My wife and I were sitting in the revolving restaurant at Quebec City’s Hotel Le Concorde last month, enjoying the panoramic view of one of North America’s oldest cities. We were in La Belle Province to fulfill a bucket-list dream of attending the city’s annual Carnaval, a two-week long celebration of the province’s rich cultural and historical heritage.
As our view slowly rotated from the ice floes making their way upriver with the incoming tide beyond the fabled Plains of Abraham, where the fate of a nation was decided, we were offered a different perspective of the city: one that showed residential and commercial districts divided by a ribbon of multi-lane highway, which continued on into the snow-covered Laurentians.
Our rotating view of the city continued, and soon the National Assembly, and the restaurants of Grand Allee came into view, with the Old-Town, surrounded by walls, and the fortress-like Chateau Frontenac looming in the distance. But I couldn’t take my eyes off an old grandstand with a bubble dome over its playing field: Quebec’s fabled Stade Canac, home to 8 decades of amateur, minor league, and now independent league ball.
We had driven past the old park the previous day on our drive out to Val Cartier, home of the spectacular ice hotel (we didn’t stay there; I like winter, but I don’t like sleeping in it). We were too busy trying to navigate our way for me to pay much attention to the venerable old park. But now, with some Quebecois cuisine and drink having taken the edge off slightly, the Stade stood out in all its glory. The Quebec Athletics played in the storied Quebec Provincial League for two seasons after the park opened in 1939, and then the city hosted an entry affiliated with the Giants in the Class C Canadian-American League until 1949, when they switched affiliation to the Braves.
When the league folded following the 1951 season, Quebec returned to amatuer play for two decades, until minor league baseball followed their major league cousin north after the Montreal Expos began play in 1967. In 1971, the Eastern League fielded teams in Trois Rivieres and Quebec – at one point, there were three EL teams in the province. The Quebec Carnavals were an Expos affiliate from 1971 to 75, and again from 1976 to 77 under the name Metros, and many future major leaguers spent time there. There was a trickle of talent at first, as legendary scouting director Mel Didier was assembling a deep farm system. That trickle became a stream in 1972, as future MLBers Dale Murray, Balor Moore, Barry Foote, and Jerry White donned the Carnavals’ tri-colours. The following year, Gary Carter, Steve Rogers, and Dennis Blair all passed through Quebec City, and in 1974, Warren Cromartie, Larry Parrish, and Ellis Valentine all played for the Carnavales. In 1976, Andre Dawson suited up for Quebec City, but with attendance dwindling and travel concerns growing, the league ended its partnership with the province following the 1977 campaign.
In 1999, pro ball returned to the provincial capital in the form of the Northern League, which later became the Can-Am League. The Quebec City Capitales have been the most successful franchise in the Can-Am, having won more titles (6) than any other franchise, and they’ve been among the league’s attendance leaders, averaging almost 3 000 fans per game over a 40+ home dates season.
Between 2009 and 2013, the Caps won 5 straight Can-Am titles, but failed to make the playoffs in 2014, and were knocked out in the first round in 2015 and 2016. They returned to the winner’s circle last year, and Toronto’s own Maxx Tissenbaum was a huge part of it.
Originally drafted by the Blue Jays out of York Mills Collegiate and the Toronto Mets travel program in the 43rd round of the 2009 draft, Tissenbaum opted to attend Stony Brook, a Long Island school which competes in the America East Conference. Drafted by the Padres in the 11th round of the 2012 draft after back-to-back seasons an an AEC All-Star 2nd Baseman, Tissenbaum was dealt to the Rays in 2014. Miami selected him in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 draft in 2015, but then released him in June of the following year. At a bit of a crossroads after 4+ minor league seasons, the peripatetic Torontonian (he spent a pair of off-seasons in the Australian Baseball League), decided to give the Can-Am league a try, and headed off to Quebec to join the Capitales. The results have been incredible for both Maxx and the Caps, as they returned to the post-season in 2016, and Tissenbaum was a Can-Am All-Star in 2017, as the league title returned to Quebec.
I caught up with Tissenbaum last week in Louisiana. He returned to Stony Brook to finish his business management degree, and offered to help coach his alma mater.
-On being drafted by the Blue Jays, but ultimately deciding to go to school:
I was always going to school….I got that phone call, I was actually on my lunch break at high school sitting in the car with my dad, we were just coming back from lunch…then Kevin Brand called me and said they had drafted me, and the gist of the conversation was that they had picked 7 or 8 Canadian guys in the last rounds as a nod to Baseball Canada…..they told me on that phone call unless something drastic happened over the course of the summer, it’s probably best to go to school, and develop as a player and a person, and then deal with it again in three years.
