Dawgs have best year ever
* Okotoks Dawgs are coming off their best year ever: a national title, Jimmy Henderson, an original Dawg, making the Milwaukee Brewers and new facilities ….
By Jonathan Hodgson
As the page on the final month of the year turns, the Okotoks Dawgs had a chance to reflect on the program’s past 12 months at the Dawgs recent Christmas party, and the overwhelming feeling is that 2012 has been the best yet for the Dawgs.
The sixth year of Dawgs in Okotoks saw remarkable growth for the organization, especially when it comes to the evolution of the Dawgs Complex. In June of 2007, when the Dawgs played their first Western Major Baseball League game in Okotoks, the Dawgs Baseball Complex consisted of Seaman Stadium, with no outside landscaping finished, a gravel parking lot and seats being installed the week of Opening Day.
An average of 1,600 fans attended Dawgs games that first summer. Nobody cared that the stadium was a little rough around the edges; the Dawgs had a ballpark, and a town, to call home.
“I remember asking the other directors what the attendance was going to be,” said Dawgs managing director, John Ircandia at the club’s recent Christmas party on the first Opening Night in Okotoks,
“Some said 500 hundred, some said a 1,000; William [Dawgs director, William Gardner] said it was going to be packed, standing room only.”
A capacity crowd of nearly 2,500 came out to cut the ribbon on Okotoks’ new yard that night; the left field berm, which was freshly sodded and not supposed to be used yet- was packed.
Gardner said there is only one way to describe the scene,
“It was our own real life scene out of ‘Field of Dreams’, seeing cars lined as far as we could see on Railway Street, coming to see the Dawgs play in Okotoks,” said Gardner.
With the immediate on and off field success of the club, few could have imagined the future for the ‘Dawg Pound’ that Ircandia had envisioned and was preparing to carry out.
In 2009, Duvernay Fieldhouse opened to accompany Seaman Stadium, making the Dawgs Complex already one of the premier amateur facilities in Canada. All levels of the program had taken advantage, with three WMBL Championships and annual attendance records for the summer collegiate team, along with several MLB draft picks & Junior National Team members coming from the ‘JDawgs’ Academy.
But the final jewel in the crown was added in 2012.
In March of this year, the Dawgs opened Tourmaline Field, the home of the Dawgs Academy.
Essentially a mini-me of Seaman Stadium, Tourmaline includes stadium seating reminiscent of the home of the big Dawgs, and a field turf infield that allows the Academy to begin play early in the spring and stay on the field late into the fall while even allowing the Dawgs to head outside for live batting practice in the middle of January in the event of Alberta’s famous Chinook winds.
The addition of Tourmaline Field to accompany Seaman Stadium, allowed the Dawgs to host Alberta provincials at the midget level, which the ‘Black’ Dawgs would win on home artificial turf. That team would proceed to win the Canadian Midget National Championship, which was held in Quebec City in August.
The catcher on that team, Chris Shaw would represent his country as the starting catcher for Canada’s Junior National Team at the U18 World Championship, backstopping Canada to a silver medal in Seoul, South Korea, months after being selected in the MLB June Draft by the Milwaukee Brewers.
At the end of 2012, the Dawgs Baseball Complex now consists of Seaman Stadium, Duvernay Fieldhouse, Tourmaline Field, and a bantam field. Quite possibly the best amateur facilities in Canada, and possibly more than that says Ircandia.
“It really is phenomenal to come over the McAlpine Crossing (named for former Okotoks mayor Bill McAlpine) and see those facilities right here in Okotoks,” Ircandia said. “Those are the best facilities for this level in Canada, and maybe the world.”
A new stadium, a national championship, and yet there was another event that was likely the biggest feather in the Dawgs cap this year. Established as a single youth travel team in 1995, the Dawgs program was created to help young players realize their dreams of playing ball at the collegiate and pro level.
That mission has been a resounding success, with hundreds of graduates playing college ball and 34 MLB Draft picks, including 2012 draftees Tyler Hollick (14th round, Giants) and Shaw (40th, Brewers), not to mention the numerous pro graduates of the summer collegiate Dawgs, but never before had a Dawg played Major League Baseball.
To change all that, the Dawgs needed to look no further than one of their early standouts, Jim Henderson, who began playing with the Dawgs in 1998. A Montreal Expos draft choice, Henderson spent the better part of 10 seasons with three organizations going up and down the minor league ranks, having to reinvent and reestablish himself after injuries, before finally receiving the call.
That call finally came on July 26th of this year when the Milwaukee Brewers requested his services at the Major League level. Henderson officially became the first Major League Dawg that night, delivering a scoreless inning against his old club, the Washington Nationals.
Henderson took full advantage of his richly deserved opportunity, posting a 3.52 ERA and three saves while striking out 45 batters in 30 innings.
Upon the conclusion of the Brewers season, Henderson came back to Okotoks as he does every offseason, to serve as a winter pitching coach for the Dawgs Academy. He was in attendance at the club’s Christmas party as directors remembered the teenager who used to toil with “D” on his hat before he exchanged it for a Milwaukee “M”.
“I remember a young Jimmy hitching rides with myself and my son (Will Jr.) to and from games at whatever field we were using that day,” Gardner said. “It tells you everything you need to know about Jimmy and this program when you see him come straight from the Majors to the Duvernay Fieldhouse to help continue the Dawgs mission. No matter your role, once you become a Dawg, you never leave. It is in our blood.”
The year of 2012 has been nothing short of a banner year for the Okotoks Dawgs. The expansion of the phenomenal Complex, National Championships, more MLB drafted alumni and at long last, Henderson, the first Major Leaguer.
The summer collegiate team also welcomed its 300,000th fan to Seaman Stadium this summer, as Dawgs games continue to be “the place to be” during Okotoks summers.
“This organization has been through a lot to get to where it is today,” Ircandia notes, “I remember hitting countless ground balls to Emerson (Former Texas Rangers prospect, Emerson Frostad) until it got dark day after day, the youth team dodging gopher holes in practice and playing 95 road games every year.
“From the hottest fire comes the hardest steel. The Dawgs are where they are today because of the challenges and adversity we have taken head on that has made us better and stronger for it. We strive to be the best at everything we do; the best facilities, the best organization, the best teams.”
So now what?
“The good news is 2012 was a great year. The bad news is it starts fresh on January 1st”
After a banner year for the program at all levels in 2012, a new year is hardly ‘bad news’ in Okotoks.
It means a chance for an even better 2013.