By IAN WILSON
Those dark clouds hovering over the baseball world don’t seem to be going anywhere. What started as a bleak-looking rain delay graduated to postponed games, and we are now in a phase where many cancelled contests won’t ever be played.
What’s lost may never be found.
One of the latest casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic is the Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL), a summer collegiate circuit previously known as the Western Major Baseball League with historical roots dating back to the 1930s.
“This difficult decision was based on our number one concern, the health and safety needs of all involved,” read a WCBL press release following the unanimous board of governors vote on May 27th to scrap the 2020 campaign.
“The league determined it would be impossible to guarantee the safety of players, coaches, umpires, host families, staff, volunteers and fans during the COVID-19 situation to the extent required by authorities.”
The 2020 Western Canadian Baseball League season has officially been cancelled. pic.twitter.com/ERIiGnwMWJ
— The WCBL (@wcbleague) May 28, 2020
For some, the loss of the 2020 WCBL season may be yet another cancellation announcement, one less fun thing to do over the summer. For baseball people in Western Canada, it represents a lot more.
Of course, it’s important to acknowledge that the coronavirus has exacted a devastating toll worldwide, claiming hundreds of thousands of lives while wreaking economic havoc.
We are talking about sports here. With that disclaimer in mind, let’s examine why this latest development is important.
THE FINAL OUT
University baseball programs in the United States, including those governed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), began shutting seasons down in mid-March when it became apparent that most major sporting events would need to be put on hold for an indefinite period.
It was a blow to more than 100 players from Alberta who were scattered across the U.S.
They were denied the opportunity to create memories like the ones former Okotoks Dawgs infielder Matt Lloyd generated last year with Indiana University when he launched a walk-off bomb against Minnesota during the Hoosiers march to a Big Ten Championship.
Now watch the man himself breakdown that memorable at-bat! pic.twitter.com/JRAVk9AEjf
— Indiana Baseball (@IndianaBase) April 27, 2020
Nor will there be a workhorse pitcher setting a new record for complete games at his school, the way Albertan Taran Oulton did at William Woods University in 2019.
And despite eligibility relief for senior college players, a move that will grant them an additional season of play, many athletes simply have to move on with their lives and embark on careers away from the ball diamond.
North of the border, the Canadian College Baseball Conference (CCBC) was also forced to axe its spring season, which runs from late March through mid-May.
The CCBC consists of post-secondary teams from B.C. and Alberta, including the University of Calgary Dinos, Edmonton Collegiate Trappers, and the Prairie Baseball Academy (PBA) out of Lethbridge. The PBA was set to host the league championship at Spitz Stadium May 14-18.
STEALING SIGNS OF HOPE
With the benching of so many seasons, the WCBL was poised to play the role of saviour, not just for baseball, but for sports fans of all stripes in Western Canada.
The 10-team league, which calls Saskatchewan and Alberta home, draws players from the CCBC and post-secondary schools across North America.
How many ball players who had their seasons wiped out would now look for fresh opportunities in places they may have never considered before? Senior players not ready to let go of their gloves and bats typically seek out summer leagues that allow them to keep living out their baseball dreams. How many more of these well-rested seniors, no longer suffering from nagging injuries, would look at Western Canada as an option? What about those ball players trapped at home, hitting off of tees into basement nets and throwing off of makeshift mounds in their backyards? What would they be capable of unleashing in more spacious diamond-like conditions?
And what about the house-bound sports fans who have been living off of Netflix and classic sports replays from decades gone by? What would a trip to a ballpark on a sun-filled day to watch an actual live game do to quench their sports-loving souls? How much greener could that grass actually get?
For now, we’ll have to just look up at overcast skies and wonder if the clouds will part long enough to hear those two glorious words … “Play ball!”
WHAT ARE WE MISSING?
It would be easy to write the WCBL season off as not much of a loss at all, dismissing it with plenty of qualifiers. It’s just summer ball. It’s just collegiate players. It’s just Alberta and Saskatchewan.
It is summer collegiate baseball in two Western Canadian provinces, but it’s so much more than that.
The league is currently in its second year of a rebranding exercise that saw it adopt the new Western Canadian Baseball League name, emphasizing its national identity, and the re-introduction of All-Star Game festivities, which included a home run derby. The changes also saw each team increase its number of regular-season games from 48 to 56, while reducing best-of-five playoff series to a maximum of three games.
The WCBL attracted just under 300,000 fans to a dozen baseball markets during 335 games in 2019. Those attendance figures represent the largest ticket-buying baseball audience in the region. Affiliated, minor-league baseball – the rookie-level ball offered by the Pioneer League and the Triple-A product provided by the Pacific Coast League (PCL) in Calgary and Edmonton – is long gone and it’s unlikely to return. Whether you’re a fan or not, the WCBL is the baseball circuit that is most worthy of your time and your money right now.
For their part, the Okotoks Dawgs account for more than a third of the league’s fanbase, welcoming nearly 4,000 people per game to Seaman Stadium, one of the best ballparks in Canada. The Dawgs are the reigning WCBL champions and renovations at their stadium will see the addition of a new visitors clubhouse, as well as concessions and a patio area past the berm seating section along left field. The loss of this season denies them the opportunity to defend their title and show off their “Core 4” expansion to the largest crowds in the league.
