By Jonathan Hodgson
If you ask John Ircandia, managing director of the Okotoks Dawgs, he’ll tell you that personal notoriety has never been and will never be a goal of his. Nonetheless, it sometimes comes with the territory when you preside over a multi-level amateur baseball program that is an industry leader at the youth and summer collegiate ranks.
Just before the new year, Ircandia was named the 15th most influential Canadian in baseball for 2018, in an annual list compiled by Bob Elliott for the Canadian Baseball Network, once again taking his place among a ‘who’s who’ of Canadian baseball giants that includes former and current major league players, Hall of Famers, executives, coaches, scouts and media members.
View the list on the Canadian Baseball Network
Ircandia, who grew up playing the game in his hometown of Trail, BC says that he is humbled to receive such recognition from Elliott, winner of the 2012 J.G. Taylor Spink Award for meritorious contributions to baseball writing for his five decades as a baseball journalist.
“It’s a bit surreal but truly a great honour,” Ircandia reflected. “I have long considered Bob Elliott with his well deserved, Hall of Fame credentials, and the CBN, as a barometer of baseball in Canada. They are THE unifying force in promoting baseball from the grassroots and youth levels to the JNT and right up to college and professional baseball. In view of the indisputable baseball credibility of Bob and the CBN, to be recognized as a representative from the youth development and college side of our sport, I am (the Dawgs are) humbled and greatly appreciative of this recognition,” he said.
Elliott, founder of the Canadian Baseball Network, has been inducted into five different halls of fame, including the Dawgs Hall of Fame in 2017. As a winner of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, he is also part of the ‘Scribes and Micsmen’ exhibit at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY.
Ircandia has appeared on the list annually for several years, a reflection of the steady and constant growth of all aspects of the Dawgs program, which Ircandia says is a reflection of the organization’s relentless hunger to always improve.
“We at the Dawgs are never fully satisfied as there is always work to do and ways to improve,” Ircandia said. “As I say to our Academy coaches, ‘don’t ever be afraid to look in the mirror and challenge yourself: What could we do better and how do we accomplish those things? Keep pushing the envelope.’ That has been my mentality since I quit playing and started coaching and it remains that way now,” he said.
This year’s ranking is Ircandia’s highest to date. Earning top spot on this year’s list is former major league outfielder Larry Walker (Maple Ridge, BC) who is on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot.
The original Dawgs were a youth team fielded in 1996 with the objective of providing local youth with a more challenging schedule and competition with the end goal of helping them obtain opportunities to attend post secondary and play collegiate baseball. That planted the seed for the Dawgs Youth Academy which has staked its place as one of the preeminent youth development programs in Canada, playing out of the Seaman Stadium Complex which is home to what are widely regarded as the finest amateur baseball facilities in Canada.
The Dawgs Academy aims to graduate all of its players to the collegiate level, and in recent years has had a pair of players, infielder Cesar Valero and outfielder Micah McDowell, commit to the 2018 College World Series Champion Oregon State University.
Numerous Academy players have represented Canada with the Junior National Team and have gone on to professional careers and many of those alumni have returned to Okotoks over the years to join the Academy’s coaching staff after their playing days are over.
Ircandia says that the type of loyalty shown to the program by many of their own, and it as fostered a strong identity of what it means to be a Dawg.
“It is fantastic to see our grads return and not only want to give back to the program, but passionately want to contribute to mentoring a new generation of Dawgs,” Ircandia said. “I often speak of the circular nature of the Dawgs family: youth player, college or professional player returning in some capacity to ‘give back’ to the program,” he said.
The Dawgs added their summer collegiate team into the repertoire 2003, playing in the Western Major Baseball League (now the Western Canadian Baseball League). The team has established itself as a model franchise in the league and all of summer collegiate baseball, winning four championships, remaining a perennial contender, and ever since the opening of Seaman Stadium in 2007, playing for average crowds that rank every year among the largest in North America for summer collegiate baseball.
Similar to the objectives of the youth academy, summer collegiate baseball is at its heart, a development avenue for collegiate athletes looking to further their careers. To that end, the Dawgs boast dozens of drafted alumni who have and are playing professional baseball, and have produced two major league players. Original Dawgs Academy and summer collegiate player Jim Henderson was the first Dawg to reach the major leagues in 2012, going on to pitch in more than 150 major league games in four seasons with the Milwaukee Brewers and New York Mets. He was joined in 2017 by Andrew Kittredge, who pitched for the Dawgs summer collegiate team in 2011 and reached the majors with the Tampa Bay Rays.
Off of the field and in the community, the team remains a phenomenon for Canadian baseball, and in the summer collegiate baseball industry as a whole. Attendance has increased nearly every season since 2007, reaching its latest high-water mark of more than 4,100 per game and in excess of 94,000 for the season in 2017.
Altogether, more than 700,000 fans have passed through the gate of Seaman Stadium, creating a truly one-of-a-kind game night atmosphere every single game.
“It is very difficult to put into words the impact of the community support we have received,” Ircandia said. “It is a phenomenon. Dawgs games have become THE place that our community gathers to share good times with family and friends. Dawgs players become the adopted ‘sons’ of an entire town. The pride that generates goes both ways: to the Dawgs players for sure but also back to the community that the players embrace,” he said.
“Having grown up and played every sport available in a sports-crazy town and traveled on teams throughout the western United States, I have never seen anything like the support we experience in our community,” Ircandia concludes.
To better serve their faithful, the Dawgs have invested in upgrades to Seaman Stadium in recent years including an upgraded high definition video board in 2016, and a new seating bowl expansion for the 2019 season.
A true baseball lifer as a player, coach and now executive, rest assured that John Ircandia won’t rest on his laurels heading into 2019, but he is appreciative and thankful to be recognized among so many giants in Canadian baseball.
“There must have been something in the water growing up in my smelter hometown of Trail, BC, ‘Home of Champions’,” Ircandia joked. “There is no one more competitive than me,” he said.