By IAN WILSON
He was a Major League Baseball (MLB) draft pick who played in the New York Mets minor league system during the 1990s.
Then, when his playing days were over, Brandon Newell got into scouting and coaching. That ultimately led him to the Okotoks Dawgs and a life in southern Alberta.
Newell still coaches when he’s not working at his day job as a Fund Development Manager with Cystic Fibrosis Canada.
We caught up with Newell to learn more about his baseball experiences. Here’s what he shared with us:
Q: Tell me about the beginning of your baseball journey – how and when did you get into the sport?
A: I grew up in baseball. My dad (Daniel Newell) was a third baseman in the Atlanta Braves system in the early ’70s and I spent the first few years of my life in West Palm Beach, Florida at spring training hitting pine cones on the beach thrown by two-time National League MVP Dale Murphy, my dad’s roommate at the time.
Q: What helped you succeed in baseball at a young age?
A: I feel very blessed to have been given the ability to play baseball at a high level. I was able to achieve success starting at a young age thanks to some great coaching and growing up in a baseball family. I was coached by my dad and my uncle, who also played pro ball in the White Sox organization. Pretty lucky.
Q: You went to the University of Washington and you were Pac-10 All Conference as a pitcher and a third baseman. What was your university experience like in baseball?
A: I loved my time at UW. I was able to come in and play as a freshman and we had two very good teams both my sophomore and junior years. The Pac-10 was a great conference to play in and really pushed me every day. I lived in an athletic dorm right next to the football stadium and in 1990 UW won the national championship in football. This created a great atmosphere around the entire athletic department.
Q: You were originally drafted by the Mariners and then later by the Mets and spent some time in New York’s minor league system. Tell me about your time with the Mets playing rookie ball to high A during the mid-1990s.
A: The minor leagues are a grind. Long bus trips, marginal hotels, and it was really hot and humid. It probably sounds weird, but I was able to make some great friends over those years. The atmosphere around minor league baseball is interesting. You are part of a team, but it is very competitive amongst your peers. I was in the bullpen as a closer most of my career, and I definitely knew that some of my teammates were hoping to see me fail so they could get their opportunity. It was a very interesting dynamic.
Q: Your numbers in the minors were quite good and you were the Mets Minor League pitcher of the year in 1994, when you played with the Columbia Bombers of the South Atlantic League (SAL). What caused you to ultimately leave the organization and play independent baseball?
A: I had a great year in 1994 and in 1995 in Columbia, South Carolina and in Port St. Lucie, Florida. The next spring training I showed up and I had lost five to six miles per hour on my fastball. Looking back, I probably should have went to the training staff and had my elbow looked at because there was definitely something wrong, but I tried to pitch through it in fear of losing my job.
When you are in the minors, if you are not playing and proving yourself, someone else is taking your job. It is a decision I still regret sometimes today. I tried to come back with the Tri-City Posse in the Western League, but it was just not the same feeling as being in an organization.
Q: What was your time in the indy Western League like? You didn’t stay long – why not?
A: I was the closer for Tri-Cities for the first half of the season, but the opportunity to move on from that league was not there. I enjoyed my time for that half season, but I felt it was time to move on with my life at that point.
Q: After your playing days were done, you eventually ended up working as a scout with the Brewers. What did you do in between your playing days and your time as a scout? What brought you back to baseball?
A: I knew I wanted to stay in the game, but once you are out of it, it is very hard to get back in. I worked a few jobs and coached high school football for a few years at Blaine High School in Washington and I received a call from Jack Zduriencik, who was the scouting director for the Brewers in 1999. Jack was the minor-league director for the Mets, who released me a few years earlier.
He told me they had a job open in the northwest and Canada and asked if I was interested. I didn’t have to think long about that offer and I joined the Brewers in 2000. I spent 10 years as the northwest scouting supervisor for the Brewers and was in charge of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Alaska, and Canada. I loved scouting and having the opportunity to give players the chance reach their dream of playing in the MLB.
Q: Is scouting what ultimately brought you to Canada to stay?
A: While I was scouting, I would also work some baseball camps. I was instructing at the Big League Experience camp in Oliver, B.C. one summer and I happened to be coaching Vince and Matt Ircandia, and Emerson Frostad that week. At the end of the week, the Dawgs owner John Ircandia asked me to go to dinner with him. He told me about the Dawgs program that he had going in Calgary and asked if I wanted to come up and coach a group of high school players for six months. This was in 1999 and I accepted the job.
