It started as a simple question on Twitter (or “X” if you prefer).
“Does Alberta punch above its weight when it comes to baseball in Canada?” is how I started the Sept. 23rd thread, as we watched Innisfail’s Nathan Flewelling smash his way to the Home Run Derby crown at the Canadian Futures Showcase.
A few minutes later, Cochrane’s Simon Baker was named the Showcase MVP after a great performance in every aspect of the game.
With 20 athletes from Alberta taking part in the annual event and several others who came from other parts of the province to train here at the various academies that have been built here, it’s clear this province has become a powerhouse in Canada. While we all expect B.C. and Ontario to dominate the headlines, it seems that it’s the Alberta players who turn heads time and time again.
Granted, I’m not a baseball insider on the national scale, nor will I ever claim to be, but I don’t know if this province gets enough credit for the talent and facilities we have here. Part of it might be a recognition piece, but the other part might be the fact that we don’t give ourselves enough credit.
Maybe it’s time we change that.
BRINGING HOME THE HARDWARE
One of the things I’m going to remember 2023 for in Alberta’s baseball scene is the fantastic performances of the girls and women’s teams at national championships.
The 14U team went into Kamloops and captured the gold while the 16U and Team Alberta at nationals both claimed bronze.
Players and coaches from all three teams will tell you that they were gritty performances that required a lot of perseverance and resilience. But the fact that they were able to bring home medals should receive a lot more accolades.
While the podium was a little harder to attain on the boys and men’s sides this year, it’s never really a surprise to see them in the medal rounds at the various age levels.
Then you have all of the academy teams heading to national and U.S. tournaments. They are not just taking part in these events. They are competing and sometimes winning the whole thing, like Dawgs Academy has done with the Perfect Game championship in Florida, Vauxhall Academy winning the Best of the West tournament in Kamloops, or AHP Academy taking home the Perfect Game Cinco De Mayo tournament in 2022.
Admittedly, it’s sometimes hard to keep track of all of the successes, which is why we added the “in the news” feature on Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast. We’d love to write about them all the time, it’s just that time sometimes eludes us.
BASEBALL’S A HIT
The growth of the game of baseball at the grassroots is hard to ignore.
As one of many examples, the Sherwood Park Minor Baseball Association recently surpassed 1,000 athletes for the first time ever. Many others are also seeing their registration numbers rising.
One can also point to the success teams around the province are having at the turnstiles. The Okotoks Dawgs and Edmonton Riverhawks are in the top-5 for overall attendance in all of North America for summer collegiate baseball, according to Ballpark Digest. Other teams are also moving up the list as attendance records fell in several markets.
When I was asked recently about that in an interview with CBC Edmonton, I said there were a few different factors at play:
- Success of the Toronto Blue Jays – When the team is competitive or entertaining to watch, registration typically goes up (see: 1992-1993, 2015-2016, the last couple of years of fun teams).
- Barriers in other sports – The challenges around costs and the “culture” of hockey have been well-documented, while football is still trying to figure out its concussion problems and perceptions. It’s driving a lot of new parents to find other sports for their kids to play in.
- Changing demographics – Canada and Alberta are changing. We have many newcomers who grew up with other sports being dominant, which is why we’re seeing great success stories coming from basketball, soccer, and now, yes, baseball.
Added into this is that the quality of coaching in these sports has also changed. For baseball, you’re seeing the old mantra of “success breeds success,” where athletes from here are giving back to the community by coaching the next generation and showing off what made them successful.
The quality of baseball being played has grown substantially at every level. Whether it’s the young kids who are now being coached by former pro-level players, or the collegiate level, like the Canadian College Baseball Conference, Western Canadian Baseball League and West Coast League, fans are in for a treat.
Kids now are also able to be seen by anyone around the world now, thanks to social media and other online channels (even email), and they now believe they have a shot at playing baseball at a higher level than ever before.
Whether it’s Jim Henderson or Michael Soroka getting to the big leagues; Erik Sabrowski, Adam Macko or Matt Coutney (among others) in the minors; or the multitude of young athletes playing in great college programs, “if you can see it, you can be it” is now very real.
IF YOU BUILD IT
It’s not just the coaching and mentoring that has hit another level, but the infrastructure in this province has become a point of pride for every program here.