-On winding up with the Capitales:
I was with the Marlins at spring training in 2016, and I got hurt about halfway through, so I didn’t break camp with any team, kind of bounced around spring training, then they sent me up to Low A, and I played there for about a month, and then the first of June I get released, and call my agent, and said, “look, I just got released and I don’t really know what I’m supposed to do now….I pack up my car in Greensboro, NC, and just drove north….my girlfriend lives in Albany, so I went up there to stop and hang out for a few days…by the time I got there, he had already called me back, and said QC wants you….great opportunity if you can do it, if you want to do it…I made a bunch of phone calls to a number of different people in baseball to ask “is this worth it, or is this me grasping at straws?” I talked to (Blue Jays Assistant GM) Andrew Tinnish, I’ve known him for a long time, and he gave me a really good review – he actually played in Quebec their very first year – hearing from him and some other people…it sounded like an absolutely awesome opportunity, and so I drove up to Quebec City and met the team there.
-On the great fans in the provincial capital:
It was absolutely unbelievable…I couldn’t get my head around for the longest time what great baseball fans they are. You think of Quebec City and you think of hockey, but they are such good baseball fans….they’re on top of the game, they’re passionate, they show up every night, and they pack that ballpark almost every single night…it’s amazing – even in bad weather, we still had 70 -80% capacity, they’re loud….it’s a really, really fun atmosphere, and it’s really an incredible city to play in.
I asked Tissenbaum, who played in the Northwest League, how the atmosphere in Quebec compared to Vancouver’s Nat Bailey Stadium, but ironically visa issues forced the Padres Eugene affiliate to leave him behind when they crossed the border to play the C’s. He did say his teammates could not say enough about playing in front of the full houses of the Nat.
-Tissenbaum on aged but charming Stade Canac, home of the Caps:
It’s been around forever….the stadium at TR (Trois Rivieres, up the St Lawrence from Quebec) is the exact same – designed by the same person, built in the same year….they’re almost identical except for where the playing field sits in comparison to the first row of seats….ours is almost even with the first row, where there seats are elevated. It’s a really cool ballpark…you look at it from the outside, and it’s not that impressive, but once you get inside, the fans are right on top of the field…you can kind of feel that historic sense..it’s kind of like it wraps you up, and you feel like you’re right in the middle of something…probably a lot bigger than it actually is, it sort of has this huge sort of feeling.
The adjustment of going to Quebec would be difficult for any player, even someone who had grown up in Toronto. The huge Canadian element on the 2016 Caps roster helped with that:
Both years, that was part of what made me so comfortable getting up there…make a 15 hr drive from NC, and show up and meet the team that’s already been playing for two weeks, and I walked in…and I played with Marcus Knecht when I was 7 or 8 years old, and all the way up…Jasvir Rakkar was there my first year, and we played together at Stony Brook and against each other growing up…John Fitzsimmons….there was a ton of guys who I had played with or against…either at home or in college, so it was nice to have all those familiar faces going in…and then there’s a ton of west coast guys…Jordan Lennerton, Lachlan Fontaine are both BC guys…so it’s a lot of names that I recognized from the BC website too…I’d never played with that many Canadians so far….I played with Mark Hardy at one point with the Padres…he came through for a couple of weeks….and I think there may have been maybe one or two others over the course of five years…having 7 or 8 of us on a team was definitely an experience.
Being the only Canadian, it’s easy to get the, “Oh, you’re Canadian, do you say oot and aboot?” kind of deal, but being more in the majority it was a really cool dynamic….obviously a lot of the guys had never been up to Quebec, or to a french-speaking part of the country, never mind Canada in general….for a lot of guys going to Ottawa, it was the first time seeing the parliament buildings and all that ….it was cool to get to be the tour guide as opposed to being the guy trying to find his way around whatever place I’m in.
Tissenbaum easily took to Quebec City, one of North America’s most underrated cities in the summertime:
Everywhere in Quebec is just gorgeous…we spend a lot of time in Old Quebec just walking around…there’s a whole bunch of restaurants and bars on Grand Allee that we would go out to dinner after games…..it’s such a lively city, that really anywhere you go, you’re going to be able to have something great to eat, have a really good time, ….you’re not going that far out of the way.
They have a giant music festival at the end of July, beginning of August, probably 10-12 days of major headline acts, and it’s all set up on the Plains of Abraham…it’s just masses of people out there at concerts pretty much all night…there were guys that had bands that they liked that were playing at 10:30 at night…and so they’d end…..you’d finish the game, then drive up and listen to the concert, and then head home..it’s a fantastic city, there’s so much to do there.
