October 11, 2022 9:42 am | by WCBL | Posted In Feature News, News
By IAN WILSON
Thud … thud … thud.
A white ball with red stitching smacks into the bricks of the grandstand, announcing each mild collision with a dull thumping sound before falling softly into a waiting baseball mitt below.
The owner of the ball glove, a young boy in a blue cap with a “B” on the front, stops the solo activity when he spots a man wearing a lanyard around his neck and a camera over his shoulder.
Intrigued by what the guest at Elks Field might be up to, he excitedly asks: “Are you a fan of the Bombers?!”
Slight disappointment crosses the boy’s face when he hears the neutral response indicating the visitor is an observer with the media who has no rooting interest in the game that’s about to take place. But he returns to his ball-to-brick game with renewed energy, waiting for the bigger kids with larger gloves and harder throws to take the field.
Over the years, Jason Wandler was most certainly tempted to replace that baseball with his forehead. Certain days of the summer left the general manager of the Brooks Bombers feeling like he was banging his cranium against that same wall.
“It was ugly for the first few years,” admitted Wandler.
The Bombers joined the Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL) in 2016, when the summer collegiate circuit was known as the Western Major Baseball League (WMBL).
As a city of 15,000 with not much of a reputation for its baseball history, Brooks seemed an unlikely destination for a high-calibre ball club. Known more for its meat-packing plants and as a Trans-Canada Highway pit stop between Medicine Hat and Calgary, southern Alberta travelers often think of the area as a place to pull over for a quick bite or to fill up their vehicles with fuel.
That location, however, worked in its favour. Proximity to the highway and short drives to other WCBL teams in Okotoks, Lethbridge and Medicine Hat made it an ideal choice, even with a smaller population base to draw on.
When the WCBL emerged as an option for the community, Brooks also had facilities in place that could accommodate such a move. The Brooks Regional Ball Park on the east side of the city opened in 2014, providing four diamonds for Little League, softball and slo-pitch squads. The main diamond, Elks Field, has room for over 800 fans, and while the dimensions (350 feet from home plate to the centre-field fence and 310 feet down the base lines) make it the smallest ballpark on the circuit, it is a cozy home for the Bombers.
Despite the fit in the league and in the region, the on-field results early on were disappointing. The Bombers won just 15 games in their opening season, paired with 33 losses, and they followed that up with a slightly worse 14-34 record in 2017. Brooks sunk to 13-35 in 2018 and the 2019 roster was only slightly better, sporting a 16-40 record. The club finished well behind the playoff pace and in last place in the Western Division in their first four seasons.
Nonetheless, there were bright spots along the way. Catcher Riley MacDonald became the home run king in 2018 by clubbing 20 long balls for the Bombers in just 33 games. The historic achievement was somewhat controversial, with MacDonald’s detractors pointing to the small field dimensions as a factor in his success.
Others in the league defended the milestone, including infielder Bo McClintock of the Swift Current 57’s, who finished second in homers with 15 that season.
“The fact is Riley is a strong, powerful hitter regardless of the field he plays at,” said McClintock at the time.
“I’m sure playing at that field has some benefits, but you still have to go square up the ball every day … he can play. I’m happy he broke the record.”
By 2019, the organization was still working to build its brand and gain a strong presence in the local sports scene. Major ownership changes occurred that year, with majority stakeholder Graham Schetzsle and minority stakeholder Doug Jones selling the team to the Brooks Regional Ballpark Association (BRBA).
The Bombers followed in the footsteps of the Bandits of the Alberta Junior Hockey League (AJHL), a Brooks team with a stellar reputation. National Hockey League (NHL) players Curtis Glencross, a former forward with the Calgary Flames, and Colorado Avalanche defenceman Cale Makar, who has a Calder Trophy, Stanley Cup and Conn Smythe Trophy on his resume, are among the alumni of the Bandits.
