Hawkish Move

By IAN WILSON

The gloves are off.

And we’re not talking about the ones that catch baseballs.

With the recent announcement that the Edmonton Riverhawks will join the West Coast League (WCL) in 2021, that summer collegiate circuit has staked a claim in the heart of Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL) territory with its 15th franchise.

It’s a move that has raised eyebrows and, in some circles, ire.

Edmonton is one of three franchises joining the WCL next year, with the Kamloops NorthPaws and the Nanaimo NightOwls joining the Victoria Harbourcats and Kelowna Falcons in British Columbia.

The other 10 squads play in the Pacific Northwest in Oregon and Washington.

Dating back to 2005, the WCL is a wood-bat league that plays a 54-game regular season schedule between June and August each year. Like the WCBL, the postseason format involves a number of best-of-three playoff series.

The league’s alumni include some recognizable Major League Baseball (MLB) talents, such as Shane Bieber, James Paxton, Nick Pivetta, Matt Boyd and Keston Hiura.

CALIBRE OF PLAY

Baseball Edmonton, the group that secured a 10-year lease at RE/MAX Field and the operator of the Riverhawks, is banking on that talent being a big draw for baseball fans in Alberta’s capital.

Randy Gregg, the managing director of Baseball Edmonton, noted that 90 WCL players were selected in the 2019 MLB Draft, with the Baltimore Orioles first overall selection Adley Rutschman and the Chicago White Sox third overall pick Andrew Vaughn among them.

“To put that into a hockey perspective with the 2015 NHL Draft, it would be like getting a chance to watch Connor McDavid and Dylan Strome when they were still playing with their amateur teams,” the former Edmonton Oiler defenseman told reporters at the introductory press conference for the Riverhawks.

“To be able to see future stars in Major League Baseball when they played here in Edmonton as a summer collegiate player is something that we are proud to bring to our community.”

Edmonton Riverhawks logo

Beyond the players who will soon inhabit the dugouts of RE/MAX Field, Gregg and his group of 28 people who make up Baseball Edmonton are also looking at making some changes around the stadium.

“There is much work to be done,” said Gregg. “The existing artificial turf needs to be replaced, new stadium lights will be installed and a new scoreboard will be added to the facility to replace the existing outdated scoreboard.”

PROSPECTING ELSEWHERE

Meanwhile, the previous tenants at RE/MAX Field – the Prospects of the WCBL – are on the move. They will split time at various Edmonton-area diamonds and play “home dates” in Sylvan Lake, Okotoks and Lethbridge during the 2021 campaign before moving into a new stadium in Spruce Grove the following year.

The hope for the Prospects is that they can experience a similar transition from the big city to a nearby community that the Dawgs did when they left Calgary and moved into state-of-the-art Seaman Stadium in Okotoks in 2007. Prior to their departure from Cowtown, the Dawgs were sharing Burns Stadium with the Northern League’s Calgary Vipers. When the Vipers made the situation untenable, the Dawgs built their own ballpark and they’ve prospered ever since, becoming the third-ranked summer college team in North America when it comes to average attendance.

Can the Prospects play host to the same kind of transformation in Spruce Grove? We’ll have to wait and see. That question is one of many that come along with the new baseball landscape in Alberta and Western Canada.

Artist’s rendering of the new ballpark slated to open in Spruce Grove in 2022 … image courtesy Edmonton Prospects

The Riverhawks and the WCL will have their own checklist of obstacles to tackle in the months and years ahead.

QUESTIONS NEEDING ANSWERS

One of the most obvious hurdles facing not only the WCL, but all sports leagues, is the global pandemic we find ourselves in. What impact will COVID-19 have on the Riverhawks and their on-field competitors next season?

The Canada-U.S. border is currently closed because of the pandemic. It’s reasonable to expect the border will re-open by next summer, but it’s not a given, and even if North American travel does get back to normal, what restrictions could face teams and spectators who want to see baseball take place in Western Canada? It’s a fool’s errand to predict this situation, but it requires monitoring and planning. If, and it’s a big if, the border remains closed or travel is restricted, is it easier for the Canadian-based WCBL to operate than the WCL, which has 10 American teams and five in Canada? Time will tell.

