By IAN WILSON
He may not come from what is typically considered a baseball hotbed, but Bonnyville’s Nik Cardinal has baseball in his blood. And he’s also made it part of his work routine.
His coach at Allan Hancock College, Chris Stevens, describes the 21-year-old Cardinal as an extremely hard-working pitcher who is constantly honing his craft.
“He’s a great teammate and has an incredible passion for the game and winning,” Stevens told Alberta Dugout Stories.
“The biggest quality that stands to me is his competitiveness. He strives to be the best and helps his team to achieve the same goal.”
The 6-foot-1, 220-pound right-handed pitcher will return to the Fort McMurray Giants of the Western Major Baseball League (WMBL) this summer, after coming off a solid season with the Allan Hancock College Bulldogs of the Western State Conference in California.
We caught up with the Dawgs Academy grad to talk about his season at Allan Hancock College – where he won a Gold Glove for being the conference’s best fielding pitcher – and the upcoming WMBL campaign. We also spoke with him about overcoming injury and dealing with family tragedy.
Here’s what he had to say:
Q: This season with the Bulldogs you started 14 games and went 4-4 with a save. You posted a 5.79 earned run average and struck out 72 batters over 84 innings. The team went 21-19, reaching the 20-win mark for the first time since 2014. Tell us about your season at Allan Hancock College?
A: We started off our season strong, but we ended up throwing away a few games that we should have capitalized on. At the end of our season, with two games left we were in a two-way tie for second place and we only needed to win one of the two games to move on to playoffs. Unfortunately things didn’t go our way and we missed an opportunity at a playoff berth.
I didn’t have the ERA I wanted, but it was just one of those seasons where the opposition always found a way to get on base, with jam-shot hits or hits painting the foul line, but you still need to find a way to compete. I felt good. I started off the season with a good amount of strikeouts. When the opposition finds a way to get on base, I just dig down deep and find a way to stop the bleeding and get our guys back in the dugout to score some runs.
Q: What were your goals heading into this season and did you feel you accomplished them?
A: My goals heading into my sophomore season were to just stay healthy. Last year I had a shoulder injury which made me unsure of what my baseball career had in store for me. Coming into this season I felt strong and healthy, so needless to say this year was a bounce back year for me. Even now I feel great and I feel like I’m getting stronger every day. With this bounce back season I told myself I wasn’t trying to get caught up with stats. I just want to enjoy the game … I feel really content. I just went out there and played the game I love.
Q: Tell us what it’s like to play at Allan Hancock College? How is the school and the area?
A: To play for Allan Hancock was a good experience. We played in a very competitive conference and it seemed like no matter what team you played against they were always going to come out with a fight.
The school itself has a very nice campus. Off campus, there isn’t really much to do in the town of Santa Maria, but you can drive up the road to San Luis Obispo to find something to do, or you can drive down to the beach, which is only a 15-minute drive.
Q: You are from Bonnyville, Alberta. What is the baseball scene like up there and how did you get introduced to baseball?
A: Bonnyville has a great minor ball organization. Plenty of boys and girls come out in the spring for registration. It’s nice to see the kids out on the diamonds. The game of baseball seemed to run through the family.
My dad, Fred, used to play baseball when he was younger and my oldest brother, Justin, was very successful with the game. He played for the Calgary Dawgs and traveled to Florida with the Canadian Junior Nation team. After high school Justin went to go play junior college baseball in Texas at Midland Community College. He actually ended up with a shoulder injury, as well, and decided to attend Prairie Baseball Academy in Lethbridge to strengthen his shoulder. The following year he went to Mesa Community College in Arizona to continue his college career, but he passed away in a vehicle collision. I always wanted to be a pitcher and to see my older brother play, it made me want to be that much better of a ball player.
Q: How did Justin influence your baseball career? He also went to Mesa Community College – is that why you went there?
When my brother passed, I was pretty young. He passed away in the fall of 2002, so I would’ve been about five years old. My brother Justin was a huge influence in my life. He was a big dude and he had a perfect body for a pitcher. He stood 6-foot-5, weighing 230 pounds. He had a lot of attention from schools and scouts and he always worked hard for what he wanted. Justin also knew he had a gift and he used it to his full potential. I always looked up to him, always tried to emulate him – tried to copy his delivery and work ethic when I was a kid.
