Is this heaven? No, it's Okotoks


Jan. 21, 2011



By Bob Elliott

OKOTOKS, Alta. -- There are at least two feet of snow as Jim Amy, hard-working Okotoks Dawgs director, drives his car down the road towards Seaman Stadium.

It’s a wonder he can keep his car on the road.

The roads are dry and clear, as the Weather Channel might say, but my oh my, you should see the breath-consuming view on this beautiful, sunny Alberta afternoon.

The snow-covered peaks of the Rocky Mountains sit in the distance, maybe be 70 miles away, but they look much closer.

You almost expect to see a photog setting up to take a postcard.

There are three feet of snow covering Seaman Stadium and a four-foot drift behind the press box of the 2,650 Seaman Stadium, named after Donald R. Seaman and the late Daryl K. (Doc) Seaman, part owner of the NHL’s Calgary Flames.

The Seamans, Alberta energy entrepreneurs and philanthropists, built the beautiful yard at a price of $8 million.

Walking out of the snow, away from the empty seats and chilled concrete and into the $2 million Duvernay Fieldhouse with its Field Turf and full-sized infield is a different scene.

There are high schoolers smoothly turning double plays and taking instruction as if it was June 15th.

George Strait’s “Check Yes or No’ is playing on the radio.

“Ah, excuse me, is this heaven?” an eastern visitor asks Dave Robb, head coach of the Dawgs summer collegiate club.

It’s close.

There is not an indoor facility and stadium like this in Ontario ... or anywhere else we’ve seen.


* * *

The cement seats of the stadium may be frozen and the snow may ride over shoe tops, but from the huge pictures inside the clubhouse of the Duvernay Fieldhouse, it’s easy to envision the warm, joy and excitement which has played out here the past four summers: a walk-off homer, players dancing with the trophy over their heads and mound celebrations.

The gem of a field house was made possible by the support of Calgary energy entrepreneurs Donald Seaman, the late Doc Seaman and Michael Rose, former owner of Duvernay Oil. The Okotoks Rotary Club and Dawgs management were involved as well.

The Okotoks Dawgs play in the Western Major Baseball League and are currently recruiting to start their fifth season in 2011.


* * *

How did the Dawgs leave Calgary, take the 2006 season off and move to this city of 23,000 and become a booming success?

It would be like Ottawa moving the Rough Riders to Kemptville ... and being a bigger success.

In 2007, the Dawgs first year in Okotoks they averaged roughly 1,600 per game.

Before opening night the directors asked each other what to expect at the opener.

“They had a junior hockey team here, some nights it drew 400, some nights 500,” said John Ircandia, managing director of the non-profit Dawgs, “I guessed 400.”

William Gardner, Dawgs promotions director, guessed 1,600.

“We looked out, saw the cars coming up the road, it was like that scene from The Field of Dreams,” Ircandia said. “Okotoks had its first traffic jam.”

The Dawgs drew 3,000 fans for their opener against the Lethbridge Bulls.

This was heady stuff for a group which spent half its time in Calgary running a team, the other half arguing with the independent Calgary Vipers of the Northern League over use of at Foothills Stadium.

When Russ Parker, owner of the triple-A Calgary Cannons decided not to operate a team in 2003, he asked Ircandia if he wanted to take over running an independent team.

Ircandia told Parker he’d rather stick with players “on their way up,” rather than “players near the end of their careers.”

Ircandia has done that.

In all, the Dawgs field five teams, basically a Dawg empire.

_ The power house college summer team, which won the WMBL in 2007-08 and 2009.

_ The JDawgs Acadmey team of high schoolers where students pay $14,000 to be part of the program and attend Holy Trinity High School in Okotoks.

_ A junior varsity team.

_ Two bantam teams, a grade nine and a grade eight teams.

In Year II, 2008, they averaged 1,825 and in 2009 1,819 per game, the 10th best in North America amongst college summer league teams.

And last summer, the Dawgs averaged 2,234 fans, fifth best total amongst summer loops for collegians trailing only the Madison Mallaards and LaCrosse Loggers, two Wisconscin-based teams in the Northwoods League, the Fayetteville (NC) Swampdogs of the Coastal Plains League and the Newport (RI) Gulls of the New England League.

