It might be time for Baseball Canada to set up a regional office in Fort McMurray.
The Northern Alberta city has become a staple for hosting national championships over the years, starting with the 2016 Baseball Canada Cup.
They returned as hosts of the 18U National Championship in 2018 and again in 2022 following the stoppage forced by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 18Us returned again in 2023, hosted simultaneously with the 13U National Western Championships.
Baseball Canada won’t be taking its foot off the gas either, as major championships are now planned over the next three years with the Baseball Canada Cup in 2024 before the 18U tournament returns for 2025 and 2026.
“It’s genuinely just an honour to be selected to host once again,” Fort McMurray Minor Baseball Association president Mike Mayuk told Alberta Dugout Stories via email. “It really confirms the impact our work and efforts have had on Baseball Canada and the tournament participants.”
He says it is also big for the R.M. of Wood Buffalo region as a whole, as well as the many young athletes who have started making baseball a priority in their athletic journeys.
IT TAKES A VILLAGE
After successful events in 2016 and 2018, Fort McMurray had been slated to host in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic put the world on hold.
Mayuk says it did provide an opportunity for his organizing committee to really dissect what went well and what could be improved, so that when they were called upon again, they would be ready.
“There’s a huge team behind the scenes working all of the different angles,” he said during a conversation on Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast. “We really love hosting these events and we want to bring this calibre of baseball to Fort McMurray.”
The association, along with the Regional Recreation Corporation of Wood Buffalo, has a goal of making sure every participant, player, official, coach, family and spectator has the best experience possible.
Mayuk says the reaction from everyone he speaks with following each event is proof that they are doing things right.
“We’re a place on the map and we want to be a big part of baseball and other sports and recreation in our community,” he said. “We want to continue that for years to come.”
While the economic boost created by the influx of visitors for each event is welcome in the community, Mayuk says an important indicator of success has been the impact on grassroots baseball.
This year, the association topped 900 athletes for the first time ever, ranging in age from 5-18.
“We’re seeing growth and momentum of kids wanting to get out earlier in the year,” he said. “They want to play baseball and the sport has really grown in Fort McMurray at all ages.”
The association has grown its offerings to include Fall Ball and Winterball indoor programs so athletes can train year-round.
As a result, more athletes are starting to take it more seriously and ending up getting more opportunities at higher levels like provincial and national teams, as well as at the collegiate level.
“It’s a testament that we’re going in the right direction and we want to continue that momentum as we get kids through the grassroots program and continue into college.”
Mayuk adds it has also been important to partner with the Fort McMurray Giants of the Western Canadian Baseball League, as it gives kids an opportunity to see high-level collegiate baseball each summer.
LOVE FROM LOCAL PLAYERS
Past and present athletes alike are enjoying the rise of baseball in Fort McMurray.
Joe Young was a dominant pitcher growing up in the community who went onto win gold with Canada at the World Youth Baseball Championships in 1991 before being drafted in 1993 by the Toronto Blue Jays and embarking on a six-year professional career.
Now living in St. Paul, the former hurler is still connected in the game through his son, Kaysen, who faces Fort McMurray teams as part of AHP Academy in St. Albert.
“Fort McMurray has always been a city that loved to host things,” Young told Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast. “And let’s face it, they have world-class facilities now which I would have dreamed to have something like that back then.”
He says it’s good for the kids to have the experiences and facilities to take their dreams to the next level, and it’s having a real impact on the quality of players coming out of the community.
One of those is Sydney Barry, who represented Alberta at the Women’s Invitational Championships in Nova Scotia this summer.
She pitched a complete-game gem to guide her team to a 5-4 win over the hosts in the bronze medal game.
Barry, who also plays several other positions on the field, then headed home to play in the 18U championships, helping the hosts to a 5-2 record but off the podium.
“It (baseball) is my life,” she said. “If I didn’t have baseball, I wouldn’t be who I am today – it means so much to me.”
ALL SMILES HEADING INTO 2024
It’s those kinds of sentiments that inspire Mayuk and the Fort McMurray organizing committee to continue bidding for national championships.
They hope that the next Joe Young or Sydney Barry might be in the stands, dreaming about playing on the biggest stages, realizing that it’s closer than they think.
Whether it’s a national, provincial or league game on a regular weekend, they take pride in providing smiles for all involved.
“Our community is thankful for the opportunity to welcome everyone and have them experience our region,” Mayuk said. “All while enjoying some great baseball in a place that loves this sport.”
The 2024 Baseball Canada Cup is scheduled for Aug. 7-11 at Shell Place and Ross Hennigar Park.