Originally drafted as a 2B, Tissenbaum evolved into a super-utility player as a minor leaguer, a role he was willing to continue in if it meant playing time in Quebec:
I was a Middle Infielder all throughout high school, and in 2014, when I got traded to Tampa Bay, they converted me to a Catcher. When I got up to Quebec, (Manager) Pat Scalabrini brought me into the office and said, “You’ve played everywhere, assuming that you’re ready to go every day, do you care if we bounce you around the lineup?” and my answer was, the last couple of years in the minors, I haven’t played more than 85 or 90 games (in a season), so as long as I’m in the lineup, I don’t care if you put me in LF, I just love playing and I want to be in the lineup. So the first year, it was more C/3B with a few DH days, and then in 2017, because we had two Cuban National Team players at SS and 3B, I moved over to 2B and played there when I wasn’t Catching.
The Cuban element of the Caps played a strong role in their success last year. Quebec City has been a pioneer in bringing Cuban players to the Can-Am, starting with Yuniesky Gourriel in 2014. Tissenbaum says they were an integral part of the team, both on and off the field:
Every year, the Caps have had 3 or 5 Cubans….so (Yurisbel) Graciel was our 3rd Basemen, big, strong, power hitting guy. They speak no English, but they have a translator from Quebec City who’s tri-lingual, so he’s in there teaching and helping them out with the French, and then some of us speak a little bit of Spanish from our time in the minor leagues, so we’ve kind of helped them out with the odd thing in English….they’re really fun guys to be around, even having to use the translator, they’re in the conversation in the dugout, they’re active in the team group – they’re not outsiders by any stretch of the imagination. And they’re just phenomenal baseball players.
It’s a huge advantage to us, Scal and Michel LaPlante and the Caps’ front office have done a really good job going down to Cuba every year on a scouting and outreach trip…it seems like we’ve had first pick on who we want…TR and Ottawa have had guys, but they haven’t had anywhere near the kind of impact they guys we’ve had have been able to produce for us. The first year I was there, our CF Rowell Santos, he was a leadoff guy…he had a really good year, and when to the NPB in Japan last summer, and Graciel had a huge year, and a huge World Baseball Classic, and now he’s actually signed to play there too. We’ve had some major Cuban stars come through, which has been absolutely awesome.
There was a Blue Jays connection with former Blue Jays reliever Arik Sikula, and Knecht. Converted to starting, Sikula tied for the league lead in strikeouts, and helped form a starting rotation that Tissenbaum identified as a cornerstone for the team’s success:
We had really good starting pitching last year, which was a huge change from my first year…..we could score runs with the best of them, but we couldn’t keep them off the scoreboard, so this year with Arik at the front of the rotation, Karl Gelinas who was our Pitching Coach/top of the rotation starter – they were more like 1 and 1A…Rosario Blanco, who was another Cuban guy, Brett Lee (who was a former Twins minor leaguer) – our pitching was fantastic….it was a pleasure to Catch those guys. Sikula was absolutely on another level – I don’t remember him being that dominant when I faced him in the minors, but he had three-four pitches, threw everything for strikes, mixed his timing – he was very Marcus Stroman like, with the pauses and the quick pitches – guys on the other teams absolutely hated facing him. July was ridiculous – every time he took the ball, we knew he was going to give us 7 innings, and give us a chance to win.
Adding to the former Blue Jays flavour was the return of Balbino Fuenmayor, a fan favourite and former Can-Am MVP, late in the season:
Balbino was down in Mexico for most of the season, and then when his team was eliminated down there, we brought him up for the last couple of weeks and the playoffs – he’s a legend in Quebec City, there were two or three seasons where he was a top of the league power hitter. It took him a couple of games to get his feet underneath him, but then in the playoffs, he just went off, and hit 3 or 4 Home Runs and drove in 15…he was a machine in the playoffs.
In many ways, the Can-Am is a second chance league; most players are hoping for a second shot at affiliated ball, and the Caps have one of the strongest records in that regard:
Our closer, Nolan Becker, signed with the Royals, that’s a testament that Scal and the front office does in bringing guys in. There are friends of mine who’ve played in other independent leagues, and I’ve heard that some Managers can make it difficult on guys to get their contracts sold, so I think the fact that he’s done such a good job getting guys back into affiliated ball so quickly – word of mouth travels quickly, so when guys are asking me if they should go to Quebec, I say, “Yes – it’s an awesome city, it’s an unbelievable ballpark, and you’re going to have the best fans in probably all of minor league baseball, and Scal’s going to do everything in his power to get you out of there as fast as he can.” It’s a really good opportunity. It’s a good-sized city, but you’re never bored, or stuck with a lack of places to go for food or entertainment.
Tissenbaum has played at a number of stops in his baseball career, but says Quebec City tops them all:
I’ve played in four or five different leagues, and it’s easily the best city I’ve ever played in. Never mind the fans, never mind the team, it’s just the city itself, there’s so much there that can make the summer so much more enjoyable than just sitting in your apartment, and wait for 2:00 for BP.
