Being crowned provincial champion in any capacity is always something to be proud of. In minor baseball it is the feather in the cap for a successful season that starts in the spring, runs through the dog days of July and August and ends with being named the best team in the province. In 2018 Baseball Alberta handed out a total of 45 provincial gold medals ranging from the U11 A Tier IV Rimbey Rays to the 15U A Tier I Sylvan Lake Mariners to the Senior AAA Sherwood Park Athletics and 42 other levels and tiers of baseball. Champions range from small town teams like the Oyen Orioles who won the Tier IV U13 AA title in 2018 to large associations like the St Albert Cardinals who won the U18 AAA Tier I gold medal. But there were two absent provincial championships, the Senior AA and the Twilight 35+ categories did not see a tournament or champion. A low point for senior men’s baseball provincials after years of declining participation.
In 2017 the Camrose Axemen Tweeted that in Saskatchewan, Land of the Living Skies, a total of 36 senior men’s teams were participating in provincials that season. Teams would be tiered based on population and seeded via a season long process of results being monitored by Baseball Sask giving teams a fair level of competition. In comparison, Alberta had a single team express interest in senior AA provincials. As a result, the Calgary Giants were named the provincial champion with the right to represent the province at the senior AA Westerns. The Giants, who won the 2016 Senior AA provincial title in Innisfail, would not end up going to Westerns in 2017 and Alberta would not have a representative at the western Canadian tournament. In fact it was even rumoured that a possible solution would be to have the second place team in the Sunburst League, Alberta’s Senior Men’s AAA league, be given the go ahead to be the Alberta representative at the AA western Canadian tournament. The original Tweet created a brief but passionate discussion around senior men’s baseball at a provincial level but nothing definitive or a level of seriousness to finding a solution came of it. In 2018 the discussion kicked up again but once again the discussion did not lead to much of an impact for change.
At one point, there seemed to be a decent level of interest in Senior AA provincials as a qualifying tournament would be held to determine who would represent the north and the south. In 1991 the Ryley Rebels had played their way into the Senior AA provincial tournament after finishing third in a qualifying tournament. The Rebels would be one of five teams to play in the qualifying tournament along with the Edmonton 26ers, Westlock Red Lions, a Legal based team (Primeaus or Indians perhaps) and a team from Sherwood Park (Athletics I presume). The format was simple with a round robin style format that would seed teams one through five with the top two teams getting to represent the north at the provincial tournament. In 1991, the Edmonton 26ers were set to host the provincial tournament at John Fry Park in Edmonton giving them an automatic bid. That didn’t stop the 26ers from winning the qualifying tournament with a 3-1 record, edging out the 3-1 Westlock Red Lions in a tie break of some sort. The 26ers lone loss was a 9-0 beating at the hands of the Ryley Rebels who would be powered by a Don Oslund grand slam and a great pitching performance by pick up Dennis Danilak, who was on loan to the Rebels from the Holden Blue Jays. The win over the 26ers ensured that with a 2-2 record, the Rebels would represent the north along with the Red Lions and the host 26ers. The 1991 Senior AA provincial tournament was not kind to the Rebels who would finish in last place with a 0-4 record after losses to the 26ers, the Red Lions, a team from Acadia Valley and a Calgary based team. The Westlock Red Lions would go on to win the 1991 Senior AA provincial title, their third in five years.
In the 1950s Tofield was home to the Alberta Junior Baseball Champion Legionnaires. In order to secure their title the Legionnaires would need win multiple series across the province versus a weekend tournament. In 1954 the Legionnaires would need to win series against Camrose and Wetaskiwin to be named the Northern Alberta Junior Champion before heading all the way to Taber to play a best of five series. In 2015 the Legionnaires would need to beat Devon, Hay Lakes, Forestburg, Leduc, Stettler and Red Deer to be crowned the Northern Alberta Junior Champion and then move on to the provincial final series against Lethbridge. This team meant enough to the community that they got together in June 1979 to hold a reunion for the back to back Alberta Junior Baseball Champions. Currently, the Sunburst League, which determines the Senior AAA provincial champion, is the only level of baseball that uses a series.