Another obvious piece of the logistical puzzle is the road trips. Members of both the WCL and the WCBL spend ample time on buses, but the Riverhawks are looking at a nine-hour trek to their nearest opponents in Kamloops and Kelowna.

“Our organization has offered to assist with the travel costs of opposing West Coast League teams in order to give Edmonton fans this great baseball experience,” said Gregg at the RE/MAX Field press conference on Sept. 15th.

We don’t know what those costs will amount to, but they could be significant, and will these be a continual annual expense for the Riverhawks? If so, can the ball club sustain these costs long term? Of course, those fees are only one element of the equation. Will these Grapes-of-Wrath-type roadies exact a toll on the players and impact their ability to perform on the field? Will such a remote outpost as Edmonton impede the Riverhawks recruitment efforts?

THE LINEUP CARD

The makeup of the coaching staff and the roster for the first of the edition of the Riverhawks will be revealing.

We’ll see what kind of community connection the team is striving for when that takes shape. Will the coaches be familiar faces in the Edmonton area? Will the players be home grown or American imports? What will that blend look like? Putting a competitive product on the field, while giving the locals a glimpse of budding hometown heroes is a delicate balance. Will MLB-calibre prospects edge out the developing players from Sherwood Park and St. Albert?

At the introductory media conference for the Riverhawks, much was made of the MLB Draft products the WCL churns out with regularity, but the WCBL has also had success in turning summer college kids into professional ball players. Andrelton Simmons, Andrew Kittredge and Josh Taylor toured around Alberta and Saskatchewan before suiting up for major-league ball clubs this season. Others, like Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Marco Gonzales, played in both the WCL and the WCBL.

Seattle Mariner starting pitcher Marco Gonzales played in both the WCL and the WCBL.

Several fans are seduced by the notion of witnessing a future MLB star in action, but how many of them are patient enough to watch for that player as the game unfolds. It’s also worth considering how much time these players spend with their summer teams. This brand of baseball – be it WCL or WCBL – can have a high rate of turnover. Players who start the season on a team, may not finish it, or they may join the roster midway through the schedule. They will show up with innings limits and restrictions on where they take the field. Their college coaches will urge them to work on certain skills, which can lead to players striving to meet individual goals ahead of team achievements.

Will fans be impressed enough by watching a dozen innings or a handful of games from budding major leaguers, if that happens to be the situation? When the Trappers played in Edmonton between 1981 and 2004, they were a Triple-A Pacific Coast League (PCL) franchise that was part of the affiliated, minor-league system. As such, the team had a parent club in the MLB and because they were a Triple-A squad – the level just below the big leagues – you were guaranteed to see players ascending to the majors or returning from them every year. And you knew exactly what MLB team to watch to spot a former resident of Telus Field. The climb from summer collegiate ball is not so linear.

PUTTING BUTTS IN THE SEATS

In their final five years of PCL play, the Trappers were able to draw anywhere from 3,500 to 5,500 fans per game – on average – to Telus Field during the early 2000s.

When independent baseball brought the Cracker-Cats to town, their average crowds fluctuated between 1,100 and 2,300 per home date from 2005 and 2008. The Edmonton Capitals, meanwhile, experienced a typical attendance of 2,100 to 2,300 spectators each game during their three seasons.

The Prospects, meanwhile, were able to attract an average of more than 2,000 fans per contest to RE/MAX Field over their last two WCBL campaigns, according to Ballpark Digest.

In the WCL, the Victoria HarbourCats have proved to be the league’s hottest ticket, welcoming an average of over 2,300 people to Royal Athletic Ballpark the last two summers. The Portland Pickles also managed to top 2,000 fans each game in 2018 and 2019.

Since the Trappers left Edmonton, baseball teams have struggled to fill the spacious confines of RE/MAX Field … photo by Ian Wilson

RE/MAX Field has the room to accommodate more than 8,000 people. It’s a spacious ballpark and since the Trappers left it’s been rare to see it approach a capacity crowd. A more pressing problem for teams than packing the park has been making it feel more cozy and intimate. Populating the seats with a couple thousand fans on summer nights is often not enough to make it look busy and generate a buzz in the stands.

