Building a Giant Tradition
There are few sports that bring together the sights, sounds, and smells of a season quite like baseball. The unmistakeable smell of fresh cut grass, the pop of the bat, or the thud of a throw hitting the cowhide wrapped around a player’s hand, and finally, there’s the breathtaking sight of the diamond.
With its three canvas bases, perfectly placed, chalk methodically laid down in a perfect line and the infield raked with care, it’s no wonder why some ballparks are hailed as living pieces of art; like Fenway Park or the old Yankee Stadium.
We have our own piece of ‘Baseball Art’ in Fort McMurray, while the ball diamond at Shell Place doesn’t have living grass, or even chalk lines (both the infield and outfield are turf), the ball park is likely the nicest baseball facility west of Rogers Centre in Toronto, home of the Blue Jays.
Finally, last summer Fort McMurrayites were able to enjoy some top tier baseball at their gem of a ballpark courtesy of the Giants. Fans settled into their seats to see line drives, strikeouts and home runs at the strikingly beautiful Shell Place diamond, with its tall left field wall (a mini-green monster), the big hill out in right field, there truly is no better backdrop than a beautiful Fort McMurray summer night and the occasional float plane taking off or landing at the Snye.
FINDING THE RIGHT FIT
For years it seemed like it would never happen, elite level baseball in Wood Buffalo. There were previous attempts to bring semi-pro ball to the region that sputtered out. Heck, Craig Tkachuk a former Director of Facilities and Development with the Edmonton Oilers had bought an inactive franchise out of Victoria and planned on moving it to McMurray to play in the now-defunct North American League. There was a website, a Facebook page, a Twitter account and an announcement at MacDonald Island Park that pro-ball was coming to Wood Buffalo, but alas travel problems plagued the 96-team league and it shut down in 2012, a year before Fort McMurray’s club was expected to join.
If you ask the baseball diehards in town, talks of a team coming to McMurray would heat up every spring for a decade, and eventually fizzle out come fall when sports fans would start filing into the Casman Centre to watch the Oil Barons.
That all changed in 2015 when Giants Owner Dutche Iannetti got a phone call from his good friend and former pro pitcher, Reggie Rivard. Rivard of course, was a hurler who in the early 2000s reached as high as AAA ball, he also spent a few years as Fort McMurray Minor Baseball’s Executive Director. Rivard tipped him off to the fact that a friend of on the east coast, Blair Kubicek had connections to someone who was potentially interested in bringing a baseball team to McMurray, and that they wanted to speak with Dutche.
“I had a phone call from [Steve Avila] who was trying to put a team somewhere not necessarily was it in Fort McMurray, he looked at Lloydminster, he looked at Saskatoon,” said Iannetti. “Steve asked if I could set up some meetings with the MacDonald Island group in regards to renting the facility and setting up a Western Major Baseball League (WMBL) team here.”
Conversations between the Regional Recreation Corporation and the prospective owner heated up, and Fort McMurrayites stepped up to do their part as well.
As Avila was scouring western Canada for a place to put a team, the WMBL decided to put a poll up on its website in June of 2015, asking its fans where it would like to see the league expand. The options were Saskatoon, Kindersley, Brooks, Calgary and Fort McMurray.
Early on, Saskatoon, which had held a club in the league until 2014 was leading the poll, that is until people in Fort McMurray found out about it.
Things were looking pretty good from a fan’s perspective, especially when league President Kevin Kvame said they were looking to add two teams for 2016, but there needed to be a local partner first, and Dutche was the perfect fit.
“I have a passion for the game obviously, being a part of minor baseball for a lot of years, so I said why not it’s something to do and it’s a way to give back to the community.”
To understand that passion, you need to go all the way across the country to his hometown of Sydney Mines, Nova Scotia where in his early teens when he started playing competitive ball at the peewee level in 1972.
“I could run pretty good and I could throw the ball pretty good and I was a left-handed batter so I could hit the ball a little bit, but Center Field was my spot on the team I played ball until I finished high school, but I didn’t go on to play college baseball but I had a lot of fun with it.
Dutche’s passion isn’t just for the game itself, but the benefits that it can provide young players, especially with the possibility of a college education, an opportunity he never had. It’s something he takes plenty of pride in, he can name pretty much every player that graduated from the local Minor Baseball program to a collegiate team.
FORT MCMURRAY SECURES WMBL FRANCHISE
On Nov. 2, 2015, with the Shell Place ball diamond as the backdrop Iannetti joined Mayor Melissa Blake and, then Regional Recreation Corporation CEO Annette Antoniak to announce that Fort McMurray had been awarded a WMBL expansion franchise, signing a five-year lease to play out of the state-of-the-art 1,700 seat facility beginning in the spring of 2016.
In terms of a “fit”, the WMBL, a collegiate summer league with a 48 game season packed into two months of play is better suited for Fort McMurray than a semi-pro team would’ve been.