Q: That was with the Dawgs Academy. Tell us about your time as the head coach of the Okotoks Dawgs summer collegiate team in the Western Major Baseball League (WMBL)? You coached some great players, including a future MLBer in Andrew Kittredge.
A: I had two stints as the Dawgs head coach. I came up in 2003 when I was still scouting and coached them when they still played in Calgary at Foothills Stadium and again from 2011 through 2013. I loved my time in Okotoks. We had an amazing stadium, great fans, very good players, and some of the best coaches to work with. It was nice because I had some good relationships with some of the college coaches from my scouting days and we were able to bring up good players every year. The Dawgs are a first class organization and John Ircandia made sure that everyone involved had all the resources necessary to put a winning product on the field.
At the point when we are able to get Kit to come up to Okotoks (in 2011), he was almost out of the game. He wasn’t sure what he wanted to do, but we were able to get him a tryout with the Mariners after the season and the rest is history. I’m really happy for him and the career he has been able to have.
Q: After you left the Dawgs, how did you remain active in baseball?
A: After leaving the Dawgs, I helped out with the PBF Redbirds and Jim Lawson for a year and spent a few years working at the Coyote Den training facility, helping young players develop their skills.
Q: Tell me about Alberta Elite Softball. When and how did that come about and why did you want to get involved in working with female athletes?
A: In the late summer of 2017, I was approached by Greg Appleyard, a friend from Strathmore and the dad of a good young fastpitch pitcher, Lexi. He had spent the previous year with his family in Palm Springs where Lexi played both high school and travel ball. Southern California has the best players and coaches in North America and after they returned home, Greg wanted to start a high-level training academy in Calgary.
The purpose of the program is to provide the girls that have a passion to play at the college level with the coaching to prepare them to succeed. The program also trains with the guidance of Dave Mercado and Rob Baca, two of the best coaches in North America. This is a model that is different than any other organization in Alberta. We play the majority of our games in the US in tournaments that are heavily recruited by U.S. college coaches. I have twin six-year-old daughters now and it is great to be able to give back to a group of great girls who are trying to achieve their dream of a U.S. scholarship.
Q: Your wife Rachel also works closely with you at Alberta Elite – what’s that working relationship been like?
A: It’s been great. Rachel played Division 1 fastpitch at St. Mary’s in California and she has been looking for an opportunity to give back to girls since we moved to Canada. This has allowed us to work together and to see our own kids grow up around diamonds making new friends and having a bunch of girls to look up to.
Q: What are your hopes for the future of Alberta Elite – how do you see it evolving?
A: We are very fortunate to have Greg Appleyard at helm of our organization. He has built this from the ground floor and has poured in a lot of hours and financial support to ensure the success of the organization.
We had our first player commit to a U.S. college this year, and we have five others with offers. I only see more girls having the opportunity to get a great education and being able to play a game they love.
I give our players and families a lot of credit. What we are doing is dramatically different from the organizations that have played in the past. There is a higher level of expectation and a different culture that comes with trying to compete with U.S. girls for the same scholarships. This year we expect to have three teams under the Alberta Athletics Elite umbrella (U14, U16, and U19) and that only means more scholarship offers to come.
Q: You are also very active in promoting Cystic Fibrosis (CF) research and fundraising. Tell me about that role in your life?
A: In 2012, one of my twin daughters, Faith, was diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis. CF is a fatal genetic disease that affects her lungs, liver, pancreas, and digestive system. Faith currently has to do one hours of breathing treatments each day and she takes 30 pills every day just to maintain her health.
I left baseball shortly after finding out about her diagnosis and joined Cystic Fibrosis Canada as the Fund Development Manager of Alberta and the Prairies. I’m out there every day raising funds and awareness for everyone who suffers from this terrible disease. We are currently funding some amazing research that will dramatically improve the quality of life of people with CF with the use of amazing stem-cell technology. If anyone is interested in hearing more about this innovative research or how they can get involved, please feel free to contact me.
Many thanks to Brandon for making time for us. If you’d like to learn more about Cystic Fibrosis research check out Cystic Fibrosis Canada.