By JOE McFARLAND and IAN WILSON
Last inning. Bases loaded. No one out.
In the bronze medal game of the 2017 Baseball Canada Men’s National Championships in Victoria, JP Willner found himself in a situation so many baseball players hope to find themselves in.
The Red Deer Riggers needed just one more run to break the 8-8 stalemate and snatch victory from their arch-rivals from Alberta’s Sunburst Baseball League, the Sherwood Park Athletics.
Willner, the Riggers’ all-star designated hitter, led the Sunburst League in hits, doubles, home runs, RBIs and was in the top-ten in pretty much every statistical category. Time to swing…
Interestingly, Willner faced a similar situation in extra innings of the semi-final against B.C. With one out and the bases loaded, Willner grounded into a double-play on a first-pitch swing to end the threat. B.C. would push six runs across in the top half of the next inning to win the game and move onto the finals, while Red Deer was here, in the bronze medal matchup.
On the mound for the A’s: Adam Paulencu. A workhorse who topped the league in strikeouts and finished second in wins and innings pitched. By this point in the ball game, he has thrown 105 pitches, 56 for strikes. Pitch #106…
It is still considered rare in baseball, although it happens more frequently than a no-hitter. In what had to be a tempting moment, not just for redemption but for victory, Willner held back, drawing a walk-off walk and an 8-7 Riggers win, claiming the bronze medal.
Taking Ball Four
Even Willner admits the pitch was pretty borderline.
“Paulencu did make a pitcher’s pitch in the 3-1 count that could have went either way, low outside that was thankfully called a ball,” Willner told Alberta Dugout Stories.
Having been through the semi-final situation, it wasn’t that he was skittish about what was coming with that count, but he wanted retribution. All he was thinking was to make solid contact and get the ball into the outfield. He wasn’t taking it all the way, but he wanted to be picky.
“If the pitch was called a strike, I would have accepted it and looked for a similar pitch 3-2,” he said. “I didn’t swing because I was in a favourable count and that pitch wasn’t one I could drive or hit solidly for a base hit.”
And when he heard “ball four,” he was a little surprised and relieved the Riggers were victorious.
“But growing up, no kid dreams of taking a walk for the winning run – I wanted to hit our guys in,” Willner said. “No matter how we won, it always feels better winning than losing.”
Don’t Call Them Seniors
Sometimes forgotten in the allure of Major League Baseball and, more locally, the Western Major Baseball League (WMBL), the Sunburst League is made up of four teams: Red Deer, Sherwood Park, the St. Albert Tigers and Confederation Park Cubs.
“The Sunburst League is considered the highest level of amateur baseball in Alberta for players 19 and over,” Riggers pitcher and coach Joel Peterman told Alberta Dugout Stories.
“Players in this league come from a wide range of backgrounds. From NCAA Division 1 and Division 2 programs, to players from the CCBC (Canadian College Baseball Conference), to ex-professional baseball players, this league has it all.”
The Sunburst League competes with the WMBL in more ways than one, said Peterman.
“Recruitment for the Sunburst League is actually quite a challenge …. We are in competition with the WMBL organizations for the kids coming back from college and university. The ones who don’t decide to commit to the WMBL will be approached by teams in the Sunburst.”
Peterman said he, his teammates and his opponents are continually working to educate baseball followers about their Senior AAA league.
And there’s the word: senior. It might have a certain connotation that some players and even fans can’t get over.
“People often see ‘senior’ label and think that it’s just a beer league or a bunch of has-beens,” Peterman said. “The level of baseball is the highest you will find in the province.”
Central Alberta’s baseball scene might be a bit forgotten, given all of the excitement the season conjures up in other markets in Alberta with the WMBL. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a strong presence.
“Baseball in Red Deer is growing,” Peterman said. “We have easily the biggest fan base in the league with over 200 fans coming to each home game. While 200 fans isn’t terribly impressive, the fan base continues to grow. We have really put an effort into our social media and presentation of our games and this has paid off in the stands. Fans of all ages come to our games for the baseball, the music, the 50/50s, beer gardens and much more.”
Willner has also been impressed by what he’s seen in the stands.
“I have been consistently shocked at the support the Red Deer community gives to the Riggers,” Willner said. “This is senior men’s baseball and we can draw bigger crowds than WMBL or college games I have played in.”
He added the quality of ball is a bit understated.
“Pitchers can still throw 85-90 miles an hour with secondary pitchers,” Willner said. “Hitters can legitimately hit home runs. Overall, the baseball is still a very high calibre and I am thoroughly enjoying my time playing.”
Rounding The Bases
Red Deer is flexing its sports muscle, not just in baseball, but evidenced by being named host of the 2019 Canada Winter Games, among other events. The Riggers program has been a successful one, with provincial championships in 2009, 2010, 2013 and 2014 before a two-year absence ahead of this year’s title and trip to Nationals. Combine the two, and it paves the way for a reputation.
“With the bronze medal game at Nationals including two teams from the Sunburst League, it shows that our league may, in fact, also be some of the best amateur baseball that you will see in the country,” Peterman said.
So could something big baseball-wise be in the works?
“We may be putting in a bid to host the Senior AAA National Championships,” he concluded. “Stay tuned!”