There is the sense, thick and unmistakable, as we make our way east into Québec, the province, that we have found ourselves somewhere quite different. It’s flippant, maybe, to say that it is a bit of Europe plunked down in North America, but there’s some truth to that, though there’s also something else besides. As we travel still further east, east as far as Québec City, it’s clearer: the place is wholly unique.
Much of this was decided in September of 1759 on the Plains of Abraham, at the foot of the city’s walls, when generals Wolfe and Montcalm of the British and French forces respectively, and those in their charge, did what they did. Montcalm lost control of Québec before succumbing to his wounds, and the French lost control of the continent. Wolfe died too, and sooner, but the British took the city anyway and soon thereafter the continent, so now most of us mangle the English language daily as a means of expressing ourselves.
But the people of Québec, though surrounded on all sides, retained their language, their culture, their legal system, their francophone identity, and in so doing positioned themselves in a heavily one-sided dialogue with the rest of the continent; while the tidal majority of stimuli with which they are bombarded is of the English-North-American variety, and very little of their own culture is broadcast back out, they are thereby able, through a carefully-practiced (and in many cases governmentally-mandated) process, to pick and choose what they like of “Anglo” culture while leaving the rest, filling the vacant space with their own cinema, television, music, literature. It’s an impressive display of resilience, materially represented by stuff like a thriving film industry, and radio stations where recognizable hits by Pink and Justin Bieber commingle with French-language pop songs you won’t hear anywhere else in the world. We might try to figure out why all these hits are so often presented in a continuous mix, like we might’ve heard on a dance music compilation CD in the late-’90s, but much of this problem resists efforts to understand, defiantly.
Be warned that the above is a woefully incomplete picture. There is countless political stuff to consider—notably a desire among many for independence from the rest of Canada, a push which ebbs and flows, lying mostly dormant these days but never quite dead, as well as the not-unrelated, peripheral specter of a xenophobia which is the extreme and ugly byproduct of centuries spent tirelessly defending a minority culture from incoming influence—but this being a sports site it’ll have to be enough to call upon a phrase, much-abused during these independence debates, invoked to describe the province’s political and cultural relationship with the rest of Canada; the phrase is “distinct society.” It’s one worth remembering as you try to make sense of your memories of the Montréal Expos, and how watching them, especially at home at Jarry Park, and then at Stade Olympique, felt just a little different than watching every other team.
But as much as the Expos suggested to the baseball-watching world that Montréal was in some ways unique by virtue of its linguistic and cultural isolation, Québec City is more isolated still. This fact impresses everywhere, whether touring the ramparts or taking in a game at Stade Municipal, home of les Capitales de Québec of the independent Can-Am League. There are doubtless other ways to gauge a city’s character, but we’re baseball fans, so we take ourselves there. And there it’s quickly apparent that, though it is rote to think of hockey in relation to French Canadians, they have also long accepted baseball, and have characteristically endeavored to make it something unlike what we might find anywhere else.
The Can-Am, like other indie leagues (American Association, Atlantic League, etc.), exists outside the hierarchical affiliated minor leagues, the MLB-established and controlled system of draft-and-advancement. The indies are non-canon entities which therefore offer something of a slapdash face to the world, an off-brand product often characterized by instability and change, hastily assembled teams sometimes rushing in to colonize markets where other leagues have failed. Such leagues and their air of carnival and improvisation are therefore either shifty or appealing, depending on one’s sensibilities. We tend toward the latter.
In addition to Québec City the Can-Am features teams in Trois-Rivières (also in Québec), Ottawa, Upstate New York, and New Jersey. The circuit’s six teams play a hundred games plus playoffs, and in 2016 have seen fit to include series against the Cuban national team and an all-star squad from Japan’s independent Shikoku Island League as part of their regular season schedule. Though all of this is firmly outside the mainstream, you can bet it is the dream, whether distant or fervent, of every player in this and every such league to perform at such a level as to attract the attention of a big league organization. It happens, though rarely. The Blue Jays’ Chris Colabello is a recent example, digging seven years in the Can-Am’s salt mines before catching a break with the Twins, then being claimed by Toronto and enjoying a magical 2015 season (.321, a homer in the playoffs).
