* Okotoks Dawgs founding father John Ircandia, left, and Jimmy Henderson, the first Dawgs grad to make the majors, were inducted into the Dawgs-Seaman Stadium Hall of Fame. ....
Tyrell King: Alberta Bound
By Bob Elliott
OKOTOKS, Alta. _ The surnames Ircandia and Henderson were first linked together in 1995.
John Ircandia coached his two sons -- Vince and Matt -- and Jim Henderson with the Calgary Dawgs.
The two Ircandia teenagers and Henderson became fast friends.
And John Ircandia was always in touch as Henderson accepted a scholarship to Midland College, then transferred to Tennessee Wesleyan, was drafted by the Montreal Expos and traced through the minors ... first with the Expos, then in the Washington Nationals, Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers systems until he made his major-league debut with the Brewers July 26, 2012.
With a scoreless innings against the Nationals in an 8-2 loss, Henderson became the first original Dawg to make the majors.
And the names Ircandia and Henderson were linked together again at the eighth annual Okotoks Dawgs banquet staged at the Foothills Centennial Center.
Matt Ircandia was in the crowd.
Vince Ircanadia, now vice president of business analytics and ticket operations for the Portland Trail Blazers, introduced Henderson by video, as part of the second class to be inducted into the Dawgs-Seaman Stadium Hall of Fame. Vince spoke how he and Henderson had been friends for 20 years starting with the Calgary Dawgs and on to Baseball Alberta ... how he couldn’t think of a “better player, a better competitor.”
Henderson was given a standing ovation by the sold out banquet crowd of 450 as he took the microphone and thanked his “good friend Vince, the Dawgs, how Vince told him to “never work a desk job,” explained “how much he owed the Dawgs,” and then he looked at Dawgs founder John Ircandia.
“John was pacing up and down when I was pitching at Three Rivers, Que. as a 16-year-old at the nationals and he was pacing 1t Petco Park,” the Milwaukee Brewers reliever said.
“It was a long inning,” the coach in John Ircandia yelled, “Get an out!”
John Ircandia, a passionate man who wants his Dawgs to turn a double play -- when the lead-off hitter is up -- paced watching Henderson pitch at Foothills, or in Weyburn or in Medicine Hat.
And when the snow clears Ircandia and Henderson will be linked together forever when their pictures are hung on the concourse at Seaman Stadium along with the inaugural class which contains Blair Kubicek and Don Seaman from 2014.
* * * The silver-tongued MC William Gardner was at the microphone to introduce his pal John Ircandia.
Gardner known John a lot longer than I have.
And Garnder’s eloquent words were better than anything I could put together ... so take away MC William:
“John needs no introduction and the record of his accomplishments professionally and personally are lengthy, he has received numerous accolades and many recognitions so well deserved. Over time this team you founded grew into the Dawgs baseball program -- it has become synonymous with producing outstanding athletes, fine young men and yes, winning -- John Ircandia has become synonymous with baseball greatness.
Tonight for a few moments I would like to take the spotlight off the Dawgs program, off the world class facilities, and all the rest and focus on the man -- the individual. Tonight and John, I want to assure you it won’t be very long, the focus will be on you. Not sure when your passion for baseball began exactly -- I do know this I have never personally met anyone with quite the same level of passion for the game. Perhaps -- origins in Trial, BC -- twice almost making the Little League World Series in Williamsport (that 1964 team lost the “winner goes to Williamsport” championship single knock out game in in Torrance Calif. and the next year lost the first-ever All-Canadian championship winner goes to Williamsport game to Stoney Creek, Ont.) or as Athlete of the Year in 1971-72 and I know ... he should have won in 1970 too.
Perhaps over time as you re-discovered the sport later in life and began pursuit of the vision for a single youth team -- to provide greater opportunity for decimated athletes, you shared that passion and love for this great game with the next generation. Many witness first hand what drive, determination and dedication can accomplish -- there were some, but few -- who understood what it was all about. Being part of the best tournaments, criss-crossing North America, driving tens of thousands of miles each year.
Recall the countless times his players were afford opportunities to play at the highest levels, the best tournaments and the top showcase events. Somehow in a professional life that is demanding beyond most of our understanding, John, you always found time for the players.
