The last time we did something like this, we had no idea what was about to unfold just a couple of months later.
In January 2020, we went on out a limb to highlight five Albertans we’d be keeping a close eye on.
Unfortunately, the global pandemic stopped everything in its tracks, including the dreams of those young athletes.
With a new year upon us comes a renewed optimism that maybe, just maybe, we can see some kind of return to normal(ish) with more baseball to be had in Alberta this summer.
Of course, this all hinges on what happens with the pandemic, how the current wave plays out, and if some other variant further challenges our society.
Instead of focusing on individual players for our look-ahead, we decided to focus on five storylines that many in our province will be watching closely. Most of these are no-brainers, but they give you some insight into the excitement we could see with the calendar change.
#1. MLB LABOUR STRIFE
As we write this, we’re now more than a month into Major League Baseball’s lockout. From an outsider’s perspective, it doesn’t look or sound like there have been any substantive negotiations or conversations that could end the freeze.
While Alberta doesn’t have a team in the league, the fallout is always felt at the local level, especially when the Toronto Blue Jays are involved. When the team is doing well on the field or has popular players dotting the roster, interest in baseball and getting kids involved is that much easier. The opposite comes into play when ballparks go dark. With the Blue Jays expected to be a contender, you can’t ignore the impact of not having that potential realized.
For those looking to get their baseball fix, this might actually be a boon for the Western Canadian Baseball League and West Coast League. Without MLB games to watch on TV, what better way to spend an evening than at a stadium or nearby ballpark with a hot dog and a beverage? Conversely, the lockout isn’t good for the game’s overall exposure, so if a casual baseball fan doesn’t see highlights on SportsCentre, will it trigger the thought that they should check out a game locally?
Another challenge a work stoppage creates is the ability for young players to move up the depth chart for their respective team. Will MiLB still be playing? If not, how will it affect the development of the young athletes like Alberta’s Matt Lloyd, Adam Macko, Tanner Kirwer and so many others? And if they do play, what are the chances that they’re able to move up, knowing MLB isn’t shuffling lineups on a daily basis?
The pandemic created many challenges for all sports, so it’s unfortunate that as we try to emerge from it, MLB stepped right into another crisis. And the impacts will certainly be felt here in Alberta as well.
#2. WESTERN CANADIAN BASEBALL LEAGUE
As mentioned, 2021 provided us with a small reminder of what normal looked like. The Western Canadian Baseball League forged on with a shorter schedule and four of their eleven teams hitting the field (five teams total as the Okotoks Dawgs fielded two squads).
Assuming everything is back on, the WCBL will surely be looking to capitalize on some of the exposure it received last year. Communities like Okotoks, Lethbridge, Sylvan Lake and the Edmonton region surely enjoyed a few nights out at the ballpark, while Medicine Hat, Brooks and Fort McMurray will be hoping to do the same. They will also benefit greatly from some more travel as the Saskatchewan teams will be back in the fold again, meaning more opportunities for Alberta-born players to be seen and recruited across the entire league.
All teams had done an exceptional job of recruiting for the 2020 season before it was cancelled, so seeing some of that talent in 2022 would be a big boon. And many teams have been working on renovations at their fields and making plans to enhance the fan experience when they are back on field.
#3. WEST COAST LEAGUE
The Edmonton Riverhawks are hoping they don’t have a second-straight false start as they head into the 2022 season.
Primed to make their debut in 2021, the Riverhawks and their Canadian colleagues were forced to shutter as the West Coast League tried to navigate the restrictions and COVID challenges north of the border.
Led by Dr. Randy Gregg, the Riverhawks will be taking over REMAX Field and took advantage of the delay by making some much-needed enhancements to the park. They also went about creating relationships in the community to drum up support for the team ahead of its premiere.
#4. MIKE SOROKA
We know we said “no individual players” above, but when it comes to Alberta’s most talked about baseball export in the last decade, we would be remiss if we didn’t mention Calgary’s Mike Soroka.
And with good reason, as we know he is chomping at the bit to get back on the field to prove he can be a key on-field piece for the defending champion Atlanta Braves.
While the injured righthander was happy to be crowned a World Series champion, everyone knows he wants to contribute from the mound and not the dugout.
After serving as the Opening Day starter for the Braves in 2020, Soroka tore his Achilles’ tendon that August, prematurely ending his season. He started 2021 on the injured list, then suffered a complete re-tear of his Achilles in June, ending his season again.
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He’ll be looking to regain the form he had in 2019, where he went 13-4 with a 2.68 earned-run average in 29 starts, earning an All-Star Game appearance and was in the running for National League Rookie of the Year honours.
Of course, there is one other issue standing in his way and that is the labour stoppage facing Major League Baseball right now.
#5. CANADA’S WOMEN’S TEAM
It’s been a long time since the best women’s players from across the country were able to take part in international competition.
After having to weather the pandemic storm in 2020, Baseball Canada was finally able to bring together 41 athletes for a showcase event in Quebec, with four Albertans taking to the field.
With Ellie Jespersen and Madison Willan continuing to cement their positions with the national team and young players like Helaina Appleyard and Hayley Lalor hoping to turn some heads, the youth movement is definitely afoot with the program.
A return to “normal” would also allow many of Alberta and Canada’s top athletes face each other in a couple of tournaments in August – the 21U Women’s Invitational in St. John’s, NL and the Women’s Invitational in Winnipeg, MB.
As mentioned, there are plenty of other storylines and athletes to keep an eye on in 2022. We would love to hear from you on this: who will you be watching closely and cheering for this year?