After his passing, many players and coaches told us that they had no doubt he would’ve made it far with his baseball career. Coming from a small town in Bonnyville, you know it’s special to hear about your brother like that and it really set the bar for me to achieve success, too.
My brother attending Mesa played a role in my decision to attend there too. Also, the program at Mesa was a hard program. I was told by the coach and others that it’s tough and many guys quit in the fall. I like hard work and I wanted to test myself, so I decided to go.
Q: Describe yourself as a ballplayer. What players do you look up to and try to emulate?
A: I see myself as a hard worker off the diamond. I always want to get better and be able to compete at my best. I’m always in the gym, either weight training or stretching. I always want the ball, and when I’m on the mound I always feel like I can get the job done to help our team win a ball game.
I try to emulate Max Scherzer. I admire his veteran confidence and how he pitches with emotion. I also look up to my brother and my father. They were the ones who introduced me to the game, and my father continues to always be there and support me.
Q: You are a grad of the Dawgs Baseball Academy in Okotoks. Walk us through that experience. That’s not exactly a close drive to Bonnyville.
A: My time with the Dawgs Academy was one of the greatest stepping stones in my life. The coaching staff welcomed me in and they really helped me develop, not only as an athlete but as a person as well. The program is easily one of the best – if not THE best – in the nation. The program and the coaching staff do an amazing job moving guys on to the next level, either at the JUCO level, NAIA, or to the NCAA.
During my time with the Dawgs I would drive back and forth every weekend to practice or to play games. Usually, if it was a weekend series, I would meet the team at the ballpark. I met a lot of good friends in my time with the Dawgs and I wouldn’t change anything about my decision to be a Dawg.
Q: You are part of a core of players returning to the Giants this season – what’s it like playing for Fort Mac?
A: Playing for the Fort McMurray Giants is definitely something special. The organization always finds a way to make me feel like family. It all starts with (Giants owner) Dutche Iannetti. He does so much for the Giants and without him I don’t think the Giants organization would be as great as it is.
Shell Place offers us a great ballpark to play in. It’s just as good as your top Division 1 ballpark. And the fans really make the whole experience even better – the fans of Fort Mac are always cheering us on through the ups and the downs.
Q: What are your expectations for the Giants – and individually – heading into this WMBL season?
A: I expect the Giants to go deep into the playoffs this year. I’ve been hearing great things about the new guys coming in and with our returning players I’m really excited to see how this season plays out. It would be great to give the fans of Fort Mac the chance to experience playoff baseball.
For me this upcoming season, my expectations remain the same: keep pounding the bottom half of the zone and execute pitches, and just give my team the opportunity to win a ball game.
Q: How much – if at all – did you keep in touch with your Giants teammates while you were in California this school year?
A: This past summer we had a great group of guys and we all seemed to bond really fast. We ended up making a group chat on Snapchat and we all keep track of one another and see how everyone is doing.
Q: Last summer with Fort McMurray you pitched 24 innings but only started one game. When you play for the Giants this year, do you know if you’ll be starting or coming out of the bullpen? Do you have a preference?
A: I’m not to sure what role the Giants have planned for me, I would prefer to remain a starter, but whatever role they see me in, I will always compete.
Q: It’s gameday – what are you listening to?
A: When I wake up on gameday I start off with soft, slow music. I try to relax and visualize what I need to do on the mound in the next few hours. When I get to the park, that’s when I’ll blast the music and get fired up. I’ll usually listen to Metallica, Rage Against the Machine, Migos and I’ve gotta throw some Drake in there, too.
Q: Any pregame rituals or favourite meals before a game?
A: The night before my start I will always go out to get a protein smoothie, and when I wake up for breakfast I will make scrambled eggs with a blueberry smoothie.
Q: I noticed you played at Mesa Community College with reigning WMBL MVP Kody Funderburk in 2016. Have you kept in touch with him over this season?
A: Yeah, of course I’ll keep in contact with him. Throughout the summer, when we played against each other, he always came over and gave us a chance to catch up on old times. Even now, I’ll give him a call to see how he’s doing.
Q: What’s he like as a teammate and what’s he like to play against in the WMBL?
A: Kody is the definition of a hard-working baseball player. He’s the type of guy you always want in the dugout. He always gets the job done. He’s a great teammate and an even better friend. To pitch against him is always a battle – I know he’s a power hitter and all I want to do is strike him out. Every time he’s in the box, it’s always a great battle.