Pro Baseball - Possible?

on . Posted in Prospects News

Think Pro Baseball is Coming Back?  Think Again….

“Baseball in Edmonton”
By Len Nunes

On October 24, 2003 The Globe And Mail wrote an article discussing the sale of the Triple A baseball team the Edmonton Trappers by its owners the Edmonton Eskimos.

"Although the Edmonton Trappers won the Pacific Coast League championship in 2002 and averaged slightly better than 5,400 fans a game this season, the Eskimos announced yesterday they have sold the baseball team...

The Eskimos' president and chief executive officer, Hugh Campbell, said that selling the baseball team became a necessity when the rival Cannons left Calgary in 2002 to become the Albuquerque Isotopes…

"Scheduling, air and cross-border travel and the Canadian dollar were also factors in the PCL being desirous of not having a Canadian team in the league."”

Fast forward over 16 years and the last four reasons listed by the then Eskimos President and CEO still ring true. Any wishes of seeing "affiliated baseball", meaning a team that is directly connected to a MLB team like the Trappers were with the Angels and Expos among others during their tenure, come back to Edmonton are weighed down with the rigors of scheduling, air and cross-border travel plus the weak Canadian dollar.

The most altruistic of baseball fans will envision an all-Canadian baseball league in the model of our friends the Edmonton Stingers in the Canadian Elite Basketball League or our friends FC Edmonton in the Canadian Premier League. If the keywords of said baseball fan are "affiliated baseball", finding a handful of MLB teams willing to move their respective minor league team to Canada, is sadly comparable to hoping just one Major League team moves their youngsters to Edmonton.

For example, the Toronto Blue Jays Triple A affiliate are the Buffalo Bisons 158 kilometers away from the Rogers Centre. The New Hampshire Fisher Cats, their Double A team, are 843 kilometers away. For reference sake, Edmonton is 3,478 kilometers away from Toronto.

The Vancouver Canadians are the Class A short season affiliate of the Blue Jays, a partnership that started in 2011 and was recently expanded to 2022. Here's a snippet from the January 2018 article announcing the extension:

"Vancouver will remain the short-season Single-A affiliate of the Blue Jays until 2022, in a move that has to do with more than baseball operations...The Blue Jays have done a terrific job in recent years at re-solidifying themselves as ‘Canada’s team,’ particularly in Vancouver...Blue Jays GM Ross Atkins was in Vancouver for the annual Canadians Hot Stove Luncheon. It’s a small gesture, but one of many that the Jays have done in recent years to make their presence felt in a city that’s far closer to Safeco Field in Seattle than Rogers Centre in Toronto."

Independent baseball, where the team has no affiliation with a specific MLB team, has been tried before in the form of the Edmonton Cracker Cats, which became the Edmonton Capitals. Throughout the years the Cats and Caps were in the Northern League, Golden League and North American League. Here are a few notes from the Edmonton Journal February 22, 2012 article announcing the departure of the Capitals baseball team:

"The Capitals abruptly withdrew from the North American League on Tuesday, citing the plummeting participation of teams from around the semi-professional baseball league for the upcoming season. The NAL went from 10 teams in 2009 to four teams being registered to play this year"...The move caught city officials by surprise.

Mayor Stephen Mandel, a baseball fan, said it was disappointing to hear the team would not take to the field in 2012. “There’s lots of baseball fans who enjoy going to a game in the summer,” Mandel said. “It’s a family event.”

Edmonton is a city that loves baseball, Mandel said. The problem is the leagues sometimes aren’t strong, he said, adding the city’s northern location also makes it harder to attract teams from better quality leagues."

As over-simplified as the then Mayor's comments might be, Edmonton's northern location is a legitimate issue for any league to contend with.

Managing Director John Ircandia of the Okotoks Dawgs, whose team started out in Calgary as the Calgary Dawgs, shared some of his thoughts from moving from a big city to Okotoks last summer in an interview on the Prospects Baseball Show. Ircandia also discussed some similarities between his situation and the situation the Prospects have found themselves in recently struggling to procure a long-term deal with the City. 

(The Prospects situation) brings back some of the frustration I had with Calgary...we ran a fairly successful WMBL (now WCBL) franchise winning the championship in 2004 with 4,000 fans at that game. Calgary, like Edmonton, had had a Triple A team. There’s a difference between 20, 21, 22-year-old kids playing the college game, however good they are, and guys who are on the door of Major League Baseball…

The big city, you guys got the Eskimos and Oilers...you like to think we are a big city town. The problem is this is a different sport - baseball. We aren’t a big city town, there’s one in the country in Toronto which is 5 times the size population-wise, and on the East Coast, not too far from New York and the baseball center of the East. We don’t have that option and there really is no affiliated baseball in this area other than short season Vancouver. The Prospects or Dawgs could match up with those guys!

The City of Calgary, for whatever reason, put a tag on the word “professional”. They put a value on it...they didn’t know baseball, they didn’t understand the levels and I see a lot of the same dynamic going on in the press I’m reading about the Edmonton Prospects. They (Calgary) wanted to pretend they were getting a better product cause someone could call it professional or affiliated…

In my mind there’s a 100 other reasons why you would prefer a Summer Collegiate model over even an Affiliated Short Season Season model. I personally think that Edmonton and Calgary are deluded if they think they would bring that model anyway. The nearest team at the level, and it’s rookie ball - basically Pioneer League - is Great Falls, Montana. Why they would come back to a place like Edmonton as a solo Canadian team in Northern Alberta, it’s just ludicrous. It is bound to fail.”

Now let us discuss a baseball formula that is getting stronger each year.  It has been in Edmonton. Attendance for the Edmonton Prospects has grown from an average of 296 per game in 2012 to 2,102 per game in 2019. The team plays in the Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL), known as the Western Major Baseball League (WMBL) from 2000-2018, which has roots that go back to 1931. Operating in a league built, owned and operated by Albertans and Saskatchewanians, the checklist for success is filled with checkmarks. 

“Scheduling, air and cross-border travel” which doomed the Edmonton Trappers, are controlled factors in the WMBL.  Teams travel by bus and do not cross country borders. The stability of the league, which doomed the Cracker Cats/Capitals, is strong with so much of the product being owned locally.

Former Edmonton Prospects players Tanner Kirwer (Blue Jays), Kody Funderburk (Twins), and Erik Sabrowski (Padres) have been drafted into the big leagues in recent years. Baseball fans everywhere are realizing the quality of play the WMBL puts on the field. Do not allow yourself to miss the action because of an over-value on the word “professional”.

See you at the ballpark!