Fort McMurray Giants
By all accounts the High Plains Baseball Extra Innings Dinner and Silent Auction held November 17, 2015, was a great success. Silent auction items included an autograph of baseball icon Babe Ruth and signatures from legends Joe DiMaggio and Lou Gehrig. Signing autographs of their own were Toronto Blue Jays players Kevin Pillar and Chris Colabello , also in attendance at the event held at the Sawridge Inn and Conference Centre.
Blue Jays members that were now part of Canada folklore when on September 25, 2015 they clinched a playoff berth, ending what is said to be one of the longest, if not the longest, active playoff drought in North America’s four major pro sports leagues, MLB, NBA, NHL and NFL.
The Blue Jays heroics would continue until the American League Championship Series, falling to the Kansas City Royals four games to two. The Royals would go on to win the World Series defeating the New York Mets.
Also attending the November 17 function was Hometown Hero Anthony “Dutche” Iannetti, who only a few days prior, November 2, 2015 to be more precise, announced that summer collegiate baseball was coming to Fort McMurray with the Western Major Baseball League (WMBL) putting out the home base plate welcome for the newly named Fort McMurray Giants which will operate under High Plains Baseball Club Inc. banner.
Of all the speeches at the dinner, Iannetti saved the best for last. With three simple words at the microphone, “Let’s Play Ball.”
In the role of Vice President/General Manager and Majority Owner of the Fort McMurray Giants, Iannetti will be joined in the owner’s box by baseball notables Steve Avila from Seattle, Washington and Blair Kubicek, who now resides in Nova Scotia.
Avila, President/Elite Head Coach of EnFuego Baseball Academy in Seattle is a former Northwest Scouting Supervisor for the Cleveland Indians and has established “the highly successful Olympia Pepsi program which produced over 250 college and 85 professional baseball players to date.
Iannetti says of Avila, “His baseball knowledge is amazing and he is well-connected in the USA with a lot of the colleges and university coaches. He has the ability to bring in top-calibre players.”
Kubicek was a founding member and head coach of the Prairie Baseball Academy in Lethbridge, Alberta from 1995-2010. His playing career included spring training with the Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates.
“A role for Kubicek will be our facilities director,” said Iannetti. “He brings a wealth of knowledge. He will oversee any projects, like adding additional seats and working the mounds with the coaches coming in.”
Based in Alberta and Saskatchewan, with teams scheduled for 48-regular season games, the WMBL is a 12-team-league with the Melville Millionaires, Moose Jaw Miller Express, Regina Red Sox, Swift Current Indians, Weyburn Beavers and Yorkton Cardinals in the East Division.
The West Division consists of the Edmonton Prospects, Lethbridge Bulls, Medicine Hat Mavericks and Okotoks Dawgs along the Fort McMurray Giants and a new franchise in Brooks, which will compete in the recently finished Brooks Quad Ball Complex.
According to the WMBL website: “The WMBL boasts a long standing tradition of creating a showcase for top Canadian professional and college prospects while at the same time offering (North) American college players the opportunity to hone their skills in front of enthusiastic baseball fans in towns and cities throughout the Prairies.”
This was not the first time that a baseball franchise looked north as talks of pro baseball in Fort McMurray started in 1992 with a mention that we would be part of the Western Professional Baseball League.
Other proposals that failed included Canadian Baseball League, Northern League of Professional Baseball, North American Baseball League, American Association of Independent Professional Baseball Clubs and the Pecos League.
Iannetti, an astute businessman with ownership of Fort McMurray Industrial Cleaners, realized, like many, that pro baseball was not the answer.
“Because of the cost for player’s salaries, travel to places like California, hotel rooms, meals, just the overall cost...it would not be feasible,” said Iannetti.
The idea for collegiate amateur baseball came about thanks to some long bus trips and talks down Highway #63 when Iannetti was traveling with various local youth baseball teams.
“Here we had this great baseball field down at Shell Place and the talk was, “Who is going to play there?” Not a pro team for sure.
