By Bob Elliott
Canadian Baseball Network
The Okotoks Dawgs were founded in Moose Jaw, Sask.
They were Calgary fathers.
They had one goal in mind.
And that was finding a place for their Calgary sons to play “next season.”
Into this bubbling kitchen jammed full of ideas waltzed Clint Fystro of Edmonton.
Fystro doubled as the president of Baseball Alberta and was the general manager of Team Alberta at the Canada Cup in 1999 in Trois-Riviéres, Que.
Vince Ircandia had played infield for Team Alberta and his father John Ircandia, Jr. liked what he saw.
Still ... whether it be Flames-Oilers, Stampeders-Eskimos, Cowtown-Deadmonton, Hitmen-Oil Kings, or Dawgs-Prospects, Calgary-Edmonton can fan the flames of rivalry no matter the sport.
“Alberta baseball was centred in Edmonton,” Ircandia recalled of being impressed with Fystro to the point of asking to be on the original Dawgs board. “I wanted that Edmonton perspective. Plus he was 100% behind the Dawgs development concept, that is ... less rules and restrictions, more let the kids play.
“Clint was always impressed with how the young Dawgs often played up an age grouping, how they developed skill-wise and were able to compete against older kids.”
And so in came to pass William Gardner, Don Johnston, Don McLeod and Fystro were inducted into the hall of fame at the Dawgs 10th annual banquet at the Foothills Centennial Centre. The Dawgs/Seaman Stadium Hall of Fame was created to recognize individuals that have made a significant contribution to the development of the game, youth and amateur ball, in Canada.
Ircandia said it was fundamental that the Dawgs Hall reflect credibility and it now includes a grad of the Dawgs youth and summer programs who grew up to be a major leaguer (Jimmy Henderson); the founding father of college baseball in Canada (Blair Kubicek); a mayor (Bill McAlpine) with extraordinary vision and a donor (Don Seaman) who donated in excess of $15M “to create the finest youth and amateur baseball facilities in the country,” and the engine that drives things, Ircandia his own self.
A Dawgs director for past 12 years, Fystro, who was with the 1970 Peace River Stampeders and earned the 1981 Baseball Alberta President’s Award, was instrumental in obtaining sponsorship support for the Dawgs when the team moved south from Calgary to Okotoks.
Ircandia praised Fystro for always insisting and ensuring that “the player and the opportunities, always come first -- not the politics.”
Fystro took the microphone and said his 18-minute speech was "suddenly in the toilet after viewing the opening montage” referring to the 10th anniversary video produced by Craig Van Horne of Scorched Ice Digital.
“It was always about the kids,” Fystro told the kids, parents, grand parents and fans, “and it always has to stay about what is best for the kids.”
Fystro told the crowd that he and his wife Wendy were about to celebrate 50 years of marriage, which drew applause especially from the table were the three Fystro sons sat: A.J., Doug and Bobby.
Ircandia hired AJ, who went on be a part of four championships with the Dawgs, including managing the Western Major Baseball League champs in 2008-09.
Doug Fystro coached the Dawgs for a couple of showcase events, which headed to Arizona Showcases and other tournaments. Recently he managed the Capital Tiger Padres at the 2013 Canadian National Oldtimers Championships at Telus Field in Edmonton.
Bob Fystro was a pitching coach with the Allan Hancock College Bulldogs and recruited LHP Jeff Mayberry (Edmonton, Alta.) to the program. Last spring Isaiah Ramos went 9-0, the most wins by a Hancock pitcher since Mayberry won 11 in 2001.
North Delta Blue Jays coach Ari Mellios and Fystro suggested Hancock to Jimmy VanOstrand (Richmond, BC) which led to playing for the Cal Poly Mustangs, being drafted in the eighth round by the Houston Astros, playing eight seasons in the minors with the Astros and the Washington Nationals peaking at triple-A Syracuse. All of this while starring internationally for Team Canada.
VanOstrand, 32, was hired by the Seattle Mariners this off-season as coordinator of character.
McLeod was the original technical director of the Dawgs Youth Program and a wise pitching coach, having 10 Dawgs hurlers selected in the June draft.
Leading the list was James Avery, selected in the fifth round by the Cincinnati Reds in 2005; Aric van Gaalen, 30th in 2005, Seattle Mariners; RHP Tanner Osberg, 34th in 2000, New York Mets; Jeff MacDonald 35th in 2001, Colorado Rockies; RHP David Parker 43rd in 2002, Los Angeles Dodgers; LHP Matt Ircandia, 46th in 2002, San Francisco Giants and Jim Henderson, 26th round in 2003, Montreal Expos.
