New fight for field of dreams: Soccer vs. Softball at Jeanne Mance Park

In the 19th century, flying golf balls threatened the well-being of
> strollers on the plot of land known as Fletcher’s Field. Today, soccer
> players are fighting it out with softball teams for use of the same
> terrain.
>
> In today’s Jeanne Mance Park, it truly is a case of plus ca change. There
> isn’t much green space in the centre of Montreal that can be used for
> sports, and certainly none with such a majestic view. Not to mention the
> proximity to a depanneur with a beer fridge, essential to city life during
> a heat wave.
>
> Jeanne Mance Park has always been a place of assembly, and it boasts a
> history completely in keeping with today’s multiple and conflicting uses.
>
> It is the place where, according to legend, A.M. Klein tutored Irving
> Layton in the art of Latin poetry. Fletcher’s Field High, Mordecai
> Richler’s name for Baron Byng, his nearby high school, makes frequent
> appearances in the author’s novels.
>
> I don’t know if Richler’s characters knew it, but until the early 1870s
> the park belonged to an order of nuns, the Hospitalieres de l’Hotel Dieu.
> Which explains its current name: Jeanne Mance was the founder of the Hotel
> Dieu Hospital.
>
> As in so much of Quebec’s history, what the good sisters gave up, the
> government took over. In the 1870s, the city purchased the property, which
> ran all the way to St. Joseph Blvd. Among anglos, it was already known as
> Fletcher’s Field, having been cultivated by a farmer of that name.
>
> In those early years, it was a military parade ground, an exhibition
> ground and the city’s first golf course. Nowadays, on a given weekend, you
> can take in a vegetarian feast sponsored by believers in an Eastern
> religion, or a boomerang demonstration.
>
> At the end of the 19th century, you would have had somewhat different
> choices of entertainment. You could have feasted your eyes on “Miss
> Nettie’s Educated Ponies,” the raucous diversions of a Barnum & Bailey
> show, or any combination of Roman chariot races, high-wire acts or
> “startling feats by Genuine Arabs,” as the language of the day had it.
>
> And in 1893, the burning of Moscow by Napoleon was the subject of a
> re-enactment in the park, complete with hundreds of spear carriers acting
> as French soldiers.
>
> Today, the park is a calmer place. On a warm weekend afternoon, it’s still
> the best spot to enjoy that particular harmony that is Montreal at its
> best. Toddlers in the wading pool splashing to the overbearing sounds of
> the tam-tams across Park Ave., old codgers with their shoes and socks off,
> sitting in the shade of a silver maple, young families picnicking, because
> the mountain and Jeanne Mance Park act as a country house for everyone who
> can’t afford one in the Laurentians.
>
> There’s plenty of hard-scrabble business going on, too, from the sale of
> soft drugs to the redeemers digging through the trash cans in search of
> beer and soft-drink bottles.
>
> If there’s one place where everything comes together in the park, it’s at
> the softball diamond along Mount Royal Ave., strategically placed next to
> the Depanneur Parc Yy – don’t ask me to pronounce the last part.
>
> The longest-running free-form softball game has been playing there for
> more than the last 25 years. What started as a bar league – one tavern
> against another – has morphed into an institution. No permits were ever
> issued for the game; the players don’t need a permit any more than a tree
> needs a permit to grow in the forest.
>
> A recent immigrant from the Dominican Republic showed up there once; it
> was his first day in Canada. Apparently, in San Pedro de Macoris, his home
> town, he had heard about el beisbol played in el parque.
>
> And a certain Milap Bhatt (an appropriate last name somehow), born in
> India, learned the game the hard way – by playing it on a field where
> every error is greeted with catcalls and insults.
>
> “The hell with support as a learning tool,” Bhatt says. “I learned this
> game because I was tired of getting harassed for being a lousy player. It
> was tough love, softball style. And it worked.”
>
> The Latino contingent in their tight uniform trousers, a sprinkling of
> south Asians, a disbarred lawyer, biomechanics specialists from McGill, a
> few Cegep teachers slumming it, and those in search of gainful employment
> come together in a seamless, temporary social construction.
>
> The diamond doesn’t always provide top-quality action, but for atmosphere
> and overall attendance, it beats the Expos. It’s a place where everyday
> identities are forgotten and you’re only as good as your last at-bat or
> dropped fly ball. And what are sports for if not forgetting yourself for
> an afternoon?
>
> A sense of the absurd is a must in order to appreciate the scene. The
> backstop is flimsy and low, which means foul balls are forever being
> launched into the traffic on Mount Royal Ave., and when a pop fly and a
> windshield meet, it’s always the latter that suffers.
>
> The players dash between the moving cars, chasing down their precious but
> errant softballs.
>
> The place has its own folklore and history. At the start of every year,
> the players pour a little beer on the hard ground in memory of a promising
> young man named Nigel who drowned in a scuba-diving accident in the
> Caribbean.
>
> And speaking of hard ground, before the game you can see the denizens of
> the park hard at work with their rakes and shovels. The players do their
> own groundskeeping, because the city accords only passing attention to the
> diamonds.
>
> The game maintains a symbiotic relationship with the neighbourhood
> businesses, especially with the strangely named depanneur on Mount Royal
> Ave. The Chinese owners, who speak neither French nor English but
> recognize a business opportunity when they see one, gladly allow their
> shop to be used as a storeroom for sports equipment – just look on top of
> the last beer fridge.
>
> In return, the players spend thousands of dollars on beverages and snacks
> during the season. So much so that the former owner, who was able to buy
> himself a house in Rosemont with the profits, took one of the veteran
> players aside and thanked him.
>
> Diamonds are forever, right – especially ones with so much history and
> urban tradition? Well, maybe not. The city of Montreal, which apparently
> knows what’s right for its citizens, has some big plans for the area that
> threaten to put an end to the microcosm on Mount Royal Ave.
>
> According to Daniel Chartier, the landscape architect for the city who is
> responsible for the mountain and Jeanne Mance Park since 1991, “everywhere
> you look, baseball is in decline and soccer is on the way up.”
>
> As a result, he says, one or both of the diamonds will have to disappear.
> It’s a matter of “compatibility of space” – Chartier doesn’t like the
> outfield fence that cuts across the park, and he doesn’t care much for the
> grandstands that border the two ball fields.
>
> Chartier also thinks that the diamonds “are used in an informal fashion
> only,” and that “we don’t need all that space just to shag a few fly
> balls.”
>
> Well, tell that to the Wednesday evening lesbian league affectionately
> known as “dykes with spikes.”
>
> As for his assertion that more space is needed for soccer and less for
> baseball, he admits to being caught in the middle of a “battle of
> statistics” between the two sports.
>
> On a recent weekend, I saw more people wearing those synthetic soccer
> shirts with flashy European logos than actually playing the game, while
> both diamonds were full to bursting.
>
> The problem is in Chartier’s and the city’s idea of what constitutes
> organized sports. The baseball players’ form of organization is resolutely
> free-form, open-ended and organic – you might even call it chaotic.
> Whereas the soccer players with their uniforms appear more regimented,
> something the city apparently appreciates.
>
> I have one piece of advice for Chartier, though I don’t think he’ll follow
> it: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
>
> In the meantime, both soccer and baseball players will be girding their
> loins for this autumn’s public consultations on the future use of Jeanne
> Mance Park. Those consultations promise to be a contact sport.

> Montreal Gazette
> Saturday, July 5, 2003
> Page: A1 / FRONT
> Section: News
> Byline: DAVID HOMEL
> Source: Freelance

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Filed under Community Rights, Media Coverage, Sports

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