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Tuesday May 16, 2017

Dustin Saracini sits down with interim head coach AJ Fystro 

DS: You have an incredible history with not only the collegiate program, but also the junior Dawgs academy. Tell me, what was the process like for you to coach opening weekend and was it an easy decision to accept the role?

AJ: It started out, I was at work -- normal day job over at Grand Slam Sports, and John Ircandia gave my cell phone a call. Unfortunately, I was busy and I couldn’t take the call. Next thing you know, my boss is Pablo Forno who runs the store at the stadium there. John called him and sort of said “Is AJ around?” I could tell something was sort of going on, the conversation lasted for awhile … I sort of had an inkling just from some things I could hear from what Pablo was saying.

Ultimately, what first came to my mind, you know, the Dawgs are family. The Dawgs have been very important to my family, the Dawgs [players] themselves, they say “Dawgs for life,” it’s a family within itself. For our family -- my dad being on the board of directors and being inducted into the Dawgs hall of fame this past year -- it really is an opportunity for me to step back on the field for my dad and my mom to see me coach once again. That was one of the first thoughts that came to my mind, and then also for my boys, one was just barely one [year-old] and the other one was between two and half, three years old [last time I coached the Dawgs]. Even though my three-year-old sort of had that remembrance of me on the field, they don’t really remember me. So just to do it for my own family now.

DS: Looking back, you were a big part of the WMBL championship teams in 2004, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Drawing from those experiences, what does it take to be the last one standing in this league as the Dawgs look to bring a championship back to Okotoks?

AJ: It really just takes a group of guys that are committed. Number one, they can unite and get together and are committed to that goal. Even though you are going to be together for a short period of time, it’s really just realizing that you’re battling for guys that you might only know -- you may never see them again down the road with guys being from the US and all over the country in Canada -- you put that uniform on and you’re battling for guys that you know for two months. It’s just that camaraderie thing and how fast you can bond and how fast you can gel into being a team of guys that are going to be committed and going to be working together for that ultimate reward at the end.

DS: Looking up and down the roster, there are a handful of division one players and a solid mix of fresh faces and veterans. You talk a little bit about this, but how quickly does a summer team -- with players from all around North America -- have to come together in order to be successful?

AJ: You hope within the first week, because obviously, my approach -- and again, this isn’t my team for the whole summer -- my approach is to let everybody have a feel. The first couple games being at home, to get those jitters out of the way in front of the great crowd that we have here in Okotoks. Just getting them to experiences for the first three days what it’s like to be at home is going to be huge. Getting everybody onto the field to just experience that, and then you get on the road and all of a sudden now you’re on the bus for long hours and you sort of come together there. So I think, usually, it’s about that first week where you can sort of get a feel.

Obviously, you have some late guys coming in, but you can really start to sense how things are going to shape out and what guys roles are going to be after that first week. You sort of get a feel of who your leaders are going to be. It’s the guys that you listen to, the guys that you hear and the guys that you watch, you know, the Liam Stroud’s, and it’s the work ethic, the time they put in at the field during the course of inning one to nine. What they do beforehand, what they do after -- for a lot of young guys, especially with the first year guys coming onto the team, some former J-Dawgs that are coming for their first year, it’s going to be key for them to learn that it’s summer baseball, it’s a great experience, but realize it’s still business. There’s an opportunity for you to get better, especially with the facilities down at Seaman Stadium. Guys really need to take advantage of the opportunity and if they do those things, then there’s a good chance at the end, you might be that last team standing.

DS: What do you miss most about being in the dugout full-time?

AJ: It’s more so the camaraderie you have, the stuff that happens outside the lines with the players, with the coaches, the familiar faces. First and foremost, obviously the support the Dawgs get. Having those big games and those huge crowds. The numbers they put up on the Father’s Day, the big games, the Canada Day, it doesn’t surprise me, but those are the little things you miss. Sure you miss those battles, but that’s part of the game.

DS: You open the weekend with a face many fans will be familiar with, big leaguer Jim Henderson. Is there a better person to coach alongside with when it comes to the Dawgs and are you looking forward to picking his brain?

