Turn the Paige

By JOE McFARLAND

She might be onto a new chapter in her life, but Paige Wakefield is still writing her story of baseball in Alberta.

After 13 years as a player, representing Alberta on a number of occasions, the St. Albert product got into coaching before a career in career in physiotherapy.

She’s also quick to spread the word about the sport she played at a high level, including being a part of Baseball Alberta’s “Girls Day in Baseball” virtual event in 2020.

That’s where we first met the infielder, which led to reconnecting earlier this year for an episode of Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast.

In that conversation, we chatted about her journey in baseball, some of her personal highlights like heading to Havana, Cuba for Baseball Canada’s spring training team, and how she uses experiences like those in her daily life today.

Here is the full transcript of that conversation.

Q: Do you remember the first moment you stepped onto a baseball field and said, “Yeah, this is a pretty cool sport, I could see myself doing this?

A: Hahaha! You know, I was so young. I remember coach-pitch and I just loved to hit. I cranked a ball and I remember running the bases and it’s just – I don’t know – so much joy came from that as a kid. Just hitting the ball as hard as you could and everyone gets so excited and is just cheering you on. I think that was definitely part of me enjoying and latching onto the game.

Q: Do you remember when you said this is something you want to do long-term or reach for the stars, so to speak?

A: The first year that I played on Team Alberta and kind of realized the potential that there was to pursue the sport competitively. Chris James was my coach and he really treated us like high-performance athletes. Once I had a taste of that, I really thought that I did want to pursue it and I want to get better and reach my full potential and dedicate myself to it.

Q: Was that a challenge growing up here in Alberta, where we always talk about hockey and football being at the top of the heap and then baseball is somewhere at the bottom. I know it’s one thing from a men’s perspective, but what’s it like for women and girls?

A: Yeah, for us, I mean, women still play hockey. But I think the distinction here is the baseball vs. softball debate. Even when my parents were registering me, people would question why I wasn’t playing softball. Once I made the switch over, I thought that it was so much easier to grip a baseball for me, being a female, as I have smaller hands. But even the intricacies of the game like being able to lead off and stealing bases. All of those other things gripped me and I never looked back to softball. And my parents just wouldn’t let me play hockey because they didn’t want me to get concussions.

Q: Did you play a lot of other sports growing up?

A: I did. I started out playing a bit of soccer, but that didn’t really land for me. I really enjoyed gymnastics, but my parents said that the time commitment was ramping up, so I had a choice between baseball and gymnastics. I picked baseball. Then throughout junior high and high school, I played a lot of basketball in the baseball off-season.

Q: Especially given that it’s not a 24/7/365 commitment here in Alberta, talk about the development side of the game when you are able to take that time off and not burn out on baseball.

A: Mmhmm. I know for me, I pushed myself and gave my all every season. By the end of baseball season, my arm is toasted. We’ve pitched, we’ve taken the Advil, we’ve done everything we should and shouldn’t do. You know, it really makes you feel so much stronger when you do come back to the game. When you’re playing catch the first time you come back, you realize you needed that, your arm and your body needed that. But then switching over to another team sport like basketball, you’re still getting the training and the comraderie and the teamwork. It develops different skills for you.

Q: You mentioned Chris James earlier. Tell us about some of the people who were really integral in making sure that you and your teams were succeeding and that the game was growing in this province.

A: Definitely. Sheen Bromley was another coach that really helped in my development. I always looked up to Nicole Luchanski. She was always the player I looked up to and really saw how much she accomplished and she was in my local area. And also my good friend, Heidi Northcott and her parents, Barb and Harold Northcott. They were always super-supportive of all of us. But really, Chris James is the one that introduced me to baseball, treated me like an athlete, and gave me a spot on Team Alberta that kind of sparked it all for me.

Q: You mentioned Team Alberta, give us some of the highlights from your time with that program. That had to have been quite the time, especially when you consider some of the talent that was coming from this province and some of the teammates you would have had.

A: The first year that I played on Team Alberta was in 2005 and that was when I first met Heidi Northcott and her and I are still good friends to this day. We won bronze at that tournament and we weren’t really expected to. It was really exciting to come home with a medal. That was in Parksville, BC, and it was my first experience at Nationals, so getting to travel to BC and having that experience, meeting girls from Quebec, Ontario, Saskatchewan and elsewhere. The feeling at that tournament was really special.