They have two sets of apartments for the players to live in. One is about five minutes away, just at the foot of downtown, and then the other set is about thirty minutes north of the city at the foot of the mountains at Stoneham Ski Resort – that’s where I stayed both years. The first year I kind of got put there because I was late coming up, and then the second year, I made sure to request that, because it was just such a peaceful place to live – you’re sitting at the bottom of these beautiful mountains…you could just sit on the balcony and eat breakfast. It’s quiet, and very slow paced, and whenever you’re ready for the city, you just drive back down there.
Despite his team and personal success and the enjoyment he’s had playing in Quebec, at 27, Tissenbaum is unsure about his future. Despite his success in the Can-Am, a return to affiliated ball is seeming less and less likely, and while his heart longs to return to the city overlooking the St Lawrence, he knows life will soon be calling:
I keep saying to Pat a number of times, “there will never be a day where I wake up and don’t want to play,” it’s just a matter of figuring out – my girlfriend is with me in the Stony Brook area now, so we’ve got a place there – it’s just a matter of making sure that I’ve got everything organized in my personal life before I make that decision. She and I have to talk, Pat and I have to talk – I’m hoping that we can make it work, because I would love to go back again.
Tissenbaum isn’t sure where his post-baseball life will take him, but he’s caught the instructing bug with his return to his alma mater:
I’m doing it this year back with my college team – that’s why I’m down in Louisiana – I’m getting a first-hand trial run at that, which is really nice. It’s a no commitment way to try it out, get my foot in the door, and have a little bit of experience. I’ve enjoyed it so far – I’m a little worried this weekend that I’m going to have trouble staying in the dugout and not grabbing a bat and running up to take an AB or two with runners on base.
I think that there’s a lot to the sport science side of the game…it’s no longer good enough as an instructor to go in there and teach stuff and scream and yell. You really have to be a manager of people, especially with the younger guys. You can’t connect with 17-18-and 19 year olds if you’re constantly raining down, “This is what you have to do.” So there is an element of learning how to manage people and personalities, and understanding what makes people go. That’s something I’ve found with some of the coaches that I’ve played for in the minors that are either college degrees or former college coaches – it’s such a different way that they approach things.
Ultimately, Tissenbaum is unsure of what his next move will be, but it’s pretty obvious that the game still has a solid grip on him:
I’ve thought about it, but – that stupid baseball cliche, “I’m just trying to take it one day at a time,” so I’m trying to figure out where I get to at the end of the year whether I get to go back and play or not, whether I go back to school or not, whether I get a job in baseball as a coach or scout or not. There’s so much in terms of opportunity in the game and out of the game. I want to get the degree done, I want to go through this whole run of coaching here and see what my feelings are at the end of it, and try to make a clear-headed decision from there.
Manager Scalabrini had words of praise for Tissenbaum, and is no doubt that he puts off his post-career plans for another year:
Maxx was a very rare kind of super utility player. Maxx played (very well) at mostly catcher and second base (which are not exactly complementary positions) but also played other positions when needed. All of that while being one of the best and most complete hitters in the league.
I have no doubt that someone will ask after reading this article if minor league baseball could return to Quebec City. On the heels of the success of their affiliation with Vancouver, the Blue Jays kicked the tires on a relocation of an Eastern League franchise in 2014, and when the subject came up in a conversation with Blue Jays President/CEO Mark Shapiro last fall, he took noticeable interest. Ottawa city council, faced with an upcoming election, didn’t have the appetite for funding necessary stadium improvements to bring their park up to MiLB standards at that time, however, and Quebec politicians would probably face the same request. Quebec does feature a beautiful new arena just a stone’s throw from Stade Canac, but public money can be tight in a high tax environment.
Still, there are some points in Quebec’s favour. With teams spread out from the western end of Lake Erie, to south of Washington and up to Maine, travel would not be a huge concern. The Quebec players would be spending a lot of their season on a bus, but the travel would not be significantly more than it would be for any other team. Stade Canac, in addition to upgrades, would likely need some added seating, but Quebec fans have proven their baseball love, and one look no further than Vancouver for a successful blending of old and new stadium architecture.
At the same time, the question has to be asked: are the Blue Jays as popular in the province of Quebec as they are in the rest of the country? Vancouver’s affiliation has worked well because of that, but is Quebec as good a fit for the Blue Jay brand? And would the city have an affinity for minor league ball? The partnership with the Expos did not fill the stadium as one might have expected. Perhaps the ownership of the Caps has found the right mix between homegrown players (many of whom return), and top Cubans to make the team highly competitive. Minor league ball, of course, would see frequent player turnover, and while the system’s top prospects would pass through the city, their time in comparison to players on the Caps’ roster would be brief.
Perhaps Quebecers are perfectly happy with the way things are. The Can-Am is a small stage, but the Capitales are consistently the stars of the show.