The BC Premier League, Canada’s best league
*Ted Hotzak, former Norther Shore Twins manager, now runs the British Columbia Premier League.
By Alexis Brudnicki
VANCOUVER — The presence of Brett Lawrie on the scene in Toronto has garnered a lot of attention.
Lawrie’s spotlight has extended beyond him however, to the development of baseball in Canada and its national teams, to the Canadian program he played for, the Langley Blaze, and to the league he came through, the British Columbia Premier Baseball League (BCPBL).
But the BCPBL has been around almost as long as the 21-year-old Toronto Blue Jay has. It has seen other first-rounders like Adam Loewen, Jeff Francis, Kyle Lotzkar, James Paxton and Kellin Deglan come through its ranks and end up on major league rosters amidst a plethora of other BC players who have made it to the big-league level.
During the 2010 season alone, three other BCPBL graduates made memorable debuts. Rene Tosoni joined friend and teammate Justin Morneau in Minnesota, while Taylor Green helped the playoff-bound Brewers. And though it wasn’t his first major league debut, Adam Loewen entered the bigs for the first-time as a hitter, joining Lawrie with the Blue Jays.
The Premier League that gave those players and many others a home in BC has been around since 1995. It began with four teams on Vancouver Island and has since expanded to 13. It was formed by a group of men, including the now-executive director Clyde Inouye, looking for a place for their sons to play competitive ball.
Current president Ted Hotzak, managed the North Shore Twins before they joined the BCPBL in 1999. He, too, wanted his son to play the best baseball that he could, against the best competition. Their proximity close to the border opened up the possibility for the Twins to play higher-level high school teams from Washington State.
Along the way to the success that the league has found against teams south of the border there were some bumps in the road, including Hotzak’s first such experience with his team.
“I remember the first time we went down to play with the Twins,” Hotzak said. “We went down to play US Bank and they were a big team. The first game, we got our asses handed to us. It was interesting because we knew, the coaching staff, we knew that was going to happen. But we told the guys, ‘Look, you guys can be good. You have to play up in order to be competitive.’ So the first game they kicked our butts real good and between the first and second games, I expected the guys to be pretty glum.
“But the senior guys got together and said, ‘Hey, we made a few errors, but we’re better than that. Let’s play.’ And we went out and the second game was I think a 3-1 game. Again, for them. But we were in it.”
And they’ve continued to be in it, standing up to competition and sending graduating players to college, university and professional ball. Though as tough as a full-ride scholarship for a post-secondary education in the US. is to obtain, Hotzak estimates that a good percentage of players who come through the league are offered just that.
“We have 13 senior teams that graduate, on average, six players,” the BCPBL president said. “So there are 60 guys every year that are eligible for a college career. Out of those 60, I would say probably 10 get a full ride, or essentially a full ride. So that would be books, tuition and accommodation.”
With more universities and colleges in BC and Alberta now offering baseball programs, Hotzak does put emphasis on the fact that he would like to see more student-athletes staying in Canada, as opposed to pursuing their careers at American schools.
“Every high school kid that comes out of our program, if he’s academically eligible, has got a place to play ball,” he said. “If he wants to and he’s good enough, he can go down south and play there. If he doesn’t want to go down south, he’s got a number of colleges in BC that he can play at, and Alberta. In my personal opinion, and I’ll get [criticized] by some of the guys and their parents, far too many kids go south.”
While Hotzak did mention that he may be speaking out of turn on the subject, since his own son accepted a four-year scholarship to play at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, Ga, his concern for some young athletes making college decisions does not diminish.
“I think the focus is wrong,” Hotzak said. “I think the focus is that parents want their kids to have that experience, of playing college ball in the US. Unfortunately some of them when they come back here have lost total interest in it and end up doing pretty much nothing. But we have had some kids that have gone to the pros or college in the US where it hasn’t worked out and they’ve come up here and had a great college career here.”
Just as the dream for a young Canadian baseball player is to play for Canada’s only major league team, the hope for young BC players at the high-school level is that they will pursue their dreams, perhaps while staying in their home province. More opportunities are opening up in our own backyard, decreasing the number of reasons for “needing” to play in the US.
