Little House on the Prairie

By JOE McFARLAND

The Prairie Baseball Academy (PBA) in Lethbridge celebrates its 25th anniversary this year and the school is marking the occasion with the introduction of its own Hall of Fame.

The first class honours a half dozen PBA pioneers, including coach Blair Kubicek; the late Keith Jorgensen; former president Rick Paskal; founder Doug Jones; major donor Larry Nolan; and Dustin Molleken, the first PBA player to pitch in Major League Baseball.

We caught up with Kubicek – or “Kubie” as he’s affectionately known by his players and colleagues – to discuss his lengthy history with the academy, which dates back to 1995.

Here’s a look at what he had to say:

Q: What is it mean to you to be chosen for the first class of the Prairie Baseball Academy Hall of Fame?

A: Well, it’s pretty hard to put into words, to be quite honest with you. The other fellas that are going in with me are greatly deserving and it’s going to be an honour to go in with them.

Q: This isn’t your first hall of fame in Alberta either. I know you were inducted into the Okotoks Dawgs Hall of Fame back in, I think it was 2014. What does it mean to you to be thought of so fondly across the province and not just in one area?

A: It’s amazing, with the Lethbridge Sports Hall of Fame and being an Alberta Centennial Medal winner, I’m honoured by that and the Okotoks Dawgs. It’s amazing for a kid from Victoria, British Columbia to go to Alberta – and I do have some connections with Alberta, because my father was born and raised in Drumheller. My grandmother taught in Drumheller and my grandfather was a miner, imagine that, a miner in Drumheller.

Q: Does it ever strike you as weird that you’re referred to in some circles as Alberta’s “Mr. Baseball”?

A: Yeah, it does … the coach part comes with the territory. I’ve got guys that are now 65 that I’ve coached and I try to tell them that it’s now okay to call me “Kubie” – just don’t call me “Blair.”

Q: What drew you to baseball in the first place and prompted you to give back to the sport as much as you have?

A: My dad had a very short career. He was 27 years old when he got signed to play for Victoria Tyees in 1952. Don Pries was a playing manager there. He went on to have a tremendous career and just passed away a month and a half ago.

So, dad played with the Yankee organization in Victoria and it just so happened that the first uniform I ever wore was that same year I was a bat boy for the team in pinstripes, so that’s how many years ago? A long time ago … that would’ve been 67 years ago.

The reason I stayed in baseball – I played every sport you can imagine as a kid growing up in Victoria – but the biggest reason I stayed in baseball was because of the coaching that I got. I can tell you all of my coaches. I can tell you their first name, their last name. I can tell you quite a bit about their families … those guys all influenced me in a huge way and I had to give back something.

And I was fortunate enough to have a wife (Anne), who … I don’t know how to explain how wonderful she is, but in 1990 I knew that it was time to move on and change my avocation into my vocation and we moved to Seattle, Washington to be an assistant coach at Edmonds Community College.

I spent four and a half years in Seattle and I ended up being the head coach of that program and was scouting with the Cleveland Indians in 1993 when Doug (Jones) and Dale Tillman and Reed Spencer and I all hooked up in Calgary at a midget tournament, and Doug started talking about putting a college program into Canada and I said, “Well, the biggest reason I went to Seattle was to figure out how it works so maybe one day I could come back and do the same thing.” That’s kind of how it got started.

Q: What was the biggest hurdle, in your eyes, in making sure PBA got off the ground and started running as quickly as it did?

A: The biggest hurdle was having our own place. Thanks to Larry Nolan, Lloyd’s brother, and the Nolan family – Bernard, his father, and Larry was his brother – and Rick Paskal and Keith Jorgensen, those guys were instrumental in putting together Lloyd Nolan Yard.

LloydNolanYard_2018
Lloyd Nolan Yard in Lethbridge … photo courtesy Prairie Baseball Academy

If I learned anything in the United States, they had their own facilities and that made a home for the players. At the time we put together Lloyd Nolan Yard, it was state of the art in Canada. In 1998, there was nothing a whole lot better than that in Canada anywhere, especially when people used to come from the U.S. four-year schools and say to us, “Boy, we wish we had a field house like this right behind home plate.” That’s what I saw as the biggest hurdle, was convincing people that we had to have our own place, and I was fortunate enough to be able to talk some guys into it and they volunteered their time and their money and their energy and away we went.

Q: What was it like when you actually pulled back the curtain on that facility and actually saw baseball being played at Lloyd Nolan Yard?

A: It was pretty special. For a kid who always wanted Canadian guys to have a place to call their own, it was pretty special.

Q: Talk about the evolution of the PBA, and as you watched from the front lines and afterwards, the transformation of the program over the years. What’s really stuck out to you?

A: Just the quality of young men that we’ve been able to turn out, from the day we opened the door until today. You look at their Facebook or their website now and the players donating meals for the players that are in there and alumni coming back and putting money into the program. I always hoped that was going to happen. We started that in the 10th year, way back in 2006, we started with the alumni back then and hoped that they had figured out that what they had done and what we had done was worthwhile following up on and they have. That’s the one thing that sticks out the most. It’s far too long a list to go across, but if you were to go down our alumni list and look at where they are and what they’re doing now, it’s pretty amazing.

Q: Was that part of the vision when you were first drawing up PBA? To make sure there’s a legacy left behind, so that you’re going to have athletes who are able to come back – whether they are pros or if they go on to post-secondary somewhere else – and give back and contribute to that growth?

A: I was always a proponent of college sports, even before I moved to the States.

