The Minor Baseball Landscape Is Changing

Posted August 4, 2020

The Minor Baseball Landscape Is Changing
It feels like there is a shift coming in the way minor baseball operates in Alberta. Maybe it will be a sudden change or it might be one that takes a number of years to reach it’s full realization, but a baseball landscape that will provide elite players with a multitude of options to pursue their baseball dreams in Alberta might appears to be on the horizon. 
This summer it was announced that the Northern Alberta Xtreme, known in the Edmonton area for their hockey programming, will be applying the same model that they had success with on the ice, to the baseball field. The creation of an elite baseball program for NAX is nothing new for baseball. Locally, there has been the Prospects Baseball Academy (which appears to have been disbanded in the fall of 2019) and the St Francis Xavier baseball academy while in the province there is also the Badlands Baseball Academy in Oyen, the Okotoks Dawgs Baseball Academy, the Northern Lights Baseball Academy and the Vauxhall Baseball Academy to name a few. Recently, the St Josephs High School in Red Deer also started up their own baseball academy providing central Alberta players with another avenue to pursue baseball. 
Most of these academies offer off-season programming and skill development from September/October through the winter into April/May. A couple, most notably Okotoks will compete in a Baseball Alberta sanctioned leagues for a spring/summer season with the ultimate goal of competing for a Provincial Championship, then Western Championship and the ultimate prize a National Championship though Baseball Canada.
The NAX Baseball Academy is looking to build on the foundation already in place in the baseball academy community with the ultimate goal of creating an elite academy league, similar to the Canadian Sport School Hockey League (CSSHL). The league would compete across the prairies and into the United States, similar to the CSSHL which has teams in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia. 
The big push for NAX will be the student-athlete lifestyle that prepares players for what will hopefully be a successful post secondary career. Their sport of choice is important however academics will be atop the list of success markers for the program and it’s athletes. There will be a significant cost, it was mentioned that $22,000+ is the cost of their hockey program (baseball would likely be lower), to a player attending an academy like NAX so the families will also need to be assured that their education is being taken care of as well. It sounds like there is a solid plan in place with Academic Director Paul Smith which includes building a personalized academic road map for each player, having academic support travel with the team on showcase trips and mandatory road trip study halls for a start.
In June, an info session regarding the NAX Baseball Academy's U18 program was held at 5 Tool Field House in Edmonton. There were some interesting notes about the program that you can read below or you can listen to the audio of the info session here:
  • In their hockey programs, NAX Program Director Jason Stewart said that 80% of female athletes move on to post secondary opportunities while 98-100% of their male athletes move on to the next level of competition whether it be post secondary hockey or some level of junior hockey. 
  • The current landscape for baseball academies has very little to no oversight from Baseball Canada, meaning that there is significantly more freedom to start and grow a baseball academy compared to starting a hockey academy program with the amount of governance shown by Hockey Canada. 
  • NAX Baseball Coach Mike Johnson and NAX Academic Director Paula Smith talked about the need to have the right players and the right families for the program to succeed. For the athletes they will be looking for the players that will have the ability to compete for post secondary playing time while academically they are looking for hard working and determined students who will have a graduation pathway personalized for their career aspirations. A 90% average student is not an automatic roster spot over a 80% average student. 
  • Johnson went on to talk about the idea behind what a schedule could look like for the baseball program. It would be a five day a week program with students on a field or in a gym starting at 9:00am every morning before heading to classes from 12:20pm - 4:35pm. The extra block of time at the end of each day is designed to allow students to meet their credit requirements for graduation. Athletes would then have the evenings off to actually have a social life as kids. 
  • Starting in September 2020, they hope but are unsure with the current Covid-19 restrictions, the NAX Baseball team would begin an elite academy fall season which would run into October or until the weather permits. This is where the team would being playing Okotoks, Badlands and Vauxhall for example before heading indoors at 5 Tool Fieldhouse in Edmonton from November through the New Year and into the Spring. At this point they would then begin a spring season, again with other elite baseball academies in Alberta, BC and the United States if permitted. 
