Bombers’ New Runway

By JOE McFARLAND

A new chapter in the short history of the Brooks Bombers is now being written.

Back in September, word surfaced that Sylvan Lake was getting a new Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL) franchise with one rumour claiming the Bombers were being relocated there.

Baseball fans in Brooks were taken aback, with the report quickly being snuffed out.

Heading into the WCBL’s annual general meeting, some questions were still lingering about what was happening with the Bombers. It was revealed that majority stakeholder Graham Schetzle and minority stakeholder Doug Jones had sold the team to the Brooks Regional Ballpark Association.

The league approved the deal, while Schetzle moved on to head up the new team in Sylvan Lake.

As for Brooks, they find themselves in a familiar situation. The community also owns the Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL) Brooks Bandits. And if you’re a hockey fan in this province, you know that team has become a juggernaut over the last few seasons while starting the 2019-2020 season with a 22-game winning streak.

Bombers team president and BRBA chairperson Jason Thomasen is hoping to replicate that success story on the diamond in the years ahead. He talked about the transition and the vision they have going forward in our latest episode of Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast.

Q: Walk us through this transition where the community is now in charge of the Bombers?

A:  Actually, back to the start of the season, the previous owner Mr. Schetzle approached Jason Wandler and myself and said that based on everything that had happened in the past, I don’t see myself continuing to help the team financially, but I will give you the commitment to finish this year out and then I’m going to honest with you, I’d like to have a team in Sylvan Lake. So we’ll talk through the season how that looks and as the season progressed and in talking with the league, the league didn’t want to see Brooks leave and we didn’t want to see it leave with all the work we’ve done already.

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So we came up with this agreement that the local ballpark association would be the outright owners of the team and allow us to operate with us as the ownership, giving us control with a payment plan to Mr. Schetzle getting his money back and help the team in not owing any money.

Q: Now that the plan is out in the open, the real work, I suppose, begins?

A: Yeah, the last month has been a lot of phone calls, a lot of emails, a lot of texts and finally when we got everything agreed upon and settled, it came down to the AGM and the board of governors voting to approve the sale to the ballpark association. From there, when they unanimously approved it, we knew that the work begins. No different from the work we’ve been doing, but the positivity in the community has been definitely something we’ve felt.

On November 12th, we’re holding a meeting to get people interested in the board and forming a proper board to handle the baseball operations. We’ve already had positive feedback on that. Now I think it’s just growing the game again and have people realize it’s locally-owned, it’s not something out of town. It’s here and it’s similar to our Brooks Bandits hockey club, almost identical to that team and we know how well that’s supported. So I think people knowing that here we are, we’re now in Brooks, we are Brooks. Let’s move forward and put the past behind us.

Q: That’s great to hear, especially when you look at the success of the Bandits. What kinds of things are trying to draw from them to the Bombers table?

A: I’ve actually had conversations with the Bandits over the last several weeks and just trying to get their insights on things like how we market the team and how we brand it. Having that input from an organization like that is invaluable. They’ve been through the rough times, like the first five years of their franchise wasn’t great. We’re about to go into year five, so having that as a sounding board and knowing what steps we should take and getting that kind of feedback to make those steps. We can only go up from here and having that kind of experience next to us is really nice to have. It’s going to be beneficial for us working with them in certain areas as well.

Q: Does that experience from the Bombers give you some peace of mind in knowing there is a light at the end of the tunnel?

A: I definitely think we can start to see that light. We know we have a lot of work to do and ultimately, it comes to winning on the field as well. I mean, we can do all the stuff off the field and get things working the proper way with the proper channels, but we need to start winning as well. It all starts on the field as well as off the field. I think when people start to see that, they will start to recognize that we need manpower, we need more volunteers, just like any other team in the league. Turning the volunteers into manpower and helping it grow is a big aspect of it. And then getting our players to buy into being in a small community as well. Once those two things join, we really think the tunnel will start to expand and the light will start to shine in and we’ll be on the right track, for sure.

