By IAN WILSON
The Edmonton Prospects will have a new look in the dugout next year, as the coaching duo of Ray Brown and Orv Franchuk is moving on.
But the experienced skipper tandem may not be away from the Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL) for very long.
The Prospects announced the resignation of Brown, the team’s head coach, and Franchuk, the director of baseball development, on Sept. 12th after contract discussions with owner Patrick Cassidy broke down.
“We had a couple of requests that we presented and it didn’t work out,” said Franchuk, who also decided to step away from his coaching responsibilities at GateWay Community College in Phoenix.
“We decided to move on. It’s a business. It was time maybe for a change.”
The decision was a difficult one for Brown and Franchuk, who both joined the Prospects in 2014.
“It’s not going to be easy for me and Ray to walk away. I’m not wishing bad things on the ball club. I’m sure that they’ll be fine,” said the 74-year-old Franchuk, who was born in Wandering River, Alberta.
Cassidy said the departure of the popular pair of coaches is unfortunate, but the focus will shift now to bringing in new personnel for 2019.
“I’ve had a long relationship with those two gentlemen, going back to the late ’70s or early ’80s, so it’s sad for it to end. You sometimes think those things will never end,” Cassidy told Alberta Dugout Stories.
“We said in the press release that we regret the fact that they’re moving on and that is the case, but it was their decision. We had some differences of opinion on how things needed to go here. At the end of the day, we had some differences of opinion and they felt that they needed to move on.”
Coaching changes in the WCBL – formerly the Western Major Baseball League (WMBL) – are not generally big news because most teams in the league swap out coaches every summer.
But Brown and Franchuk, who were brought in to turn around and stabilize a struggling Prospects team that posted a 6-38 record in 2012 and a 6-40 campaign in 2013, have become fixtures in the league and in the RE/MAX Field dugout.
“We’ve spent five years with the Prospects and we think that in those five years we’ve done a lot of good things for the Prospects,” said Brown, a former player and coach with the Edmonton Tigers of the Alberta Major Baseball League.
Since 2013, attendance rose from a total of 11,125 fans over 22 home dates – an average of 506 per game – to 45,172 during the regular season this summer. That worked out to crowds of over 2,000 heading to RE/MAX Field each game. More than 5,000 people also cheered on the Prospects during four home playoff games this season.
“We think we had some correlation with that. We felt it was appropriate to ask for a little bit of increase in our pay and to ask for a little bit more in our budget that Mr. Cassidy gives us for players and coaches. It hasn’t changed in five years,” said Brown, adding Cassidy countered with performance-based bonuses.
“To be fair to Mr. Cassidy, we were the highest paid coaches in this league, by far. But we just thought we’ve done a good job and it’s okay to sweeten the pot a little bit because we’ve given you five times your attendance. We weren’t asking for the moon, just a token to say: ‘thanks you guys’ and ‘we appreciate what you’re doing.'”
Cassidy said it’s been a long road to profitability for the Prospects and every expense requires scrutiny.
“The truth of the matter is we’ve got a big stadium here, but big stadiums come with big costs. We’ve got maintenance and utility costs that other teams don’t have to deal with. Our utility bill in Edmonton is probably as big as all the other teams combined,” said Cassidy.
“In order to become sustainable and profitable, we’ve had to bust our butts, getting people in the seats and engaging the corporate community so that we can be profitable. It’s taken some time. It didn’t happen in year one. We’re finally at a place where we’re making some headway. We’re probably profitable right now.”
Added Cassidy: “You have to look at every budget line. You sometimes have to say, ‘This is a good offer,’ and if somebody doesn’t take it you have to go in a different direction. Not that we want to, but things being what they are from a sustainability standpoint you have to weigh everything. Sometimes you have to put sports loyalties and working together over the years aside a little bit and make a value decision.”
JUST WIN, BABY
On the field, Cassidy said there is room for improvement. During their first season in the Edmonton dugout in 2014, Franchuk and Brown watched the Prospects post a 17-29 record. That was followed by a 21-26 regular season in 2015 and a 22-25 campaign in 2016 – they went to the WMBL championship final that year, losing in three games to Swift Current.
The last two seasons, the Prospects have been a .500 regular season team, but they’ve had postseason success. Edmonton lost the WMBL title to Swift Current a second straight time in the summer of 2017 and this year they defeated the Okotoks Dawgs in the first round before losing to the Medicine Hat Mavericks, who won the WMBL championship over the Regina Red Sox in five games.
“Since Ray and Orv have been here, during the regular season we’ve more or less been a .500 ball team. And I’ve maintained that we’d like to be a first or second place team in our division. There’s some advantages to that and that’s where we’d like to be,” said Cassidy.
“We feel like in Edmonton here we’ve got a lot of things going for us and we should be one of the flagship franchises in this league. There’s an expectation to win. There’s an expectation to go far in the playoffs. And there’s an expectation to win championships.”
Brown acknowledges the sting of not winning a league championship, but he said there is a lot that goes into coaching summer collegiate baseball.
“Orv and I are both teachers. We like to teach the game. I liked that many times our teams were 90% Canadians and sometimes half of that was local guys from the Edmonton area. When you consider that some teams had 20 import players and with our roster we went to the championship two times and within one game of the championship this year. And we made playoffs four of the five years we were here,” said Brown, a former pitcher who has done scouting work for several Major League Baseball (MLB) teams.
“You always want to win, for sure. But when I look at the teams that we had, we were as competitive as any team in the league with far less imports. We were hoping that we could show the league that there are Canadians out there that can play, so drop the imports and go find the Canadians. We don’t need to develop the Americans – they’ve got leagues that they can play in.”
Brown looks back fondly on many of the players he coached with the Prospects – including Derek Shedden, Nick Spillman, Tony Olson, Noah Gapp and Erik Sabrowski – as well as the special moments he witnessed, including playoff runs and Rich Walker’s perfect game.
Franchuk, meanwhile, said winning is important but the biggest goal was to ensure that the players would leave the Prospects better than when they first arrived in Alberta’s capital for the summer season.
“Ray and I tried to run the team like a pro club,” said Franchuk, who served as the Edmonton Trappers hitting coach in 1998 and the Edmonton Capitals manager in 2011.
Juggling the travel, the condensed schedule and the well-being of the players is a balancing act.
“It’s a grind in a lot of different ways,” said Franchuk, who has a 2004 World Series ring from his time working for the Boston Red Sox.
“A lot of people don’t realize how difficult the travel is. We’re one of the more northern teams in the league, so we had a lot of bus rides that were four or five plus hours and Saskatchewan trips that are eight hours so that part is difficult.”
Despite the strain of the summer seasons, Franchuk has enjoyed his time in Edmonton working with Prospects players.
“I know the Edmonton community is a good baseball community, from Little League to senior level ball,” Franchuk told Alberta Dugout Stories.
“And the players that played for us, I know that their experiences were good experiences.”
For now, Franchuk plans on soaking up some sun at his Mesa, Arizona home, but he isn’t ruling out a return to his home province or the WCBL.
“Next summer, who knows? I might be back up in that league with another club doing something. I’ve had quite a few calls,” said the member of the Edmonton Sports Hall of Fame.
Brown confirmed that the duo may end up squaring off against the Prospects in 2019.
“Right now we’re in talks with a couple teams within the league and if we can find a fit, we’ll go there,” said Brown, adding he expects whoever ends up coaching in Edmonton to achieve success for the Prospects.
“I think Mr. Cassidy will find a coach who will do a good job for them. He’s overcome some hard times and now he’s enjoying some good times. He treated us fairly. We can’t complain – he’s been a good boss to us. It’s just that sometimes it’s time to move.”