Fielder’s Choice

By JOE McFARLAND

The lights will stay on at RE/MAX Field in Edmonton. It just remains to be seen who will play under them.

After a couple of years of speculation, rumours and proposals, a group led by former Edmonton Oilers defenseman Dr. Randy Gregg announced recently it had acquired a 10-year lease to operate the ballpark.

The incumbent Edmonton Prospects had been seeking that same lease and when word surfaced they weren’t getting it, they announced a move to Spruce Grove for the 2022 season.

The two moves have provided a little more clarity for both sides, but also leave some lingering questions about what will happen in 2021 and even beyond, as the Prospects have regional exclusivity as part of Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL) rules.

What does that mean for the future of baseball in the river valley and the capital region as a whole? We tried to get to the bottom of it in a recent episode of Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast.

What we found is that there are still a number of questions left unanswered in what has been an ongoing saga for the WCBL in Edmonton.

NOT THE FIRST TIME

The Prospects haven’t had the best relationship with their home city since the team’s inception.

Taking the diamond in 2005 as the Big River Prospects, the club was forced to relocate after experiencing scheduling conflicts with the Edmonton Cracker-Cats of the Northern League at Telus Field.

The team moved to St. Albert for the 2006-2007 seasons, then took a leave of absence in 2008 before returning to Edmonton in 2009. However, they wouldn’t be back in the river valley as they spent three seasons in John Fry Park before moving back to Telus Field in 2012. That move was made easier when the Edmonton Capitals withdrew from the North American League.

Then in early 2018, the alarm was sounded about what was about to happen with the newly-minted RE/MAX Field. Prospects owner Pat Cassidy told the team’s annual gala fundraising dinner that the City of Edmonton was looking to firm up its long-term plans for the site.

READ MORE: Diamond In The Rough

Several concept plans had been proposed, including demolishing the ballpark to build condominiums. It kickstarted numerous rumours and conversations about what baseball’s future would be in the provincial capital.

For their part, the Prospects came forward with proposals for a long-term lease, but couldn’t get anything signed. Instead, they were working year-to-year with nothing promised beyond 2020.

DIGGING FOR GOLD

While the world was at a standstill waiting out the COVID-19 pandemic, the wheels were still in motion on a long-term lease for RE/MAX Field.

It all came to a head in May when Baseball Edmonton Inc. announced it had signed a long-term lease for the ballpark.

Headed up by Gregg – who pitched for the Edmonton Tigers in the Alberta Major Baseball League in the 1970s – the group has some big aspirations. However, they likely won’t include the Prospects.

“We acknowledge that the City has chosen a new direction and we respect and embrace that decision,” the Prospects said in a news release a day after the lease announcement.

While wishing the Gregg group success in the future, the Prospects also announced plans to move to Spruce Grove for the 2022 WCBL season. The idea didn’t really come out of the blue, as word hit The Grove Examiner in March that Cassidy’s Gold Sports and Entertainment Group Corp. was planning to bring a franchise to the area. Originally, it was to be operated as a separate entity from the Prospects.

That obviously changed with the news two months later.

“We’ve always seen Spruce Grove as an exciting opportunity,” Cassidy told Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast. “There are so many things we like about it in terms of demographics and location.”

He compared his situation to Okotoks, where the Dawgs moved after facing several issues with the City of Calgary. Cassidy admits he has been leaning on Dawgs managing director John Ircandia for advice on how to handle the situation.

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The slate is clear and that’s what excites Cassidy the most.

“This just opens the door wide open to anything and everything and we have some exciting ideas and concepts that are going to be incorporated into this ballpark,” he said.

He sees a lot of potential to work with local baseball associations, which could lead to the creation of an academy down the road.

“This is an incredible opportunity for me,” Cassidy said. “I’m excited about it and I like being in control of my own destiny.”

RE/MAX RE-IMAGINED

The same enthusiasm for the future is being felt by those who have acquired the new lease for RE/MAX Field.

Gregg believes there are four pillars to the vision for the facility. It starts with infrastructure investments like the field turf and scoreboard.

He also uses the term “hub” for not only baseball activities, but cultural events, including concerts. Gregg is hopeful that having a wide array of people around the table with his group will lead to greater diversity in what the area has to offer.

“It’s not just a bunch of athletes or business people,” Gregg told Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast. “It’s to get a reflection of the community to do what’s best for all.”

After hearing the rumblings about tearing down the building he once played in as a member of his hometown Edmonton Tigers, Gregg believed it was time to step in when the city opened up the “request for proposal” process.

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Image captured in the Red Deer Advocate following the Edmonton Tigers’ Alberta Major Baseball League title in 1976.

He wants to see RE/MAX Field become the “anchor facility” for the river valley in the future. The Edmonton native believes it can become something the city can rally around, especially with plans for beautification previously announced by different levels of government.

“It might be the glue to bring these groups together, ” he beamed.

There is one caveat to all of this though: they need an anchor franchise.

IT’S A TEAM GAME

It’s not going to be easy for Gregg’s group to get that final piece of the puzzle. They might have the lease, but they don’t have a team.

There had been rumours at one point of a Double-A franchise moving to Edmonton, but with recent developments around the contraction of minor league baseball, that’s a pipe dream at best. So they will need to approach the WCBL, which hasn’t happened yet.

“Yeah, of course, we’d like to do it yesterday,” Gregg said.

According to WCBL president Kevin Kvame, they would have some options available, like applying for a new franchise or buying the current one. But in both situations, the group would have to talk to the Prospects.

“We have one thing in our constitution that talks about the territorial rights of existing franchises,” Kvame said of the 100-kilometre buffer that current teams are given. “So the Prospects need to be dealt with, one way or another.”

Gregg says they have pitched a “wonderful” and “very financially lucrative option” to the Prospects so that they can stay at RE/MAX Field, but it’s not an avenue Cassidy was willing to entertain.

However, he’s not ruling out lifting the regional restriction if the right deal came along.

“If someone put a reasonable offer on the table, we would look at it,” Cassidy confirmed. “But so far, that hasn’t happened, so it’s not an option for us right now.”

WHAT ABOUT 2021?

With the 2020 season being scrapped by the WCBL, the attention is now shifting to 2021.

The Prospects plan to move to Spruce Grove for the 2022 season while the Baseball Edmonton Inc. lease would begin in 2021. Could it be that there won’t be any WCBL action in RE/MAX Field for another year?

Cassidy claims he made an offer to the City of Edmonton to extend their lease by an extra year, as the cancellation of the season has had ramifications on things like season tickets and sponsorships.

“They basically rejected that outright,” he said. “I think it was part of a hardline negotiation tactic, but it was rejected.”

Cassidy is setting a deadline of August 1st to find an option.

“If there are no options, if we have nowhere to play next year, we’ll go back to the league and request a leave of absence for a year until we can get Spruce Grove up and operating.”

Gregg isn’t standing on the sidelines, knowing he will need to get a team into the stadium before too long.

“We’ll do what we can to try to entice them to play,” he said. “And if that’s not the case, we’ll try to get a franchise.”

He thinks there’s a “really good opportunity” to have two teams in the Edmonton area eventually.

Both Cassidy and Gregg say they are powering forward with their plans and time is on their side with the 2020 WCBL season no longer going ahead.

However, there are some major questions that will need to be addressed by both sides should they want the lights to be turned back on in time for next summer.

 

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