Just as he’s about to turn the microphone on at Seaman Stadium to welcome the fans to another Okotoks Dawgs game, William Gardner takes a deep breath and a long look at what’s been built.
The long-time Dawgs supporter, vice president, director and pre-game ceremony host has been there since the doors opened in 2007.
He recalls a baseball conference he attended in the early years where he was warned that attendance, sponsorship and overall interest would wane after about five years and then settle well-below those initial years.
Yet, it never happened in Okotoks, as attendance each year has grown to nearly 128,000 during the Dawgs’ 2023 regular season.
“This has just grown so far beyond what we could have ever imagined,” Gardner told Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast. “It really is a testament and tribute to those great fans, who we call ‘the greatest fans in all of baseball,’ for standing with us and supporting us, year-in and year-out.”
While many in Okotoks, Alberta and across the Western Canadian Baseball League have known about the baseball cathedral known as Seaman Stadium for years, the entire baseball world is finally getting to see it for themselves as it has been named the winner in the 2023 Best of the Ballparks – Summer Collegiate category by Ballpark Digest.
THE PERFECT BRACKET
It wasn’t the first time that the Dawgs had been featured in the annual contest, which is voted on by fans.
The original list of 116 stadiums was whittled down to a bracket starting at 32 teams, with Okotoks being the only WCBL and Canadian market on the list.
After wins over Travis Field in Bryan, Texas, Copeland Park in La Crosse, Wisconsin and Jackson Baseball Stadium in Jackson, Tennessee, Seaman Stadium was into the final four for the first time.
“Being recognized in this contest is really a great feather in our cap,” Gardner said. “We are so appreciative for our fans for voting us through.”
After edging out last year’s champion, Robin Roberts Stadium in Springfield, Illinois, with 55% of the vote, it was onto the final against Centennial Field, the home of the Vermont Lake Monsters of the Futures Collegiate Baseball League in Burlington, Vermont.
When the vote ended at 10 p.m. Mountain Time on August 12, the Dawgs had captured more than 50% of the vote, and the title of best summer collegiate ballpark.
It’s a flag that Gardner hopes to raise in the stadium in the not-too-distant future.
NO REST FOR THE WICKED
Part of the reason why Gardner believes that the interest in the Dawgs hasn’t tailed off is because of the on-field success and the off-field innovation.
He says they don’t rest on their laurels and are always looking at ways to make the fan experience better each time they visit.
Gardner credits Dawgs founder, owner and managing director John Ircandia for his leadership and dedication to the program and the community.
“He has a passion that is simply unparalleled for this sport and this game,” Gardner said. “He brings that tremendous energy, excitement and drive, and John is not one to rest ever on anything and I think that filters down through all of us.”
Ircandia, meantime, says a number of factors has allowed the Dawgs to see continued success and accolades, both at the summer collegiate level as well as with the Dawgs Academy program.
And with another record-setting year at the ticket office in 2023, he adds more is on the way to the baseball mecca that also includes the Duvernay Fieldhouse, Ircandia Outdoor Training Centre, Tourmaline Field and Conrad Field.
“We’re adding a new seating section next year, a whole new grandstand section, we’re extending Kore-4 to build in some more suites and patios,” Ircandia said during the WCBL All-Star Game pre-game show on HomeTeam Live.
“And because we’re dedicated to the youth game – the academy game – we’re building a state-of-the-art batting and pitching facility across the road, so the complex keeps growing.”
While the contest win is big for the Dawgs, the team also believes it’s big for the Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL).
Gardner says the recognition will turn heads south of the border, giving it more exposure for recruiting purposes, but also to showcase how much work has been done around the league in recent years.
He cites the renovations at former Pioneer League stadiums in Medicine Hat and Lethbridge, relatively new facilities in Fort McMurray and Sylvan Lake, a new stadium being built as the future home for the Edmonton Prospects in Spruce Grove, Regina looking at a new ballpark and other teams looking at smaller upgrades as proof that the league continues to head in the right direction.
“A rising tide lifts all boats,” Gardner said. “Our view is that this recognition for Seaman Stadium will shine a big spotlight on the WCBL and all of our tremendous, tremendous franchises.”
READ MORE: Official WCBL news release
He adds it’s an exciting level of baseball and the players are always surprised at how each community has bought into their respective teams.
FEELS LIKE HOME
For both Gardner and Ircandia, that’s what it’s been about: community.
Not only has it served as a baseball stadium, but for a number of other events including, most recently, the home for the opening and closing ceremonies for the Alberta Summer Games.
“Don Seaman, when he invested the millions of dollars into helping build this stadium, has said time and time again in interviews and things that this was his best investment – and there’s a man whose had a lifetime of pretty good investments,” said Ircandia.
“The one he comes back to is this one because he says to engage the kids, give them these opportunities to go onto college, to play at that level, to become successful in life, and to see how the community has embraced it – that’s the mindblowing part – and he says that’s worth all the money in the world.”
Ircandia couldn’t agree more with his early investor and friend, as he looked down upon the capacity crowd gathered for the league showcase in July.
Gardner also recalls an early conversation with the stadium’s namesake, where Seaman complimented the Dawgs on making the fans feel like the facility was theirs.
And that’s how they want fans to feel.
“We didn’t do anything for Okotoks – the opposite is true – they did everything for us,” Gardner said. “They provided us with a home, they supported us all these years and we’re just so very, very proud.”
Like proud parents, the Okotoks Dawgs, the Town of Okotoks and its residents, and the fans of the Dawgs and of the WCBL are once again given reason to celebrate and gush over what they have built together.