By IAN WILSON
They call him “The Bat from The Hat.”
And while baseball eventually delivered Drew Miller to Medicine Hat, he actually grew up in Schuler, a small town about 60 kilometres northeast of The Gas City.
Baseball fans in Calgary, meanwhile, are more likely to recognize Miller from his time with the Vipers, an independent league team that played out of Foothills Stadium between 2005 and 2011.
Miller played for the Vipers for the entire existence of the franchise and if you look at an offensive category, odds are he holds the team record for it. Over seven seasons with the Snakes, he posted 691 hits, including 142 doubles and 79 home runs. The hard-hitting outfielder also scored 451 runs and recorded 426 RBI. Perhaps a nickname like “The Snake Who Could Rake” would be more appropriate.
The achievements were not bad at all for a player who ended up with the Vipers by chance. Miller spent his early 20s playing for another indy league team, the Roosters of the Frontier League, but after three seasons in Richmond, Indiana, he was unable to secure a visa for the 2005 season. That same year, the inaugural season of the Vipers, Calgary’s pitching coach was Steve Maddock, a man who knew Miller well from his time managing the Windy City ThunderBolts of the Frontier League.
“He told me he had tried to trade for me while I was in the Frontier League, and when he saw I was available he made the trade for a player to be named later, but there never was a player named later,” Miller told Alberta Dugout Stories.
Even though the Vipers and Roosters played in different leagues, trades between independent leagues were a common occurrence. Following the Miller trade, the Roosters only played one more season in Richmond – but they forgot to claim their player to be named later and moved to Traverse City, where they became the Beach Bums.
None of that mattered to Maddock and Miller, who were united in Cowtown and couldn’t wait to hit the field.
SNAKES ON THE GRASS
“I found out that Greg Morrison was signed by the team as the first player on the roster. He is still the person I consider the best ball player to come out of Medicine Hat, and I was amazed I was going to be able to play on the same team as him,” said the 38-year-old Miller, who was 25 when he joined the Vipers.
“I was the third player to be signed. I was extremely excited to play so close to home. I hadn’t played a game that most of my family and friends had been able to see since I was 18. So many people I hadn’t seen in a long time appeared in the stands and I loved every minute playing in Calgary.”
While he could barely contain his excitement about playing in Calgary, Miller admits there were growing pains for the Vipers.
The Northern League announced its expansion into Calgary and Edmonton, where the Cracker-Cats called Telus Field home, in 2004. Japanese businessmen Hiro Masawa and Naoto Higuchi owned the Calgary team and promised major renovations to Foothills Stadium, but when they failed to deliver, the league took back the franchise and sold it to Winnipeg’s Jeffrey Gidney. Despite having just a few months to assemble the team and hire staff, Gidney made sure Calgary was ready to play and on May 20, 2005, the Vipers traveled to Sioux City for their first game, a 7-3 loss to the Explorers. Their first win came the next night, a 12-2 victory over the same opponent.
SNAKES ON A PLANE
The Vipers first home game “was a bit of a mess,” Miller recalls. On May 27, the team was set to fly back to Calgary from O’Hare International Airport in Chicago – along with the Joliet Jackhammers, the team they were facing that night – but a leaky fuel line delayed the flight.
“Both teams arrived at the field thirty minutes before game time,” said Miller.
“The crowd that first game was pretty big and they weren’t equipped for so many people. There was a line from the box office all the way up to where you park for the Stamps games, so they decided to delay the first pitch by an hour so everyone could get in.”
Miller hadn’t heard the Canadian anthem before one of his baseball games since he was a teenager.
“Hearing everyone in the stadium sing it gave me chills,” said the lefthanded hitter, who was eager to impress the home crowd.
The Vipers jumped out to a 7-0 lead after the first four innings, but Joliet stormed back to tie the game and the Jackhammers eventually won it by a 9-8 score in 11 innings.
“We came out swinging and took an early lead and thought the game was ours,” said Miller, who is now an assistant coach with the University of Calgary Dinos and the manager of the Coyote Den baseball training centre.
