence or even resistance. Which is a shame, since there is no turning back now.
The news isn’t all bad. According to the Vancouver Park Board, the team will be remembered at Oppenheimer, and a reference to the team will be interwoven in the mesh of a commemorative backstop.
But the diamond, the bleachers and the original backstop will all be gone.
In the city’s defence, it is dealing with numerous stakeholders at a site that has been under siege for decades. This is the Downtown Eastside we are talking about.
But that doesn’t make the demise of the historic Asahi grounds any less tragic.