Sunday, August 2, 2009

Is This Heaven? Globe and Mail story on the Okotoks Dawgs

To the southwest, beyond the neatly-manicured grass and right-field wall, you can see the Rocky Mountains looming in the distance. Inside the stadium, there are kids playing baseball on a grassy hill using an empty water bottle as a bat and a rolled up hot-dog wrapper as a ball.

As the home team takes to the field for its pregame warm-up, fans welcome one another the way old friends do. The weather is idyllic; John Mellencamp’s Small Town is serenading the house.

Is this heaven? No, its Okotoks, an Alberta town of 17,000 that has never had a baseball team to call its own until the Dawgs of the Western Major League bounded south from Calgary to the heart of the Sheep River Valley. That was three years ago.

Since then, the Dawgs have captured the hearts of the locals by winning a pair of WMBL titles and proving baseball can thrive in a province known primarily for its other pursuits: hockey, football, rodeo and ranching.

“We had some success in Calgary, but it’s a big city,” said John Ircandi, the Dawgs managing and founding partner. “You have an NHL and a CFL team and there’s not a baseball culture. … We’re building a baseball culture here.”

Baseball has been reinvigorating itself in Alberta’s sporting landscape for close to a decade now. Prior to that there were the ubiquitous Little League and senior men’s leagues as well as Triple-A affiliates in both Calgary and Edmonton. (The Cannons and Trappers now exist as the Golden League’s Vipers and Capitals, respectively.)

But the prevailing sentiment was: Not enough was being done to nurture younger players.

That’s changed now. There are high schools in both Calgary and Edmonton that cater to baseball-playing student athletes. There are academies throughout the province, from St. Albert to Vauxhall, that take in more than 20 athletes and hone their baseball skills through coaching, practices and up to 75 games a season.

Les McTavish, who played at Washington State University and has coached
Canada’s national junior team, heads the Vauxhall Academy and pointed to its graduation statistics as proof of how much potential the game has in this half of the country.

“We graduated 36 kids in the last three years and all 36 have gone to college baseball,” McTavish said. “We’ve had six guys from our program drafted by major-league teams – four current, two former.

“I came through the system in the 1990s and there was [pitcher] Chris Reitsma, but there wasn’t much past that,” McTavish added. “Now, kids can see a Dale Anderson or a Steven Inch, who were both drafted this year [by the Texas Rangers and Philadelphia Phillies, respectively] and they can say, ‘I can make it, too.’ It inspires them.”

What the Okotoks Dawgs have done has been inspiring on several fronts.
Business-wise, the team is as polished as a well-turned double play.

Ircandi, a Calgary lawyer and baseball aficionado, oversaw the construction of Seaman Stadium, so named after its two benefactors Don Seaman and the late Doc Seaman, who was also an original owner of the NHL’s Calgary Flames.

The two-year-old ballpark is a gem, with 1,650 major-league-style seats, a
family viewing area on a grassy hill, a big-time video scoreboard plus “a
full-service Press Box featuring home and visitors media rooms.”

Overall cost: $8-million.

Last season, the team’s ability to average 1,825 fans per game earned it a
sterling acknowledgement from Ballpark Biz, a U.S. sports consulting firm
which dubbed the Dawgs “the No. 1 draw, professional or otherwise, in the
province of Alberta, the No. 1 collegiate draw in Canada and among the top-10 summer collegiate draws in North America.”

“A lot has to do with the community,” said Ircandi, who took the team out of the big city and transplanted it here not knowing if it would take root.
“Sure, it was a gamble. Okotoks never had a baseball team before. But the team really grabbed [the opportunity] and created an incredible sense of pride.It’s been a collision of things.”

On the field, the Dawgs are made up of college players, including one from
Kentucky, three from Colorado, nine from California and 13 from across Canada. They play in the WMBL until mid-August, then return to their schools.

They receive no salary for their efforts, although their travel costs and room and board are covered. Like junior hockey players, they are billeted with volunteer families, which has also helped strengthen the bond between the team and its community and allowed the Dawgs to enhance their operation.

“We’re a non-profit business,” Ircandi said. “Any money we get we’re putting back into the club. In part, that’s how we built the Rose Field House.”

Next to Seaman Stadium’s right-field seating area stands the latest addition to Okotoks baseball, a $2-million in-door training facility that features a regulation-sized infield with artificial turf. Players can work out in the weight room, receive medical treatment and will eventually have their batting swings analyzed through a computer program that can compare their mechanics,via a split-screen, to Manny Ramirez of the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Not surprisingly, the two local midget Triple-A baseball teams (Grades 10 to 12) have benefited from the available resources and are ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in the province. To paraphrase the concept, Ircandi and his staff are taking puppies and turning them into Dawgs. The WMBL couldn’t be happier.

“This league started over 50 years ago in Saskatchewan,” commissioner Keith Jorgensen said. “It evolved for a time, then it just about died. In the late 1990s, we were down to four teams. Now, we have 11 and there are two more groups talking to us about coming in. … What they’ve done in Okotoks has contributed to that.”

On this spectacularly sunny day, the Dawgs outlast the Lethbridge Bulls, then auction off their jerseys to support the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation. The final tally is a $22,000 donation.

It is another indication of how much baseball matters here and how the game can blossom in the most unlikely of places. Ircandi says it felt good right from the first pitch.

“The former mayor of Okotoks told me, ‘I knew it would work for us after
watching the opening-night game.’ We had a double rainbow [in the sky] that night framing the [grassy hill]. And at the end of the game, we had the kids run the bases with our mascot. Everything just came together,” he said.

“We’re establishing something; we really are.”

Allan Maki

OKOTOKS, ALTA. — Globe and Mail

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