The Okotoks Dawgs can take a bow.
The question heading into the 2023 Western Canadian Baseball League All-Star Game was simple: how do you top the 2022 game?
While the wind kept many hard-hit balls in the field at Seaman Stadium during the Home Run Derby, which was eventually won by Weyburn slugger Nolan Machibroda, the game itself became an instant classic with Ethan Ho of the Sylvan Lake Gulls providing the extra innings heroics to get the West past the East 9-8.
All of this, along with the massive crowd and the end-of-game fireworks, made for a day no one in attendance will soon forget.
Head Dawg John Ircandia and his team, led by WCBL All-Star Game Chairman and Dawgs Academy 13U head coach Tyler Milton, then took on the tall task of hosting the festivities for a second-straight season in 2023.
Ircandia told me during the broadcast that his approach was, essentially, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. In the matter of just a year, the Dawgs became a well-oiled machine where any issues that did pop up would never have been noticed by the fans (I certainly didn’t see anything).
As it turned out, 2023 became memorable for different reasons. The crowd was just as electric as it was in 2022, and while the game itself wasn’t really in doubt after the West pulled ahead to claim a 10-4 victory, the Home Run Derby had plenty of plot twists and turns.
In particular, the West Division representatives went off with Eric Rataczak of the Brooks Bombers, Nash Crowell of the Okotoks Dawgs and Sylvan Lake Gulls catcher Hank Dodson hitting double-digits in round one. Dodson hit the most with 13, advancing to the final where he edged Swift Current outfielder Ethan Murdoch 8-7 to take the crown.
After the game, the fireworks once again had everyone smiling from ear-to-ear in celebration of another great day at the ballpark.
As the players packed up their belongings and headed back to their regular clubs the next day, one simple question was left: how do you now top 2023?
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
The first order of business for the WCBL heading into the 2024 All-Star Game will be to determine a location.
Do they keep it at Seaman Stadium, which features all of the amenities, the league’s largest capacity crowd, and an infrastructure of people who have executed the game already?
Or, do they open up the call for bids from all teams to gauge who might be looking to step into the big Dawgs shoes?
There are certainly no shortage of options, especially in Alberta where you have several facilities that already host major Canadian events like Medicine Hat (Little League events happen there almost annually), Lethbridge (they have the Junior Little League Canadian Championships this summer and hosted the Canadian College Baseball Conference Championships in 2022 and 2023), and Fort McMurray (they have the upcoming 13U Western Nationals and 18U Baseball Canada Nationals).
Over in Saskatchewan, Regina is hosting the Baseball Canada Cup this year, and should the WCBL want the game to be held by an East Division team, the capital might be the place to do it. It might also be a way of showcasing the popularity of baseball in a community that is trying to convince city council to approve a new ballpark to replace Currie Field.
If we’re looking at straight-up attendance, then Lethbridge’s Spitz Stadium would make the most sense with a capacity for a crowd of 3,000. Medicine Hat’s Athletic Park sits at 2,200 while Gulls Stadium in Sylvan Lake and Currie Field in Regina are around 2,000.
As a fan of baseball history, I would obviously not be opposed to seeing the game in Lethbridge or Medicine Hat, where the Pioneer League called home for years, or in Regina, where Currie Field has been home for a few teams over its 50+ year lifespan.
However, it’s up to each individual team to make their pitch, based on whether they have the personnel and community buy-in to make the game something unique for them.
If the league decides to head away from Okotoks in 2024, my vote would be for Medicine Hat. It’s a central location, an East Division team, a city rich with baseball history, and, having worked there for a few years, I know it’s a community that will rally around the game and make it another one to remember.
MORE THAN A GAME
Given the success of the WCBL All-Star Game, some are wondering if the league could make a weekend out of it.
If you look around at other all-star games around baseball and even in other sports, there’s a pretty strong case to make it happen.
The league could host events like a celebrity slo-pitch tournament (I’ve been known to pitch from time-to-time) and meet-and-greets with players.
One idea I think could help cement the grassroots aspect of the game and show off the future of the game in Western Canada would be to have a “Futures Game.” Imagine having some of the best 18U players from Alberta and Saskatchewan square off in a one-game, winner-take-all bragging rights contest. It could also be used to help promote upcoming Summer Games or maybe Baseball Canada national championships.
In my books, it’s win-win-win.
And on the day of the All-Star Game itself, why not expand the Home Run Derby to a Skills Competition? How cool would it be to see a “Fastest Runner” competition, akin to the fastest skater at the NHL All-Star Game? And, with all credit to my partner-in-baseball-crime Ian Wilson on this one, how about a bunting competition like what happens in Korea each year that seems to get lots of attention.
Having worked as a host for a few events during the 2019 CFL Grey Cup in Calgary, I was able to see inside the planning and preparation that goes into it. While the league has its standard practices for the week-long festivities before the game itself, it’s up to the host city for each year to up the ante and bring something that is unique to the table.
JUST THE BEGINNING
One recent announcement by the league should also have fans excited about what will be on the horizon for the WCBL.
The hiring of Mark Stiles as their new (and first) Managing Director of Corporate Sponsorships is a sign the league is looking to grow the business side of their operations. I had the pleasure of working with Mark in his previous hockey life, and his energy is palpable. I chatted with him during the All-Star Game broadcast on HomeTeam Live, and you can tell he’s excited about growing not just the business, but the game of baseball.
Not only does his hiring free up the league committees that have tried to build those relationships to focus more on the on-field product, it gives the WCBL an opportunity to grow league-wide initiatives like this month’s Viterra Kids Camps and, yes, the All-Star Game.
Add in the return of the Edmonton Prospects and addition of the Saskatoon Berries in 2024, which are two huge markets for the league to get back into, and excitement around the game is only going to expand.
I know we still have an exciting playoff run to come in 2023, but it’s hard not to get excited about what 2024 is going to bring for baseball in Western Canada.