  • The NAX Baseball Academy is looking to be a year round academy so there is some leg work to do on retaining players for a spring/summer season as to not have them return to their community associations. This is where the ultimate goal of having an elite academy league will come into play whether it is within the structure of Baseball Alberta or outside their jurisdiction is yet to be seen. 
  • The current Baseball Alberta model for elite baseball is watered down according to Johnson who says that there are too many times that 5-6 players on a community team will carry the entire workload of that team and in the bigger picture of a Baseball Alberta league, there is only a small handful of elite teams while the rest of the league is watered down and there to just get games in. Johnson’s vision for NAX would be to build a roster of at least 18-22 players who are all elite and who can all carry the team if needed with a large emphasis on the creation of team culture for skill and academic development. 
  • The students would be enrolled at John Maland Highschool in Devon, a community that according to NAX has expressed their commitment to the partnership. It is expected that Devon will see the completion of a baseball/softball complex hopefully in 2021 if not sooner. 
Towards the end of the info session Stewart noted that the next steps for the program would be to start a player identification and evaluation process (scheduled for August 13 at Empire Park in Edmonton) before moving on to formal commitments and contracts with players for the upcoming fall season. 
So what does a program like this mean for the state of baseball in the province of Alberta?
For Baseball Alberta, it might be an opportunity to re-evaluate their AA/AAA programming to try and entice players to stay in their local communities to compete and further their baseball careers. Is the current league situation in the province adequate enough to propel the province forward and sending players to post secondary baseball? Are we currently setting up more elite baseball players from Alberta to compete for national team spots? It might be an opportunity for growth of the current baseball associations across the province to include more elite baseball, something that the St Albert Minor Baseball Association took on in the off season with the SAMBA Development premier program and more large associations could, and perhaps will, begin to pursue in the future. 
Currently there is a desire and need for baseball associations across the province to get more sustainable grass roots/community league baseball all the way down to the 5U Blastball level. The hope is that the associations will then reap the rewards as the players progress and develop before competing for spots in those same associations. However, with more academies coming online, this grass roots baseball push could also benefit those academies who will be waiting in the reeds for those players when they start to hit the U18 and U15 levels.
There are benefits to an elite academy model, mainly in the development of certain players to compete at a high level or perhaps an even higher level. If the program maintains it’s commitment to academics as advertised it means that student-athletes are given a fair bit more resources to further their education than the average student in the same school. Team commitments to academic standards, mandatory study halls on the road and an academic advisor working one on one with the athletes and their families to set them up for success in the classroom. Not to mention the access to coaches and facilities that not every minor baseball association will have access to either. 
On the other side, there are some perceived negatives to this model that some families will need to overcome. First, it is more expensive and will immediately disqualify some athletes. Talented young ball players are going to be held back from opportunities due to financial circumstances whereas some athletes who perhaps have the financial ability but not skill to take a roster spot, will find themselves on the team. Second is the time commitment and time management needed for players coming into the academy program. Third is the cut throat and high intensity that the academy baseball program and potentially future baseball league will bring. Players may go from more playing time in their community association in one or multiple positions to less playing time at an academy in a different position on the field. Fourth, there is a certain type of athlete that are made for elite level baseball and a program that an academy has to offer. An athlete might have the skill but not the passion, maybe the passion but not the skill development which will make it difficult for a family to commit. 
Baseball academies such as Vauxhall and Okotoks have had a long run of success in finding baseball players from all over the province who are looking to take that next step. Hockey has seen the increase in alternative options over the past number of years with an explosion of spring/summer hockey as well as the Super Hockey League, the Premier Hockey League and the CSSHL. In some areas of the province, specifically down south around Lethbridge and in Edmonton, baseball players will have the opportunity to play and pursue opportunities in Little League, Baseball Alberta associations and now more opportunities with academies. 
While the pool for baseball players has seemed to plateau after the 2015/2016 Toronto Blue Jays success and immediate spike in baseball registrations, the opportunities for those players continues to grow.
You can find out more about the NAX Baseball program by checking out their website and more about the 5 Tool Fieldhouse in Edmonton here on their site as well. 
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