Now, the non-profit Dawgs, run by directors: Jim Wildeman, William Gardner, Bill Tanguay, Clint Fystro, Amy and Ircandia are running full throttle ... all-ahead full.


* * *

Scouts have a saying about the province of Alberta:

“It’s the only province with more academies than players.”

That’s unfair.

And untrue.

Les McTavish runs the Vauxhall Academy Jets, while in Edmonton Mark Randall runs St. Francis Academy in Edmonton and Cam Houston runs the Prospects Academy in Edmonton.

A fifth school, the Badlands Academy will soon open in Oyen. Former mayor Doug Jones, a get-it-done, type Westerner is in charge and Blair Kubicek, who just stepped down from the Prairie Baseball Academy, built the new field, thereby guaranteeing nothing but good hops.

Are there enough players to go around?

Unsure. But the schools will eventually expand their recruiting from Alberta, the prairies and the Maritimes, to include the big three of British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec.

Alberta players or grads of Alberta academies in ...

In the minors: Emerson Frostad (Calgary, Alta.) at double-A Frisco and triple-A Oklahoma City; C Lars Davis (Grand Prairie, Alta.) double-A Tulsa in the Rockies system, RHP Dustin Molleken (Regina, Sask.) double-A Altoona in the Pirates chain, Jimmy Henderson (Calgary, Alta.) at double-A Huntsville with the Brewers, Chris Kissock (Fruitvale, BC) at double-A Reading and single-A Clearwater with the Phillies and Skyler Stromsmoe (Etzikom, Alta.) at single-A Augusta and double-A Richmond with the Giants.

In college: INF Cody Dillabough (Calgary, Alta.) University of Pennsylvania; LHP Eric Ranson (Calgary, Alta.) Tennessee-Martin; OF Shane Zimmer (St. Albert, Alta.) Canisius; INF Adam Nelubowich (Stoney Plain, Alta.) Washington State; OF Dale Anderson (Strathmore, Alta.) Seton Hall; Chad Northcott (Rocky Mountain House, Alta.) Northwestern State; OF Zach Rhodes (Champion, Alta.) South Dakota State; LHP Josh Edwards (Rocky Rapids, Alta.) Buffalo; RHP Dustin Northcott (Rocky Mountain House, Alta.) Northwestern State and INF Jesse Sawyer (Calgary, Alta.) South Dakota State, our 2009 CBN Player of the Year.

And on the horizon in the draft: OF Blake Carruthers (Calgary, Alta.) University of British Columbia; OF Cory Scammell (Edmonton, Alta.) St. Francis Xavier; RHP Ethan Elias (Entwistle, Alta.) Edmonton Prospects; 3B Brendan Hendriks (Cochrane, Alta.) Vauxhall Academy; LHP Ryan Kennedy (Calgary, Alta.) University of Tampa; LHP Sheldon McDonald (Spruce Grove, Alta.) UBC; OF Lionel Morrill (Edmonton, Alta.) Grambling State University; RHP Adam Paulencu (Sherwood Park, Alta.) Vancouver Island Baseball Institute; RHP Ryan Thompson (Fort McMurray, Alta.) Franklin Pierce University; RHP Burke Seifrit (Spruce Grove, Alta.) Southern Nevada and RHP Logan Seifrit (Spruce Grove, Alta.) Vauxhall.

We asked scouts and other baseball people to rank stadia across Canada it came out like this (a baseball tenant is needed to qualify):

1. Toronto’s Rogers Centre, home to millionaires and few fans nowadays, 1,495,482 for an average of 19,173 per game -- their lowest since 1982 -- where they play rain or shine.

2. Edmonton’s Telus Field, former home of the triple-A Edmonton Trappers. It seats 10,000, including luxury boxes and is sill in good shape and is now home to the Edmonton Capitals of the independent North American League.

3. Winnipeg’s Canwest Park, home to the independent Northern League Goldeyes, where general manager Andrew Collier had led his league in attendance 11 straight years, drawing 271,399 fans for an average of 5,654 per game in 2010.

4. Okotoks’ Seamen Stadium home to the Dawgs of the Western Major Baseball League.

5. Subway Field at Port Arthur Stadium, home of the Thunder Bay Border Cats a summer collegiate team in the Northwoods League.

