Building Baseball

By IAN WILSON

Nevermind IF you build it.

The Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL) has built it, is building it, and will continue to build it. And they – meaning the fans, the players and anyone else interested in being at the ballpark – are coming.

As Canada’s premier summer collegiate circuit, the wood-bat league has been attracting elite American and Canadian talent for decades, including a number of aspiring Major League Baseball (MLB) players. Before they excelled in the big leagues, pitchers and hitters like Jim Henderson, Andrew Albers, John Axford, Andrelton Simmons, Marco Gonzales, Andrew Kittredge, Alejo Lopez, Josh Taylor and others dug their cleats in around the WCBL.

Over the years, WCBL franchises have poured millions of dollars into investing in stadiums and baseball facilities in Western Canada. Even more funding is earmarked for the years ahead.

It’s a legacy that has put baseball on the map in Alberta and Saskatchewan, making the WCBL the envy of the summer collegiate world when it comes to the competitive advantage of its infrastructure.

“The energy being put into these facilities is infectious. It’s hard to not get excited about what lies ahead in each of our markets,” said WCBL president Kevin Kvame, adding the league offers top post-secondary players the very best facilities available in all of summer collegiate baseball.

The Okotoks Dawgs blazed a trail in terms of establishing world-class ballpark resources and amenities in the WCBL. After moving from Calgary, the Dawgs debuted in Okotoks in 2007 and were an instant hit with the locals. A capacity crowd of 2,650 attended Seaman Stadium for the club’s first ever opening night and the throngs of baseball watchers would only grow larger as each summer passed.

The $22-million ballpark complex is a spectacular attraction situated just north of the Sheep River. The majestic Rocky Mountains rest on the horizon beyond the right-field fence. Now with a capacity of 5,004, Seaman Stadium includes a wraparound concourse, several patios and hospitality areas, as well as a 45-by-30 foot video scoreboard, a press box and a general store that specializes in Dawgs merchandise. In addition, staples such as administrative offices, washrooms and top-notch concession stands are easy to locate and navigate throughout the stadium.

So awestruck was Hall of Fame baseball writer Bob Elliott by what he saw of the Dawgs footprint in Okotoks, that it prompted him to steal a line from the film Field of Dreams. “Is this heaven?” he asked after a 2011 tour.

Before the home players take the natural-grass field, they file into the first-base dugout through Duvernay Fieldhouse, which is a state-of-the-art indoor training centre that features a regulation-sized, synthetic-turf infield. The $2.5-million building also houses multiple batting cages, permanent and retractable bullpens, specially-designed weight rooms, admin offices, a video-analysis and computer software area, and team clubhouses that are complete with multiple lockers, showers, washrooms, an umpire change room, a coaching conference area and a boardroom. As well, a hospitality room displays a Dawgs “Wall of Fame” that highlights the numerous alumni who have been drafted by MLB teams.

Just outside the fieldhouse is the Ircandia Outdoor Training Centre, which sits along the right-field foul line. It includes three batting cages, four bullpen mounds and a practice area for players.

The newest addition at Seaman Stadium is the Core 4 (+14) Corner, which came online for the 2021 WCBL season. This multi-functional renovation adds an exciting new dimension to the ballpark in Okotoks. It includes a visitor clubhouse that exits into a bullpen area along the left-field foul area; the Grog & Grub, a distinctive converted sea can providing full-service concessions; spacious patio sections and seats that offer fans unique “perch” views down the base line and into the outfield. The sight lines are reminiscent of the views that can be found in the Green Monster seats at Boston’s Fenway Park, or the Crawford Boxes at Minute Maid Park in Houston.

Constant improvements in Okotoks have proved beneficial both in terms of player recruitment – which has helped the Dawgs to win five WCBL championships – and at the ticket booth. The squad averages over 4,000 fans per game, and Ballpark Digest has consistently ranked the team third overall when it comes to attendance for summer collegiate franchises in all of North America.

