St. Marys – Canada's diamond legends may soon not be heading to Stonetown to be immortalized in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. If the finances don't immediately improve, the lights could be turned off at the hall of fame before June, Canadian ball hall president and chief executive Tom Valcke said. "It's the bottom of the ninth and we need a home run," he said. "You can't keep bleeding red year after year. What's going out is greater than what we're taking in and it has been that way for the past few years."

Though baseball is usually several light years away from the public's radar screen in December, it's still a front-and-centre issue for Valcke and the residents of St. Marys. The hall is hung up in the proverbial pickle, caught in an endless chase for cash to keep the operation in action.

"We've done the nickel and dime stuff for fundraising but you can't do that forever. We need to become economically self-sufficient," said Valcke. That means creating a money-making vehicle that will keep the hall going. Valcke, a former big-league scout hired four years ago to head the hall and keep it viable, is confident he has a solution in a proposed baseball academy. The idea is to build a dormitory-style building with 64 themed rooms that would transform the hall from an attraction to a destination for both tournaments and corporate getaways.The theme is baseball, with 30 rooms made up in the style of each major-league team.

For instance, visitors could ask to stay in the Toronto Blue Jays room. The other rooms would be created with an eye to great Canadian players, such as the Fergie Jenkins room or highlights of Canadian baseball history such as Babe Ruth's first professional home run.

"We already have commitments that would fill the academy during the [10 weeks of summer]," Valcke said. "That would be enough to cover the entire annual expenses of the hall [about $300,000]. With this, we could bring more tournaments to St. Marys, including hockey tournaments. We've had requests from companies who have seen this plan and want to bring their employees here for a retreat to get out of Toronto and smell the green grass.

"All we have to do is build it," Valcke said.

The academy's cost, billed as Phase II in the hall's master plan, is estimated at about $5 million. Already-completed Phase I involved the creation of the site's three baseball diamonds at a cost of $3.2 million. The taxpayers of St. Marys, population 6,000, have already pledged $800,000 toward the second-wave effort. Since locals hotels and inns usually hum during the summer from the Stratford Festival, most view the academy plan as a potential boost to the economy rather than an anchor.

Valcke is looking for a title sponsor for the academy, which would also act as permanent home base and training ground for Canada's national baseball team. The Canadian team, managed by former Blue Jay catcher Ernie Whitt, finished fourth at the Olympics in Athens. "We've got tremendous support from the people of St. Marys and the cement plant. We now need corporate Canada to step to the plate," Valcke said.

This week, Valcke is heading to New York to meet with Charles Bronfman of Seagram liquor. The former owner of the Montreal Expos has said his greatest moment was throwing out the opening pitch of the first World Series game played in Canada in 1992 at the SkyDome. If Valcke's pitches don't work soon, it's likely the hall will have to move. Several cities are interested in housing it. But the academy plan is strictly a way to keep the show on the go in St. Marys.

"If we know we're going to have this academy built, we can keep going the way we are now for a while," he said, "but we can't keep going like this forever."

GLOBE AND MAIL – 5 December 2004

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