By IAN WILSON
They were the new kids on the block two decades ago and they’ve been hangin’ tough ever since.
The Medicine Hat Mavericks and Calgary Dawgs boosted the eight-team Western Major Baseball League (WMBL) to 10 clubs when their franchises were approved in January of 2003.
Not content to simply take things step by step, both southern Alberta squads had an immediate impact on the baseball scene in Western Canada.
“I think it’s going to be great for the league,” said WMBL commissioner Keith Jorgensen after the expansion bids were approved at the league’s annual meeting in the Gas City on Jan. 12th.
“I think for the people in the West it’s going to be easier to travel back and forth and it’ll create good rivalries. It also opens up spots for roughly 40 more players and that’s the objective of the league to get as many players playing as possible,” Jorgensen told the Medicine Hat News.
Both teams filled a void that was left by the exodus of long-tenured, affiliated minor-league baseball clubs. In Calgary, the Dawgs moved into Foothills Stadium, which had been home to the Triple-A Cannons since 1985. Athletic Park, meanwhile, was occupied by the Medicine Hat Blue Jays and the Pioneer League circuit dating back to 1978.
“We knew it would take some work, but when you get down and start doing it, it’s a big undertaking and it takes a lot to get it off the ground. The start-up costs are quite a bit, too,” Jim Hern, then president and co-owner of the Mavericks, told the News.
“I think that minor baseball would have suffered, too, with no team.”
The Mavs and Dawgs joined the Lethbridge Bulls as the only Alberta teams in the WMBL, the predecessor of the Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL).
“We’re excited to be finally accepted into the league,” said Chris Howell, the general manager of the Mavericks.
“Now we have a month to get a roster in place and start selling tickets and sponsorships.”
Howell brought four years of experience with the Cannons and a couple of seasons as assistant GM of the Medicine Hat Blue Jays with him to his new role with the Mavs.
“We feel real fortunate to have a fellow with his qualifications,” said Hern.
“Having him gives us such a boost, because there is so much to do.”
Along with player and staff recruitment, the Mavericks had to develop a logo, purchase uniforms, finalize their schedule, secure billet families and sell tickets. Season ticket packages that first year offered up 20 home games for $99.
The president of the Dawgs, meanwhile, was selling Calgarians on the “wood-bat summer league for top college players and prospects,” as William Gardner described the WMBL to the Calgary Herald. Their arrival marked the evolution of John Ircandia’s high-performance travel team, which looked to establish permanent roots in their home province.
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To help entice fans to the “Dawg Pound” – the rebranded name for Foothills Stadium – the team offered $5 game-day tickets and free admission for children under 14 years of age. A mascot-naming contest gave the club their beloved pooch, Diggity Dawg, and helped position the team as a family-friendly option for sports enthusiasts.
In addition, the schedule for the Dawgs included 22 home dates – 16 of those were regular-season matchups against WMBL opponents and the other contests were exhibition games. The Dawgs squared off against a number of Pacific International League (PIL) squads that season. One of those teams, the Aloha Knights, visited Calgary for a four-game “Stampede Super Series” in early July.
The home openers came quickly for both southern Alberta teams.
Right-handed pitcher James Avery was the opening day starter for the Dawgs, who hosted the Lethbridge Bulls on Friday, May 30th.
“It should be kind of exciting to throw the first pitch,” the 18-year-old admitted to the Herald.
A 10-7 loss to the Bulls didn’t cloud the victory that happened in the stands, where more than 2,100 fans turned out to check out the city’s newest baseball team. The Dawgs rebounded on the field with a pair of decisive victories over Swift Current during the opening weekend. With that, the team was off and running.
The staff of the Mavericks were also gearing up for their inaugural outing. Their season started on the road in Weyburn, Saskatchewan and the home opener was set for June 2nd at Athletic Park versus the Bulls.
“We’re hoping the calibre of play is similar to that of the Pioneer League … we’re going to have older guys who have college experience and some guys who have pro experience,” Howell told reporter Derek Van Diest.
“The response has been excellent both in the corporate and the public sector – there are a lot of baseball fans and a majority of people are happy there is still baseball in town.”
Added Howell: “We plan on being competitive right off the bat and it’s up to us to make us competitive. This year is going to be a learning experience, but we want to field a competitive team.”
Head coach Randy LeBleu was optimistic about the summer ahead.
“Goals are high,” said the skipper. “We may be a new team in the league, but a lot of guys from other teams are also new. We think we’ve put together a strong corps. We should have some strong pitching.”
Cold and rainy weather threatened the home opener, but the game went ahead to the delight of the 478 fans in attendance.
Hometown pitcher Trevor Bishop went the distance for the Mavs, giving up nine hits while registering nine strikeouts during the 7-6 triumph over the Bulls. The performance from the 6-foot-4, 240-pound hurler improved Medicine Hat’s record to 3-2 through the franchise’s first handful of games. Assistant coach Rich Dean served as designated hitter and delivered some clutch hits in the win. He continued to suit up at first base throughout the season.
“We had a pretty decent crowd considering the weather,” said Bishop after the game.
