The Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL) has announced plans to soldier on with a 2021 season that will feature all-Canadian lineups for the first time in the summer collegiate circuit’s history.
Facing uncertainty over a number of COVID-19 pandemic issues – including health restrictions that will likely impact attendance and game-day activities, as well as unease about the timeline for the reopening of the Canada-U.S. border – the WCBL has made a number of significant changes for this year’s season.
In an effort to address border concerns, the league is hoping to get ahead of the curve by drawing on rosters that are entirely made up of Canadian players.
“While we’re extremely disappointed that we won’t be seeing U.S. and other foreign players, as we would in a normal season, we are confident that the quality of Canadian athletes who play this great game at an extremely high, competitive level will perform for their respective teams,” WCBL President Kevin Kvame said in a March 25th press release.
“In addition, we felt it vital to let our significant number of foreign players know that the window and opportunity to get them to our 2021 clubs is becoming too tight and we want them to have the opportunity to adjust their plans given the current health restrictions in Canada.”
Aside from the talent expected on the field, the wood-bat league will also look different in terms of the number of teams taking to the field.
Teams committed to play this summer include five Alberta aggregations: the Edmonton Prospects, the Lethbridge Bulls, the expansion Sylvan Lake Gulls and the Okotoks Dawgs, who will produce two squads.
DOUBLE DAWG DARE
The defending champion Okotoks Dawgs will field Black and Red academy squads, with many of the players being high schoolers and some members of the 2019 team expected to return.
“This gives us a chance to showcase our Canadian talent,” Dawgs Managing Director John Ircandia told Okotoks Today.
“I told them the great thing about this year is all of you on these two top teams get the experience of competition … we’ll probably be the youngest team in the league but I think we will compete well.”
Kvame, who is also the president and general manager of the Lethbridge Bulls, told the Lethbridge Herald newspaper that the move to Canuck rosters will impact both players and the coaching staff. Kregg Snook, the head coach of the Bulls, is an American.
“We’ve been working with Kregg up until this point and he’s still engaged and communicating with players. It’s a tough situation for him because this is the second straight summer that he was supposed to be here. So now we have to pivot. We have Canadian guys on our coaching staff. We have lots of quality, Canadian coaches in our backyard. There will lots of support around for our club,” Kvame said in an article written by reporter Dale Woodard.
“Filling the Canadian content is not a problem … right now we have committed eleven Canadian pitchers and we had six U.S. pitchers. With infielders, we have six out of seven Canadians and outfielders, we’re at two out of five that are Canadian and with catchers, two out of three.”
The Edmonton Prospects were already facing an unorthodox season. With plans underway for a new stadium in Spruce Grove in 2022, the team was planning for a summer campaign made up entirely of road games this year. They’ve committed to continue on for 2021, but each WCBL team’s new 42-game schedule has yet to be released, pending participation decisions from Medicine Hat and Fort McMurray.
The WCBL expansion franchise Sylvan Lake Gulls will show off their brand new facility at Pogadl Park, even though not as many people will get to see it as team president and general manager of baseball operations Aqil Samuel had originally hoped.
“It’s not the most favourable plan, especially financially but it’s something we felt like we needed to do,” Samuel told Byron Hackett of the Red Deer Advocate newspaper.
“We wanted to show the community we’re committed to this. We want to eventually get people into that stadium, hopefully, this summer and show people around.”
Samuel said the team had contingency plans in place to prepare for a squad with no foreign players.
“We were keeping a spreadsheet of other Canadians that had reached out to us that we were interested in, just in case this scenario happened,” he said.
The Medicine Hat Mavericks and Fort McMurray Giants will decide in the weeks ahead whether or not they will suit up this season.
“We are waiting on several factors in our ability to participate this season. We know it will be a financial loss either way, but want to see how the government restrictions will look as we near the season. Our priority is the players. And if we can’t operate we will help find them a place to play. The next four weeks should provide us with enough information to decide on whether playing this summer is possible,” said Mavs Owner/GM Greg Morrison.
Even if they do play this summer, the Mavericks won’t be at Athletic Park, which is undergoing renovations. Instead, they would play out of Jeffries Park, the diamond they called home during the 2013 flooding of the South Saskatchewan River.
“I am very excited about the investment that’s happening at Athletic Park this summer. It’s going to be an amazing return for the Mavericks and Medicine Hat at Athletic Park in 2022. For now, like all Medhatters, we’ll do what we need to do to stay positive and press on during the pandemic,” said Morrison.
The Giants, meanwhile, have been working on their roster – which includes a core of Fort McMurray products – as they figure out their plans for 2021.
SITTING OUT 2021
Any other year, the WCBL would have teams from both Alberta and Saskatchewan. But with so many questions up in the air, the Regina Red Sox, Weyburn Beavers, Moose Jaw Miller Express and Swift Current 57’s have opted to wait until 2022 to resume play, as have the Brooks Bombers.
“We felt that with the current status of the Canada-U.S. border, the costs associated with AHS safety protocols and testing, and the lack of revenue from fan attendance left us with a very difficult decision,” said Brooks General Manager Jason Wandler.
Gary Brotzel, president of the Regina Red Sox, noted that the Saskatchewan Health Authority is enforcing a maximum of 25% capacity for the upcoming season.
He also pointed out that inter-provincial travel is currently restricted and that COVID-19 player and staff testing protocols carry an estimated price tag of $40,000 per team. Quarantine costs amount to another $2,000 per player.
Swift Current 57’s President Brad Woods could not hide his discouragement over not playing.
“It’s very frustrating to have to sit in the stands for a second straight season,” said Woods.
“Last year we were in a different situation where no one was playing anything. The world was essentially shut down … this year, however, it feels different because we find ourselves in a continual state of waiting. Waiting on the next announcement, the next shipment of vaccines, and the next phase of re-opening safely.”
Added Woods: “Regardless of whether we are playing or not, it’s our job to stay relevant in the community … moving forward we will be doing what we can to improve our organization and the way we partner with the community. We have always had great support from the City and the business community and will be working hard to continue that moving forward for years to come.”
An updated schedule, ticket sale plans, and further details about the 2021 WCBL season are expected to be released in late April.