By JOE McFARLAND
The constant buzz of people, traffic and sirens of the big city disappears as you head out on the open highway. Just off the Trans-Canada Highway between Calgary and Medicine Hat, you see everything the wide-open prairie has to offer.
One stop along the way is Brooks. Population: 14,451. It is the smallest Alberta destination of the Western Major Baseball League. New Bombers head coach Kyle MacKinnon will be calling Elks Field “home” for a couple of months in the summer of 2018.
He’s hoping that void of noise is broken up by the screams of cheering fans at the ballpark.
After stints as an assistant coach with the Medicine Hat Mavericks in 2016 and the Fort McMurray Giants in 2017, MacKinnon is taking the reigns of a relatively-new baseball team which has yet to make the Western Major Baseball League playoffs. He believes the first step to success will be to create a culture of winning.
But MacKinnon admits that might be the hardest thing to do in summer baseball, as players are looking to have some fun while still perfecting their skills to take the next step in their careers.
“For me, as long as you’re doing your job, I know I’ll do mine, and that’s the way I’m going to run it,” MacKinnon told Alberta Dugout Stories in a recent phone interview. “Any extracurricular activities, you’re allowed to do it with summer ball, just be prepared to work for seven- or seven-and-a-half hours, whatever it takes every day.”
MacKinnon is already at work, making phone calls and visiting with players while also working as assistant coach with the McPherson College Bulldogs in Kansas. He has been given a clean slate for recruiting, in hopes of developing a team that can turn some heads. He believes the team is looking to do things a little differently than they have in the past when it comes to recruiting, something needed after a 15-33 record in 2016 and then 14-34 in 2017. And the city’s backyard might be a good place to start.
“I noticed it when I was in Medicine Hat and Fort McMurray that the local kids are first of all, not only great kids, but there’s a lot of talent out in Alberta,” MacKinnon said, citing the Prairie contingent at the T12, which is the annual national amateur baseball tournament held in Toronto, as well as the success of players such as Clayton Keyes, the Okotoks Dawgs outfielder turning heads with the Baseball Canada program.
The challenge then becomes enticing players not only to move to Alberta, but to move to a smaller centre like Brooks. But so far, MacKinnon says that doesn’t appear to be a big issue.
“Actually, for most of the U.S. players that I’ve talked to throughout the years, most of these kids will never get the chance to go to Canada, never mind Alberta, and see that part of the country or another country in general,” he said. “So a lot of them actually get quite excited about perhaps coming up there.”
MacKinnon is also not immune to the notion that many Division I players will be looking to stay closer to home, as some programs and schools are bigger than whole Canadian cities. But that doesn’t mean he can’t keep trying. He’s hopeful that a few solid recruits will lead to better results on the field, with those better results turning into better expectations in Brooks and in turn, more excitement about coming to town in the future.
“It’s not quite the grind of a college season where every play is under a microscope and there’s someone chomping at your butt to get in the lineup,” MacKinnon continued. “I think they enjoy a little more of a relaxed feel but they also understand that this is an experience that they might not ever get to if it wasn’t for baseball.”
MacKinnon’s resume also shows he knows what it takes to be a turn a team around. Not only has McPherson College improved by leaps and bounds, going from a 1-27 team in 2015 to a 12-14 record last season, but MacKinnon was a Manager of the Year with the Burlington Bandits of the Intercounty Baseball League in 2015, was an assistant with the Barrie Bay Cats in 2013 when they went to the IBL finals, and was head coach at George Brown College in Toronto, leading the Huskies to their first postseason tournament appearance in 2013. Even as a player, MacKinnon knew how to win, helping Durham College to two conference titles and a pair of National Championship Final Four berths.
He’s ready to bring that pedigree to Brooks.
“It’s a good little town,” MacKinnon said. “I love the competition, I love the league, so hopefully I can help them turn it around a little bit and get them into the playoffs for the first time.”
He also believes his experience in the smaller centres will help recruit some new talent to get the Bombers to the playoff picture.
“I don’t hide anything from them in the conversations I’ve had,” MacKinnon acknowledged. “I tell them that it’s small-town Alberta. You’re going to be looked at as ‘the thing’ to do in the summer. Go out and watch a baseball game. Little kids will be looking up to you, you’ll be signing autographs, stuff you don’t get to do at school necessarily.”