“You don’t want to come in and lose your home opener and end up losing some fans. They came out and saw a pretty decent ballgame. Hopefully we’ll get them all back and other people will hear about it and come out and watch us play, too.”
With the opening day kinks out of the way for the Dawgs and Mavs, both teams were eager to show that they not only belonged in the WMBL but that they could be championship-worthy franchises.
Neither squad had to wait long to prove themselves.
The Dawgs – who shared Foothills Stadium with the Calgary Outlaws until the upstart Canadian Baseball League (CBL) folded in July – were formidable adversaries between the lines and they attracted average crowds of more than 600 people per game.
“A success? Oh yes. In all aspects,” declared Gardner in a July 14th edition of the Herald.
“We’ve endeavoured to make this a professional-type experience for our players … these kids have come from as far away as Texas to be with us. They made a commitment to being in Calgary and our aim, our commitment, is that no matter how far they go, no matter what level they reach, they look back on the summer of 2003 in this city as being one of the best they spent in baseball.”
Gardner said the “hard-working, fundamentally-sound baseball” the Dawgs played was resonating with fans.
“People that leave the ballpark after a Dawgs game are, I think, pleasantly surprised at the calibre of baseball they’ve seen. I think we’re past the initial stage of skepticism. I think we’re over the confusion about who we are and who others are. I see growth in the future, whether that means going from 600 a game to 800 or beyond next year,” noted Gardner, who has remained a fixture at Dawgs games since they moved to Okotoks in 2007.
“This has been a wonderful experience.”
By the end of the regular season, the Dawgs had posted a 21-10 record. Their opening-round matchup against the Saskatoon Yellow Jackets marked the first playoff action at Foothills Stadium since 1998. Calgary won that series before being eliminated by Swift Current, who advanced to play the Mavericks in the championship final.
The Dawgs roster included three first-team WMBL All-Stars: designated hitter Grant Richardson, second baseman Vince Ircandia and catcher Mark Bomar. Lefty pitcher Geoff Freeborn, who went 7-0 with a 1.73 earned run average (ERA), was named a second-team WMBL All-Star.
Richardson also took home 2003 WMBL Rookie of the Year honours and was drafted by the Milwaukee Brewers.
He wasn’t the only Major League Baseball (MLB) draft pick from that Dawgs team. Avery, the opening day starting pitcher, was a fifth-round selection of the Cincinnati Reds in 2005 who advanced as high as the Triple-A level over his decade-long playing career in the minor leagues.
Jim Henderson, a 26th-round pick of the Montreal Expos, made 155 relief appearances with the Brewers and New York Mets. Henderson, who has returned to Okotoks on numerous occasions to work with Dawgs players, is now the bullpen coach of the Milwaukee Brewers.
The Mavericks authored their own success story in their rookie campaign.
Despite going just 11-21 in the regular season, the Mavs eliminated the Moose Jaw Miller Express and the Weyburn Beavers in a pair of best-of-three playoff series to qualify for the best-of-five championship final against slugger Joe Carnahan and his Swift Current teammates.
Trevor Bishop, who had a complete-game victory in the home opener, bookended his time with Medicine Hat in glorious fashion.
The ace went the distance again in Game 2 against Swift Current at Athletic Park, putting up 13 Ks in an 11-2 win.
The Mavericks were looking for the sweep in the third game and built up a 5-0 lead halfway through the contest. But Swift Current clawed their way back into the game and Bishop, who pitched the previous night, took the mound in the eighth frame. He stalled the comeback before yielding a tying run in the ninth that knotted the game at 5-5. Inspired by their workhorse moundsman, the Mavs hitters went to work in the 10th inning. Catcher Ty Hinton punched out his first long ball of the year, a two-run blast, and the offence manufactured another two scores after that. Bishop induced an infield fly and a pair of strikeouts in the bottom of the 10th to pick up the title-clinching win. He recorded two major victories for Medicine Hat in two days and logged 12 innings along the way.
“I didn’t really have good stuff. The tank was a little empty, for sure,” Bishop confessed to News reporter Joe Langford after the Aug. 10th game.
“But I dug down deep and I knew the boys would come through for us.”
Hinton’s homer heroics were also a hot topic after the final out.
“I called it in batting practice,” laughed first baseman Rich Dean.
“I said, ‘The walk-off home run for the Western Major Baseball League championship will be hit by Ty Hinton.'”
Coach LeBleu confirmed Hinton was being teased about his lack of round trippers before the players took the field.
“The funny thing is we were bugging him in the batting cages before the game,” LeBleu said in the News.
“We said, ‘If you’re going to get a home run, this is the game to do it.”
Hinton said he wasn’t seeing the ball well in the early innings, so he decided to wear sunglasses for his last couple at bats.
“I was just trying to find a hole somewhere. But the pitcher just made a mistake, hung a fastball over the middle of the plate and I didn’t miss it,” Hinton said of the shot over the centre-field wall.
The drama capped an unlikely first championship for the Mavericks.
