Senior Fredericton Royals return to Baseball Hill after two-season hiatus

·5 min read
The Fredericton Royals returned to play this season, after a two-season hiatus from the New Brunswick senior men's baseball circuit. (Andrea Matheson from JCK Media & Design - image credit)
The Fredericton Royals returned to play this season, after a two-season hiatus from the New Brunswick senior men's baseball circuit. (Andrea Matheson from JCK Media & Design - image credit)

On a night earlier this summer, after nine innings ended and the crowd dispersed, Kirk Cornell walked out to an empty, quiet Royals Field.

Under the lights, he stood there in awe of the beauty of the ballpark, home to baseball in Marysville for more than 120 years.

He imagined the ghosts of Fredericton baseball past, from the mill workers who played on the field in the 1800s, to his own senior baseball career with the Fredericton Royals in the late 1990s.

"For people involved in the baseball community, this place is a little bit of heaven, really," Cornell said.

But for the previous two summers, Fredericton's Baseball Hill has been a bit quieter.

The Fredericton Royals senior men's team, which played its first game at Royals Field in 1895, took a two-year hiatus from the New Brunswick Senior Baseball League. The league cancelled its season in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Royals didn't play in 2021, after the former management group decided to step away.

The team returned to play this season along with the Chatham Ironmen, forming a five-team circuit with teams in both New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

The Royals were resurrected thanks to a group of volunteers led by two former players, who couldn't bear the idea of another season without senior Royals baseball.

"They've been playing ball here for well over 100 years," said Cornell, who played five seasons with the Royals and now serves as assistant coach and co-manager.

"For there not to be a senior team out of Fredericton in the league, we had to do whatever we could to try to stop that."

Starting from scratch

Cornell was at Crabbe Mountain when he heard the Royals' former management group had decided to retire.

Around that same time, Cornell phoned his friend, New Brunswick senior baseball legend Derek Wilson, with a pitch.

"It kind of hit home at that moment that somebody's got to step up and why can't it be us?" Cornell said.

Andrea Matheson from JCK Media & Design
Andrea Matheson from JCK Media & Design

Wilson played 27 seasons of senior baseball, and more than half of those with the Royals. Many of the league's records still have his name at the top: most hits, runs, doubles and wins, to name a few.

But running a team is a whole different ball game.

"Trying to bring a team back into existence when you have nothing to start with: no equipment, no baseballs, no bats, no bank account, no uniforms, no sponsors, it was a daunting task," said Wilson, who is the team's head coach and co-manager.

"We were trying to raise funds. We're asking businesses for help and support, through a pandemic that they're trying to survive."

Both say the business community stepped up from the beginning, providing the sponsorships they needed to run a season.

A new era of Royals

Baseball teams need bats and gloves, but they also need players.

"We had some doubters, people telling us you won't get the players," Cornell said.

"The players did come out. We had significant interest."

Ed Hunter/CBC
Ed Hunter/CBC

The Royals put together the youngest team in the league, ranging in age from 20 to 26. Their coaches have been training them since January.

"Some guys have developed into players that we didn't expect them to develop into at this point," Wilson said.

"And it makes us feel good that we've, in some small way, contributed to their successes."

On opening night, Cornell felt a mix of nerves and excitement. He wondered how the team would perform and whether, after two years away, fans would return to Royals Field.

But the crowd came back, eager to soak in the game they missed.

One of the faces in the crowd was Billy "Buzzard" Saunders, the former coach of a national title-winning Royals team, and a fixture in the team's history.

Saunders, now 76, grew up beside the field, and has been watching Royals games since he was 10 years old. He recently penned a two-volume book detailing the history of the league from 1970 to 2019, called The Buzz on New Brunswick Senior Baseball.

Greg Knudson from JCK Media & Design
Greg Knudson from JCK Media & Design

Settled in at his typical spot near the first-base line for the first pitch of the season, Saunders felt like he was home again with family.

"When the league stopped, it almost took a part of our bodies away from us," he said. "[Having the team back] just gives us an extra boost."

A succession plan

Now about halfway through the season, the Royals have been competitive. They sit one game back of league-leading P.E.I., who they'll play in a doubleheader at home on Saturday.

That's despite missing key players at points this season. Cornell had to fill in at catcher for a few games, and Wilson expects he'll have to pitch in at some point too.

The Saint John Alpines spent most of last season playing only one other team, the Moncton Fisher Cats, before the border to P.E.I. re-opened.

Alpines general manager Terre Hunter is happy to see the return of the Saint John-Fredericton rivalry.

"It gives the kids something to watch and to aspire to," Hunter said.

"Fredericton being so central and having such a long history of baseball in the province, it was just great to see them back and in good hands."

Cornell and Wilson plan to run the team for the foreseeable future, but they hope a new generation of Royals will take it over one day.

"Being a part of the Royals again and seeing how the community has really rallied around the team, you can see the joy and the excitement that the team is back," Cornell said.

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