Whatever it seemed to take -- professional coaching, spring training in the BC interior in the dead of winter etc -- somehow John made it possible. And bear in mind much of what John did was unprecedented and he was the ground breaker and originator -- the first, and a visionary.
Early weekend mornings back end of a black Suburban -- heading to the next tournament, next game, next opportunity to showcase the players. The drive dedication and determination of one man laid the ground work for all that the Dawgs program is today -- a program that stands alone and singularly at the top in all of youth baseball -- no question in Canada and likely all of North America.
It did not matter what obstacle or impediment seemed to come his way and trust me when I say they did come his way, John Never lost his dedication, nor his determination to see goals accomplished. It was always about others, about providing opportunities for players or an experience that he hoped would have an impact in their future. We can all agree that impact in so many ways surpassed the gigantic vision of a big dreamer.
As Dawgs baseball became synonymous with producing outstanding athletes, fine you men and yes, winning John began to receive a portion of the recognition long overdue -- when he was listed amongst the most influential Canadians in baseball. As I have said -- it was always about others -- always about the program and players, later it became a world class facility and dedication to a community that has embraced his passion for baseball -- never about personal gain or recognition.
Tonight we have the privilege and long overdue opportunity to focus for just a moment on the man who made it all possible. Tonight -- it is not about the largest youth baseball academy in the nation, the fact that 100% of each graduating class since that first team in 1995 have been given the opportunity to play at the next level -- players drafted or those wonderful facilities, attendance ranking or team success or the Dawgs -- it is just about you.
It afford us the opportunity to say on behalf of so very many -- thank you -- to recognize all you have accomplished while at the same time looking forward with you to all that is yet to come.
Welcome the Dawgs-Seaman Stadium Hall of Fame ... John Ircandia.”
* * * Ircandia took the microphone and said it “if’s something you love ... it’s not work.” How that 16-man original roster grew to six youth teams and a summer collegiate team. He credited day-oners Don McLeod, Don Johnstone, Jim Wildeman, Jim Amy, Pablo Forno and of course Gardner.
“When we arrived here we drew better than the hockey team, someone from the Okotoks Oilers said ‘no wonder they brought in a marketing man from California, that was Bill Gardner,” Ircandia said.
Ircandia was concerned the winter before the Dawgs first season when the stadium was under construction that the Oilers with new rink were only drawing 500-600 fans.
“That made me think that would be our range,” Ircandia would say later. “Then opening night under a double rainbow no less, the fans just came and came.
“It was as if after all the struggles, the nomad baseball life, the money, the blood sweat and tears, some higher authority had finally decided we deserved a break.”
This summer the Dawgs drew averaged 2,827 in their 2,100 seat stadium which includes a grass berm (room for 1,000). BallparkBiz.com ranked the Dawgs fourth amongst summer collegiate leagues in North America. Ircandia’s team was behind the Madison Mallards, LaCrosse Loggers and the Elmira Pioneers with 14 sellouts in 27 total games.
But back at the start, when the Dawgs were unable to secure playing time at Burns Stadium, Ircandia soured the hinterlands for a place to play (“while avoiding sniper fire,”) none of this would have been possible without the involvement of former Okotoks mayor Bill McAlpine, according to Ircandia.
“Mayor Bill made things happen, I’m not an easy guy to deal with when I’m on a roll,” said Ircandia, “together Mayor Bill and I broke down walls together.”
And Kubicek opened doors in the baseball world for scouts and when the Dawgs needed teams to play.
He praised Mike Rose, Don and Doc Seaman, who helped finance indoor facilities and a stadium fit for an NCAA program.
“I had no idea how many people would support this banquet,” Ircandia said.
When he sat down a woman had emerged stage left and was at the podium and began speaking ...
“Did she even introduce herself?” Henderson asked.
The woman spoke on behalf of current and former Dawgs parents and spoke about the early years.
“This vision was created in a bar in Moose Jaw,” she said. “The next year the team started, the parents kept writing checks and the boys kept playing. And John would subsidize some players. Inside, he is a man with a soft heart.”
Marilyn Henderson Meek introduced herself as Jimmy Henderson’s mother. That morning at breakfast Jimmy had said “how some of the speeches drag on ... and sometimes banquets can be long.” Marilyn didn’t tell her son that she had been added to the program that night.