“Players do not get paid, there are no wages involved, we ride buses like minor ball players ride buses to go to and from. Obviously, there’s a budget and to support all that there’s still hotel rooms, there’s still bussing and all that involved, but you’re not paying the players. You’re not flying all over the country. There were teams all over the country, (in the North American League) there were teams in California. For us here as a college team, if we can average 1,000 fans per game over the 24 games of baseball, that will support keeping a team here in the community.”
That’s what makes the WMBL, and the Giants such a great fit for Fort McMurray. This community has always had a strong grassroots program, now the players that grew up and developed here can come back and play summer ball between their college seasons. They also get to give back to the community that helped raise them.
The wood bat league has 12 teams across Alberta and Saskatchewan including Edmonton, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat, Melville, Moose Jaw, Okotoks, Regina, Weyburn, Swift Current, Yorkton and Brooks. Teams can carry a maximum of 27 players, 16 of which can be imports, all under the age of 26, no professional athletes can play and up to six local players aged 19 and under are allowed on the roster.
HURDLES OVERCOME AND LESSONS LEARNED IN YEAR ONE
The Giants’ inaugural season was slated to begin in late May, but as we all know ‘The Beast’ swept through Fort McMurray and 600,000 hectares of Northern Alberta Boreal Forest early that month, forcing the club to play almost half of its first season out of Edmonton.
It was a tough way for the club to start, players were just days away from arriving when the entire city was evacuated. The club set up a home base at a hotel in Leduc while playing out of downtown Edmonton, just along bank of the North Saskatchewan River at the RE/MAX Field, home of the WMBL’s Edmonton Prospects.
The Giants would play 23 regular season games before finally getting the chance to come home and open up Shell Place with a 6-4 win over the visiting Regina Red Sox on a beautiful, sunny and warm Wednesday night. Fort McMurrayite Ryan Dunn was the winning pitcher, a graduate of the Fort McMurray Minor Baseball Program.
The team finished its first season in the WMBL with a record of 16-32, missing out on the playoffs by four games. But the tides certainly turned once the team returned home winning seven of 13 games at Shell Place.
“Some lessons I learned from last year, making sure that we have enough players going into the season where we don’t have to play the same people every single game and burn them out or hurt them,” said Iannetti. “It’s important that if we have 30 players on the roster, there are opportunities when games are out of whack whether it’s for us or the other team, give opportunities, give breaks to players, and create opportunities for others. Because if you don’t, you’ll never know how they’re going to play.”
Last year, it was a local boy who benefitted big time from injury, Matt McPherson, the youngster got into the lineup consistently after a slew of injuries beginning in late June. He’d wind up playing pretty much every game after that in the infield and on the mound posting a .250 average and scoring 11 runs through the season.
“It took somebody to get hurt for him [McPherson] to get that opportunity but that’s baseball, we see it all the time in the big leagues. You don’t get an opportunity unless the star gets hurt, then all of a sudden you become a star because you took advantage of an opportunity.”
The key for the guys towards the bottom of the lineup is to be ready at all times, practice like you’re playing and eventually, they’ll get a chance just like McPherson did.
BUILDING A WINNER
While Dutche is the visionary behind the Giants, it’s up to Andrew Bradbury, the Director of Scouting and Recruiting to actually fill the roster spots with players that will play as a team, and win.
His job is to make connections with coaches of high-end college programs across Canada and the United States, and try to get them to convince their players to hone their skills in Fort McMurray for a summer.
A job that apparently, is a little easier than you may think thanks to a stunning Shell Place diamond (if you get to the diamond early enough to see the visiting team first arrive, you’ll notice all the players have their phones out snapchatting the diamond, jaws scraping along the pavement).
“We have a pretty unique offer up here with our facility, and our season style with us is more of a minor-pro season than any other WMBL team because it’s baseball every day,” said Bradbury. “So it gives the guys a chance to see what baseball is like at the next level.”
Bradbury has been working through the off-season to recruit top level guys from across Canada and NCAA Division I programs, looking for kids that have the right mentality and are not just willing, but interested in coming to Fort McMurray and representing this community with pride on the road and representing the team with integrity when they’re at home.
There will be three young men who will be responsible for introducing their teammates to the community, the three locals returning from last year in Ryan Dunn, Josh Iannetti and Tyler Hodder. All three grew leaps and bounds through last season and have continued to grow at their respective college programs this year.
GIANTS NEED YOUR SUPPORT
For high calibre ball to stay in McMurray, the Giants need buy-in both from the public and the local business community.
Season tickets for adults are $320 for a 24 game home schedule with discounts for Seniors and students under 18. Kids six and under get in free!
There are also six, 12, and 15 game flex passes available and of course, the crown jewel of the Ball Diamond the luxury suites are available for rent as well. All tickets can be purchased through the Shell Place Box Office and additional information can be found at fortmcmurraygiants.ca.
The Giants open the season in Lethbridge on Friday, JunE 2, they’ll host the Edmonton Prospects for the home opener at Shell Place on Tuesday, JunE 6, at 7:35 p.m.