State of Alberta’s Game

It’s not batting average, slugging percentage, OPS or WAR. But there is one number that has Baseball Alberta officials smiling from ear-to-ear.

18,000.

“We cracked 18,000 players for the first time ever in our history,” executive director Darren Dekinder told Alberta Dugout Stories. “We’re really proud of our member organizations for all they have done to grow the sport.”

It’s an amazing number, given it’s almost double from what it was just a decade ago. It’s a point of pride for the organization that oversees the sport in Alberta from the big cities to the small towns.

The exciting thing for Dekinder is to see growth in northern parts of the province, where the season can be shorter than in the southern half.

“Fort McMurray has 700 players…700 players!” he beamed. “Right from the youngest kids playing Rally Cap right through to Midget AAA. Just five years ago they were at about 500.”

OUTTA THE PARK

It’s hard to pinpoint just one reason for the continued growth of baseball in Alberta. No one can discredit the Toronto Blue Jays’ success in recent years, while concussion and cost issues in hockey and football have more parents looking elsewhere.

But Dekinder thinks getting kids hooked on baseball early is paying dividends and he cites the aforementioned DQ Rally Cap program as a big win.

“It’s a program designed to teach kids to start to develop success and their ability to throw the ball, catch the ball, hit the ball, run the bases and field the ball,” he said. “Those kinds of things, those building blocks of our sport and lots of other sports, they are basic athletic skills.”

Baseball Alberta has also made a concerted effort to make sure that once the kids are in, they are enjoying the experience. A big part of that is matching up teams to make games competitive.

He calls it a “great secret” to their success.

“Because whether I won or whether I lost, I want to be in a competitive game and I had the chance to win and a chance to compete,” Dekinder said. “If I look back 15 years ago, we had a lot more blowout-type games.”

As most people will attest, no one wins in those kinds of games, particularly at the younger levels where the basics are still being taught.

“The team that wins develops some bad habits because it was too easy for them to win,” Dekinder continued. “The team that loses is sometimes discouraged and that decreases the odds of them coming back the next year.”

THE BREAKOUT STARS

Now that Baseball Alberta is attracting top-notch athletes and is showing the ability to retain them, it was only a matter of time before they started getting more attention and recognition.

It’s come in the form of more headlines as players ascend up the ranks of the sport.

From Mike Soroka being drafted then making it into the starting rotation of the Atlanta Braves, to a handful of Alberta products including Erik Sabrowski and LaRon Smith being drafted in this summer’s MLB Draft, to dozens of others playing high-level college baseball, the results are impossible to ignore.

READ MORE: MLB Draft Review

“Nothing but positives have come out of it,” Dekinder said, citing Sherwood Park’s Tanner Kirwer as another example. “It’s over a period of time, not just one year but probably four or five years, where we’ve seen some great development.”

In Sabrowski’s case, he garnered a lot of attention at home and in college for being able to hit and pitch at a high calibre, no different than newly-minted American League Rookie of the Year Shohei Ohtani.

READ MORE: Welcome to the Ohtani Show

It’s another point of pride for Dekinder, who says teams are starting to realize they can have younger athletes play and excel at multiple positions.

“That’s a function of how these organizations develop,” he said. “We talked about smaller communities. There isn’t a stable of 40 players of that age and calibre to play, so you need to develop your team around the athletes you have and that means many of them have to adopt multiple roles.”

The success has also stretched over to the women’s game. The rest of the country was put on notice with two veterans and three rookies from Alberta donning Baseball Canada’s colours for the Women’s Baseball World Cup in Florida this past summer.

“Last year, Baseball Alberta’s board of directors created a technical coordinator specifically focused on helping drive that aspect of the sport,” Dekinder said. “The results of that are us continuing down this path of identifying those players and providing opportunities for them to develop.”

They now have a team playing Midget AA, encouraging players from across the province to play. Veterans Kelsey Lalor and Nicole Luchanski are part of that squad.

“It’s an opportunity for them to be integrated with our leagues and get reps,” Dekinder stated. “You’re not going to be a great baseball player if the first time you swing a bat is at the World Cup.”

ONWARDS AND UPWARDS

As officials converge on Edmonton this weekend for Baseball Alberta’s annual general meeting and awards banquet, the focus now shifts to the future.

As the old refrain goes: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Dekinder doesn’t believe anything earth-shattering needs to happen, just tweaks along the way.

“The beauty of baseball is it’s an old, established sport with lots of tradition and classic elements to it,” he said.

The hope is to continue growing programs at the grassroots level, but not just with the players.

“I think we had 600 new coaches in Alberta in 2018 and 200 new umpires, which is a good thing,” Dekinder noted. “You can’t sustain that growth if you don’t have those willing to coach and work with the youth to become better athletes and you need officials to serve the competitive aspect of the sport.”

With many families looking at their options, the hope is to attract them to try it out, then make it a good experience for the entire family.

“Whey they come back and bring a few of their friends with them, over time, we start to see this growth momentum we’ve experienced,” Dekinder said.

So while ball diamonds around the province have shut down for the winter, the planning and preparation for next spring is already well underway in hopes of hitting new numerical milestones.

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