“When Jimmy was promoted I was booked on the red-eye to Chicago, so I packed and where else to go but to the Dawgs game?” Marilyn said. “I came to Seaman Stadium and was invited into John’s inner sanctum. John was so excited. He told me Jimmy had already pitched a scoreless inning.”
Marilyn thanked Ircandia for the vision he provided, the privilege of playing for the Dawgs, the coaching and the friendships developed.
* * * When I first encountered Ircandia he emailed about the Player of the Week write up we’d done about the Niagara Purple Eagles when his sons Vince had earned all-conference honors. He emailed a couple of times. Vince didn’t return for his senior year -- earning his MBA at USC’s Marshall School of Business.
Vince red-shirted with the Maine Black Bears in 2002. And Vince had two stellar seasons for coach Mike McRae (Niagara Falls, Ont.) hitting .345 with 11 doubles, five triples, four homers and 46 RBIs in 50 games in 2003 and .332 with 13 doubles, four triples, four homers and 26 RBIs in 52 games the next spring.
Those other original Dawgs went places too:
INF Emerson Frostad to Lewis Clark State College who played 12 years in the minors with the Texas Rangers and the Houston Astros.
RHP James Avery to Niagara, who was drafted in the 15th round by the Cincinnati Reds and has pitched 10 seasons in the minors in the Detroit Tigers and Reds system and the previous two seasons in Mexico.
RHP Tanner Osberg signed with New York Mets after being drafted in the 34th round in 2000 pitching five seasons in the minors.
RHP David Parker to Eastern Oklahoma State College, who was drafted in the 43rd round in 2002 by the Los Angeles Dodgers. He pitched four seasons in the minors.
RHP John Hurd to the College of Southern Idaho, who was selected by the Chicago White Sox in the 23rd round in 2003. He pitched four years in the minors.
LHP Aric Van Gaalen to St. Petersburg College and was drafted in the 20th round by the Seattle Mariners in the 30th round in 2005, who pitched two years in the minors.
RHP David Jablonski to College of Charleston and was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the 17th round in 2000.
C Jeff Werhun to California-Irvine.
2B Cam McLeod to UBC.
C Greg Rice to Midland College.
C Chad Coutreille to Alabama-Huntsville.
RHP Justin Cardinal to Mesa Community College.
OF Will Gardner to Eastern Oregon
OF Scott Traquair to Jamestown.
And of course, the most accomplished Dawg of all ... Henderson.
A shoulder injury limited him to 14 1/3 innings in 11 outings last year with the Brewers (and 10 1/3 innings re-habbing in the minors) ... after he saved 28 of 32 opportunities in 2013 as he went 5-5 with a 2.70 ERA.
Henderson had his uniform retired in 2013 in which we detailed his long road to the majors ... and the unique way he got there.
And a year ago he began the Henderson scholarship award at the same banquet.
* * *
We didn’t hear from John Ircandia for a few years after his sons graduated and the last four years we’ve flown west for his banquet.
What impresses me most about the man, besides his fire, his passion, is the fact that both his sons are grown and off on their own. successful in their own lives, prepared for the path and all that.
Yet Big John still has as much desire to provide a showcase for his players and strives for excellance as if he had three sons and six nephews on each Dawgs team.
As Brewers reliever Henderson said once “as young players we always wondered ‘what’s going to happen when John’s kids aren’t playing any more?”
Ircandia has not backed off on the gas pedal.
He has both feet on the accelerator ... with even more big plans for the future.
Hall of Fame guest speaker Robbie Alomar said it best when he looked at Hall of Fame inductee Ircandia and then the current Dawgs wearing their uniform tops and said: “I wish I have a program like this in my hometown growing up in Salinas, Puerto Rico. You players shave been given a chance to fulfill your dreams like I did.”
* * * And about the pacing at Petco ... Henderson inherited a 6-3 lead over the San Diego Padres and set down the first two hitters with a strike out and a fly ball. After a walk, he was facing No. 3 hitter Chase Headley with the tying run on deck.
Finally, Henderson struck out Headley on a 2-2 pitch for his fifth save.
“Jimmy got save and pitched OK,” Ircandia recalled. “I was pacing and found it funny that although closing a game out, he was looking in stands enough to notice. “That’s when I knew he’d made it. I mean he was confident enough, calm enough, that he could look my way and still get those outs.”