By Bob Elliott
Canadian Baseball Network
VANCOUVER, BC _ Terry McKaig’s car left Vancouver International Airport in Richmond and is now approaching the University of British Columbia campus.
Now, his black Lexus is on Southwest Marine Drive and turning right onto 16th Ave, with scenic nature trails and woods to our right.
We’ve read how a college football coach will take a new job they will make a test drive from airport to campus ... to judge exactly which view is the most panoramic for a first timer.
This thought goes through our mind as we arrive at Point Grey, home of UBC the first time.
“Is this the route you’d take off to show the most attractive view of the campus if you had picked up a recruit at the airport?” we asked.
McKaig steers the car and answers nonchalantly “it is one of the four entrances.”
Such is life at the University of BC, which does not stand for Beautiful Country ... but very well could.
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After a tour of the 12,500 square foot facility which was completed in the fall, McKaig stands on the balcony of his second floor office.
Down below we are looking at the third base dugout, a berm in centre field with a tree line behind it, the North Shore mountains are over our right shoulder and a lonely soccer player is hoofing the ball into the back stop. It’s a turf field so I refrain from yelling “GET OFF THE FIELD!”
Down the right field line and coming awfully close to being dangerous territory a Vancouver Whitecaps practice soccer field is being built. The new pitch is part of the Whitecaps new complex which will house the National Soccer Development Centre.
They may need hard hats when the left-handed hitters take their turn during batting practice.
Yet, McKaig can see past the berm, the construction and the trees. He can see the future from his spanking new building funded by an anonymous donor (not me) for varsity and youth league use.
“It’s awfully difficult fund raising, but Terry struck a major vein,” said a wise man from the West coast.
Plans call for the diamond which has home plate below us to be flipped with the plate placed in what is now straightaway centre. That means what is currently the first base line becomes left field and any danger to the soccer field can be solved with a netting: the Screen Monster. Dimensions on the FF (Flipped Field) are 325 to left, 390 to centre and 330 to right.
McKaig can see the new field and ... an $9 million 1,000-seat stadium. No wonder he can see everything: he has the architect’s drawings.
Who will play there?
Well, the UBC Thunderbirds for one, a BC Premier League franchise for two, maybe a summer college league team and perhaps international ball as UBC hopes it could become West Coast headquarters for Baseball Canada. UBC could host international tourneys with teams from Japan, Korea, Chinese Taipei and Team USA. They would have two sites what with their old home of Nat Bailey Stadium also available when the class-A Vancouver Canadians are on the road.
The stadium will be Astro turf with a hydraulic mound so the diamond can be used for younger age groups as well. The fences will be able to be moved in as well. They won’t be snow fences ... since it never snows in Vancouver.
What could better be on a summer night for people in a development down the current line than going to sit and watch a ball game? Across the street from where left field currently is sits Wesbrook Village (or South 16th Ave) with 12,000 full-time residents which will grow to 22,000.
The most successful varsity NAIA baseball program in Canada just got a lot better. A total of 20 players have been selected since the New York Mets super scout Claude Pelletier chose outfielder Derran Watts in the 12th round in 2001.
Twenty picks since the program was resurrected. McKaig predicts “in the next 18 years we’ll have 50 draft picks, that’s what we’re going to be capable of doing here.”
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Chris Pritchett, 45, was hired to take over for McKaig and has two, maybe three, maybe four draftees expected to go this June:
RHP Curtis Taylor (Coquitlam, BC), RHP Alex Webb (Surrey, BC), INF Bruce Yari (Waterloo, Ont.) and RHP Tyler Gillies (London, Ont.) have garnered attention -- especially Taylor and Webb.
Pritchett, of Merced, Calif., was drafted in the second round by the California Angels in 1991. He arrived at triple-A Vancouver to play for the Canadians 1995-98 suiting up for 466 games, spending 61 games in the majors all but five with the Angels, the others with the Philadelphia Phillies.
Returning to UCLA, where he was an All-American he completed his degree and earned a masters degree. After being hitting coach for the Canadians he joined the Boston Red Sox as an international scout.
Besides Pritchett (13 seasons, 1,478 games), has a staff of ex pros in Shawn Bowman of Coquitlam, BC (10 years, 741 games) drafted by the New York Mets in the 12th round in 2002 by Pelletier and Wayne Corness (four seasons, 23 games) in the Houston Astros system.
And Sammie Starr of Toronto (five years, 343 games) who was coaching this winter has returned to coach in the Baltimore Orioles system. Starr, whose grandpa owned the triple-A Toronto Maple Leafs, was drafted in the 34th round in 2010 by Baltimore.
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McKaig, the former coach, and now director of baseball has the corner office with the picture windows and best view in the new digs. And why not? He’s the man raising the dough to pay for the facility and the new yard.