On this hot and blinding Sunday afternoon, les Capitales host les Aigles de Trois-Rivières (you and I might call them the Eagles). Parking is free, though not all that ample. Stade Municipal, built in 1939, is trim and bright, remarkably so for a thing its age. The Chateau Frontenac, the century-plus-old stone hotel which dominates the city’s skyline from atop Cap-Diamant, overlooking the St. Lawrence River, is just out of sight to the south, and the magnificent Citadelle and city walls of the old town, or Vieux-Québec, though invisible bodily from the covered grandstand, still play across our minds after a morning spent as tourists. Our seats are in the mezzanine, just a handful of rows behind the plate. The backdrop before us is treed, the dugouts crowded, the enclosed concourses pleasingly cramped. Seven decades of paint cover the masonry. The layout is confusing, ramps and stairways leading stubbornly somewhere other than where we expect them to, and we are happy to take wrong turns and fumble our way around. Most of the seats are numbered wooden benches, painted such a glossy and lustrous red that they appear wet. They’re as upright and hard as church pews.
The team owner, paying for his own drinks, sits with a companion in loge seats so close to us we could pat them on their backs. We might very well do so, so full of good feeling are we, brought on by the summery weather and lovely ballpark and the happy gentility of an afternoon passed cheering on les Capitales beneath the overhang, the searing sun never coming closer than the row before us. We are in some lost decade, fanning ourselves with scorecards, ignoring our devices. Some here have obstructed views, but not us. A bag of peanuts is on offer, a cold Molson Ex, candy and slushies for the children. Vendors hawk cold Pepsi, the stress heavily on the second syllable. Service is offered smilingly in French, though if it’s clear to the person pulling your beer or bagging your popcorn that you’re Anglo, they’re almost always happy to switch to English, amiably, smoothly, unperturbedly, and amended always with Merci.
We stand as the Canadian anthem is sung in French, front to back. The stadium announcer goes on breathlessly, always, it seems, a half a sentence ahead of my understanding. We used to go to games in Ottawa, where the announcements are made bilingually, but this is something other. This is total immersion.
Keeping score takes an extra half-beat in order to allow the brain to translate. A left fielder is a voltigeur de gauche. A pitcher is a lanceur. A shortstop is an arrêt–court . At the end of each half-frame we tally up points, coups surs, erreurs, and runners laisses sur les buts. All 3842 of us await a coup de circuit, though no one, whether Québécois or Trifluvien, manages to clear the ad-plastered wall.
Music blares and images flash across a small screen erected over the fence in right. We understand only some of it. We do know that Trois-Rivières manages to scavenge some runs thanks to wild pitches and sloppy play by Québec (deux erreurs). Googly-eyed mascot Capi dances atop the home dugout, waves a SuperSoaker at the crowd. A Capitales player—a pitcher with a day off, or an injured regular, or a little-used reserve—climbs into the stands with a small wooden box, collecting funds for some team-aligned cause or other.
We wander into the guts of the stadium for another beer or a bathroom break and see where they have hung on the walls images of old teams who played here, including the Athletics, the Alouettes, and the Braves, members of the Provincial League and, later, farmhands for Boston and Milwaukee. Warren Spahn pitched in this very ballpark. Hank Aaron hit a home run here. They modeled this park’s design on Trois-Rivières’ home field, built a year earlier. The Expos installed an affiliate in the ’70s, called les Carnavals, and later, the Metros. Gary Carter and Andre Dawson took their hacks. Though unique, Québecois baseball is nothing new. It goes back decades, or a century, or more.
The home team threatens a rally in the bottom of the 8th but it fizzles. They leave the bases loaded (trois coureurs laissés sur les buts), and I unfold my rally cap, returning my new Capitales lid to its proper state. Over the roof the sun is in slow transit as the afternoon ages. The ninth inning comes too quickly, proves uneventful, and then it goes.
Les Capitales are defeated by a score of 4-1, as though it matters. We saunter reluctantly out of the stadium, in no particular hurry to be anywhere else. We catch sight of the Québec GM watering potted flowers, climb into our car, make our way out of town, past the walls, the citadel, the Plains, across the St. Lawrence via the Pont Pierre-Laporte, and out into the quilted hillsides of the surrounding country, past grazing cattle, through towns and tiny hamlets named after some of Catholicism’s obscurest saints (St-Fulgence, St. Felix d’Otis), their small woodframe or grand stone churches often centuries old, their old houses in perfect trim, with shutters painted, decorated with fleurs-de-lis; blue and white and bright yellow houses, little or grand, lawns cut as perfectly as golf greens, gardens immaculate. Late in the day we return to the house we have rented, and the children run down into the field, toward the river, everything crosshatched by the long shadows of early evening. There they throw a ball, swing a bat. They’re weary, sun-drunk, and giddy with baseball, wearing and wielding the souvenirs they’ve so recently acquired; a cap, a ball, a miniature bat. Their voices filter up to us. We’re weary too and, if we’re being honest, no less taken by what we have taken in. Something unfamiliar has charmed and lulled us, though whether it is the baseball or the setting or some combination of both we cannot say.