The following year, 2006, was the year that I was chosen for the bantam Team Alberta, and that was the first year that Alberta had won gold at Nationals. So that was a really special tournament for me as well. That’s definitely one you hold onto. Moving forward, it was just all the travel we got to do every year. We went to Granby, Quebec, we went to Montreal, we went to Toronto, so those were all incredible experiences.

Then getting to go with Team Canada to spring training camp in Havana, Cuba was another one. I could list for days all the friends I made playing baseball growing up, especially playing on Team Alberta with the women and girls at the end of the season, you create such a connection with them. During the whole season, you’re playing on guys teams and you’re spread out around the province, then you finally get to come together with Tara Sliwkanich, Kandi Wyatt, Steph Barranoik, Heidi Northcott. Like I said, I could keep going. The whole roster, essentially, you created friendships and relationships with everyone.

Q: I want to continue on that friendship path for a second here, because it seems like no matter who you talk to, that’s the most special aspect of this. Yeah, you get to play the game you love and you get to travel the world. But it’s the friendships that you get to hold onto forever. Talk about being able to foster those relationships that you might not have been able to do without baseball.

A: Yeah, I think part of it is that you’re on a team and you’re working towards a common goal. But it’s also what you’re going through. It’s about what you’re going through on the field and in life. You have great days on the field, you have great days on the diamond where you’re making good plays and you’re hitting great. But then there are times where you’re making errors, where you’re in a slump or you can’t throw a strike to save your life. These are the people that pick you up and tell you to keep going, to shake it off, that are supporting you through that.

It’s the same in your personal life. I’ve kept in touch with all of them year after year, we always know what’s going on with each other, how we’re doing and checking in. It’s the same thing. You can rely on them for those ups and downs in life, just like the ups and downs in baseball.

Q: You also talked about some of the trips you’ve made over the years. Did you ever take that moment to go “I can’t believe we’re going here”? Havana, Cuba or wherever it may be, did you ever think it was kind of crazy to be doing that while also playing baseball?

A: Yeah, the furthest I ever went was the Cuba trip and that’s a huge experience getting to see a completely different culture, scenery, there’s the ocean, everyone loves baseball there. It’s a really amazing experience. But it was also that local travel. That first trip we did to Parksville, BC, we took a bus as a team. So that was hours and hours of team-building and just being girls. Hanging out, reading magazines, talking about sports, talking about everything, so there’s that aspect of bonding.

Even going to Vauxhall for training camp was so special. You’re doing a week-long training camp, you’re eating and sleeping and training together every single day. You’re doing visualizations as a team. All of that is just so important to building friendships and building a strong team.

Q: What did it mean to you to wear the big ‘A’ on the ballcap for Alberta or the maple leaf for Team Canada?

A: Yeah, you know what, it’s a sense of pride and maybe a little bit of responsibility. Like I’m representing this group of people and I want to do them proud. And yeah, you just want to do your best. It’s that next level. That’s the end of it. It’s hard to describe that feeling and put into words. It’s definitely special.

Q: Talk about your role as it changed over the years. Just like anything, you go from that raw rookie to the grizzled veteran. What was the transition like for you?

A: Definitely. When I was a rookie, I batted my way onto the team, but the team was pretty much set. The position I wanted to play was shortstop, but I got knocked over to third base, which was fine. I grew to really enjoy playing third, but you see the senior players on the team and their skill level and you’re like “that’s your position, 100 per cent that’s your position, I’m not that good.” But, you know, you work and practice and get better at it. You take away what the others are doing.

I remember in my third year of bantam, I finally got the shift back to shortstop and I was so excited. Then I think it was our first game, hit after hit was coming at me, and I was playing them. I was doing well, making the plays, catching the flyballs, making the double plays. I think a moment like that is where you see it’s come full circle. I’m the senior player now that feels confident enough in this position and is able to make those plays. That’s the transformation in your game, showing some of your hard work paying off.

Team photo of the 2006 Alberta Bantam Girls team that won the national championship. (Credit: Baseball Alberta)

Q: Did you see much in the way of transformation in the game itself from an Alberta perspective over the course of the decade? Did you notice the growth in the talent and the abilities that was coming out of this province?

A: You know, I think the team that I started out on, or the one that won the gold medal in 2006, was one of the stronger teams that I had played on. As I moved up, the players I was seeing coming up were good but I feel like there wasn’t enough of an investment in attracting girls to the sport. There were still great athletes, but I think some of them had baseball as their secondary sport rather than their primary. Other girls were playing basketball or hockey or whatever it was.

