By IAN WILSON
Turns out Alberta puts more in the pipeline than just oil and gas for our southern neighbours.
And even though affiliated baseball left this province more than a decade ago, there are still plenty of people who played here that are now helping their MLB teams pursue a World Series title.
With that in mind, our 2017 postseason preview looks at managers, coaches and front office staff on MLB playoff teams who spent time in Alberta.
We may never fully know how their experiences here shaped their baseball careers, but if nothing else this preview will give you some fun Alberta baseball trivia while you watch the postseason magic unfold.
AMERICAN LEAGUE (AL) POSTSEASON TEAMS
The Houston Astros easily claimed the AL West and skipper A.J. Hinch was a big reason why. Alberta baseball fans may remember Hinch from his days as a catcher with the Edmonton Trappers. The 43-year-old Astros manager played 39 games for the Trappers in 1997, hitting .376 with 24 RBI and 23 runs.
Joining Hinch in Houston is Gary Pettis, another Trapper alum. Now a third-base coach for the Astros, Pettis was a well-regarded speedster when he patrolled the outfield of John Ducey Park. In 1983, the Oakland-born product played 132 games in Edmonton, swiping 52 bases and scoring 138 runs. He returned for a brief eight-game conditioning stint in 1987 but by that point, Pettis was an established outfielder for the California Angels.
The ‘Stros assistant hitting coach, Alonzo Powell, came to Wild Rose Country in 1991 and played for the Calgary Cannons. During 53 games that season for the AAA team, Powell batted .375 while scoring 45 runs and driving in 43 runners. The outfielder returned to the Cannons in 1992 for 10 games, but soon opted to play in Japan for seven seasons before pursuing a career in coaching.
While the Astros try to figure out how to use 23-year-old pitcher Lance McCullers Jr. during the playoffs, he will no doubt seek advice from his father. McCullers Sr. spent parts of seven seasons in MLB as a relief pitcher, but injuries ultimately ended his playing career. His last days on the bump were with the Cannons, where he pitched 87.1 innings in 1993, posting 4 wins, 5 losses and a 5.67 ERA.
Another player who can seek trusted baseball advice from his father is Cleveland outfielder Michael Brantley, who is hoping to return from the disabled list in time for postseason action. Brantley’s father, Mickey, was one of the original Calgary Cannons. He
moved to the Stampede City in 1985 and between then and 1990 he played 271 games for the Cannons, when he wasn’t suiting up for the Seattle Mariners. The outfielder belted 48 home runs and stole 47 bases for Calgary while playing stellar defence at Foothills Stadium.
Ty Van Burkleo, meanwhile, made the City of Champions his home in 1992. Van Burkleo, the hitting coach for the AL Central pennant winners, played first base and in the outfield for the Pacific Coast League (PCL) Trappers. During 135 games in Edmonton, he posted solid numbers, including 19 home runs, 88 RBI and 20 stolen bases.
It’s been a long time since former Cannons teammates Kevin Millar and Mike Lowell (who both played for Calgary in 1999) had any influence on the Red Sox. Millar was a key curse breaker in 2004, while Lowell was named World Series MVP for Boston in 2007.
These days, it is Edmonton Trapper alumni who have a greater influence in Beantown.
Watch for former Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. to be taking shin and elbow guards from Red Sox players at first base. Before he served in Philadelphia’s front office or was named first base coach in Boston, Amaro Jr. played over 200 games for the Trappers in 1990-91. The speedster stole 68 bases and scored 148 runs for Edmonton during those two seasons.
Boston bench coach Gary Disarcina played with Amaro Jr. in Edmonton. The shortstop played 216 games for the PCL squad on his way to an 11-season playing career in MLB. More of a defensive whiz than a threat at the plate, Disarcina posted respectable numbers for the Trappers in 1991, batting .310, scoring 61 runs and driving in 58 teammates over 119 games. He also swiped 16 bases that year.
Other former Trappers on the Red Sox coaching staff include assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez (84 games at third base in 1994) and pitching coach Carl Willis (36 games in 1989).
The Red Sox also have former Okotoks Dawgs catcher Jordan Procyshen in the system. No, you won’t see the 24-year-old in the playoffs this year, but after finishing the 2017 season at Boston’s AA Portland affiliate he could make his way to Fenway soon.
Alan Cockrell, the hitting coach for the New York Yankees who has done great work with rookie powerhouse Aaron Judge, only played nine games in the majors.
But he played Triple-A ball for a decade, including a season with the Cannons in 1991. The left-fielder played 117 games for Calgary, hitting .290, cranking 11 home runs and manufacturing a career-best 81 RBI. His time with the Cannons included a 6-for-6 performance at Foothills Stadium when the team set a record for runs scored during a 24-5 win over the Tacoma Tigers.
Eagle-eyed Cannons fans might also recognize the guy in pinstripes waving runners around third base. Joe Espada – New York’s third base coach – played 79 games at shortstop for Calgary in 2001, scoring 61 runs, stealing 13 bases and hitting .300.
Meanwhile, Yankee bullpen catcher Jason Brown played for both of Alberta’s PCL teams. The catcher had a brief 12-game stint with the Cannons in 2001 and he spent even less time in Edmonton (four games in 2003 and six games in 2004).
New York’s wild card opponent, the Minnesota Twins, have at least a couple of Trapper connections. Michael Cuddyer, who was inducted into the Twins hall of fame this season, had a year to remember in Edmonton in 2002. In 86 games he belted 20 home runs, stole 12 bases, batted. 309, and scored 70 runs before finishing the season in Minnesota.
It didn’t take long for Cuddyer to make an impression on Trapper fans. He hit a three-run home run in his Triple-A debut during opening day against Tucson. The former outfielder is now a special assistant to baseball operations – along with LaTroy Hawkins and Torii Hunter – with the Twins.
