Werewolves’ legacy fun at the forks

John Kuhn pitched pro ball at Labatt Park in 1999. Jeffrey Reed/Special to Postmedia News Picasa / jpg, LD

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It’s hard to believe that this year marks the 20th anniversary of the London Werewolves’ 1999 Frontier League championship.

That was London’s last major baseball championship victory, so when players and coaches from that now defunct ball club recently reunited to remember their memorable season, they had much to celebrate.

The London Majors (est. 1925) last captured the Intercounty Baseball League championship in 1975. And the London Tigers, who left for Trenton, New Jersey after playing at Labatt Park from 1989 to 1993, captured the Class AA Eastern League championship during their sophomore season.

Since then, London has celebrated national championships at the minor baseball level. The Mike Lumley-led London Badgers, who play host to the Baseball Canada U18 championships this week, boast five championships in that tournament over the past decade, including back-to-back titles in 2017 and 2018. And the Dorchester-based Great Lake Canadians recently claimed four Canadian Premier Baseball League titles in four age brackets.

But the Werewolves’ championship in 1999 still holds as London’s last big win.

The Werewolves were only here for from 1999 to 2001, but their legacy is fun. Since then, there has always been much more than just baseball at Labatt Park to keep fans entertained. The Werewolves established a template.

In July, players and coaches from that 1999 team gathered with the Frontier League’s Evansville (Indiana) Otters, managed by Andy McCauley who was bench boss of that Werewolves championship club.

“To a man, every one of the players said it was the best summer of their lives,” said John Kuhn, Werewolves general manager now living in Fort Myers, Florida. “They’ve grown, they have their own kids, but they remember that summer and how much fun it was.”

It seems like only yesterday that the quiet corner of Wilson Avenue and Riverside Drive somehow morphed into a combination of New Year’s Eve at Times Square, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and professional minor league baseball, all rolled into one big party.

Kuhn, whose father, James, was the Werewolves’ majority owner, was part of four professional championship teams in four separate leagues during his storied front office career. He had leaned on mentors including Mike Veeck, former marketing director for the Tampa Bay Rays, part owner of a string of minor league franchises and son of the game’s greatest promoter, Bill Veeck.

Kuhn, 51, left pro ball in 2017, and today is special events manager with the Harry Chapin Food Bank of Southwest Florida in Fort Myers where he has volunteered since 2012. Kuhn and his wife, Londoner Jennifer Burling, and their son, London-born TJ, a high school senior, are enjoying Florida life.

During the Werewolves’ three-year stay, before moving to Canton, Ohio, the club went 54-30 with a league title in 1999; 46-37 with an Eastern Division playoff loss in 2000; and finally a fifth-place finish after a 37-47 record in 2001. Attendance during that span totalled 60,456 in 1999 (average attendance 1,439); 58,747 (1,416) in 2000; and 42,061 (1,001) in 2001. Considering the fan climate in London, those were impressive numbers.

McCauley led the club from the dugout, while Kuhn performed his magic in the front office — and anywhere else where he could contribute, including occasionally inside the costume of team mascot Warren Z. Vaughn (a clever play on Warren Zevon, who recorded the song, Werewolves of London).

The 1999 squad benefited from extraordinary team chemistry and included numerous Canadian players, many with Intercounty ties including Jason Borghese, Brett Gray, Ian Harvey, Derek Masse and Jamie Pogue.

In a 1999 interview, Kuhn said, “We have to please 99-per-cent of the thousands of people who come here. Every night is New Year’s Eve and every fan is a king or queen.”

If you blinked then you missed the Werewolves’ stay in London.

But it sure was a great party.

Jeffrey Reed is a freelance writer and publisher/editor of LondonOntarioSports.com and LondonOntarioGolf.com.

jeff@londonontariosports.com.

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