Canada’s premier summer collegiate baseball league is getting a facelift.
Rooted in Western Canada since 1948, the Western Major Baseball League has been the longest operating summer league and a fixture across Alberta and Saskatchewan since the first pitch was thrown over 60 years ago.
Now, with a vision toward building a true and unambiguous identity in North America, the board of governors has agreed to rebrand the 2019 version as the Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL).
The name change comes as a result of a comprehensive vision session conducted this past offseason. Facilitated by one of the leaders of the summer collegiate model in the United States, the governors were challenged to consider what was unique and most compelling about the league. The result was a complete rebrand.
With the alteration, the WCBL, in the same breath, increases awareness south of the border in terms of collegiate programs, media, and fans in an effort to build on what is already an outstanding product. A unique Canadian experience awaits as players filter through from all levels of the college ranks. From Division I to Junior College and NAIA, the WCBL will continue to provide a first-rate summer baseball experience, delivering a platform for not only development, but also an opportunity to learn from new, professional voices.
A fresh logo, equipped with the image of a Maple Leaf, will reinforce the Canadian identity. John Ircandia, founding and managing director of the Okotoks Dawgs, believes in this vision.
“We are sending the message out to fans, prospective business partners, the media, and the broader sports community that Canada is fundamental to our brand,” he said. “The reality is, apart from the Blue Jays, our league offers a very high level of baseball, favourably comparable to the Single-A professional level. In most of our markets, the baseball we offer is at the top of the food chain.”
As much as the exterior of the league is getting a makeover, so is the interior. Beginning in 2019, the WCBL will reintroduce and host an All-Star Game. Beautiful RE/MAX field in Edmonton, a longtime professional Triple-A facility with a capacity of 7,000 fans, will have the honour of hosting in 2019 and 2020, with each market having the chance to provide a bid thereafter. Other large-market franchises like the Dawgs, who ranked third in summer collegiate attendance per Ballpark Biz this season and attracted 3,000 fans to the last All-Star Game in 2007, will also provide excellent options for the prestigious event. The All-Star Game will be an opportunity for the league to showcase the amount of talent that descends on Western Canada every summer.
“It adds a level of prestige,” said Mitch Schmidt, associate head coach of the Bellevue University Bruins, an NAIA powerhouse, and head coach of the Dawgs. “The All-Star Game showcases the best players who will attract college coaches looking to recruit their next transfer underclassmen, and professional scouts looking at their next prospect.”
Just this year, multiple All-Stars and WCBL talent were selected in the MLB draft. Greg Cullen (Niagara University) of the Dawgs was drafted to the Atlanta Braves, while former home run leader and MVP Kody Funderburk (Dallas Baptist) went to the Minnesota Twins. Moreover, former Dawg Michael Gretler (Oregon State) was selected by the Pittsburgh Pirates, Academy star LaRon Smith went to the Twins, Edmonton Prospects’ Erik Sabrowski (Cloud County) went to the San Diego Padres, and Lethbridge Bulls outfielder Damiano Palmegiani was picked by the Toronto Blue Jays. The likelihood in which a fan of the game can see potential MLB-level talent so close to home is rare, but the WCBL All-Star Game will provide the chance.
Premier collegiate talent is nothing new to the league, either. Los Angeles Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons, former closer with the Milwaukee Brewers Jim Henderson, and Los Angeles Dodgers reliever John Axford are just a few established professionals who have honed their skills in the WCBL.
And if you can’t get enough of summer baseball, there is a solution. Come 2019, the regular season will be extended from 48 games to 56. More warm nights at the ballpark, more cold drinks, and, of course, more opportunities to cheer on your favorite team.
WCBL coaches applaud the extension of the regular season as a way to compete deep into the summer. Coaching legend Dave Robb (Mesa JC), who has coached at virtually every level, including professionally with the Visalia Oaks and internationally with the Canadian and Italian national teams, sees the intrigue in the decision.
“For me, from a coach and college baseball player, eight more regular-season games is a bonus,” he said. “Fighting for playoff spots and seeding is still a focus. However, for teams on the bubble of making the playoffs, there are still ABs to take, and innings to pitch. This is the essence of summer ball – play.”
Coach Schmidt echoed these sentiments.
“It gives players more opportunities to get offensive and defensive reps in at game speed rather than practice and training speed,” he said. “This is what college coaches want for their players; it readies them for the rigors and regiment of the professional level that they all hope to move onto in the future.”
Ircandia added the extension also allows the league to take advantage of the great August weather, with a playoff twist.
“It offers an opportunity to all franchises to host games during the best weather in the summer,” he said. “The trade-off was having to limit the playoff series to best-of-three rather than five. However, with the distances between our franchises and the realities of summer collegiate baseball (in particular the dates players must return to college) it was the consensus of the governors that the trade-off would be worth it. More teams would be able to enjoy opportunities to host more games, more fans would be able to watch more outstanding baseball in the best weather of the summer.”
Look for changes to the league’s website, social media presence, and overall brand to officially take place in the next few months.