As difficult as it may be to believe, the link between beer and baseball in Canada is even closer than it is in the United States. A brewery without major league affiliation is a brewery lacking the highest form of sports identification.
Labatt's owns part of the Toronto Blue Jays. Carling O'Keefe has an $11 million promotional arrangement with the Montreal Expos. Molson, one of the top three breweries in Canada, has its name and reputation associated with everything from skiing to auto racing; it even owns a minor league baseball team, the Vancouver Canadians. But not major league baseball. Not yet.
Molson British Columbia Ltd. is the force behind Western Canada's attempt to bring a baseball team to Vancouver, which already has a 54,500-seat domed stadium, B.C. Place. "Major league baseball knows we're ready to play in two days," Jack Beach, president of Molson B.C. Ltd., says.
The Vancouver group is quite up front about its designs on an expansion team. As Harry Renaud, the vice president and general manager of Stadium Place, said, "The success of major league baseball in Canada and its sponsorship make it a must for Molson to get into the game."
First, of course, it must be determined by major league baseball if the game can be successful in Vancouver, which if nothing else would become perhaps the most enchanting stop in the major leagues.
Molson, not surprisingly, points out that it has "the finest facility in North America without an existing major league team." And Vancouver's per capita income ranks above most of the U.S. cities that have baseball.
Vancouver seems to satisfy the criteria baseball's commissioner, Peter Ueberroth, has set down -- fan support, political support and multiple, grass-roots ownership.
Molson alone is pursuing the application for the expansion team, but several successful businesses would be major investors. All levels of government are helping. In fact, Sen. Ray Perreault, a former federal minister of fitness and amateur sport, has helped cut governmental red tape.
But as with any of the cities seeking expansion baseball, there are the inevitable questions. And Vancouver has one problem not only unique to Canada, but one apparently without an immediate solution.
"One of the big drawbacks we have is the foreign exchange," Renaud said. "That problem you can feel, you can touch. The other things are manageable, but that's very real. If Canadians are ready to eat that, then everything else will be on par."
The exchange -- the Canadian teams take in Canadian money, but pay out American money, at a loss of 34 cents per dollar -- would be a lot to eat.
Beach, whom Renaud describes as "the man who holds the purse strings," said the exchange rate, "is a fact of Canadian life right now. But the Blue Jays and Expos deal with it. And the current level, I don't think, will be permanent. It tends to move cyclically. Right now, it's a burden, obviously."
Those words don't come easy to Beach. He is a tall, athletic, dashing sort who loves baseball to the point of attending a number of the Canadians' AAA games, which are played at Nat Bailey Stadium. The park is nestled on a knoll between white-capped mountains in an setting of abnormal beauty.
Beach has two baseball paintings in his modest office at the brewery's facility near downtown Vancouver. He is clearly not interested in acquiring a baseball team to lose money.
"This would not be Molson's team; it would be Vancouver's team," he said, adding that Molson wouldn't have to have majority interest.
There are questions beyond the foreign exchange and Molson's ownership.
Vancouver proper has about 670,000 people, about as many as Washington, D.C. But whenever the baseball boosters here talk about "1.5 million in the metropolitan area" they include everyone within 90 miles. Metropolitan Washington does not extend nearly as far, but includes about 3.4 million people.
"It's a concern," Renaud said, "but it wouldn't be the smallest city in the major leagues. But with television, we're talking about western Canada, from Winnipeg, west; not just downtown Vancouver. That's with all business here, not just baseball."
The pessimists also point out that Seattle, whose Kingdome is only 144 miles away, has not drawn well. Molson even expressed interest in buying the Mariners a year ago.
"The reservation most often heard," Beach said, "is, 'Does the market really exist? If Seattle is having trouble, why won't Vancouver?' That's a question that really doesn't have an answer.
"Vancouver has a history of having support that's higher than the league averages," Beach said. "That's the way it was with the Whitecaps," which were one of the North American Soccer League teams with the best attendance figures.
"We've done a lot of economic feasibility work on Canadians only," he said, "and we feel very good about a franchise here being successful.
"There are 4 million visitors here during baseball season. And the economic situation in the Vancouver market is every bit as good as in most major league cities," Beach said, actually understating the high level of living and high emphasis on recreational spending in western Canada. Vancouver is said to have the highest per capita income of any city in Canada.
Vancouver does appear to have one considerable edge over most of the other cities that consider themselves in contention for an expansion franchise. B.C. Place doesn't have to be built (like the proposed stadiums in Tampa-St. Petersburg, Phoenix and Buffalo) or renovated like RFK in the District, Mile High Stadium in Denver or the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis.
It already exists, and major league baseball games have been played there. For two springs, Milwaukee and Toronto have put on three-game exhibitions in the dome, with the six games averaging 28,000. The AAA team will play a series there at the end of June.
Renaud, Beach and anyone else pushing for baseball in Vancouver don't insult outsiders with their enthusiasm. In fact, Molson has been criticized for being too low key.
Some think that Vancouver has fallen a bit in the eyes of baseball people, a contention that Renaud and Beach don't subscribe to.
"Our approach is intentional. We take the commissioner at his word that it's not the whistles and balloons that will get it for you," Beach said.
"Nobody's said, 'You've got my vote for sure,' " said Renaud, who for 13 years worked as an administrative vice president for the Expos. "But I don't think they've said that to anybody. We don't feel there's any point to giving more cocktail parties.
"People tend to forget that we've done a lot of woofing, at the winter meetings and at All-Star Games. And we'll be at this year's All-Star Game. My role in this, mostly, was to assist Jack Beach, and try to introduce him to everyone in both leagues.
"He's constantly in touch with major league baseball people. We want to show that we're ready whenever baseball is ready. We first came and said, 'Here's a model of a dome.' And they said, 'Go back and actually build it.' We came back 26 months later and said, 'Here it is.' "
Unlike several other hopeful cities, Vancouver has not retained a former major league executive to help lobby in its behalf. But Molson apparently doesn't feel that is necessary.
Norman Seagram, who is president of Molson Western Breweries Ltd. and the chief executive behind any bid, has been quoted as saying, "We've done a lot of homework on this, and the numbers we've shown to people in baseball indicates our assessments are accurate."
From the top of government and national business interests, Vancouver seems to have internal support aplenty. And Molson doesn't appear shy about trying to buy a struggling existing franchise.
It is said what the Blue Jays and Expos have done positively for baseball in Canada is immeasurable, and not just for the breweries that provide the financial push. Vancouver is eager to find out, firsthand.