If there’s one word to encapsulate how many are feeling about the game of baseball in Alberta, it’s “momentum.”
From the growth of the game at the grassroots level, to several athletes making names for themselves on the national and international stages, to the emergence of college and professional stars like Calgary’s Mike Soroka, the province has a lot to be excited for going forward.
In early-November, delegates and athletes from across Wild Rose Country gathered in Edmonton for the Baseball Alberta annual general meeting (AGM) and convention to celebrate those successes and to talk about where we go from here.
Afterwards, we caught up with executive director Darren Dekinder for our “year in review” episode of Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast.
Not only did we talk about the convention and awards, as well as a keynote speech from the aforementioned Soroka, but we talked about some of the challenges facing the sport.
Q: A lot has happened since the last time we chatted about a year ago, so let’s start there. When you look back on 2019, how are you going to remember it?
A: 2019 had a couple of things going for it. One is we’re starting to see our overall enrolment, our player enrolment, start to flatten out a little bit. And I think that’s a reflection, in part, of many of our associations reaching the wall on diamond capacity. So, just having enough diamond space to facilitate the growth of the sport and we’re starting to hit that upper limit. And we’re trying to work with our municipalities to find ways to increase diamond capacity.
I guess the other really, really big highlight I remember from this last year was in our 18U Triple-A division. We tier the groupings, so we have a top tier and a second tier of those teams and we started that a couple of years ago. And this year, the tier-two team was Northern Lights Academy from Grande Prairie and they won the tier-two championship, which gave them the right to go to the tier-one championship, with the chance to go to Nationals or Westerns. At the tier-one level, they managed to get to the championship game where they lost by one run and they ended up represented us at Westerns. They got a silver at the Western Canadian Championships. To me, it’s a really good indication of why tiering is important and why you need to give all the teams an opportunity. You have to give them that shot because you never know how far they’ll go.
Q: Beyond that, being able to see some competition from every corner of the province, it’s not just one academy or community running away with it every year.
A: Yeah, for sure. We’re really fortunate. Fort McMurray has a really good program. There are lots of good programs in the Edmonton area and the Calgary area, as well. The Junior Dinos, the Okotoks Dawgs, as everyone knows. St. Albert also has a really good program. They were our 18U representative at nationals this year. Parkland, Sherwood Park, Red Deer. I mean, these are pretty consistent performers across the province.
Q: You mentioned earlier about the space issues and I wanted to ask about growing the game. We’ve recently talked about the changes happening in Sylvan Lake and Brooks at the Western Canadian Baseball League level. But kids going to those games are going to want to play the game at some point.
A: No question. What they’re doing in Sylvan Lake is awesome and you’re exactly right, Joe. It will lead to some greater interest in the sport in the community. The kids will go and meet the players, have some of their inspiration created there. I expect Sylvan Lake Minor Ball will one of the next big growth stories in Alberta baseball.
Q: How important is it to get the ball rolling on some of these expansions sooner rather than later because you don’t want to lose out on some of the momentum that has been built over the last little while?
A: Yeah, I think it’s really important, Joe. In 2017, our board created a program called the Facility Grants Program, where we were able to provide money to our member associations for specific investment in facilities. We’ve invested nearly $200,000 over the last three years in places all over the province. All those same communities we just talked about, but even smaller communities like Castor, Elk Point and places like that. They’re all growing their programs and that’s a big part of our organization’s way to support some of these activities, to provide matching grant funds where that’s required or just providing a base grant so that we can get the diamonds refurbished or new diamonds built to help the game grow.
Q: How impressed are you with the growth of the game, because we’re seeing different pockets in places we weren’t really expecting, like Badlands Academy or as you mentioned with Castor. That grassroots game seems to be rebounding a bit.
A: The grassroots is absolutely critical to everything that has been part of our success over the last ten years and will continue to be the bedrock of our success in the future. The way you grow this game is getting young players interested in playing the game in their communities and letting their talent and their abilities shine. Maybe finding some coaches in their communities so their opportunity to succeed emerges. I think many, many organizations we have across the province are doing a great job in that area and that’s where the grassroots growth comes from.
We always point to the great success stories at the top. Everyone loves to see stories like the St. Albert Cardinals going to the 18U National Championships and in years past, there have been teams from all over the province that go to that event. Everyone looks at that as a big prestigious event, but the work to get that 18-year-old to go there is really all of that grassroots stuff that happened before, across the province.