While the Ontario Blue Jays travel to several showcases throughout the year on the other side of the border, many more than that of the western teams, Hotzak believes they still get the exposure for their players to assist them in their future endeavours.
“First of all, the league in general gets scouted all the time,” he said. “Walt Burrows (Canadian Supervisor of the MLB Scouting Bureau) scouts every player in Canada. But on top of that, there are four or five local guys that are around all the time. So from a consistency point of view, these guys get looked at a lot more and at a lot more games than the [Ontario] Blue Jays do, by the same guys.”
Players in the BCPBL also head down south to showcase events, in addition to the coverage they get at home. Each season, they attend tournaments in Washington State, Arizona and Florida.
Outside of where and when players can be seen, Hotzak believes that the real successes of the league can all be traced back to those who contribute off the field. He doesn’t think there would be a league at all if not for the people involved.
“We’ve got a group of guys who are very interested and they put in a lot of time and effort,” Hotzak said. “Most of them do not get paid much and when the league first started, nobody got paid. Each team runs as an independent organization so I can’t be positive, but I would say that there are still a few teams that don’t pay their coaches anything. Those coaches are doing it strictly because they love the game.
“So the level of coaching and the desire of the coaches, for the most part, to develop players and not concentrate on winning games has been one of the things that have been really successful.”
Success also breeds more success. The fact that the BCPBL has bred many players who have gone on to major league careers furthers the interest from aspiring athletes. While the league is proud of all of their successful graduates, the most attention is garnered by those who have made it the furthest.
“Everybody loves the guys that have made it to the pros and that have put on a good show in the pros,” Hotzak said. “That’s the pinnacle of what we’re all here for. But sometimes players get overshadowed by other players. Lawrie made big news this year because he’s Canadian and because he’s a Jay and because he’s added a lot of interest to the Jays in a period of time when they needed it.
“But there are three or four other players like Taylor Green and Rene Tosoni that have also made it up to the big leagues this year and they don’t get the same amount of press because they’re not with a Canadian team. But it’s absolutely fantastic that we have the number of BC kids playing in the major leagues that we do. That’s absolutely great.”
Even better, those major league players take time out from their careers to come back to where they started and lend a helping hand.
“Morneau has come back, Cole Armstrong has come back,” Hotzak said. “Lawrie’s done a session at our college in Okanagan. So they do come back and they do give back to the community. And most of the time that’s based on the personal relationship they have with the people they left here.
“Morneau’s been back here several times. And they all do a good job. Personally, I’m proud of every kid that’s played in the league. The ones that make it to the pros, any level of the pros, is a tremendous accomplishment, and I mean they should be really proud of that. The biggest thrill I get is looking at the number of kids that we’ve got going to play college ball for the last 15 years.”
For the next 15 years though, the BCPBL president would like to see more interest in baseball at the grass-roots level. With all of the interest in the area in hockey and soccer, he would like to get the word out about the possibilities that baseball can offer to young athletes.
“Baseball is treated as a spring sport here where you sign Johnny up for the spring season to get him out of your hair,” he said. “I think what we have to do is have the parents understand that there is more opportunity in baseball than they know about. A lot of people don’t know anything about baseball. It’s great when you have it visible in the press. Everybody listens to TV and reads the paper. If the Blue Jays are big, or the Canadians are big, then there’s interest in the sport. So what we have to do is to try and get as much visibility as we can.”
While the visibility of Brett Lawrie has been an asset to the league, Hotzak would also like to give credit where credit is due, and hopes that the future of the sport in BC is only getting brighter.
“We got a lot of press for Brett Lawrie here, and that’s fine,” he said. “But there are an awful lot of guys that came before Brett and there are a number of guys in the league that have made it to the bigs and they all deserve the credit for making it that far.
“And, baseball really does give a great opportunity for high school players to go on and get a college education and maybe play in the pros. If you get nothing more than a college education out of it and you play on a team for four years, those are times that you’ll never forget. If you talk to any one of the college players that has played ball, those are the best years of their life. They got an education, they ended up playing a sport that they really love, and what’s better than that?”