“Now I think it’s just growing the game again and have people realize it’s locally-owned, it’s not something out of town. It’s here and it’s similar to our Brooks Bandits hockey club, almost identical to that team, and we know how well that’s supported. So I think people knowing that here we are, we’re now in Brooks, we are Brooks. Let’s move forward,” Bomber president Jason Thomasen told Alberta Dugout Stories shortly after the sale of the team was finalized.
“We know we have a lot of work to do and ultimately, it comes to winning on the field, as well. I mean, we can do all the stuff off the field and get things working the proper way with the proper channels, but we need to start winning … and then getting our players to buy into being in a small community as well. Once those two things join, we really think the tunnel will start to expand and the light will start to shine in and we’ll be on the right track, for sure.”
Wandler, who credited Thomasen with being a driving force in getting Elks Field and its surrounding diamonds in place, was on the same page. He knew it was crucial for the Bombers to field a winning team if the franchise wanted to gain traction in the community.
They were eager to implement such a roster in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic knee-capped their efforts and the WCBL season. The league went ahead with a shortened season, featuring five teams, the following summer but the Bombers opted out of that one, focusing instead on getting their financial affairs in order.
“The break, as much as we didn’t want it to happen and we missed out on two years of baseball, was really good for us in a number of aspects. Number one, it allowed us to get a hold of our finances and really take hold of that aspect, where we weren’t struggling financially to just cover costs. That has been really good,” said Wandler.
“On another note it allowed us to really formulate a strong board (of directors) with new ideas, fresh ideas, good perspectives, some good business people. That’s been a real blessing. And then it allowed myself the ability to step back and take a look at what went wrong on the field for four straight years, to really dive in to how you build a team, how you recruit, how you develop relationships with college coaches and then bringing in some coaches that are going to be able to understand what summer baseball is all about and what it means to the community, so it wasn’t great that we were out of the game for two years but it was a blessing.”
Opening day eventually returned again in late May of this year. With it came the opportunity for redemption and a chance to prove that the team truly belonged on the same field as its competition. A new “Flight Deck” patio, located above the home team’s dugout, was added to Elks Field, offering room for up to 100 more fans to get an up-close view of the action from the third base side.
The Bombers started on the road against the powerhouse Okotoks Dawgs and lost their first two games in lop-sided fashion, dropping the season opener 16-0 and the second game by an 18-4 score.
Those were losses against a perennial championship contender, so perhaps there was room for excuses.
The Bombers rebounded with an 8-7 triumph over the Lethbridge Bulls, the 2021 WCBL champs, restoring a measure of hope for the Brooks faithful.
Then the walls caved in. Through their first 14 games, the Bombers won only three times. Different year, same results. With a quarter of the season complete, the team was looking at another futile summer, one that would end yet again without postseason baseball.
“After that start we had some dark moments. I’m not gonna lie, I think a lot of people went to a lot of dark places. The people who didn’t were our fans. They stuck by us the entire time and the support this year has been phenomenal. I can’t thank them enough. There aren’t enough words for the show of appreciation of what they’ve meant for this team, this organization and the community,” said Wandler.
“This whole season has been a Moneyball experience for me, being able to be really frustrated with the way things started, not wanting to be at the facility and then having that turn around … we’re a family and we’ve got to all be in together and stick together through the tough times and then celebrate the success.”
ONE STEP AT A TIME
The success would eventually, gradually, come to the Bombers. Following the lackluster start to the campaign, the Bombers chipped away with more wins. They kept their heads down and went to work. The bats started finding baseballs. Some of those baseballs bounced off the fence, while others went over it. Paced by what was becoming a lethal offence, the victories started to appear in the win column.
“For the team, it was a rough start at the beginning but we rallied back,” said catcher Jimmy Costin of New York.
“We became brothers and it was a really nice summer to become a part of this.”
Part of that brotherhood over the summer included participation in community events. The players helped out with the Riley Martin Memorial Little League Tournament, where they did some umpiring and held contests in the batting cages.