Q: Not only that but you’re also getting opportunities to host different events in this province as well. Okotoks and Fort McMurray had events over the last little while putting the sport in the spotlight. But it also gives other communities think they can do it, too.
A: Yeah, no question. In 2020 for example, the Okotoks Dawgs will be hosting the 15U National Championships and the Fort McMurray Oil Giants will be hosting the Canada Cup. These are definitely prestige events to have in our province and, you’re right, they also contribute to the growth of the game.
Q: Talk about the game itself. You just finished your annual general meeting and convention with different meetings and breakout sessions. From a game-play perspective, anything that players, coaches and families should be keeping an eye on?
A: I think I may have mentioned this once to you before, but an area of discussion we’ve had over the last couple of years has been about what age category is the right age category to introduce the ability to throw curveballs. The science isn’t really settled on whether that’s something that increases the risk of injury or not. We would be, I believe, the only province left in Canada that has prohibited throwing curveballs at the 13U level and for 2020, that’s going to be changed. We are going to permit it starting next year and we’ll see where that goes with the development of the sport. It will be a significant change, especially in that age category.
Q: How important is it going to be from a coaching perspective to teach the kids the right way to do it, especially with all of the focus on not wearing out arms and the concerns around Tommy John surgery and other injuries?
A: I think it’s absolutely critical that the coaches teach it properly. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if a coach doesn’t think he can teach it, then I think that would not be the time to introduce that to his team, whether the league rules permit it or not. It’s paramount that we protect the athletes and we introduce these things when we’re competent to do it and when they’re ready for it.
Q: How are you facilitating that? Will there be seminars put in place or will coaches be getting certain levels of certification? How do you backstop yourself for that?
A: There’s a national program called the National Coach Certification Program and there are a number of modules that I won’t go into a lot of detail about but in essence, that’s the vehicle through which we provide training and education to our coaches and that will be the vehicle that we use to ensure that at least some instruction is provided around teaching the curveball to younger players.
Q: Any other topics that have been bubbling up for you and your members?
A: Yeah, I guess I’ve talked about a lot about the positives. One area in the media the last couple of years that has gotten a lot of attention is situations where athletes might be potentially exposed to sexual abuse from coaches. So that’s a great area of focus both nationally and provincially in our sport. For example, one of the things we introduced in 2019 was a 24/7/365 hotline so that athletes would be able to confidentially and anonymously report any instance they experienced so we could investigate these things and do what we can to protect our youth from these kinds of exposures.
Q: It’s been a big focal point in the hockey world lately but have racism and other “culture” issues been on your radar?
A: Yeah, so all of those kinds of, we’ll call them “conduct areas” and by saying that I don’t mean to diminish anything having to do with the topic I just mentioned. For sure, we want a way to both train our coaches and we have a number of methods to do that. Primarily starting with Respect in Sport, which is mandatory for our coaches. But we also want a vehicle through which the players who may be experiencing something that is offside for them to be able to report it so that we can then address it.
Mike Soroka in the house!!! @Mike_Soroka28 pic.twitter.com/eVV1LMDNIP
— Baseball Alberta (@BaseballAlberta) November 16, 2019
Q: Let’s go back to your AGM. You had Atlanta Braves rising star and Calgary’s own Mike Soroka as your guest speaker. What did it mean to have someone of Mike’s calibre to come in and chat with the kids, especially after such a successful start to his Major League career?
A: Yeah, it was an awesome experience to have someone of Mike’s calibre but probably more important, of Mike Soroka’s character, be a guest at our banquet. Mike’s a very articulate young man. I thought he was terrific in terms of his interactions with our players and with all of the members who were present at our banquet. The part of the story that I think is really cool is that we reached out to Mike right around this time last year prior to his huge breakout success that he had last year. We reached out to Mike because he is a homegrown Alberta talent and we thought it would be cool to have him as a guest at our banquet. We got that stuff wrapped up early in the year, long before Spring Training and got him to be our guest. Then his season turned into what it was and that was just like the icing on the cake. It was an awesome opportunity for our players to hear from someone who is early in his journey but a journey that many of them aspire to and I thought that was really cool.
Q: And he’s not really that far removed from their journey as he’s only 22. It’s not like they were hearing from someone who played way back when. It’s someone who is living the dream as they speak and they may see a little bit of themselves in what he’s doing now.