I had the good fortune of sending some young men down to the U.S. and then coming back, and I could never figure out why they came back without success. They were as good of athletes as any kids I’d seen down there, but they’d come back and I just couldn’t figure it out.

Like I said earlier, my wife was good enough to take that crazy adventure with me and go to States and try to figure out what was going on down there. I think we did a pretty good job of figuring that out. We had to base everything that we did, in my opinion, on education. I got two invites to spring training for professional baseball (with the Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates) and turned down a college education because of it. I made all kinds of mistakes in my life. That was probably the biggest mistake I made, so when I looked in the mirror in the morning I thought: “Well, maybe I can help some other guys figure this deal out.”

You find that education you take to the grave with you, while your baseball career is a very fleeting moment. I’ll be 72 years old this year and damn near 70 years in the game, but there aren’t many of us that are fortunate enough to be able to say that. If you can convince parents and boys that they need an education, what a vehicle to do it with – baseball.

Q: Was baseball, particularly at the college level, a tough sell in the early going?

A: I never find anything tough. It’s what you make it out to be. You can figure out in 20 seconds if somebody’s interested or not. About two questions in you figure out whether they have that burning desire to be a student athlete.

It takes a lot to be a student athlete, especially in a program like Prairie Baseball Academy where our shortest road trip is Calgary and the longest one is Vegas. Pretty tough row to hoe when you’re spending 22 days on the road in the spring when you’re going to school and riding a bus back Sunday night and getting back to school Monday morning, so you make sure you get good enough grades so that you can continue to play.

Q: When you look back on your last couple of decades here, especially with PBA, do you have any favourite moments?

A: There’s all kinds of favourite moments, but most of them can’t or either shouldn’t be repeated. A lot of them are away from the field. Like I said, the joy in just going on Facebook in the morning and looking at what this young guy is doing and how his family is doing and where they’re living now … with me in a 20-plus year career and four and a half of it in the States I’ve got alumni of mine that are in Africa, in Japan, in Holland. When I did leave the program the players got on me and said, “Hey, you need to get on Facebook.” They were right.

I prefer to talk to guys, but I love looking on Facebook and seeing what they’re doing and how they’re doing.

Q: What’s it like to see different players that you’ve coached and mentored and to see their successes and their lives in front of your own eyes?

A: It’s wonderful to have been able to be a part of their life. It’s just amazing.

Q: What are you most proud of over the course of your baseball life here in Alberta?

A: I can’t answer that. I don’t know. Pride is something I’m not really into, to be honest with you. I guess I’m proud of the success that the program has had. I’m proud of the fact that we’ve built a good enough foundation for the program that it’s gone on for 25 years and will continue to go on, I hope, for another 25 years.

Q: When you look across this province, does the growth of the game amaze you at all? This province is known for hockey, it’s known for football and yet, there’s this community that really comes together and you’ve been such a big, integral piece in the growth of that by getting the ball rolling. Does it surprise you a little bit?

A: It doesn’t surprise me in the least. You have to have something to aspire to. My players will tell you that my biggest mantra is: if you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.

We just went there thinking we could get this done and relayed that to everybody that ever talked to us. We weren’t into politics. We weren’t into trying to one up anybody. If they wanted to play us, we’d play them. If they wanted to come to our camps, we’d talk to them. If they wanted to go to somebody else’s camp, we’d support that. We just tried to be as supportive as we possibly could for baseball. I think it worked out pretty good. I think Alberta has become a reasonably powerful province in the sport. Numbers always play against you when you’ve got B.C. and Ontario and Quebec, who’ve got huge numbers in comparison to Alberta. When you look at our record, from the silver medal team of 1997 and the Canada Summer Games to today, I think it’s pretty special. Hockey has had all of those things for years and we just had to steal a little bit of their ideas and put together a program that was complimentary to young people that wanted to play baseball.

Q: What would your main advice be to those that are trying to build something in this province in the baseball world?

A: Just believe you can get it done, and don’t listen to the nos, just listen to the yeses. You get all kinds of nos, just grab those yeses. When they say yes, grab onto that one.

Q: Listening to you speak, you almost have a batter’s mentality of no matter how many times you strike out, you’re going to get that home run. 

A: That’s right. I had the good fortune of being in business for 20 years before I gave that up and went into this industry. Businessmen trying to start a new business or build a business, there’s all kinds of people that you’ve got to bend for and do things for and you learn to roll with the punches. You can take it on the chin and get back up and have another go at it or you can fold the tent and go away. I was never going to fold the tent at anything I ever did in my whole life.

Q: What is your main message for this PBA Hall of Fame weekend?

A: Look to the people that volunteered their time. I had the good fortune of getting paid for what I did … look at the people that volunteer. Those are the people that we should really get behind.

Rick Paskal, Keith Jorgensen, Larry Nolan, Doug Jones – those people are the people that really I want to talk about. Had it not been for those four guys, we would’ve had to find another four guys and that’s not an easy task. To go and find four yeses is pretty special. Those guys were big time yeses. They helped in so many ways. That’s what I want people to understand is I hope you’re doing this for the right thing and that’s to support the youth of Canada, the youth of Alberta. That’s the future of this country, that’s the future of baseball, so support them and don’t complain about it, just do it. It really is rewarding.

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One thought on “Little House on the Prairie

  1. Hello; Great article. Congratulations Coach & Lethbridge. I was the starting pitcher for the 1975 Lethbridge Expos, in their 1st game in Lethbridge. Loved your town, great memories, hope to get back there before my time is up. Mike Grabowski, pitcher, 75 Lethbridge Expos

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