“It was a bit heartbreaking and not the first impression that we wanted to make for our home crowd. But that season we played solid baseball and just missed the playoffs.”
LESS THAN LUCRATIVE
As far as compensation went, Miller said the pay wasn’t great. When he started playing in Richmond in 2002, he was making the league minimum of just $550 a month (the maximum pay in the Frontier League was $1,250/month at that time), and when he moved to Alberta, he said the Northern League minimum was close to $750, while the top end players could make as much as $2,500 per month. His living costs were offset by staying with a host family in Indiana, but in Calgary Miller had to find his own accommodations and pay rent.
“I would say 99% of the guys playing indy ball didn’t do it for the money,” said Miller, who was named the Vipers’ most outstanding player during his second season with the team in 2006.
“Most of the time I was able to make enough of a living for the months I played ball to not have to find a summer job. I would do kids camps and appearances for a little extra money but I didn’t rely on that.”
When he did have to take on a non-baseball job, Miller had summer employment waiting in Medicine Hat with an oilfield company.
“I would save as much as I could, so I could concentrate on baseball and not have to worry as much about money. It sure wasn’t an easy way to make a living when it’s just yourself, but there were a lot of guys trying to chase the dream with families they were helping support. It isn’t for everyone.”
JOSE CAN YOU SEE
While his paycheque wasn’t enough to make him a high roller, there were other perks to the job.
One of those perks was playing with and against former Major League Baseball (MLB) players like Felix Jose, Mac Suzuki, Jose Canseco and Jose Lima.
“It was amazing to think that you were able to share the field with guys that you watched play on TV growing up,” Miller told Alberta Dugout Stories.
The Oklahoma Baptist University alum remembers his first game against the Yuma Scorpions in 2011, when twin brothers Jose and Ozzie Canseco were coaching the team.
“It looked like two adults talking to a bunch of kids … the Canseco brothers just towered over everyone,” said Miller, who went 3-for-4 with a home run in the first half of a doubleheader against Yuma, only to be intentionally walked three times during the second game.
“It seemed strange to me, because I was just an indy guy, not someone with big league time that should be pitched around. As we were shaking hands, Canseco shook my hand and said, ‘It wasn’t anything personal, but I respected your bat too much. I knew that your bat got the others going and I wanted the other bats to beat us, not yours.’ That blew me away that only after one game, he saw all of that in my hitting.”
Miller also has fond memories of the right-handed pitcher Lima, who won 21 games with the Houston Astros in 1999 before joining Calgary’s northern rivals, the Edmonton Capitals, 10 years later.
“For all the antics that you would see when he struck someone out, he was one of the nicest guys in baseball,” said Miller, who hit a home run off “Lima Time” to straight away center at Foothills Stadium.
After the game, Lima spotted Miller’s four-year-old nephew playing with a broom stick and replaced it with an autographed baseball bat.
“My nephew still has the bat, and I love telling that story. It’s still sad to think that it was his last season before he passed away,” said Miller, who wore jersey number 18 with the Vipers.
Lima died of heart failure at his Pasadena, California home on May 23, 2010. He was just 37 years old.
FORMER MLB TEAMMATES
Miller was also in awe of many of his teammates who brought their MLB experience to Calgary.
“Felix Jose was a player that could think the game on a different level than the rest of us,” he said.
The veteran of 11 major league seasons joined the Vipers in 2008 at the age of 43, but he was still impressive, despite being in his last season as a pro ball player. He clobbered 15 home runs and 70 RBI that year in the Golden Baseball League (GBL) and Miller said he could still steal bases with ease.
“He didn’t have to slide once at second. He would dance and deke the pitcher, then all of a sudden be at second,” laughed Miller.
“He also swung the biggest bat I had seen. It was a club and it felt like a telephone post. He would swing it so effortlessly and crush balls all over the field …. He wouldn’t say a lot when a lot of people were around, but when you were lucky enough to talk with him one-on-one he would talk hitting for hours with you.”
Suzuki – who pitched for the Seattle Mariners and Kansas City Royals – also made things look easy when he took the mound for the Vipers between 2008 and 2010.