Q:  How much leaning are you doing on other Alberta teams and looking at some of their success stories to build that on-field product as well?

A: That has actually been a really positive thing. Even at the AGM, having the other smaller market teams and even the big market teams come up to us and ask how it feels to have control. They’ve reached out to us and said if we need a hand, just come out and we’ll sit down and talk about what we did when we were struggling.

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Actually, Okotoks is a prime example. Like they said, when they first came from Calgary, things weren’t great and look where they are now. They have offered for us to come up and have a conversation with them some afternoon to show what they have done. Getting that information from those teams that are successful is invaluable as well. They have been through it and know what it takes. That’s the kind of leadership and guidance we need going forward.

Q: When it comes to vision, what would you like to see built out over the next few years as you take hold of the organization as a community?

A: Ideally, we have a strong team on the field that can compete every year and fight for a playoff spot. Financially, we would be secure and actually manage to pay for all our finances and not be struggling week-to-week. Knowing that we have a strong group of volunteers behind us, a strong board of directors behind us, and a strong, sustainable league that we can be a part of and then seeing improvements throughout the ballpark. That’s the big gauge because the ballpark association’s goal is to improve the ballpark, as well. The Bombers will be a big driving force for that if we can get things going and we will get things going successfully.

Q: What do you think is priority number one over the next couple of months to get the buzz really going in the community again, or do you think the buzz has already started?

A: I think the buzz has started, but just continually put in front of people that we’re community-owned. We’re community-owned. We are now community-owned. I think that’s the biggest thing. Even in talking to our city council, they agree that we have to put it out for people that we are now locally-owned and operated. The money that is made, if any is made, will stay right here and improves our facilities and it runs our baseball team, just like the Bandits. Seeing the team be competitive would be the next big step.

Q:  Let’s focus on the on-field product for a second: is priority number one going after a manager who can head up the troops or are you already doing some of the recruiting?

A: Jason (Wandler) has been working on the recruiting for the past three months, as I’m sure every team is. We are still head-hunting a coach. The biggest thing we want in finding a new head coach is having someone who is well-connected to the colleges in the U.S.

We’re looking forward to heading out to the ABCA (American Baseball Coaches Association) convention this year in Nashville and meeting with some coaches and creating more connections like we’ve done in the past few years. Our head coach will be our top priority, while number two will be planning our fundraising events and then getting a contract and lease with the city, which hopefully will be done over the next couple of weeks.

Q: What did it mean to hear the encouraging words from WCBL president Kevin Kvame about your business and growth plans?

A: It gives us confidence knowing they are backing us and knowing that we’ve put something forward to the league that they feel strongly that we can make it work. They see the vision we have and they see how we can implement it. Having their backing on that is a huge asset to know.

Q: On the community side, I’m always looking at kids getting involved and that family atmosphere around the park. Because at some point, you hope one of those kids who watched a game will someday suit up for the team. How integral is that in your plans going forward?

A: Probably one of the biggest goals of this is to provide high-level baseball to give kids an opportunity to see it and say, “I want to do that.” So yeah, like you said, in 15 years the kid that was coming to the games is now suiting up in your uniform. We have a couple of kids coming back this year that played high school baseball here and will be wearing our Bomber uniform again this year. As a coach myself, as a person and executive member of the Bombers, the ultimate thank you and reward is to see that. To have a kid come up to you and say, “Hey, I went to the Bombers game, it was so cool, so much fun. I can’t wait to go back there and hopefully I can play for them one day,” makes your day.

Q: On a personal note, what does it mean to you to now be taking the reigns of this organization and pushing your vision for the team forward?

A: (Laughs) It’s stressful. It’s exciting. And it’s unknown. But at the same time, I couldn’t have asked for it any other way. It’s up to us to make it a success and the fact that we have our community that is going to get behind us to do it, gives us the gasoline to power forward.

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