They also took part in a cattle-branding party in the Brooks area. The Bombers didn’t sit on the fence either. Some of them rode horses for the first time, while others helped hold livestock as the brands were applied. It was an event that players from New York and California weren’t necessarily able to take part in back home in the U.S.
The residents of Alberta’s Centennial City returned the favour.
Through 25 dates, more than 7,000 boosters showed up, with an average of 281 fans arriving at each game. The numbers are a far cry from the typical crowd of 4,216 that came out to watch the Okotoks Dawgs at Seaman Stadium, but the Bombers have neither the capacity nor the need for that many people to attend home games.
“We’ve been pretty strong from day one. I know we’re the smallest market in Alberta, but for us to be financially viable we had to average about 250 fans and I think there’s only a few dates where we didn’t get that and that was based on some weather issues,” said Wandler, adding the 50/50 ticket sales were noticeably more lucrative than in previous years.
Brice Davis, the head coach of the Bombers, couldn’t help but notice the crowd on the Flight Deck, perched above his dugout, as well as the boisterous groups in the stands behind home plate.
“Here in Brooks, I love the intimacy of how close everyone is and if you listen hard enough hecklers show up, honesty shows up, a good time shows up. There’s teams who come in here and they’re jealous of what we have in terms of fan product and environment. It’s just the charm of Elks Field. It’s just a lot more fun when it’s really full and we want to give fans a reason to come out and be a part of that in the future,” said Davis, who called Illinois, Indiana and Texas home before making his way to Alberta.
TURNING THE CORNER
Davis, the hitting coach of the Schaumburg Boomers of the Frontier League in 2021, was new to the WCBL but he was made aware of the expectations for the Bombers heading into this season.
“Jason Wandler is a very competitive individual. When we went through the hiring process, it was talked about, changing the culture in Brooks and trying to really right the ship and get it to a place that was not only respected in the WCBL but a place that could turn their culture into a winning one,” he said.
“The talent level for the league has been very, very respectable. There’s been some great challenges from team to team with certain guys hitting who can really swing it, certain guys that can really pitch it. There’s also a lot of opportunities to see that the game is imperfect … bullpens wear down, seasons drag on and that was one of the appetizing things about coming up here to a 56-game season.”
Added Davis: “A lot of the guys we recruited want to play professional baseball, or at least at the time said they wanted to, and then you come up here and you get to the dog days of July, you get on the bus, you get off the bus, you spend an off-day on the bus and then you ask yourself, ‘Hey, am I really going to make this a career? Am I really going to be able to put this much into it with only one day off a week at the most?’ This is the experience that I was looking forward to, the longevity and the grueling grind, that was really fun to me. It’s been even more fun to see these guys go through it and not be afraid of it.”
The Bombers sent five players to the WCBL All-Star Game in Okotoks on July 23rd, including home run derby participant Matt Wolff and outfielder Drew Mackie, who made an impression by delivering an absolute missile of a throw to home plate to gun down a runner in the 10th inning.
After that fun-filled event in front of 6,000 people at Seaman Stadium, those dog days set in.
The lengthy bus rides were made easier by the fact that the Bombers entered August in contention for a playoff spot. The Dawgs and the Sylvan Lake Gulls had separated themselves from the rest of the pack in the Western Division, but the Fort McMurray Giants, the Bulls and the Bombers were engaged in a musical chairs battle for the final two playoff seeds.
On Aug. 3rd, the Bombers were in the final week of the regular season, playing in Sylvan Lake. A win would punch their ticket to the postseason.
“We were kind of scoreboard watching and we were down and Lethbridge was down and Lethbridge tied it and, to be honest, for some reason – maybe it’s just the power of positivity – I never thought we were out of the game,” said Wandler.
The Bombers tied the game in the ninth inning and then went wild in the 10th frame, scoring seven runs. The 11-5 victory gave the Bombers a moment they could only dream about in previous seasons.
