JOE MCFARLAND – CO-FOUNDER
My family didn’t do sunny vacations in Hawaii or Florida or anywhere like that. Being on the farm north of Lethbridge, you really didn’t have a lot of time for anything outside of a weekend trip somewhere. We would go out to the mountains or maybe travel somewhere close to home. For us, Medicine Hat was one of those destinations.
In 1994, we took a trek out to “The Hat” on what I thought was just a standard visit to the waterslides. I was 11 years old, so I didn’t know any better. Before too long, we were driving in behind The Arena and pulling into a parking spot at Athletic Park. Mom and Dad turned around and showed me the tickets: Toronto Blue Jays vs. National Baseball Institute Blues!
I recall waiting in the parking lot for players to come by, hoping for an autograph (which I received from Darnell Coles). Then I remember going in and watching the game from the first base line. It was quite high up and I know at one point one of my sisters got sick. I don’t remember a lot of the game itself. But I do remember the feeling I got watching my baseball heroes – including Joe Carter – take the field, even if it was for a couple of innings before the prospects took over.
It was spring training, not the World Series, but the two didn’t seem that far apart on that sunny day.
All these years later and I still get that feeling going into baseball stadiums. I’ve been lucky enough to watch spring training in Arizona and Florida. And I’ve watched plenty of baseball in Alberta. Nothing beats sitting around with a hot dog and a beer on a warm, sunny day watching baseball.
I’ve always been enamored with prospects. Whether it’s in junior hockey, football or baseball, there’s something about watching up-and-comers fight for their spots. I also love sports history – looking back at what was and what could have been.
Combine all of these things, and that’s how we ended up here.
You see, Alberta has a rich history of baseball that few people really know about. The sport was a staple in small southern Alberta towns in the 1950’s and 1960’s. My Dad once told me a story about how former Blue Jays GM Pat Gillick spent a couple of years playing in Vulcan and Granum.
And through the years, the Major League connections continued. The Lethbridge Expos, Medicine Hat Blue Jays, Calgary Cannons and Edmonton Trappers come to mind (to name a few Alberta-based teams that fed players to MLB). We had some great ball players pass through our neck of the woods, including Andre Dawson, Lloyd Moseby, Danny Tartabull and Devon White.
But we also have a bright future. The Western Major Baseball League (WMBL) continues to gather steam in Western Canada. We’re starting to see more locally-grown players drafted into the majors, including catcher Jordan Procyshen by Boston in 2014 and pitcher Mike Soroka, Atlanta’s first-round pick in the 2016 draft.
What we’re hoping to do with this project is put a focus on a sport that doesn’t always get the love it deserves, as the headlines continue to be dominated by hockey and football. It’s an opportunity for us to share some stories about the sport’s past, present and future in Alberta. And it’s a chance for us to celebrate the legacy the sport has carved out in communities across this province.
IAN WILSON – CO-FOUNDER
When I was a boy, I decided professional baseball player was the best job in the world. I was a bigger fan of hockey but baseball just seemed better as far as professions go. Instead of ice and cold, there was green grass and sunshine. No boards, no glass and no hip checks to send you to the infirmary.
As I got older and my physical abilities made it clear to me that pro baseball player was not a viable career path, I realized the sport could be enjoyed in other ways. I could enjoy it at Athletic Park – home of the Medicine Hat Blue Jays; I could listen to its summer sounds on the radio; I could unwrap pack after pack of baseball cards in search of the latest hot rookie card (thanks for nothing Rico Brogna!); I could armchair GM my fantasy baseball team; I could compete against similarly talented opponents in recreational slo-pitch leagues; and as my journalism career developed, I could write about it.
The years bunt singled by and my love of baseball remained. It was always hockey in the winter and baseball in the summer. That love was severely tested during the steroid era, but every relationship has its ups and downs.
VIN SCULLY’S SWEET NOTHINGS
Ultimately, there is a beauty and a purity about the game. You can smell it in an old glove, feel it in the stitches of cowhide, see it in Ken Griffey Junior’s pure-joy smile and you can hear it in Kevin Costner’s voice when you watch Bull Durham or Field of Dreams. Like an outfielder tracking a home run ball close to the wall, it jumps off the page of a good W.P. Kinsella book. And whenever that beauty and purity is in doubt, Vin Scully whispers sweet nothings in your ear to remind you of this: more than any other sport, baseball really is poetry in motion.
And while it is commonly associated with the U.S., a country that once claimed it as its national pastime, baseball’s place in Canada is secure and thriving. Looking closer to home, the game’s history and status in Alberta is impressive – impressive but overlooked. The affection for it is not the same as the overzealous energy so easily found in many rinks around the province. But it’s there. It’s not always reflected in the headlines or spotted on the ticker, but baseball in Alberta should be celebrated and cherished.
The mass of Blue Jays fans here should offer a tip of the cap to Medicine Hat for spending a quarter of a century nursing legendary players like Jimmy Key, Pat Borders and Chris Carpenter from the nest of their Single-A ball club.
Cubs and Expos fans here should give a knowing smile when Hall of Famer Andre Dawson’s name is mentioned, because they are fully aware that the Hawk started to take flight in Lethbridge before he soared into Cooperstown.
Calgarians, meanwhile, can beam at the fact that their city helped create arguably the best designated hitter in baseball history. No, we did not get to see Junior’s magnificent swing here and we shared only a cup of coffee with A-Rod but Edgar Martinez spent parts of four seasons in Calgary with the Cannons.
BREATHING THROUGH EYELIDS
Not to be outdone, Edmonton also had many brushes with baseball greatness. Fernando Valenzuela – a legend with a back story to prove it and a man who could breathe through his eyelids – took the mound in a Trappers jersey, joining Dante Bichette, Wally Joyner and Devon White in the notable alums department.
As fun as the did-you-know trivia of baseball in Alberta is just begging to be dusted off, there is so much more to the game here. Okotoks has gifted us one of the more picturesque ballparks in the country, and if you’re there with the right eyes you’d swear an Iowa cornfield is nearby, or at least a Taber cornfield. Yet as pleasant as it is to take in a WMBL game in Alberta, there is even more going on here. This province is producing future major leaguers right now.
Past, present and future baseball has a nice home in Alberta – a home that includes fences and lines but no limits. And we want to share our view of it from our dugout.