By Jonathan Hodgson
Former Fox Sports analyst Harold Reynolds has evidently never been to Okotoks, Alta. or Victoria, BC.
The former all-star Major League second baseman was criticized for his comments during Game 3 of the 2015 American League Division Series between the Blue Jays and Texas Rangers at the Rogers Centre, regarding fans ability to catch foul balls due to his perceived lack of baseball being played north of the border.
The ensuing fire storm that those comments lit amongst Canadian baseball fans and players alike, perhaps burned a little hotter in Okotoks and Victoria, where 1000s of savvy ball fans have been catching foul balls at their local stadiums for years.
Granted, the 1990s at early 2000s saw a departure of several professional franchises once based in Canada; save for the Vancouver Canadians, the Blue Jays short-season time which continues to set the pace as a model minor league franchise, and a handful of independent teams like the Winnipeg Goldeyes, always one of the top drawing “indy” franchises from either side of the border.
What has really caught on in the great white north however, is summer-collegiate baseball. Especially prevalent in Western Canada, many Canadian markets have found their niche with ‘summer ball,’ with Okotoks and Victoria leading the way.
Let’s start with Okotoks.
Since opening Seaman Stadium in 2007, the Okotoks Dawgs have earned their status as one of summer ball’s gold standard, increasing average crowds from 1,600 per game in their first year, to 2,900 in 2015, a mark that was fourth highest among teams of their kind in North America, and annually leads the WMBL by a wide margin.
The WMBL is an all-Canadian collegiate-summer league with deep roots in Alberta and Saskatchewan. The league has a wide demographic of talent coming from all corners of the continent, and boasts current Major League alums like Oakland A’s reliever, and Simcoe, Ont. native, John Axford, and Los Angeles Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons, a two-time NL Gold Glove winner.
Under the direction of John Ircandia, annually ranked as one of the most influential Canadians in baseball by Bob Elliott, the Dawgs are never an organization to rest on their laurels, with increased attendance figures in each of their nine seasons.
And they’re shooting for more in 2016, having announced the addition of a new HD video board to Seaman Stadium; a ballpark that should be the envy of much of summer league, and Minor League baseball.
The Dawgs, who have won four Western Major Baseball League championships; three in Okotoks, one in Calgary before the club relocated in 2007, have very strong roots in the community, with both fans and players. The Dawgs youth Academy launched in 1995 and responsible for raising former Milwaukee Brewers closer and current Mets minor league pitcher, Jim Henderson, was reborn in Okotoks and has blossomed into one of the most successful programs of its kind in Canada, with over 120 players from the midget level on down through bantam and peewee.
Dozens of “J-Dawgs” have played for the Dawgs’ WMBL team, and 35 have been drafted, like 2015 Boston Red Sox catcher of the year, Jordan Procyshen.
Okotoks is a city of 28,000 just a few minutes south of Calgary, that has a very strong sense of community, which has likely played a major role in the Dawgs popularity explosion.
Couple that with the Dawgs being the highest level of baseball available for fans in the area, following the 2002 exodus of the triple-A Calgary Cannons, and the demise of independent baseball in Calgary, and it means that there is now a growing crop of young fans in southern Alberta, whose first, and maybe only ballpark experience, is Dawgs baseball at Seaman Stadium.
Youngsters seek autographs after games from their heroes in red and white, dreaming of one day growing up to be a Dawg.
On the west coast, something similar is brewing with the Victoria HarbourCats.
Entering their fourth year in the summer-collegiate West Coast League in 2016, there is a lot to be excited about with the HarbourCats, who by the numbers, appear to be on a track reminiscent of their peers in Okotoks.
With a very prosperous baseball history, the city of Victoria was awarded an expansion franchise for the 2013 season. Previous success stories in the capital of beautiful BC include names like the Victoria Capitals, and the Seals. Both were independent pro franchises that succeeded at the gate; most recently, the Seals averaged 2,400 and 2,600 fans per game in 2009-10.
True to form, the HarbourCats were an immediate hit, attracting crowds of more than 1,400 fans per game in their inaugural 2013 season. They too have worked diligently to grow their involvement in the community, as well as their success on the field in order to continue to thrive, and they have done just that.
The HarbourCats are part of the highly successful and reputable West Coast League circuit that features nine markets through Oregon and Washington, as well as the HarbourCats Canadian cousin, the Kelowna Falcons, which had a league-wide average of over 1,100 fans per game in 2015. With those attendance figures, and a reputation as a destination for elite NCAA Div. 1 talent from top conferences like the Pac-12 and the West Coast Conference, the WCL has become one of the most successful collegiate summer leagues since its launch in 2005. Twenty-six WCL alums appeared in the majors in 2015, including slugger Chris Davis, a Kelowna Falcons alum, and Jacoby Ellsbury of the Yankees.
Victoria has quickly become the talk of the league after leading the league in average attendance in 2014, their second season, with a mark of 1,576 per-game and again in 2015 when support jumped significantly to 1,910 per-game, placing them 14th in North America.
The HarbourCats too are led by one of the most influential Canadians in baseball; Prince George, BC native Jim Swanson is part of a local ownership group looking to take the HarbourCats to new heights. Swanson wants to see the day where Victoria and Okotoks are in a respectful rivalry, fighting ‘Cats and Dawgs for top billing.
The growth of the franchise to date puts the HarbourCats on a very similar path, with virtually identical attendance figures to that of the Dawgs at this point in their existence. With a Victoria baseball market of 330,000 people hungry for baseball, and capacity at historic Royal Athletic Park in excess of 5,000, there certainly is room to grow.
The dynamic is different in Victoria, but it is equally impressive what the HarbourCats are doing. In a larger city on the outdoor playground that is Vancouver Island, there is plenty to do and great options to spend one’s recreation dollars on, and the ‘Cats have quickly carved out an identity and a reputation as a go-to destination on a summer evening in the city.
The HarbourCats have made strides to promote baseball across Vancouver Island, hosting exhibition contests against clubs from the BC Premier League both in Victoria, and at Serauxmen Stadium, a 45-minute drive away in Nanaimo.
Phillies prospect, and Victoria product, Nick Pivetta signed with the HarbourCats prior to being selected by Philadelphia in the fourth round of the MLB draft, and Nanaimo native Griffin Andreychuk was named the ‘Cats Player of the Year in 2015, in his second summer with the team.
The HarbourCats home, Royal Athletic Park, has a long history in the game, tracing its beginnings back to the 1920’s. A myriad of players have starred on this diamond for a number of well-supported local teams, and the city of Victoria has welcomed the HarbourCats with open arms.
That is something that Swanson and crew should be proud of, but just like Ircandia in Okotoks, they view it just as a strong starting point. Between these two cities, over 120,000 Canadians watched ‘America’s game’ in the summer of 2015.
John Ircandia and Jim Swanson didn’t ask Santa for anything this Christmas. They will earn everything they get, as they work to lead their teams to new heights in 2016.