In 2009 and 2010 the Rosalind Athletics created a provincial team with the Camrose Axemen and other area ball players to participate in and win senior AA titles under the name Camrose Athletics. The Athletics even hosted a Senior AA provincial tournament using both Harry Andreassen Field and the baseball field at Ohaton to accommodate the field and schedule requirements by Baseball Alberta. In 2012 the Camrose Axemen went 2-2 at the Senior AA provincials losing in the semi-final to the eventual winners, the Lacombe Dodgers. Both the experiences of the Athletics and Axemen highlight the issues that grew for the Senior AA provincial tournament, contributing to its demise in popularity.
So what happened? What caused the Senior AA level to become obsolete? There was a period in time when the provincial tournaments carried a heavy burden. Hosts had little or no support to organize and run the event and participating teams paid over $1,000 just to register (team fee, per player fee, per coach fee) and enter the tournament while still needing to contribute more money for umpires. While the host often provided a decent experience for a tournament, the lead up to the weekend was often met with confusion and a lack of communication between host, participating teams and Baseball Alberta. In the last couple of years Baseball Alberta has dropped the fees for a senior provincial tournament drastically but the damage appears to have been done already and more time might be needed before teams are willing to invest or find sponsorship to field a team. Fielding a competitive group of players also became a sore spot for teams. Smaller centres who maybe had a good team would often struggle to be competitive playing 4-5 games in three days vs the 1-2 games over a week they were used to. Pitching is never at a higher premium than at a provincial tournament which means teams need to recruit/pick-up a handful of effective pitchers to have a shot. To many teams the effort to find additional players wasn’t worth it and became unfair. Eastern based teams would have guys come down from the north west to play for the weekend, rural teams might search city team rosters looking for aces to come out and pitch a game that weekend. The spirit of a fair your team vs my team was hindered.
Another big reason why the senior AA provincials have floundered are the leagues. The leagues across Alberta, including the Powerline Baseball League, do not have a strong working relationship with the provincial governing body, Baseball Alberta. I have participated in years of league meetings in both the Powerline Baseball League and the North Central Alberta Baseball League and I have seen numerous votes go against becoming more involved with Baseball Alberta than what is currently happening, mostly due to the feeling that the cost isn’t worth it for the value they get back. PBL meeting minutes dating back to the early 1970s shows that there was very little interest in joining Baseball Alberta due to what was perceived as no real benefit. So the leagues became self-sufficient. The league schedules don’t align with a Baseball Alberta calendar with leagues still playing season games or playoff games around events such as provincials or westerns. In the Powerline Baseball League for example the PBL Championship series often runs near or over the provincial weekend. Recently the PBL became a Baseball Alberta member league which expands the leagues capacity for umpires.
In 2017 Baseball Alberta did begin to make plans around trying to integrate the leagues better. So there was an attempt on Baseball Alberta’s behalf to try something with the leagues. A quick rundown of the proposal; Baseball Alberta wanted to schedule AA/AAA weekends throughout the summer to provide more games for teams against different opponents, both for the Sunburst teams to not see the same three teams and for other teams to see competition outside of their own leagues more. One weekend in June there might be five teams coming together in Innisfail and a weekend in July might see eight teams from around the province come together in Calgary. The idea was if it would become successful at the AA/AAA level they would move it to the other leagues like the Powerline Baseball League and Battle River Baseball League for example. The weekends could have been used for tiering and seeding teams for provincial tournaments as well. I am not sure if all the leagues were met with and I only saw one presentation of the proposal but the actual idea behind the proposal seems to have not survived the human resource changes at Baseball Alberta or has moved down the to do list with other more pressing items to tackle first in minor baseball.
As cool as I think it would be to have provincials become a highlight of summer for senior mens baseball teams, I feel that unless there is overwhelming interest from players/teams which push their leagues to go to the table with Baseball Alberta to find out how they can make it work, there is no hope. I find it hard to try and be specific and articulate what has happened to the senior men’s baseball tournament, and baseball tournaments in general, over the last fifteen years or so other than teams/players just don’t want to participate in them anymore. It could be the cost, the travel, the time commitment or the fact that we only get so many nice weekends and even less long weekends a year to do other activities. Maybe its a combination of everything. But Saskatchewan has it figured out, maybe we will get it straightened out between the teams/leagues and provincial body in Alberta one day too. Baseball Alberta is seeing growing interest in minor baseball by all accounts which is the important thing and hopefully more kids continue to play baseball after their U18 or Junior days are over in one of the many adult baseball leagues across the province.