It wouldn’t be their last, and the Dawgs didn’t have to wait long to put their name on the Harry Hallis Memorial Trophy, which is given annually to the league champion.
During the 2004 postseason, the Calgary Dawgs swept their way past their Alberta opponents – the Mavericks and the Bulls – before they met Swift Current, the team that eliminated them the previous year. The Dawgs were dominant in sweeping the championship series, finishing the playoffs with seven straight wins and delivering a 13-1 drubbing in the final game. Calgary pumped out eight runs in the first inning and never let Swift Current get off the mat.
“It was good we scored early and took the pressure off the defence and our pitching staff,” first baseman John Yiu told the Herald.
“They were out of the game by the second inning.”
In claiming the title, the Dawgs achieved in short order what other major baseball teams from Calgary could not. The Cannons did not win a championship in their 18 seasons in the Pacific Coast League (PCL) and none of the Pioneer League squads from the Stampede City won a crown either.
A record crowd of 3,462 fans witnessed the Dawgs make history.
The Mavericks and the Dawgs were just getting started.
GROWING THE GAME
Medicine Hat continued to embrace summer collegiate baseball and the Mavs.
In 2008, Greg Morrison bought the team from the ownership group that was headed up by Jim Hern.
“I had been to a couple games and was really impressed by the quality of the baseball. They had a solid fanbase, 300 or 400 fans every night,” said Morrison, who won the Pioneer League triple crown (23 homers, .448 batting average, 88 RBI) as a member of the Medicine Hat Blue Jays in 1997.
“Jim and those guys have done a lot to keep baseball alive in this city.”
Under Morrison’s stewardship, the Mavericks established a winning percentage record in 2013 when they went 39-7 and claimed victory in 85% of their games. They also won two more championships in 2014 and 2018.
Their last title, a five-game thriller against the Regina Red Sox, made them the last team to win a WMBL championship. The circuit was rebranded as the Western Canadian Baseball League in 2019.
Jacob Webb, who pitched for the club in 2012-13, has appeared in 78 games as a relief pitcher for the Atlanta Braves. Other alumni, like Adrian Salazar, have gone on to play professionally. In 2022, Braden DeSonia set a new league stolen base record by swiping 42 bags.
Athletic Park has also seen improvements, including a $3-million renovation ahead of last season. The facelift helped the Mavericks reach new levels of attendance. A franchise record 32,986 fans made their way to the ballpark, giving the team an average crowd of 1,178 people per game.
The Mavericks have not only endured in Medicine Hat, they continue to prosper.
HOME AWAY FROM HOME
The Dawgs also thrived in the 20 years since they first appeared on the WCBL scene, although they took a more winding path to success.
After they won their first championship in 2004, they were once again forced to share Foothills Stadium. This time it was the Calgary Vipers of the independent Northern League who were splitting 2005 home dates with the Dawgs. The relationship deteriorated and by season’s end, the Dawgs were making other plans. They took the 2006 campaign off to get a new stadium built in Okotoks, where the community welcomed the ball club with open arms.
Calgary’s loss was ultimately a major boon to Okotoks, a town of 30,000 people which is less then 20 kilometres south of Cowtown.
Their alumni have suited up in the major leagues. After Jim Henderson carved out a place for himself as a big-league bullpen performer, Andrew Kittredge became an All-Star reliever with the Tampa Bay Rays. Middle infielder Alejo Lopez also worked his way up to the Cincinnati Reds roster.
The Dawgs continue to see former players get selected in the MLB draft, including the recent selections of Kody Funderburk, Greg Cullen, Michael Gretler, Ben Thompson, Elliott Cary, Matt Lloyd, Tristan Peters, Jacob Melton and Gavin Logan.
Meanwhile, Seaman Stadium is upgraded on a regular basis. The recent Core 4 (+14) Corner addition includes an iconic viewing patio and full-service concession stand above the visitor clubhouse that hugs the left-field line.
Crowds have flocked to the facility to enjoy the beauty of the ballpark and winning play on the diamond. The Dawgs welcomed their one millionth fan in 2022, along with a record 113,825 spectators over 27 home dates. On average, 4,216 fans attended Seaman Stadium games, placing the Dawgs fourth overall out of 170 North American summer collegiate squads.
The WCBL All-Star Game & Home Run Derby highlighted baseball’s popularity in Okotoks. More than 6,000 fans attended the summer classic.
Baseball boosters showed up en masse to support the Dawgs during their successful 2022 postseason run. Over four home playoff dates, 18,975 people came out – an average of 4,744 fans. The final series against the Moose Jaw Miller Express featured crowds in excess of 5,400 at both Seaman Stadium contests.
The Dawgs were firing on all cylinders in 2022. The team set a league record for victories by going 43-13 in the regular season. Fantastic individual performances resulted in two WCBL most valuable player (MVP) awards: Ricardo Sanchez was named the regular season MVP, while Brendan Luther took the postseason MVP honours.
Two decades after the Mavs and Dawgs introduced themselves to southern Alberta, they’re no longer the new kids on the block. The franchises are going in one direction, and that direction is up.