In Edmonton, despite drawing over 2,100 fans a night to RE/MAX Field, the Prospects are in a far more precarious position. After watching a group led by former Oiler defenceman Randy Gregg secure a long-term lease for RE/MAX Field there is a very real chance the Prospects may not call Edmonton home again. The team has set its sights on Spruce Grove for the 2022 season and the status of the 2021 season remains up in the air. The Prospects have made the playoffs five straight summers and this was to be the second year that they hosted the WCBL All-Star Game event.
SOMETHING TO PLAY FOR
The Medicine Hat Mavericks, meanwhile, are just one year removed from a 2018 championship season. They are perennial postseason performers and a stable presence in the Gas City’s sports community. Playing out of Athletic Park, the former home of the Medicine Hat Blue Jays of the Pioneer League, the Mavs also provide an important link to that city’s baseball history.
The same can be said of the 2015 WCBL champion Lethbridge Bulls, whose home field at Spitz Stadium used to play host to the Expos, Dodgers, Mounties and Black Diamonds in the Pioneer League. A facelift of the ballpark wrapped up in 2018. That project included improvements to the entrance, the construction of an upper concourse, and the installation of an elevator.
Fort McMurray – a community that’s been battered in recent years by economic turmoil, wildfires and now flooding – is in need of a good story. Their hometown Giants seemed ready to give residents something to smile about. After adding former Prospects coach Ray Brown to their staff, Fort McMurray posted a .500 record in 2019, finishing just one game out of the playoffs. Was this to be their breakthrough season and their first year of postseason baseball?
The Western Division’s last-place Brooks Bombers also have much to look forward to. The team recently transitioned to a new ownership model that sees the community taking charge of its operations. The jury is still out on whether or not the local approach will lead to a more competitive product on the field, but Brooks has plenty to prove.
In Saskatchewan’s Eastern Division, the Yorkton Cardinals and Melville Millionaires were already taking a one-year leave of absence to improve their financial situations and baseball operations. But the Regina Red Sox lost in the finals to Alberta teams the last two seasons and are hungry for revenge. The Swift Current 57’s, the league’s last back-to-back champs in 2016 and 2017, also want to see their names on the Harry Hallis Memorial Trophy again soon. The Weyburn Beavers and the Moose Jaw Miller Express have proud baseball histories to build on, as well.
MAJOR LEAGUE DREAMS
The players also have aspirations, and the dream of following up a summer in Western Canada with a professional baseball career has been achieved by numerous talents.
Gold Glove-winning shortstop Andrelton Simmons, Seattle pitcher Marco Gonzales, and Tampa Bay reliever Andrew Kittredge are a few Major League Baseball (MLB) players who suited up in the WCBL before they made it to the bigs.
Countless other pitchers and batters came through the league before they were selected on MLB draft day. Erik Sabrowski, Kody Funderburk, Greg Cullen and Matt Lloyd are among the more recent WCBL graduates who are working their way through the minor leagues.
Of course, not all the players move on and impress baseball watchers at higher levels, but there is more than enough talent to garner your attention. That said, the prospect of witnessing a future major leaguer shouldn’t be the prime incentive when it comes to watching the WCBL.
The appeal of the league really boils down to is this – it’s good baseball. Take every sentimental reference you’ve ever heard about the sport: the crack of the bat, the thwack of the ball into the glove, the sun caressing the brim of your ballcap, the thrill of the grass, the inaudible scream of the umpire during a big call, the all-to-audible replies from the dugout, the loving embrace of third base after you leg a double into a triple. Don’t forget the whiff of popcorn and the frosty taste of beer in your mouth as you check the scoreboard to see if the pitcher has surrendered a hit yet. It’s all there and it’s all as true as it’s ever been – baseball is the best game there ever was, and the best game there ever will be. It’s an athletic endeavour so perfectly crafted that the participants scarcely matter. Alright, maybe some talent adds to the enjoyment, but the setting is often more important than the moving parts on the field.
In a less-than-perfect world, this flawed league is somehow capable of offering up perfection. It delivers those rare nights when you doubt what your eyes have told your brain.
During last year’s WCBL championship-clinching game in Okotoks, there were lead changes and stolen bases and errors and bodies crashing into outfield walls. There was a moment when what looked like an amazing catch in the seventh inning ended up being a home run. The sequence converted rabid cheers into furrowed brows, followed by murmurs of concern for the prone outfielder.
That was just one night at the ballpark.
There have been other glorious nights recently. There was a chair-chucking tantrum in Edmonton that would have made Lou Piniella proud. Players in both dugouts still likely get a laugh out of Mitch Schmidt’s antics during that game between the Dawgs and Prospects.
There have been controversial home run records established in the WCBL. Brooks catcher Riley MacDonald’s long ball outburst in 2018 was celebrated by Bombers fans but scorned by critics who deemed his efforts were ballpark enhanced. Fans always love a good debate.
And, yes, there was baseball’s own version of perfection that also took place during that 2018 season. Rich Walker threw the league’s first perfect game when he took the mound for the Prospects at Shell Place in Fort McMurray on June 29th.
Those are the moments, the games and the nights that will be missed.