TAKING FLIGHT

The road map provided by the Dawgs has allowed other teams to follow suit with ambitious stadium plans.

In Sylvan Lake, the Gulls joined the WCBL last year as an expansion franchise. At the heart of their foray into the league was a phenomenal new ballpark in Pogadl Park. Gulls Field currently has the capacity for 1,384 people, including 894 club seats, spots for 140 fans in the sky suites, 48 loge seats, 112 patio chairs and room for over 200 on the berms above the dugouts. Eventually, the $5-million stadium is expected to be able to handle crowds of up to 3,000.

Alongside the synthetic-turf infield and grass outfield of the diamond, the players have access to bullpen and batting cage areas under black netting by each dugout.

Such a facility allowed the Gulls to experience 22 consecutive sold out games in 2021, and season tickets for the 2022 campaign were all snapped up by early April, well ahead of Sylvan Lake’s June 1st home opener.

New and improved this year, compared to last summer, is the addition of a Gull-adorned scoreboard in left-centre field, and the finishing touches have been put on washrooms, concession stands, the press box, the ticket booth, locker rooms and the luxury suites. The changes mean expanded food and drink menus and an enhanced game-day experience for fans.

Gulls Field, home of the Sylvan Lake Gulls, is the newest WCBL ballpark.

“This year, we want to put our best foot forward and then some. We really want to make the people of central Alberta proud of this,” said Aqil Samuel, president and chief operating officer of the Gulls.

In addition to the obvious baseball advantages a team like the Sylvan Lake Gulls bring, there are other spinoffs for the community.

“This project will address the short and long term needs of our community … a project like this will also help put people to work,” said Sean McIntyre, who was the mayor of Sylvan Lake when the stadium was under construction.

The region is expected to receive an influx of tourism dollars as a result of WCBL activity in the summer months, and core infrastructure at Pogadl Park – such as water lines, roadways and other services – will also enhance the quality of life of nearby residents.

STADIUM LOVE

Sylvan Lake is the newest community to usher in a high-end stadium, but it won’t be the last.

At least two other WCBL markets are working to bring elite facilities to Alberta and Saskatchewan.

The Prospects are leaving Edmonton city limits for Spruce Grove, just west of the Alberta capital.

Their new home – Myshak Metro Ballpark – is being built at the corner of Pioneer Road and Highway 16A, only 10 minutes drive from Edmonton’s Anthony Henday Drive.

“We like the proximity to Edmonton and the demographics of the town itself. Our target market is sports-minded families and Spruce Grove is all of that in spades,” said Patrick Cassidy, managing partner of Gold Sports & Entertainment Group, which owns the Prospects.

The centrepiece of the $50-million development is a 3,500 to 4,500 seat stadium that will include over 2,400 grandstand seats; 14 loge table areas situated atop the grandstand bowl; 200 premium founder’s club seats; sky suites for 12 or 24 people each; theatre box suites for four-to-six people; a party patio for 50-100 fans; and viewing areas on a first-base side berm. Other features of the ballpark are a merchandise store, food and beverage concession stands, a high-definition video board in right field, and a play area for kids.

Concept plan for Myshak Metro Ballpark in Spruce Grove

The project will also feature a microbrewery/restaurant on the third-base side of the diamond, with tiered patio seating, that will be open all year. A community amphitheatre for pre-game parties, small concerts and community events will be located outside the ballpark near the microbrewery/restaurant.

Future phases call for the construction of a fieldhouse and the erection of The DiMaggio, an 80-unit condominium complex overlooking left field.

“The vision you see is intended to capture the imagination of the community. We have tried to create as many human touch points as possible by bringing as many aspects of the community into the ballpark as we could think of. It’s our desire to come out here and partner with people to make something bigger and better,” said Cassidy at an event announcing the naming rights partner for the ballpark.

Spruce Grove Mayor Jeff Acker called the stadium and surrounding amenities a project that will unify residents in the area.