6. Calgary’s Burns Stadium, former home of the Calgary Cannons, where the independent Calgary Vipers of the independent North American League call home.

7. Vancouver’s Nat Bailey Stadium home of both the class-A Vancouver Canadians and the British Columbia Thunderbirds. The historic yard also has a wonderful view of the mountains from the parking lot.

8. Vancouver’s Thunderbird Park where the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds play

9, London’s Labbat Park opened in 1877 near the forks of the Thames River with 5,200 seats. It’s home to the London Majors of the Intercounty League.

10. Quebec City’s Stade Municipal, which opened in the summer of 1937, where Les Quebec Capitales of the Can-Am League play.


* * *

In the right field bullpen there are four mounds?

Is Robb the Tony LaRussa of the prairies?

“Our youth players can show during a Dawgs game, get their work in during a Dawgs game and not bother anyone,” Robb explained.

Besides the infield the field house holds six batting cages, two permanent and four portable mounds.

“We can crank the one Hack Attack pitching machine up to 107 miles per hour,” Robb said. “Of course no one can hit that. We usually set it at 85-90 MPH for our older guys.”

The Fieldhouse also contains the Dawgs home clubhouse -- larger than the visiting clubhouse at Fenway Park, a visitor’s clubhouse, a JDawgs clubhouse and an umpire’s change room.

The facility includes a room featuring a complete workout area and gym with four training bikes, two treadmills, a squat rack, two weight benches, full range of free weights, a universal gym and giant flat screen TV.

We didn’t have time to work out on all the weights, but the TV looked like it worked real good.

“We’ll say to a young guy, ‘so do you want to grow up to be a Blue Jay?” Ircandia says. “And he’ll say ‘no sire, I want to grow up to be a Dawg.’”

In 2009 Team Canada played in Okotoks on their way to Thunder Bay and the world junior championships.

“This is a Dawgs town,” Ircandia said. “We sold out when the Dawgs played Team Canada, but when Canada played Team USA we only drew 600 fans.”

The three most famous alumni of the Dawgs: Emerson Frostad, who was at Double-A Frisco and Triple-A Oklahoma City in the Texas Rangers system in 2010; right-hander James Avery, who pitched at Double A Carolina, Single-A Lynchburg and Triple-A Louisville in the Cincinnati Reds system and reliever Jim Henderson, who was at Double-A Huntsville in the Milwaukee Brewers system and won Canadian Baseball Network Pitcher of the Year in 2009.

A total of 104 collegians have played for the summer team from Avery (Niagara University) and Joey Benda (University of British Columbia) to Mark Bomar (Niagara) and Steven Bone (UBC) to Marc Wilson (Campbellsville U) and Mat Wilson (Bucknell), to Jonathan Yiu (UBC) and Joey Zubizarreta (College of Idaho).

And 20 players have been drafted or played pro ranks: Adam Burton (University of Arkansas), Kyle Dhanani (White Rock, BC), Reed Eastley (Brandon, Man.), Mark Hardy (Campbell River, BC), John Hurd (Trail, BC), Matt Ircandia (Calgary, Alta.), Brandon Kaye (Victoria, BC), Tyler Klippenstein (Calgary, Alta.), Jeff MacDonald (Lacombe, Alta.), Kyler Newby (Mesa Community College), Tanner Osberg (Lethbridge, Alta.), David Parker (Winnipeg, Man.) Grant Richardson (Washington State), Luis Roberts (Dartmouth, N.S.), Sammie Starr (Toronto, Ont.) Aric van Gaalen (Edmonton, Atla.) Avery, Henderson and Frostad.

Henderson and Frostad spend their winters working out and tutoring young Dawgs.


* * *

Brett Thomas, assistant coach of the Dawgs summer collegiate club fires up the wide screen TV.

The Dartfish software program is running.

“Our goal here with this boy was to get him to spread out his little stance a little,” Thomas says as he clicks and the screen splits.

Now, we see the hitter with a closed stance taking batting practice. He’s fouling a lot of pitches off.

In the second video taken two weeks later his feet are father apart -- Thomas clicks, a line is drawn between his two feet -- and he now knows exactly how many inches his feet are apart.