“Everything just seemed to click. It was pretty special. That whole team family atmosphere. We all hung out in the breakfast room of the hotel in Red Deer and bonded even more and shared a lot of stories and smiles and laughs and it was pretty good. These kids really understand what it meant to us, the community, the organization to be able to be the first team to do it,” recalled Wandler, whose eldest son Jaydon was an original member of the team and younger son Dax played for the club in 2022.
In addition to qualifying for the playoffs, the Bombers set several new franchise records during the regular season, including new highs for wins (26), doubles (110), home runs (51), hits (583), runs (417), walks (239), and hit by pitch (99). Wolff also established a WCBL record in the painful bean ball category after he was plunked an astounding 33 times.
With the offence seemingly pacing the team, questions about the short porches at Elks Field remained, but it was evident the Bombers could hit at any WCBL ballpark.
“If they want to throw the umbrella of the park dimensions as a factor of our success, that’s fine,” shrugged Davis.
“You’ve got to pitch here, too. It’s more of a testament that our pitchers found a way to the playoffs and they still had to pitch here 26 times. Baseball is baseball, it can be crooked, it can be weird, it can be big, it can be small … you just never know what’s going to happen. Baseball is beautiful like that. Elks Field is where we have found a lot of our good times this year and we like playing here.”
With a playoff spot secured, the Bombers looked to prove they belonged there.
Against the Dawgs – who set a WCBL regular-season record for wins, with 43 – Brooks was facing an uphill battle in the best-of-three series.
The first game in Okotoks got off to a promising start for the visitors. Wolff clubbed a two-run homer for the Bombers in the top of the first inning before many Dawgs fans could even get to their seats. The Dawgs replied with two runs of their own in the bottom of the frame to even the score. Okotoks struck for three more runs in the third, only to watch the Bombers tie the game at 5-5 in the top of the fourth inning.
With ace Graham Brunner (7-0, 2.77 earned run average, 48 Ks in 48.2 regular-season innings) on the mound for the Dawgs, things were not going according to script for Okotoks. But the Dawgs bats went into overdrive after receiving a scare early on, pushing nine more runs across the plate while the bullpen shut the door. The final score was 14-6 for Okotoks.
The Bombers, however, made things interesting, especially in the first half of the game.
The second contest brought the action to Elks Field.
“When I sit back here and I look at what we’ve built here you get a little bit of emotion running through your blood and the veins, and it’s been really good and really successful here, so I’m thankful for everybody involved, from the volunteers to the billets to the fans to the players and the coaches and our board that put this all together,” said Wandler moments before the first pitch in front of 400 fans.
“For me, watching the laughter, the smiles, the energy, the clapping, the enjoyment that the fans are having at the ballpark and to know that we played a very small part in that leads me to believe that this organization can continue down this path, year in and year out. I just want to step back and enjoy the moment.”
The Bombers ultimately lost the game by a 14-2 score and the series in two straight games. Okotoks went on to win their sixth championship title.
Despite the loss, things were different this time. That was obvious even to players with the Dawgs, including first baseman McCoy Pearce, who suited up for the Bombers in 2019.
“They’ve had way more fans than we did when I was here in 2019. It’s good for them. I’m happy because I love Jason … both Jasons. They’re the nicest guys I’ve ever met and they still cheer for me even though I’m playing on the other team. It’s super nice to be close with them even though I’m not on their team,” said Pearce.
“I love this place. There’s a great community here and great people.”
After the final out, the hand shakes, the photos on the field, a number of Bomber fans gathered in the infield.
One kid – the boy who had played catch alone by tossing his baseball against the brick wall before the game – had tears in his eyes. This game meant something, but don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.
Coach Davis looked at the season as a turning point for the franchise and the city.
“Don’t let this just be a moment,” he urged in a message to Bomber supporters.
The summer didn’t end with a thud this time.
And that wall isn’t going anywhere. It’s a reminder that when you build something, it takes time and effort. You have to build it one brick at a time.
(This article was originally published through Alberta Dugout Stories on Oct. 6, 2022. It has been reprinted here with permission.)