“What we’re building is another way for our community and our region to come together. It has been so encouraging to see such amazing support for this project right from the start. This development is truly going to be an incredible addition to our city and this region, as well as a fantastic home for the Edmonton Prospects,” said Acker.

The Prospects, who currently call Sherwood Park home, will play out of Spruce Grove in 2023.

GOING YARD

The Regina Red Sox, meanwhile, are working to bring a 3,500-seat stadium to the vacant railyards on Dewdney Avenue in the downtown of Saskatchewan’s capital city.

Concept plans, developed by the Red Sox and Living Sky Sports & Entertainment Inc. (LSSE), describe a facility that would serve as a home for the WCBL club, as well as a venue for other baseball teams, festivals, concerts, flea markets and movie nights at the ballpark.

Regina’s current diamond, Currie Field, is a decades old ballpark that is showing its age.

“It’s becoming increasingly difficult for us to play at a 60-year-old field and recruit quality players and remain competitive – so we are very excited about the prospect of a new baseball stadium for Regina,” said Bernie Eiswirth, general manager of the Red Sox, in a statement.

“Currie’s old infrastructure severely limits our options for food and beverage, seating, parking and our ability to attract corporate sponsors. We need to offer a great environment with a competitive team, so fans have a memorable experience and want to keep returning to the ballpark. That’s not the case now playing at Currie.”

Team president Gary Brotzel said a new stadium would prove to be lucrative for the city.

“We average 32 games per year with preseason and playoffs, and we anticipate drawing 3,200-plus fans per game. This means over a 100,000 people a year traveling to the downtown warehouse district between May and August. The vibrancy and economic activity of our entire downtown core will be positively affected by baseball games and the other events held at the stadium,” notes Brotzel.

Artist rendering of new stadium in Regina

LSSE founder Alan Simpson expects a new stadium “would be a wonderful enhancement to our infrastructure in the downtown core.”

He added: “It would stand as a cornerstone of economic activity and pride in our community for the next 20 years.”

Rob Vanstone, a sports reporter with the Regina Leader-Post, has also joined the chorus of voices calling for the construction of a downtown diamond.

“Everyone associated with the Western Canadian Baseball League’s Red Sox have done everything possible to make Currie Field a welcoming, functional facility,” writes Vanstone.

“The inescapable reality, however, is that Currie Field is a few decades beyond being a passable venue. A centrally located, state-of-the-art baseball complex for the Queen City is long overdue.”

A working committee has been formed to produce a business case for a “high-performance baseball facility” in Regina. The findings of that committee will be presented to city council this year.

GIANT SUCCESS

In Fort McMurray, the Giants and the northern Alberta community are reaping the rewards of top-notch sporting facilities and have been for years.

The Giants play out of Legacy Dodge Field, which is part of a $127-million Shell Place complex that hosted Canadian Football League (CFL) and North American Soccer League action when it first opened its doors in 2015. It is the largest recreation multiplex in Canada.

Shell Place includes the baseball stadium and four softball fields, making it an ideal location for major tournaments. Fort McMurray welcomed players for the Baseball Canada Cup in 2016 and 2018. The region was set to welcome the nation’s best baseball teams again in 2020, but the event was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the 2022 Baseball Canada 18U National Championship is back on for Fort McMurray this August.

When the Giants are out of town, the Fort McMurray Minor Baseball Association make use of Legacy Dodge Field, a stadium that has fixed seating for 1,725 spectators and an overall capacity for over 5,000 people.

The ballpark also has patio seating, VIP suites, concession stands, a working area for media members, a scoreboard, and dressing rooms (with showers and washrooms) for up to five teams.

“This is one of the most spectacular ball diamonds that I’ve been to in Canada,” said Graig Walsh, chief executive officer of Regional Recreation Corporation, at an event where Legacy Dodge was granted naming rights for the stadium.

Additional facilities at Shell Place include administration offices, a fitness centre, conference room, box office, security room, public transit access and a parking lot with a capacity for 1,200 vehicles.

