By Jonathan Hodgson
As he enters his third spring training and fourth professional season overall, former Okotoks Dawgs’ first baseman Bruce Yari still fondly remembers his time in Okotoks, and says that his Dawgs experience has benefited him in his time as a Cincinnati Reds prospect.
A former standout at the University of British Columbia, Yari played two summers in Okotoks in 2015-16, following his sophomore and junior years with the Thunderbirds. He was teammates and roommates at UBC with former Dawgs outfielder and Dawgs Academy graduate Brendan Rose, and says that Rose told him all he needed to hear about Okotoks.
“(Rose) is a Dawg through and through and he told me nothing but good things about playing there. He kind of gave me the run down on how great it was to play there, but I didn’t fully understand it until I got there and experienced it for myself,” Yari said.
In his two seasons, Yari made a big impression in the Western Canadian Baseball League (then the WMBL), the latest in the long line of premiere talent and future draft picks from UBC to star in Okotoks. Yari in fact, played with several UBC teammates who went on to be selected in the Major League Baseball draft or sign professionally. They included former Dawgs left-handed pitcher Conor Lillis-White (Dawgs 2014; Angels draftee 2015, current Cubs prospect) and right-hander Jeremey Newton (Dawgs 2015) who signed with the Milwaukee Brewers as a free agent in 2016.
Lillis-White reached triple-A with the Angels in 2018 and was traded to the Chicago Cubs this off season.
Yari, who played first base and the outfield during his rookie season with the Dawgs in 2015 before finding a home at first base as his career advanced, hit .288 in 38 games in his first campaign with the Dawgs.
He says that the experience was everything that Rose and others had built it up to be, and more.
“The biggest thing I remember was playing in front of the fans at Seaman Stadium; it was truly an awesome experience,” Yari said. “Every single game, they were selling that place out and they were engaged and supporting us. It was unlike any other fan base I’ve ever played in front of,” he said.
A native of Waterloo, ON, the largest crowd that Yari could remember playing in front of prior to Okotoks was the 2011 championship game at the Canada Cup.
“I think we may have had 1,000 fans at that game, so Okotoks was truly a different level than anything I had experienced to that point.”
Coming off of his first season with the Dawgs, Yari found a whole new level in his game the following season, leading UBC with his .368 average, 13 doubles, five home runs and 46 RBIs during his redshirt-junior year. His success carried over into the WCBL season in Okotoks, hitting .448 with 10 RBIs and two triples in just 8 games.
“(In 2016), I was a year older and a year stronger; just a bit better of a baseball player at that point,” Yari explained. “That first year, there were some points where maybe I ran into some tough luck and hit some balls right at guys; that’s how the game goes sometimes. My second year, I was feeling good at the plate and hitting the ball well, but everything was falling for me, too, and had the bounces going my way, so when you put those two things together, you’re going to have success,” he said.
With a highly successful season to his name, Yari was still somewhat unsure, but hopeful about his chances heading into the Major League Baseball draft in mid-June.
“I was hopeful and optimistic but at the same time, sometimes things don’t go your way and you can get passed on, but I felt like UBC and the Dawgs really did a great job of preparing and I thought I had put myself in a good position and had earned it,” Yari said.
Indeed, he had earned it. Yari was selected by the Reds in the 24th round of the 2016 Major League Baseball draft, ending his time in a Dawgs uniform but opening his next chapter as a professional.
Now finding a home as a first baseman, Yari has impressed through his first three seasons in the Reds organization, earning a promotion at the start of each season and finishing 2018 in the advanced-A Florida State League.
The left-handed swinging Yari has always been an imposing presence in the batters’ box, standing 6’4’ 220 lbs, and has continued to develop as a hitter at each level, including his continued evolution as a home run threat. Through 234 professional games in three seasons, Yari has belted 19 home runs, including a career-high 13 at single-A Dayton in 2017.
Yari says that there are still times when he can draw on the experience gained from playing in front of sellout crowds daily in Okotoks, like Opening Day of his 2017 season in the single-A Midwest League when coaches told him to prepare for a larger atmosphere than his previous season in rookie ball.
“I think we had about 4,000 fans at the game in South Bend, IN, but I remember that once the game got going it kind of reminded me of Seaman Stadium and it really wasn’t anything new to me,” Yari recalled. “Playing in front of the Dawgs fans definitely got me ready for what it was going to be like in pro ball.”
Yari has been promoted a level up in the Reds organization in each of his first three seasons and after a strong season in the advanced-A Florida State League in 2018, a jump to the upper levels of the Reds system is a possibility this season.
“I think I’ve put myself in a good position to move up to double-A this season, but at the same time, it’s not something that I’m stressing over too much,” Yari said. “I know that wherever I play, I’m going to go into it with that same attitude to control what I can control,” he said.
Yari continued by explaining that while moving up the organizational ladder is the desired end result, it doesn’t dominate his daily thought process.
“My focus going into every season and every level is to just get as much out of it as I can. I try to take care of what I can on the field, and that’s working as hard as I can, having the best attitude I can have at the field every day, and I know that moving up the ladder will take care of itself,” he said.
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