AJ: He’s a guy that has meant a lot to this program. To have him is rewarding. Jimmy is doing this for the fans and what this program has meant to him. I think moreso, what I will get out of it, is to tell the players to take as much as you can from Jimmy in those three days. Pitchers, to find out -- him as a relief guy his whole career -- what his routine was. College is a little different, you play maybe some mid-week, you play some weekend and then you have a lot of days off in between, whereas the college summer league, it represents minor league baseball, or pro baseball. For guys to pick his brain to find out as a pitcher or even say “well you hung around these position guys, what was their routine day-to-day? What time did they get to the yard? What time did they get their lift in on game days? What’s the routine?” For guys to be able to pick his brain, I hope they can eat that up within the three days that Jimmy’s there and take everything they can from him.

DS: Have you taken any thought to the starting lineup come opening day, or is it impossible to tell this early?

AJ: Not really, and because of the fact, you’re really unsure of who’s going to make it. Somebody may be even done playing a week before season starts, but you just don’t know with travel, you don’t know how their body is. Until you can have that face-to-face to talk to them and say “Where are you at?” “Ok, I’ve had a couple weeks off, I’m ready to go.” You might get a guy who comes in, you know, he played late in the season and he might be a tiny bit banged up, maybe he needs a game every two or three nights just to get himself a little bit of rest and back into his routine. To say right now, I don’t know how many guys are 100 per cent on their arrival dates.

DS: I hate to do this to you, but do you have any predictions for the season?

AJ: The target to me, the way I see it, has been off our back. For a lot of years, the target was on the Dawgs’ back. I think a lot of players need to come in and just relax and do what they’re asked to do. I think there is big things ahead for this team.

DS: Taking a step back, and as we discussed, this program breeds high-end college players. We know the facility is incredible, but what else about this program allows these young and talented kids to excel?

AJ: I think it’s just the organization itself, from the coaching staffs to environment to the atmosphere. To me, It’s not a spot where somebody should be ending their career, sure there are seniors that are going to come and this could be their last year, but it’s an opportunity for always somebody to get better. To get better at life and to get better at the game. Whether it’s using the facilities, whether it’s being involved in the community. I always told the guys, it’s a minor league environment and a minor league experience that some and a lot of kids may never ever get. Take advantage of everything it offers. The signing autographs after the games, the community events, take as much as you can of that in, because it may be your only crack at the can.

DS: You’ve been an honourable mention in Bob Elliott’s Most Influential Canadians in Baseball List numerous times, most recently in 2016. Where does this stem from and how has the Dawgs program help you achieve the status?

AJ: The majority of the honourable mentions come from the opportunity that the Dawgs have given me. It started back in 2004 when I was given the opportunity. My dad contact John Ircandia and sort of said “Hey, I think there’s an opportunity here for AJ to be an assistant coach.” At the time, it was with Dave Robb. Me and Dave have had the connection where I’ve coached under Dave and then I’ve also had the opportunity to be the head coach and Dave be the assistant with the Dawgs. That honourable mention wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for the Dawgs. There’s a lot of years where I wasn’t with the Dawgs program, there’s a hiatus there where I was off at the University of Calgary and doing my own thing for seven years. But still, the Dawgs -- whether it was before or after -- were always a part of that. John Ircandia has given me a great opportunity and has given my family an opportunity to rest here in Okotoks as far as offering me jobs and offering me things that come up at times. So, for him, our family is very grateful. The honourable mention, just to be on that list, it’s important. It’s just that little extra thing that says the hard work and all the hours you have put into it, people do notice and it’s nice to see that.

DS: Before I let you go, what is it about the city of Okotoks that brought you to plant your roots here with your family?

AJ: It’s a small town feel, a community feel. Not sort of lost in the mix of the everyday rat race in the big city. We had an opportunity -- me and my wife, we lived in Calgary when I was at the U of C, and as soon as we started having children, myself, I was born and raised in northern Alberta in Peace River and my wife is from a small town near Lloydminster -- two small town people growing up, we always knew if we were about to have kids, we always wanted to raise them in a small community. You know what, the timing couldn’t be better. My son at that time was only one years old and the Academy job came back open when I was at the U of C and John contacted me and ran it past me and, like I said, the timing couldn’t have been better because that was right when we started to have kids and we wanted another. So, it’s that small town feel. You still run into people daily that remembered you or have stories about the Dawgs, remember my face when I was on the field, or Academy kids that their parents -- even though their kids may be off to school -- you run into them at the grocery store, it’s a little less of that when you’re in a big city. So, just that community feel. Any night, number one, whether it’s going to catch a ball game, whether it’s going to catch a hockey game, there’s a lot of stuff to do as a family.

The collegiate Dawgs open their season June 2 against the Medicine Hat Mavericks at Seaman Stadium. First pitch flies at 7:05pm.

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