I don’t know if that’s just a matter of perspective, as you get better at the game, your calibre or expectations are higher. But I feel like that gold medal team was one of the better teams I played on. Then moving into the Women’s Open division, that’s really where the calibre was high and you’re playing with something like eight members of the Team Canada team. So that was really high-level baseball.

Q: In chatting with people like Nicole Luchanski and Kelsey Lalor, it was that investment side that they flagged as well. They thought there needs to be more of a spotlight placed on some of the talent that has come through, but also the opportunities that are out there.

A: 100 per cent. I think we’re doing better to advertise and get the word out. I remember with me, 2004 was the Women’s World Cup in Edmonton and my family went to watch. That was the first time I saw women play baseball at that level in that capacity. I think it’s inspiring to see women performing at that level and that’s something we need to do. We need to get the word out there because I think the default is for women and girls to play softball. They might not even know that baseball is an option for them.

I think we’re doing a good job of starting to encourage women and girls and having Girls Day in Baseball and that kind of thing. Even just seeing female coaches is so important. I didn’t have very many female coaches growing up. I had excellent male coaches who treated me like any other athlete but I think that’s important for us to be giving back so that they can have someone to look up to.

Q: We talk about it a lot from a men’s perspective is that success breeds success. You see Mike Soroka tearing it up with the Atlanta Braves and suddenly kids realize that they could maybe do that too. The same has to hold true for women, where if they are shown a path, they will be able to see themselves taking it.

A: Yeah, it’s a good question. I think that it’s encouraging women to play the sport. It’s important to open up a welcoming space and to foster that. My experience growing up, I had a bit of a different experience growing up and playing sports on all male teams. I wasn’t always welcome. I was just there to play baseball, but it wasn’t always a positive experience from the perspective of other players, other parents, whatever the case was. A lot of my experiences were positive, but some weren’t growing up.

So I think in promoting Girls Day in Baseball and really encouraging everyone to be more accepting of women playing sports. And again, I think being a physiotherapist in my background, it’s such an essential for women and girls to grow up playing these sports for self-confidence, for their health, for their physical literacy, for socializing with other players. Promoting it, making it exciting, making it fun, it’s all very important.

Paige Wakefield gets ready to throw a pitch for Baseball Alberta. (Photo submitted)

Q: You segued well into my next question and it’s about what you’re doing nowadays. Being able to take some of that baseball experience into your everyday life, how do you do that?

A: Another good question. I think baseball gave me a sense of discipline, a sense of competitiveness and also helped me understand the ups and downs. As I mentioned before, you have ups and downs in the game and ups and downs in life and it’s how you deal with them. I always lean on my social supports to help get through tough times like the pandemic. I think all of us have had to. I think that’s one of the big ways that baseball has translated into my personal life.

Q: Talk a little bit about your involvement in the game after you decided to “hang them up.” I know you did some coaching. Did that teach you anything about the role and responsibility that come along with what’s needed in the game now?

A: Yes, that’s definitely true. As a coach, I had some really good experiences working with both male and female players. You know, they hang onto your every word sometimes, so you have to be careful about what you’re saying and how you’re saying it. Because I remember growing up, some of those experiences are going to help shape who you are and you’re going to carry them forward. You want to be encouraging and you want to be careful about what you’re saying as a coach, as someone who is being looked up to.

So I was thinking about when I was a coach, it was the final game of the season. There was one player who had been in a slump for basically the whole season, hadn’t hit. It was crunch time, two out with the bases loaded and he hit a triple. I almost burst into tears, it was an incredible feeling to see someone’s arc of their season go from the low point of having the low confidence in themselves to having a hit like that. The smile on their face was incredible and I understand moments like that are why people coach.

Q: I wanted to ask about advice for girls and young women who were weighing the pros and cons of playing baseball. You’ve been through it all, and you probably had the alumni or whoever offer words of encouragement to you. What would you say to those young athletes?

A: Mmhmm. I’d say you might have to brush off a lot, coming from some people who are negative or who don’t think baseball is something you should do. But again, just let it brush off your shoulder. If you give the game a chance, you’ll love it. There’s so much to the game that I fell in love with and it gives so much back to you. I think you just keep playing, keep working hard, there are great opportunities in this sport. And I wish you luck!

Q: Finally, what does the game of baseball mean to you?

A: You know, it’s always hard not being romantic about the game of baseball. (laughs) It means a lot. When I was growing up, it really was everything. It is still an integral part of who I am today. It’s shaped my life in many ways. It’s been a great experience.

print

Leave a Reply