A: Yeah, I mean, you had three of the award winners on an earlier podcast and you heard how much they spoke about how inspirational it was to have someone so close to their age make this journey. I think Conor Pote mentioned that, in his mind, it opens the doors for him and others to reach for their dreams to and that creates its own excitement.
Pretty sweet night for our family. Conor getting honoured as 15U Player of the Year and getting to meet Calgarian and Atlanta Braves ace Mike Soroka. Thanks Mike and @BaseballAlberta for a great night. pic.twitter.com/ykKqKUEvT6
— Lou Pote (@LPoter58) November 18, 2019
Q: On a personal level, what did you take away from Mike being there?
A: I was so impressed with the young man. He was so gracious in his handling of both the media, as well as all the requests for autographs and pictures and all that kind of stuff. As somebody who has the privilege of leading this organization, I was just so grateful that he was the gracious guest that he was and that what he did by making himself so available I think offers so much to our members.
Q: What does it mean to baseball in this province to people like Mike and others who make a point to keep coming back and giving back to the community here through coachings, seminars and clinics? I know Jordan Procyshen does his clinics with the Dawgs. Those players might still be going through their own journey but they are also blazing that trail for others as well.
A: Yeah, that’s a really neat topic that you’re touching on, Joe. I think we’ve seen a lot of that in the last number of years where players will come back. Sometimes at the pro level and sometimes at the college level and they’ve reconnected with their local community association they grew up in or they moved to a different town and they’re trying to find a way to coach or get involved with some of the programming. You mentioned Jordan Procyshen, I’ll give a shout-out to Shane Dawson, who is involved with the Strive Program in Calgary and he coached one of our Team Alberta women’s teams last year. Shane has found a way to reconnect, if you will. He was a terrific baseball player with Parkland, then the Spruce Grove White Sox, when they were going to Nationals.
Q: It’s just amazing how the community seems to be rallying around each other. They’re realizing that there’s an opportunity to grow, and grow in a substantive way where more players are not only competing but doing really well on bigger stages. And it’s not just the men, but as you mentioned the women as well.
A: Yeah, you gave me a great segue to the women’s program, which I haven’t talked about too much. We had five players from Alberta make it to the national team this year. We had a couple of the Jespersens because that’s the first family of female baseball in Alberta, but we also had Kelsey Lalor, Madison Willan and Kaitlyn Ross. So having those players achieve their goals as well and then we can talk about all the great male players that have come through the last number of years and several have been drafted. Guys like Erik Sabrowski, Tanner Kirwer and Matt Lloyd, I mean the list kind of goes on and on for relatively recent players that have had some opportunities at the next level.
Q: You mentioned the women’s game and I wanted to revisit that for a second. Alberta hosted the National Women’s Championships in Okotoks over the summer and, weather not withstanding, another success there. When you look at that side of the sport, along with some of the great ambassadors like Nicole Luchanski and Kelsey Lalor over the last few years, you have to be impressed with the growth there.
A: Yeah, it’s true. Our team is very young in that regard. The Nicole Luchanskis and Tara Sliwkanich and many others that I’m sure I should be remembering like the Northcotts. It was those players that established a lot of the programming that we have now. I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout-out to Chris James, who is Baseball Alberta’s girls and women’s technical coordinator and all he’s doing for our program in terms of coaching, technical development and really identifying a lot of these female athletes out there and getting them to discover their interest in baseball and the talent they might have.
Q: If you were to give a “state of the game” right now in the province, what would you say about it?
A: I think our game is healthy. I think it’s strong and vibrant. I think there’s a lot of challenges to make this game grow going forward. Some of the things I alluded to earlier in the call. I think that we have a very bright future. I think we have a strong base and some great volunteers in this province and some great organizations. We’re really fortunate because those organizations really identify and build those players up.
Q: If we were to sit down in a year’s time for another state of the union, what are you hoping to accomplish?
A: That’s a great question. A couple of things I would love to see is I would love to see Alberta win a national championship in our own province. I would love to see the Okotoks Dawgs win the 15U National Championship. There’s a certain cache that comes with winning a national championship, but to win it at home would make it more special. There would be some goals around that. I also want our grassroots members to continue to grow. I want them to continue to focus on offering the Rally Cap Program, working on developing 9U baseball and 11U baseball at the house league level. I think that a year from now, if we’re still talking about the successes that all those small communities are having across our system, I think that will keep the sport vibrant forever.