By JOE McFARLAND
It was supposed to be just another “see you later.”
In front of 1,643 fans, the hometown Blue Jays wrapped up their 2002 season with a 7-3 win over the Missoula Osprey.
“And with a win and a wave, they are gone,” was how Medicine Hat News reporter Joe Langford began his post-game story. The club wasn’t heading to the playoffs, finishing the season 37-38, which meant most players were heading back to home, wherever home was.
Some would go on to greater things. Robinzon Diaz, Erik Kratz, Jason Perry, Jordan De Jong and Davis Romero would all make it to the majors eventually. Others like Randy Braun and Michael Seifert would go no further than Rookie League.
But little did anyone know, none of them were coming back.
Two weeks later, a surprising announcement from the Blue Jays’ parents: they were ending the marriage.
At the time, Medicine Hat Blue Jays GM Paul Fetz had more than a few questions about why the team would pull up stakes.
“They have been so easy to work with and they wanted to maintain a presence in the community,” he told the Medicine Hat News in the Sept. 18, 2002 edition. “For them to now leave did catch me off guard.”
“For 25 years we have been the Medicine Hat Blue Jays,” Fetz continued. “If we became the Medicine Hat Dodgers that is going to sound strange. I’ve known of the Medicine Hat Blue Jays for a long time.”
The big change within the Blue Jays organization happened a couple of years earlier, when they were purchased by Rogers Communications. Gord Ash was fired as general manager, and in his place was J.P. Ricciardi, known for his previous thriftiness with the Oakland Athletics.
“It would appear to me their objectives with the new management – though my dealings with them were all positive – are different than they have been in the past,” Fetz told the News.
One of the things that could have saved the team money was by having a Rookie League team not so far away. Medicine Hat is 3,128 kilometres from Toronto. The team decided to have their rookies head to Pulaski, Virginia, a mere 1,035 kilometres away.
But there was still optimism that affiliated baseball would continue in Medicine Hat.
“The Chicago White Sox, Milwaukee Brewers and Kansas City Royals are the three clubs currently in negotiations with Medicine Hat,” reported the News’ Derek Van Diest.
Before long, the Brewers emerged as the front-runners, having been without a Pioneer League team since 2000. They saw an opportunity and jumped on it. But the Medicine Hat Brewers wasn’t going to be an option.
Rumours ran rampant about the desire to move the team, with the possible destination being either Calgary or Helena, Montana.
On Nov. 7, owner D.G. Elmore announced the team was relocating to Helena for the 2003 season and the Pioneer League’s 25-year history in Medicine Hat was gone.
READ MORE: From A’s to Jays
“It was more for economic reasons,” Fetz said. “In my humble opinion, we were in our own neck of the woods up here. The closest team to us was in Great Falls, which is four hours away, and all the other teams in the Pioneer League were in closer proximity to each other.”
Attendance was another issue.
“It’s been a good relationship (in Medicine Hat), but one of the issues is always community support, and we have not experienced the community support we were hoping to experience up there,” Elmore told the Helena Independent Record.
This week marks the 15-year anniversary of the Blue Jays last game in Medicine Hat.
In a phone chat with Alberta Dugout Stories, Fetz said a number of factors caused the departure, including a weak Canadian dollar.
“If I was to buy an item in the U.S., it was significantly less than it was to buy in Canada, with a dollar that wasn’t as strong,” Fetz said. Whether it was equipment or concession items, the challenge was real.
As the team packed up its bags and made the move to Helena, he quickly realized how different it was going to be.
“When we came here, it was a feeding frenzy for season tickets,” Fetz recalled.
Fetz is still in Helena as president and general manager of the Brewers. He looks back on his days in Alberta as a good experience, adding it gave him an appreciation for the different challenges facing teams on both sides of the border.
The Start of Something New
The fear of not having the boys of summer back on Athletic Park turf didn’t last long. In early January of 2003, Medicine Hat city council approved the Western Major Baseball League’s use of the field for the upcoming summer.
“We’re all lined up and ready to go,” proclaimed WMBL president Doug Jones, who said the league was considering the city for a franchise for several years and saw their own opportunity when the Pioneer League abandoned ship.
The Mavericks were born.
The club made its home debut in early June with a 7-6 win over the Lethbridge Bulls. Despite an 11-21 record, the Mavericks eeked into the playoffs, then proceeded to knock off the Moose Jaw Miller Express in the first round, the Weyburn Beavers in the the East Division final, then swept the Swift Current Indians to win the WMBL championship in their first season.
“I knew we had the team that could win this league, but honestly I didn’t think we’d go as far as we did,” pitcher Scott Allgood told the News after the final. “But when playoffs came around, everybody just put everything behind us, turned the switch and picked up their play.”
Much like what fans had to do in the matter of just a few short months after their Blue Jays flew the coop. But the Mavericks reign supreme now.
Meantime, the former Medicine Hat Blue Jays organization is in for another chapter. Earlier this summer, the Elmore Sports Group announced that the Helena Brewers will relocate to Colorado Springs for the 2019 season.
According to the Billings Gazette, the Brewers’ 10-year lease agreement with the city on Kindrick Legion Field expires in 2018, coinciding with the move.
“Whether professional baseball returns to Helena beyond 2018 remains to be seen,” the paper said.