We have fires engulfing the U.S. West Coast, sending smoke into B.C. and putting us on the map for worst air quality in the world. We’re No. 1! We have a pandemic that has altered life as we know it and shattered the economy. We have trains derailing in the Fraser Valley, gondolas crashing in the Howe Sound and plagues of moths and grasshoppers across Kamloops.
Seems like a good time to talk about anything else. Seems like a good time to slow down and talk about baseball.
The trio bringing a West Coast League baseball team to Kamloops next year (pending the progress of the pandemic) have a chance to do baseball right.
Norm Daley, Jon Pankuch and Neal Perry are spending a heck of a lot of money — think of it in terms of the equivalent a property tax hike of a percentage or two — to have the Kamloops NorthPaws play the great game at picturesque Norbrock Stadium. There, with rolling hills of Kenna Cartwright Park providing the backdrop, the collegiate-aged roster will square off against the 14 other teams in the growing league, including the Nanaimo Bars and Edmonton Riverhawks (expansion teams entering with Kamloops next June), the Portland Pickles, the Walla Walla Sweets, the Port Angeles Lefties and the Wenatchee Applesox. There are also the Kelowna Falcons to add to the Tournament Capital-Lake City rivalry.
The West Coast League has a bevy of beautiful nicknames — the NorthPaws is one for the ages and anybody who cannot see how clever the monicker is should be sentenced to a season of travelling (pair up with LeBron James, as he never gets caught) through NBA cities, where there are no Grizzlies anywhere near Memphis, no Jazz in Utah and nary a dinosaur bone within a thousand free throws of Toronto’s Air Canada Centre.
The storied Minor League Baseball system across North America is mired in a crisis that began before the pandemic hit. Blame goes to Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred and his ilk for ignoring tradition for the almighty buck and proceeding with plans to cut costs by killing more than 25 per cent of all MLB-affiliated minor league teams by next season.
That is why an independent loop like the West Coast League is a breath of fresh air. With this and other solo leagues, it truly is about the love of the game. The players do not get paid, nor do they pay to play. The circuit exists as a genuine development league, with high-calibre players honing their skills as they seek to advance their careers; there are no “formers” hanging on for another season as they tumble down the baseball ladder. In fact, only college-eligible players are eligible to suit up.
And the talent is real. In the 2019 Major League Baseball Draft, 90 West Coast League players were picked, including the first and third selections.
(Let’s hope hints at an MLB affiliation next year does not tarnish this gem.)
Right now, the league — like most others — is in limbo due to the pandemic and the future about as clear as current West Coast skies.
But when play resumes, here’s hoping the NorthPaws play old school ball.
Let’s have every cap curved and sitting straight on heads and every player sporting stirrups, somewhere between Chipper Jones and Hunter Pence. Let’s demand the ouster of the DH, an abomination on baseball, and perfect the art of NL small ball — bunting around the shift, pulling a pitch now and then, dropping a Texas Leaguer just beyond second base. Let’s fill Norbrock Stadium’s 2,600 seats with kids of all ages. Let’s scrarf down a dog, enjoy a cold beverage and stand and sing during the seventh-inning stretch.
June is but nine months away. Can’t you already hear the rattle of Cracker Jack?