So, what can the Riverhawks do to consistently improve attendance? They’ve mentioned physical improvements to the ballpark that should help, but what will the game-day experience look like? Can they do more than their predecessors have to fill RE/MAX Field on a regular basis? Other teams have tried recently, but failed to surpass an average crowd of even 2,500 over the course of a season.

BUDDING RIVALRY

One element that feeds the passion of fanbases in the WCBL is the historic rivalries that exist. Residents in Medicine Hat want to see their team – whether it’s the Tigers of the Western Hockey League (WHL) or the Mavericks of the WCBL – thrash the Lethbridge Hurricanes or the Bulls. In Moose Jaw, they’ll cheer for the Warriors or the Miller Express over the Swift Current Broncos or 57’s. With the roots of the WCBL dating back to 1931, the antagonism between communities has grown intense at times.

You can often eliminate the team name or the sport entirely – this competition is stoked by geographic proximity (see the Springfield versus Shelbyville animosity of The Simpsons).

Of course, it’s possible for the Riverhawks to develop their own WCL rivals over time, but it’s unlikely you’ll see built-in animosity in Edmonton towards the Cowlitz Black Bears or the Walla Walla Sweets.

In the WCBL, because many athletes on the rosters are local, they’ve grown up competing with and against their opponents for years by the time they see them again on the summer collegiate baseball circuit. This familiarity boosts rivalries, and in some cases, contempt. Will the same chip-on-the-shoulder mentality exist in the WCL?

A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN

While the Edmonton Riverhawks may have to work at stirring the competitive juices on the field, the biggest feuds involving the franchise could take place at a higher level.

For 15 years, the WCL and the WCBL have coexisted peacefully as neighbouring leagues. The WCL operated in the Pacific Northwest and the WCBL – formerly the Western Major Baseball League – played ball in Saskatchewan and Alberta.

By moving into enemy territory, the Riverhawks have broken an informal truce.

“Our league sees this as a totally unnecessary hostile intrusion into our footprint, something both leagues have respected for the past ten or more years,” Pat Cassidy, the owner of the Prospects, told Edmonton Journal/Sun reporter Gerry Moddejonge on the eve of the Riverhawks announcement.

Added WCBL President Kevin Kvame: “I don’t know how their organization operates or whether they’re trying a hostile takeover of our league and its 80-year history. They’re not endearing themselves to the franchises that exist out here that have put baseball on the field for many, many years in our communities.”

The WCBL teams have a track record of building baseball facilities and expanding on them. In addition to the stadium in Spruce Grove, the expansion Gulls are building a ballpark in Sylvan Lake that will welcome fans for the first time on June 11, 2021.

There is also discussion of a new downtown stadium for the Regina Red Sox.

Spitz Stadium, home to the Lethbridge Bulls, received a $2.3-million renovation in 2018 and the recent Core 4 (+14) Corner expansion at Seaman Stadium in Okotoks is generating excitement.

The commitment by Baseball Edmonton and the Riverhawks to upgrades at RE/MAX Field is an encouraging sign from an ownership group that reportedly shelled out between $300,000 and $500,000 US in franchise fees to join the WCL.

Longer term, will the team embrace future improvements at the ballpark?

THE OTHER SHOE

With the Riverhawks blazing a new trail for the WCL in Alberta, it begs the question: is this a first step in a larger plan for the league? Actually, it begs several questions. Where to next for the WCL? Will they stand pat with Edmonton or install another team nearby to help make travel more palatable for the Riverhawks?

Adding three Canadian expansion teams for the 2021 season is an aggressive move. If there is another shoe to drop, when can we expect further expansion? And would that take place yet again in the WCBL’s backyard?

What will the legacy of the Riverhawks be? Will they stick in Edmonton’s river valley for decades, as the Trappers did, or will they stay for a few seasons and then fold, like we saw with the Cracker-Cats and Capitals?

There are far more questions than answers at this point. For now, baseball watchers will need to be patient and wait for developments to unfold, both on the field and off.

Ideally, this new team will prove beneficial for baseball in both Edmonton and the province of Alberta.

(EDITORIAL NOTE: Alberta Dugout Stories recently entered into a consulting agreement with the Western Canadian Baseball League. We have also partnered with and been sponsored by WCBL teams in the past. Despite these relationships, we strive to provide fair and accurate reporting in all of the work that we do.)

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