HOME IMPROVEMENT

Other teams in the WCBL have discovered that the construction of entire stadiums or major sporting complexes may not be necessary, but renovations and yearly improvements are key to providing the best experience to players, coaches and baseball enthusiasts.

The Medicine Hat Mavericks opened their gates to an upgraded Athletic Park this summer.

Originally built along the banks of the South Saskatchewan River in the late 1970s, the ball diamond has endured a lot over the decades, including major damage from flooding in 1995 and 2013. But the bones of the stadium – which has the capacity to handle 2,300 people – have withstood the test of time and some recent tender loving care has the ballpark operating at optimal levels.

The $3 million in upgrades include the addition of a shade canopy; the introduction of field-level seating behind home plate and along the base lines; a brand new ticket office and general store; the construction of padded dugout railings; as well as enhanced fencing, brick work and freshly paved walkways to greet the fans as they enter Athletic Park.

The new-look Athletic Park includes a shading structure, dugout railings and field-level seating

“It really is the fans that make a go of these organizations, and just from improving the approach and aesthetics to the stadium and getting the shade canopy to support those rainy and sunny days. I think our fans have really shown that they enjoyed the improvements,” Greg Morrison, the owner of the Mavs, told Chat News Today.

The Lethbridge Bulls went through a similar phase of transformation a few years ago with their home at Spitz Stadium.

Constructed in 1975, the ballpark underwent a $5-million facelift between 2015 and 2018.

The first phases of the project called for upgrades to the stadium exterior and walking areas, as well as public washroom renovations and dugout improvements. A new press box and broadcast booth was also built, a first aid room was constructed and the umpires got a refurbished change room, as well.

The major addition during the renovations involved the construction of an upper-level concourse, improvements to concessions spaces and the installment of an elevator to allow for better access to the upper concourse.

“I think it’s going to give them a better experience. When you come to a ball game, it’s not just about the ball game, it’s about visiting with friends and having some refreshments and some food and a fun enjoyable time,” Lethbridge Bulls president Kevin Kvame told Global News following the upgrades.

“This is going to give them a lot more space in the stadium – a lot more viewpoints.”

ALL THE SMALL THINGS

No matter how seemingly minor the ballpark upgrade, all teams in the WCBL have embraced a vision of season-to-season improvements in an effort to deliver memorable summer experiences for fans.

The 57’s reached a deal with Swift Current city council in 2018 on the construction of a $500,000 clubhouse facility at Mitchell Field. That building includes home and visitor change rooms, an umpire room, public washrooms, office space, a food and drink vendor area and a roof-top patio for fans.

The Moose Jaw Miller Express created a better beer gardens at Ross Wells Park this offseason and put fresh coats of paint on stadium walls, the grandstand and on outfield fences. Team operators also updated some of the seating, fixed fences and put new pavement throughout the concourse.

At Elks Field in Brooks, the Bombers added a “Flight Deck” patio above the home team’s dugout on the third-base side. Such a move improves seating options for spectators and boosts capacity by 100 people. Another patio project along the left-field fence will be completed in 2023.

Meanwhile, Tom Laing Park is receiving a $50,000 injection for the home of the Weyburn Beavers. Improvements are being made to facility siding, walk-in doors, the press box and the internet connection.

CAPITAL GAINS

In total, the WCBL is helping spur an investment of over $100 million in baseball, sporting and entertainment infrastructure in Western Canada.

These stadiums and facilities – many of which have already been built, some which are currently under construction and others that have yet to be given the green light – are a living legacy for athletics in Alberta and Saskatchewan. They provide a home to the WCBL, which in turn inspires young baseball players to pursue their academic and sporting dreams. They also accommodate tournaments and baseball camps for kids of all ages. They provide invaluable community spaces for people to gather, socialize and engage positively with each other.

These ballparks are more than just “sports facilities.” They offer fun in the sun. They provide the best kind of networking events. They are tourist destinations and hubs. They provide a stage to talented athletes.

The Western Canadian Baseball League built it. And they are coming.

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