Jeff Smith – the first base coach for the Twins – also played on that 2002 Trapper team. After 90 games in Double-A that year, Smith served as a backup catcher for 10 games in Edmonton.
NATIONAL LEAGUE (NL) POSTSEASON TEAMS
Most MLB teams have some staffers who played in Calgary or Edmonton at one time or another, but the NL West champion Los Angeles Dodgers have some prominent ties to Medicine Hat.
Third base coach Chris Woodward started his playing career as a member of the 1995 Medicine Hat Blue Jays. He wasn’t much of a hitter (batting .232, with three home runs) but the shortstop was good with his glove and good enough at the plate that he went on to play 12 major league seasons.
Dodger assistant hitting coach Tim Hyers also got his start in rookie ball in the Hat. As an 18-year-old first baseman, Hyers didn’t fare any better than Woodward at the dish. In 61 games as a Blue Jay in 1990, he hit .219, swatted two home runs and scored 29 runs. But, as with his Dodger coaching counterpart, Hyers worked his way to The Show, playing four seasons for three different MLB teams. During his last year as a player, he suited up for the Calgary Cannons, where he played 51 games in 1999.
Turner Ward, the hitting coach credited with turning around right-fielder Yasiel Puig’s performance this season, also played in Calgary. He put up productive numbers for the Cannons in 1997, batting .340, hitting nine home runs, scoring 44 runs and driving in 44 RBI over 59 games.
Randy Knorr was given the key to the City of Edmonton and named an honourary Canadian at the Trappers’ 2004 Canada Day game. Now, as a senior baseball advisor with the NL East champion Washington Nationals, can he play a key role in delivering a World Series title to the U.S. capital?
Knorr played in several Canadian cities during his playing career, which began in Medicine Hat in 1986 and ended in Edmonton in 2004. Over two seasons in the Gas City, the catcher and first baseman played 81 games for the Blue Jays. In that time, he hit 14 home runs, drove in 56 RBI and scored 42 runs. He book-ended his playing days with two years as a Trapper, backstopping 171 games and notching 85 RBI.
Nats’ hitting coach Rick Schu also made an 18-game stop in Alberta’s capital, where he played both corner infield positions for the Trappers in 1990.
Washington bullpen coach Dan Firova, meanwhile, played 75 games for the Cannons during the 1986 and 1987 seasons, posting less-than-spectacular results.
The defending World Series champions have a notable Trappers graduate on their coaching staff. Third base coach Gary Jones managed Edmonton to consecutive Pacific Coast League titles in 1996 and 1997.
Jones was the first African-American manager in the history of the PCL and he won the league’s Manager of the Year award in 1996 after the Trappers finished with an 84-58 record.
The Cubs’ staff also includes Canadian Ryan Dempster, who is now a special assistant to general manager Jed Hoyer. The 40-year-old, who came out of retirement to pitch for Canada at the World Baseball Classic in March, started five games for the Cannons in 1999, going 1-1 and striking out 29 over 30.2 innings.
It’s a long way from Wild Rose Country to the NL Wild Card game.
Torey Lovullo – Sports Illustrated’s choice for NL Manager of the Year – made short but productive appearances in Calgary and Edmonton in the mid-1990s. The middle infielder played 54 games for the Cannons in 1994, hitting .294, belting 11 home runs and generating 47 RBI. As a Trapper in 1996, he was a hit-per-game player who racked up 19 RBI and 18 runs in 26 games.
Before he was a closer in the big leagues, Mike Fetters was a pretty good starting pitcher in Triple-A. He made 44 starts for the Trappers from 1988-91, tossing nine complete games, three of them shutouts. Fetters is now the bullpen coach in Arizona.
Pitching coach Mike Butcher also appeared in 26 games for the Trappers in 1992, going 5-2 with a 3.07 ERA. He also struck out 32 batters over 29.1 innings of work.
The ambidextrous Ariel Prieto was another pitcher who got to know Telus Field reasonably well. The Diamondbacks’ coach and interpreter made 15 starts for Edmonton between 1996 and 1998 and put up stellar numbers during his time there, recording 8 wins and just one loss.
Other Edmonton connections in the Diamondbacks front office include VP of Latin Operations Junior Naboa (50 games at second base for the Trappers in 1988, with a .296 average), and power-hitting corner infielder Chris Cron, who hit 39 home runs and drove in 166 runners over 227 games in 1990-91.
Cron, now the hitting coordinator in Arizona, is the father of Angel first baseman C.J. Cron.
Player development assistant Orlando Hudson got a taste of desert-like conditions when he played 65 games at second base in Medicine Hat in 1998. He hit eight home runs, stole six bases, scored 50 runs and hit 42 RBI that season.
Meanwhile, a few older baseball fans may remember knuckleballer Tom Candiotti’s days with the Calgary Jimmies. The Candy Man joined the Alberta Major Baseball League in 1976 before embarking on a 16-year MLB career. Candiotti is now a broadcaster for the Diamondbacks.
Those not old enough to remember Candiotti can follow Okotoks Dawgs Academy grad Clayton Keyes. The 18-year-old outfielder from Calgary was a 15th-round pick in this summer’s draft, so he won’t be suiting up at Chase Field anytime soon but he’ll be a player to watch for in the future.
Lee Stevens is a familiar name to Trapper fans. The first baseman and outfielder played 340 games for Edmonton between 1989 and 1991. In that time, he hit 49 home runs and contributed 236 RBI.
Stevens has since moved on to the Colorado organization, where he serves as hitting coach for the Grand Junction Rockies of the Pioneer League. He has worked with many of of Colorado’s best young hitters as they move through the minor league system.