Being the General Manger of a new Western Canadian Baseball League franchise is certainly not for the faint of heart.
In March 2021 the Sylvan Lake Gulls made the announcement of their name, logo and colour scheme-then shortly thereafter the world got shut down. One step forward and two steps back.
“Especially this year. It’s been, pardon the pun, one curve ball after another,” said Aqil Samuel, the Gulls GM and President of Baseball Operations.
The latest curve to hit the strike zone came down as a format change. The league will move to an all-Canadian season in 2021.
It’s the first time in the over 80-year history of the WCBL this is happening, and it has to do with COVID and the border between Canada and the United States remaining closed.
Many of the teams are stocked with American players who may not cross the border due to COVID.
“We support what the league decided to do. It wasn’t an easy decision, but we had to do something, “said Samuel. “This plan “B” is not ideal by any means but at least we’ll get some kids playing baseball.”
Not all eleven franchises will take the field, however. The Gulls, Edmonton Prospects, Lethbridge Bulls and a pair of teams from Okotoks are gearing up to play in front of empty stands unless something changes. Samuel says it’s a hard pill to swallow because most feel the game can be played and watched safely.
“If you look at our stadium we’ve got 13 hundred seats in there, plus standing room so we can really spread people out.”
Fort McMurray and Medicine Hat will not suit up and the rest of the league in Saskatchewan(including Brooks) will take the season off.
It’s a massive financial commitment from the owners who are ploughing ahead with having to deal with players, travel and hotel expenses and equipment costs. Not to mention the COVID testing which may be required unless Alberta Health Services lets them bypass that because of not having fans in the stands. It is also still uncertain if a player tests positive what the protocol is surrounding that scenario.
Samuel says the decision to play was essentially made with the game and the players in mind.
“We need to start getting back to some normalcy and just to get these kids some innings this year as best we can.”
With minor league baseball shut down last year it creates another problem.
“Well, those kids didn’t get drafted. They went to college instead so there’s a glut of college players now. The middle of the road players just aren’t getting any innings,” said Samuel. “Some of those kids are Canadians and they deserve a chance to at least get some prime time innings.”
From the Gulls perspective as the new kids at the diamond, Samuel says it is a difficult scenario for everyone involved to face in its inaugural season.
“The community was excited; everything was kind of going to plan and we got lots of support from Sylvan Lake and surrounding area. We just wanted to show everybody that we’re still committed to this and we’re still very serious about it.”
The original 2021 schedule was to be 56 games but with fewer teams it may be closer to 30 or 40 games. The start date may also have to be pushed back to mid-June.
Samuel says they are looking at a 24-player roster which presents its own set of circumstances given that Canadian players coming home may have to quarantine once they return.
“We’re going to work with our billet families to help us with the quarantine to make that work,” he said. “There are still a few spinning plates.”
The plan being put forward was pitched by Gull’s owner Graham Schetzsle. It underlines just how committed he and wife Jen are to making this work on as many fronts as possible despite the financial loss looming.
“It’s something that should be commended. I think it’s the type of owner this league needs,” said Samuel.
The league is still planning on meeting with Alberta Health Services for more clarification.A new schedule and a clearer picture is expected near the end of April.
At the very least, this version of the WCBL will highlight the Canadian baseball talent which has thrived over the years.