Whether it’s the training facilities for the athletes or the stadiums that have been built for summer collegiate baseball, it really is something to see the investment that has gone into the game here.
It can’t be understated how the baseball scene in this province as a whole will benefit from Seaman Stadium in Okotoks being named the Best Ballpark in Summer Collegiate Baseball by Ballpark Digest. Suddenly, fans from around North America were asking “where is Okotoks” and “what league is that?” Curiosity is piqued and a quick Google search will take them down the path towards the other facilities we have here.
Think about the upgrades that have happened at the two ballparks with Pioneer League connections. Spitz Stadium in Lethbridge underwent some upgrades a few years back while Athletic Park in Medicine Hat put the finishing touches on over $3 million in renovations recently. Or the one stadium with Pacific Coast League ties in Edmonton (we won’t talk about Calgary’s Foothills Stadium), where the West Coast League’s Riverhawks have rejuvenated RE/MAX Field.
READ MORE: Building Baseball
How about the relatively new stadiums in Fort McMurray and Sylvan Lake? The new facility being built in Spruce Grove? The improvements always being looked at in Brooks? And whose to say that another community or two aren’t thinking about the possibilities should the Western Canadian Baseball League come knocking for future expansion?
And how can you overlook the academy scene in this province? It’s an impressive list of great facilities and coaches contributing to the growth of the game through Okotoks, Vauxhall, AHP Academy, Webber Academy, St. Joseph Baseball Academy, Badlands, Neutral Hills and the others I know I’ve missed. Add that to an impressive list of great community facilities, and this province is bursting at the seams with the amenities.
CHALLENGING THE STATUS QUO
While it’s easy to talk about the positives in Alberta’s baseball scene, there are a couple of, shall we say, growth opportunities heading into 2024 and beyond.
The first isn’t something that will solve itself overnight and that’s what appears to be a bit of a fractured structure for which baseball operates in this province. Some teams and organizations fall under Baseball Alberta, while others don’t.
As an example, we have American Legion baseball being played in Lethbridge and Medicine Hat. We have a strong Little League component in Southern Alberta. We have Cal Ripken/Babe Ruth baseball in Calgary.
It’s a bit wild west-esque in terms of who answers to whom and what program belongs where. I won’t pretend to know all of the history behind how decisions were made, but part of me starts asking a bunch of questions.
- Are we seeing the true best-on-best from all corners of the province in tournaments?
- Are great athletes being ignored for “provincial” teams because of the program they’re playing for and, by extension, missing out on opportunities to have their abilities showcased?
- Is there a desire to have everyone under one model or does the current model actually work?
On that third point, I will harken to the Little League World Series. You won’t see teams from north of Calgary play in Williamsport because they don’t play under the Little League umbrella. Conversely, you won’t see a team from Medicine Hat or Lethbridge play for a Baseball Canada championship because they don’t play under the Baseball Alberta umbrella.
There is also the matter of personal feelings and grudges, some of which have taken on the social media side. Some programs feel like they’re not truly getting supported by different organizations, or they’re feeling like they’re looked down on by their competitors because of who they have on teams.
As an example, I’ve seen plenty of commentary about the different programs who recruit and attract athletes from other provinces and whether they should receive support like others who are focused solely on homegrown talent.
This isn’t to say that there’s a right way or wrong way of going about this, but I’ve often wondered if we get in our own way of becoming a true powerhouse in this country because everyone seems to be swinging to the beat of their own bat.
TIME TO CELEBRATE US
Following the Canadian Futures Showcase, Richard Griffin wrote a great piece about how far Canada has come in developing elite baseball players.
Griffin writes about Oakville, Ontario’s Matt Higginson, who said he didn’t really know how to play baseball until he got to college and that’s because he didn’t get the teaching and experiences that is now available to kids.
Athletes of today have access to coaches, facilities and aspirations for the future that just weren’t here a couple of decades ago. They also have the experience of current college and pro players to lean on.
“Players come through, go on and come back and give to the next generation, which is what you’re seeing here and which we’re fortunate enough to have with the national team program,” said Baseball Canada executive director and JNT coach Greg Hamilton. “It’s impactful and special.”
The same is true in Alberta. This province is unique in that the combination of grassroots, community association, academy and summer collegiate baseball are all hitting at the same time in every facet of the game.
We just need to puff out our chests and celebrate it a little more.