“So the talk continued to talk about having this beautiful baseball stadium with no team and who might bring a franchise here. Then in June (2015) I had a call from Mr. Avila from Seattle who heard of me through (former FMMBA instructors) Reggie Rivard and Lou Pote and he said, “I hear you have a beautiful stadium up there with no team, who can we get a hold of to get things started?”
A native of Sydney Mines, Nova Scotia who moved to Fort McMurray in 1980 at the age of 20, Iannetti never had a post-secondary education and is proud that he is providing assistance for those who will play for the Fort McMurray Giants.
“It means a lot to me to see kids who are putting in a lot of effort and time, get to play baseball during the summer. Their No. 1 priority is their education and whatever happens later in baseball is a bonus. At least they have that degree to fall back on,” said Iannetti, in a previous interview.
“For me, a gentleman that never went to post-secondary education, it means a lot. It is building future leaders through sport. We need leaders.”
Not only does Iannetti have a financial investment in the team. He also has his heart.
“I have ties with minor baseball in the community for a number of years and the creating opportunity for our youth in the community to move on to the next level means a lot to me. Baseball is my passion. My wife and I, along with our children, have a successful business here and for us.
“We also have four grandchildren here, so we are not going anywhere. To have a stadium like we have on the Island and now a team, is a great fit and a way to give back to the community.”
The Giants will hit the diamond at Shell Place with their home opener May 27, 2016 against the Lethbridge Bulls, who were awarded the Harry Hallis Memorial Trophy last year as league champion.
The Giants manager will be Raymond McIntire from Winters, California.
McIntire arrives from the University of Arizona where he was the program’s director of baseball operations since July 2015. Prior to that he spent two years with the University of Nevada as a volunteer assistant coach (2014-2015) and volunteer assistant director of baseball operations (2013-2014).
Kellen Camus, a native of Olympia, Washington, will be the Giants pitching coach. Camus pitched in the NCAA Pacific 12 Conference for Washington State Cougars (2011-2014) earning 15 wins with a 4.03 era.
Both men are quite young, in their 20s.
“We went younger, so they could relate to the younger guys,” said Iannetti. “We want them to have a lot of energy with the kids.
“Sometimes with older guys, they are set in their ways. We want guys that are not afraid of change and implementing different things in the program. We want them to grow with the Giants.”
Shell Place baseball stadium has seating for 1,725 spectators, plus an additional 5,500 on the adjacent berm seating.
The team will be allowed to have a maximum of 27 players on their roster with a minimum of 11 Canadians of which the Giants will have at least four local players during their inaugural season with the signing of Ryan Dunn, Reagan Gillis, Matt McPherson and Iannetti’s own son Josh Iannetti.
The Giants have also established a strong connection to the Washington State located in Pullman, Washington, in as much as four Cougars have already signed for 2016: right-handed pitcher Curtis Bafus, catcher Brennon Kaleiwahea, left-handed pitcher James Mullins and outfielder Dugan Shirer.
“The four guys we are sending you are no doubt going to help you,” said Cougars associate head coach coach Dan Spencer. “From what I have heard and the connections you have through people like Steve Avila, I think you have a chance to make the finals in the first year and perhaps win it all.”
Spencer added that sending his student/athletes to Canada expands on the university experience.
“I think it is awesome that they are going there. They will be in for tremendous treatment and will have the chance to continue playing in a competitive environment. They also get to see another country and experience something that is perhaps something a bit out of their comfort zone. That is part of the college experience.”
With a five- year lease signed with the Regional Recreation Corporation, with an option to renew for another two five-year terms, ticket prices for Giants single games are $15 adults, $10 for seniors and $12 for those seven-to-18 years-of-age. Kids six-and-under get in free but must be accompanied by an adult.
There are also various season packages starting at $210 for all 24 home games for seniors 60 years-of-age and older with a regular season pass at $320 and a student pass at $250.
A family pass for two adults and two students is $950. Realizing the demographics of Fort McMurray workforce, there will also be a shift-workers package for $210 that allows 15 home games of choice.
Iannetti is “Hoping for average crowds of 750 or more” and adds “I think we will exceed that very quickly.”
Asked for any final comments, Iannetti smiles and says: “Let’s Play Ball!”