Only a few years ago that a new influx of administrators at UBC thought that maybe ultimate frisbee was more important than say the football or baseball team.
The only sports not to survive under the controversial, stressful time on Point Grey, almost re-named Point Grey Hair -- you think Doug Mitchell gave $3 million to have the hockey rink named The Doug Mitchell Thunderbird Sports Centre so the Commerce Capitalists could play the Legal Eagles in intra-murals -- were the ski teams.
The school is moving towards is a “hybrid-funded” model. The baseball program receives its entire operating budget from the university. The plans is for revenues to be made through facility usage with the dollars helping subsidize the program. Extra dollars will stay in the program and help better the program through more scholarship money, coaching and recruiting.
Under NAIA rules, UBC is allowed to hand out 12 full ride scholarships which comes to $225,000 a year. For the 2015-16 calender year, UBC gave out $135,000 so there is still room to hand out more in scholarships.
And have you checked the exchange rate on our dollar of late?
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The facility itself -- the biggest thing to hit UBC since Jeff Francis was drafted in 2002 -- has four full size batting cages, a dedicated pitching area, high tech video analysis equipment, pitching machines and training tools.
UBC varsity coaches, players and alumni will host a Performance Institute teaching class -- 40 spots in the varsity membership and the same in the junior varsity.
There are HitTrax systems in three cages. Hitters can make contact and the machine will show a bloop single to right at Yankee Stadium or a double off the wall at Fenway Park ... and the exact distance it travelled. You pick the park.
Although when coaches are working on things, the machines are turned off.
The fourth cage contains a PX2 video which shows a live feed of a pitcher coming his balance point and going through his delivery. At release, the ball comes out of the screen -- any pitch, speed or location it is programmed to deliver.
The hitting area is 160-by-32, while the dedicated pitching area is 75-by-24.
Up the stairs is a perch where McKaig can stop on the way to his office for a look see ... to make sure who no one pulls a phone out of his back pocket to chat during batting practice -- as was the case as the red shirts and injured UBC players worked out below.
Entering the lobby there is a display for all the big shots, who have donated $10,000 or more.
Each have their name stitched on a Rawlings glove, like the big leaguers do. The gloves are hanging on the wall.
_ Miles Webster of Prince George, who coached for so many years and made such an impact on the lives of so many young players.
_ Michael Chernoff of West Vancouver.
_ The Grant Family of Vancouver. Their sons Doug Grant pitched for the Thunderbirds earning Canadian Baseball Network All-Canadian Third Team honors in 2005 and 2006, while Tim Grant pitched for the Dartmouth Big Green, going undefeated in six starts and was drafted by the San Francisco Giants. Doug Grant is a project manager for Ledcor Construction.
_ Bob Hole of Vancouver.
_ Molly and Bob Hole, grand parents of the Grant brothers and outfielder Mike Hole of Vancouver, who played three years for the Pepperdine Green Wave and his final two seasons with the TBirds. Hole is now a senior accountant with KPMG Canada.
_ Lefty Jeff Francis, of Delta, BC, who pitched for the North Delta Blue Jays, joined UBC, saw his velocity jump and go ninth overall to the Colorado Rockies in 2002. Francis started the gold medal game of the Pan Ams in Ajax this summer and decided to retire without fanfare to London, Ont.
Francis won 77 games in the majors, seventh all-time among Canucks behind Fergie Jenkins (Chatham, Ont.), Ryan Dempster (Gibsons, BC) Kirk McCaskill (Kapuskasing, Ont.), Reggie Cleveland (Swift Current, Sask.), Russ Ford (Brandon, Man.) and John Hiller (Toronto, Ont.)
Francis is different. He started 217 games, worked 1,291 innings and fanned 869 ... more than the other gloves combined.
But Francis is different for another reason -- it is the only left-handed glove.
Each facility we’ve ever been in is basically the same: cages, mounds, etc. And each has the same problem? Where do the parents get to watch? The Ontario Blue Jays have solved that with a gallery, but UBC has solved that from first glance.
There are a bank of nine TVs in the lobby which can be turned to the four different cages or the mound area ... or last fall when it opened all nine TVs were tuned to the Toronto Blue Jays pennant push.
The lobby also shows a timeline of UBC baseball. The program didn’t start in 1997, but rather it was re-started in 1997. There is a wonderful picture of Frank Gnup, the football coach who took over the baseball program in 1957.
Actually baseball was a varsity sport from 1956-66, ceased to exist and then athletic director Bob Philip brought the game back for 1997 with McKaig as the head coach thanks to the financial support of Mark Hiscott.
McKaig had a 553-340 career record winning eight championships, an NAIA Super Regional title and four times earned coach of the year honors in either the NAIA West Grouping or the NAIA Region I thanks to the like of former All-Americans Mark Capone (Etobicoke, Ont.), Connor Janes (Vancouver, BC), Shawn Schaefer (Pitt Meadows, BC) and Francis, each of whom earned all-American status.