“He would come set like nothing mattered and, with what seemed like little effort, he would send the ball screaming past the batter,” said Miller.
“Patrick Arlis was our catcher and he would tell us that he would just call fastballs sometimes to give the hitting a chance.”
Miller was also proud to take the field with Morrison, the current owner of the Medicine Hat Mavericks of the Western Major Baseball League (WMBL).
Before he ended up in Calgary, Morrison played in the Dodgers and Blue Jays minor league systems and he put together a record-breaking season for his hometown Medicine Hat Blue Jays in 1997 when he hit 23 home runs, belted 88 RBI and batted .448 over 69 games.
“We all knew in the baseball world (in Medicine Hat) about him,” said Miller.
“I didn’t think I would ever get to play with him. As a teammate he was a hard working player that had a lot of talent, but he didn’t let his talent be his only quality … He wanted to hit the ball as hard as he could, and he wanted to win as bad as anyone on the field.”
Morrison remembers the Northern League as highly competitive and an independent circuit that resembled Double-A baseball.
“When I got there, I knew nothing about it,” said the former first baseman.
“There’s guys that go there that are on their way out and there’s guys that go there that get back to the big leagues … You’d see some journeymen hitters that would go play in Mexico. They’d be doing very well, they’d come play with us and bounce back. A lot of guys try to make comebacks in those leagues.”
CALGARY’S FIRST PRO BASEBALL CHAMPIONSHIP
In addition to the personalities, another perk for Miller was winning. The Vipers made it to the 2007 and 2008 league championship finals but lost both best-of-five matchups in the fifth game.
They were determined to not have that happen again in 2009.
“The 2009 Vipers team was like playing on a Triple-A team. Our pitching staff was unbelievable,” recalled Miller.
“Those that had been there for both of those game five title losses were on a mission to take this championship. Right out of the gate, we took it to the league. We didn’t want to give any doubt to anyone what our goal was. We were there to win every game and would do everything to win it.”
After a successful regular season, Calgary eliminated the Edmonton Capitals from the playoff picture. Then the Vipers got a shot at redemption against the Tucson Toros in the championship finals. The Snakes returned to Calgary with a 2-1 series lead, needing just one win to clinch the city’s first pro baseball title, something that not even the Pacific Coast League’s Cannons were able to do during their 18 seasons at Foothills Stadium.
“It all ended with Mac on the mound striking out the last batter to clinch it all. There was the anticipation of being so close and counting down each out, just knowing that anything could happen in baseball. Then there was the explosion of emotions as the final out is called and you all race to dog pile and celebrate the grind that you have all been through,” said Miller of the historic Sept. 12, 2009 moment.
“I remember finding Evan Greusel, who was our pitching coach then, and also the only player other than myself who had been there from the beginning. It was amazing to win it with him, as we had been roommates from day one,” said Miller.
“I had won a championship in Richmond my first year, which was amazing, but to win one in front of family and friends, and for an organization which I had been apart of from the first practice was the most amazing and exciting feeling … my favourite baseball memory will always be drinking out of that trophy.”
Miller would follow up his championship season with an all-star campaign. He established single-season Viper records for home runs, with 21, and RBI, with 94. It was the best season of his pro career.
“My confidence was at an all-time high from the first game on that season. It was so much fun because it felt like I could hit any ball from any pitcher at any time” said Miller, who had adjusted his swing with the help of manager Morgan Burkhart.
The results at the plate weren’t immediate, but they paid off in the long run.
“I did have a rough start to that year and my teammates were so concerned that they had a meeting with me and Burky about what they were doing with my swing … as the season went on, I saw a lot of improvement in my power as well as my contact. The work paid off.”
After his stellar 2010 campaign, Miller would play just one more season for the Vipers, who folded after the 2011 season.
He would wrap up his playing career with another independent league team, the Trois-Rivieres Aigles of the Can-Am League, before retiring as a player and settling in Calgary, where he continues to coach and teach people about the game that he loves.
“I have been blessed to play the game I loved for so long, and I couldn’t have ever imagined that it would also create lasting friendships and memories the way it has for me,” said Miller.
“Baseball is still my life and I hope it always will be.”