On his own dime, he was part of a three-man committee that travelled to numerous minor league stadiums in the US in order to arrive at the design for Seaman Stadium.
Then, as a volunteer, he dedicated hours maintaining mounds and infields at Seaman Stadium and Tourmaline Field. Along the way he did earn the nickname Dr. Death from original Dawgs players and current Dawgs coaches.
McLeod was not in town for the banquet. Why? Well, Blame it on Mexico, as George Strait sings.
Cam McLeod, a former Dawg, who went on to play for the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds, accepted the HOF award for his pop.
“Dad put in 13 years working on mounds long after I had left the program,” said Cam, which was an example of his father’s devotion to the game. Most parents are involved as long as their sons are and then it is off to Mexico.
Part of the original group behind the Dawgs, Johnson helped develop the original vision for the Dawgs as a development program, resulting in him donating 1,000s of hours and cash to the growth of the Okotoks club.
After Russ Parker sold the triple-A Calgary Cannons, leaving the city without summer entertainment, he called Ircandia. The big Dawg was not interested in either a minor league affiliate or independent ball, but rather a summer college team. Players on their way up was more appealing.
One of first people he called was Johnson, another non-paid volunteer. He was part of the committee which travelled south looking for designs of both Seaman Stadium and the Duvernay Fieldhouse
Johnson is responsible for the design of the McAlpine Press Box as well as handling technical and IT matters for the Dawgs.
Admitting his speech would also have to be shortened due to the all the points covered in the video, Johnson spoke about the early days ... way back when starting the program was an idea for the fathers to go and play before deciding it was better to create something for their children. Johnson joked at the time they were “mental case dads.” Another HOFer said that description was too harsh: “passionate dedicated types, maybe a touch crazed,” was more accurate.
This vision may have been created in a bar in Moose Jaw at the Western Canadian championships. Worried that the players would not progress, a concept of a year-round or full season all-star team was discussed. Rather than playing together with the two-week all-star format in Little League, the team practiced together throughout the season.
That fall the best players gathered learning leadoffs, relays, bunt defenses, how to hold runners, how to go first to third, double play depth, getting jumps in the outfield.
“The program kept getting better, the kids kept getting better, players kept getting drafted and going off to school,” said Johnson. “We just wanted to help Little League kids who wanted to keep playing ball. We took the philosophy it is about the kids.”
He joined the Dawgs as a director with the start of the collegiate club in 2004. Ircandia had known Gardner from Foothill Stadium as they watched the Cannons play. Gardner was the one chatting incessantly, sharing baseball trivia and bothering others nearby as they tried to watch the game. And he could go nine innings.
As a volunteer the silver-tongued one has served as the original head of operations, MC for Dawgs events, greeter at Seaman Stadium, head of game day promotions and community relations.
After the Cannons departed, Ircandia called Gardner and said, “The Dawgs are going to bring high level ball back to Calgary. I need a president. Someone to be the face of the summer Dawgs. You are it.”
The glad-handing, happy-go-lucky Gardner, with a personality as big as Banff National Park, kept some business cards from the early days. Ircandia’s version of the position: “being president means you have to donate more.”
Gardner has made a night at Seaman Stadium, an event -- not just a ball game. Running the Dawgs’ charitable initiatives, fans have raised almost $350,000 for Canada Breast Cancer Pink Day. Money was raised for flood victims in 2013 as the Dawgs lowered ticket prices from $12.50 to $5 for a game against the Edmonton Prospects with 40% of sales going to southern Alberta “emergency services and flood victim relief agencies.” Approximately 100,000 people were forced from their homes, in High River and Canmore area as almost nine inches of rains fell.
The Dawgs celebrated local heroes — police, firefighters, EMS — at games.
The most accomplished speaker was the most emotional. He melted speaking of going to games with his father Bill -- “their first game was when the Blue Jays came to Seattle in June of 1977” -- and countless others in Alberta
They watched William’s son Will Gardner play for the Dawgs before he went off to play for the Eastern Oregon University Mountaineers. He thanked his wife Connie who sits down the first base line.
Will played with INF Emerson Frostad, RHP James Avery, RHP Tanner Osberg, RHP David Parker, RHP John Hurd, LHP Aric Van Gaalen, RHP David Jablonski, C Jeff Werhun, 2B Cam McLeod, C Greg Rice, C Chad Coutreille, RHP Justin Cardinal, OF Scott Traquair, INF Matt and Vince Ircandia.
Since Day 1, Gardner was the first person a Dawgs fan met entering the ballpark, along with Bill Tanguay. They shook a lot of hands. The Dawgs have drawn close to 700,000 fans in 10 years. They ranked fourth in summer ball attendance rankings in 2016.