We expect that all the Thunderbirds voted to the Canadian Baseball Network Canadian All-Canadian college team will be posted by our next visit.
In all there have been 38 UBC selections in the 16 years of the Canadian Baseball Network All-Canadian College team:
LHP Jeff Francis (North Delta, BC) 2001-02; RHP Brooks McNiven (Vernon, BC) 2003, LHP Brad Ashman (Trail, BC) 2004; LHP Shawn Schaefer (Pitt Meadows, BC) 2006, DH Steve Bell-Irving (Vancouver, BC) 2006; RP Sheldon McDonald (Spruce Grove, Alta.) 2008; RP Shawn Hetherington (Tsawassen, BC) 2009; LHP Sheldon McDonald (Spruce Grove, Alta.) 2011; LHP David Otterman (Coquitlam, BC) 2012; 3B Andrew Firth (London, Ont.) 2012; SS Tyson Popoff (Richmond, BC) 2013; RHP Alex Webb (Surrey, BC) 2015 and RP Curtis Taylor (Port Coquitlam, BC) 2015.
RHP Brooks McNiven (Vernon, BC) 2002, RHP Jordy McNiven (Vernon, BC) 2002; RHP Cory Stuart (White Rock, BC) 2003; Ashman 2005; LHP Mark Hardy (Campbell River, BC); McDonald 2010; RP Dan Britton-Foster (Ladysmith, BC) 2010; OF Blake Carruthers (Calgary, Alta.) 2012; 2B Andrew Firth (London, Ont.) 2013 and LHP Connor Lillis-White (Toronto, Ont.) 2014.
OF Mark Zamojc (Burlington, Ont.) 2002, 2B Mark Capone (Etobicoke, Ont.) 2004, 2005, RHP Doug Grant (Vancouver, BC) 2005-06, RHP Adam Campbell (Surrey, BC) 2005, RP Andrew Lafleur (Ancaster, Ont.) 2006, OF Connor Janes (Vancouver, BC) 2006; RHP Brandon Kaye (Langley, BC), 2010; SS Sammie Starr (Toronto, Ont) 2010; Carruthers 2010; DH Nic Lendvoy (Langley, BC) 2010; RHP Eric Brown (Thunder Bay, Ont.) 2011 and Lillis- White (Toronto, Ont.) 2015.
McKaig (Vernon, BC), who has two children Jenna, eight and Trenton, six, began his playing career as a right fielder for the North Idaho College Cardinals from 1990-93, before playing at for the Albertson College Yotes in 1994) and the Canadian senior national team in 1995. The club which featured the likes of Jeff Zimmerman, Cody McKay, Kevin Nicholson and Shawn O’Connor and Eric Gagne -- the Cy Young award winner signed by Pelletier when he was scouting for the Los Angeles Dodgers -- was knocked eliminated in the final game of the Atlanta Olympics qualifier in Edmonton.
Next McKaig moved on to the National Baseball Institute playing for John Haar, a member of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, in 1995-96.
“I got the coaching job when I was 24 and I had zero experience,” McKaig reflected. “I was in your face. That’s how I coached. There’s more to life than baseball. Having our daughter changed my opinion ... I still wanted to win, but I was a different coach after Jenna’s arrival.”
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Thinking back to the drive on campus ... we wonder ... maybe UBC quarterback Michael O’Connor, along with his father, John O’Connor, made the same drive onto the campus the year before.
We were at a clinic in Langley in 2015 and saw on TV headline how UBC had landed O’Connor and the reaction from the University of Syracuse, the headline in upstate New York reading:
“Orange loses out for QB to BC -- no, not that BC.”
Syracuse had not lost out in the pursuit of Michael O’Connor to Boston College but to British Columbia.
Imagine my surprise when I found out later that Michael O’Connor was from Ottawa, that he was the nephew of the late University of Ottawa Gee-Gees defensive thumper Mike O’Connor. Linebacker Mike O’Connor and the Gee-Gees beat the University of Calgary Dinos 14-9 in the Vanier Cup.
And three years later linebacker Michael O’Connor transferred to Queen’s University Golden Gaels where the Gaels won 16-3.
Queen’s beat UBC that day at Varsity Stadium in Toronto.
And now quarterback Michael O’Connor has the Vanier Cup back in the family.
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The indoor facility is the best in Canada obviously as UBC boasts the country’s best baseball university program.
It’s been a while and I haven’t been to as many college campus as major league parks. We visited the University of Miami in 1991, San Diego State in 1992, Central Florida in 1997, Rice University in 1998, Kent State in 1999 and Arizona State last spring.
A lot may have changed since the 1990s at those schools, but off what I’ve seen, UBC would be behind only Arizona State’s new home in Phoenix.