He shows a triggering action, he generates his backside and it contributes some “oomph” to his swing. One line drive after another.

The problem many players think their feet are spread far apart or they’re getting down on ground balls or they’re swinging up at a ball, when it fact they’re swinging down, when in fact they are doing the opposite in each case.

That’s why Robb, head coach of the Dawgs summer club, walks around with a Flip Video camcorder in his pocket.

“A player can say he’s doing this or that on a ground ball when he really isn’t,” said Robb showing a 30-second clip of a infielder. “I can film him, shot it to him and bring him in show him.”

Eventually the light goes on ... “by Dawg I think he’s got it.”

Ircandia is from Trail, B.C.

“Now, we had teams that could hit, here it’s like you get to the Alberta border and you trade in your bats for gloves,” Ircandia said. “That’s why they are looking at every hitter’s swing every two weeks.”


* * *

This once was the land of studs when Bill Zimmerman formed the Calgary Cubs for his sons Jeff and Jordan Zimmerman and Ryan Radmanovich, who all made the majors.

Ircandia went through similar political battles.

Sitting at Riley’s Cattle Bar, owned by Rob Bolton (Peterborough, Ont.) he ticks off the players he his original Calgary Dawgs

Greg Rice, Chad Coutreille and Jeff Werhun caught, Henderson played first, Cam McLeod was at second, Frostad was at third and John’s son Vince Ircandia played shortstop, while John Hurd, Scott Traquair, Will Gardner and Jeff Johnston were in the outfield.

For arms he had Justin Cardinal, David Jablonski, Tanner Osberg, David Parker, Matt Ircandia, Van Galen and Henderson.

All went on to school or signed.

Now that was a team.

“We played five home games all year and had something like a .680 winning percentage,” Ircandia recalled.

Countered Brandon Newell “... and it’s still wasn’t good enough. John would phone and say ‘how did we do? Oh you won 4-2, what do you mean you only won 4-2, why was it only 4-2?”

Newell was his manager that year, scouted for the Milwaukee Brewers and now the Bellingham, Wash. native is back with the Dawgs to work again for Alberta’s George Steinbrenner.

Ircandia’s roots go back to Trail, BC, where he played for Andy Bilesky’s Little League team. In 1964 Trail lost to a California team for the right to play at the Little League World Series in Williamsport.

The next year, in the first all-Canadian championship for the right to reach Williamsport, Trail lost to Stoney Creek, which was edged 3-1 by Windsor Locks, Conn. in the final.


* * *

Gardner tells how much the Dawgs mean to this community.

He tells a story of how the Dawgs helped save a marriage in 2007.

A woman bought her retired husband two season’s tickets to the Dawgs home games so he could take one of his pals.

When a pal couldn’t go one night he took his wife. Now, they are regulars.

The wife told Gardner how the hubby became a pain, getting underfoot after retiring. She was headed for a divorce. And now after a bunch of summer nights root, root, rooting for the Dawgs, the woman told Gardner “we’re going on an Alaska cruise to celebrate our 40th anniversary, but not until after the season ends.”

Gardner tells a story of Taylor Ardiel, who started with the Dawgs as a 12-year-old bat boy and last summer Gardiner saw him approaching the ticket booth on his “first car date,” and walking up to the window and saying “can I please get two of the best tickets in the stadium.”

And then as a wise teenager would he added “my parents are in section 105, so could you please make sure the seats are no where near there.”

Olympic curler Shannon Kleibrink, who skipped her rink of Amy Nixon, second Glenys Bakker, lead Christine Keshen to a bronze medal at the 2006 Olympics in Turin, Italy is the Dawgs billet co-ordinator.

Gardner, in textiles sales when not at the park, told of being on the field before the final game of the best-of-five game against Swift Current and hearing a coach tell his players: “I hope you guys brought your cameras because this is a close as any of you guys, including me, are going to get to the majors.”

After the Dawgs won, Gardner took the megaphone and congratulated Swift Current on being a worthy opponent.

“We had 3,000 of our fans rise and give them a standing ovation,” Gardner said.


* * *

“This,” says Ircandia, “is the cockroach county when it comes to baseball. People try, but you can’t stamp it out.”

Not with John Ircandia running the show.