Many ball players who have come through the Powerline Baseball League were thrust onto a team roster out of necessity. Often small centre’s minor baseball associations were lacking teams and PBL teams were always looking for players. Craig Neufeld is one of those players.
The Tofield native spent the large portion of his PBL career with the Bardo Athletics before being pivotal in starting the Tofield Braves. Craig would join the A’s as a teenager before maturing into an all-star in the league as well the role of manager and league president in the PBL. Away from the league Neufeld remains involved in baseball as the President of the growing Tofield Minor Baseball Association, which won the 2016 Baseball Alberta Small Association of the Year.
Below is Craig’s interview where he talks about his playing days in the PBL and the historical importance of a place like Bardo in the PBL.
Craig at the Baseball Alberta awards banquet receiving the Small Association of the Year award for the Tofield Minor Baseball Associaiton alongside Canada's favourite baseball broadcasters Buck Martinez and Pat Tabler.
What was your baseball background prior to playing in the PBL?
Due to a lack of baseball in the area our age group never had any minor baseball through Tofield.
When did you start playing the Powerline Baseball League?
I started playing in the PBL in 2002 with the Bardo Athletics. I was playing a little beer league hockey with some of the players (even though being in minor hockey still). I played with Bardo from 2002-2017 then once the team made the tough decision to merge with Ryley (Rebels) played with the Tofield Braves.
Do you remember your first game in the Powerline Baseball League?
Not so much my first game exactly with the Athletics but the first season was a big eye opener. Being 15 years old and playing against men aging from 18-50 was very intimidating especially having to face the Oslunds/Lehmans/Stensruds/MacDonald’s of the league. It was fantastic having veteran players show you the ropes and being patient with the learning curve (pun intended).
What was that first year of Powerline Baseball League baseball like for you?
Pretty much what was written above but I was surprised at the high compete level. Maybe not as much with the talent although it was there more so with the originally thinking it was a beer league (comparing it to hockey) and being surprised that there was a very high competitive spirit in every game you played.
Craig Neufeld (left) and Jeremy Thom after Bardo's 2006 PBL Championship win over the Armena Axemen.
How did the Powerline Baseball League change during your years in the league?
I found that with the lack of players in rural leagues and more players/teams coming out of the larger areas that it organically grew the quality of competition you would see on a regular basis. I saw a lot of the older players having a tough time transition from metal to wood bats which in turn created a lot tighter games which lead to closer standings league wide. The organization was vastly improved specifically when we brought in scheduled umps. I coordinated with Rick Bourne while I was president to creating a non biased approach to umpire scheduling, it costs teams more $ which was money very well spent. He took on a lot of work for the league and I think that goes unnoticed by quite a few people outside of the operations of the league.
Is there a specific game or games that come to mind as being memorable for you during your time in the Powerline Baseball League?
Game 3 of the 2008 finals versus the Camrose Roadrunners. We had Ray Lehman on the mound and they countered with Steve Ofrim, who at home with a specific ump behind the plate was virtually unhittable. Late in the game Lehman was covering first base on a ground ball and got the out against (I believe Steve Ofrim) running down the line. Ofrim landed on Lehman's ankle leaving him cut open pretty good. Ray finished the game off in Curt Schillingesque style shutting them down. Another would have to be in 2016 against the Ryely Rebels where due to a lack of players (what else is new) I had to rotate around the diamond throughout the game and ended up playing every position except for right field and catcher. Only bright spot on that game was striking out Brian Tavaroli hahaha.
Neufeld rounds second base on a passed ball against the Edmonton Expos in 2018.
Was there a pitcher in the Powerline Baseball League that you perhaps dreaded facing or just had your number for some reason? Was there a pitcher that you had a tremendous amount of success against?
I was never overly concerned about high velocity pitchers in this league. I enjoyed going against the likes of Curt Stensrud or Don Oslund as it was one hell of a challenge but when you met their pitch you knew it was going somewhere hard. I would say Jeff MacDonald from the Camrose Colts was by far the toughest pitcher to hit against. Between him and Curt they had to be the leagues scariest pitchers. In regards to career average against a certain pitcher I would have to say Kyle Muzechka of Holden would have to be my Achilles. Great pitcher but coming from the other side in a league where you don’t see lefties too often was very tough to hit against
When you pitched in the Powerline Baseball League, was there a particular hitter that you had a tough time getting out?
If I was pitching something had gone very wrong in the game or else lack of players.
A tough end to the Bardo Athletics 2016 season would see Neufeld take to the hill against the rival Ryley Rebels. The game would end up being the final game for the Athletics as they would merge with the Ryley Rebels the following season to form the Tofield Braves.
How would you describe the difference between the regular season and those best of three series in the playoffs?
Pressure. Such a short season and it rests on a three game matchup. Each team you knew had their ‘A' squad out so you weren’t getting a fourth or fifth arm to pad your stats against. One wrong read on a ball and that could be the difference in moving on or being done for the summer.
What were the Bardo Athletics PBL Championships like?
We won in 2006 and 2008 in Bardo. The 2008 PBL Championship (vs Camrose Roadrunners) was much tougher if my memory serves me well but the 2006 PBL Championship (vs Armena Axemen) has more of a nostalgic feel to it. Bardo hadn’t won a championship in 30 years prior to that. The ability to help bring back a championship to that community brought such a sense of pride knowing the baseball history that had transpired there. The amount of support you got from the small community astonished me. The fields were always upkept prior to games (at least after harvest) due to the hardwork of the farming families.
Peter Neufeld, Jeremey Thom and Craig Neufeld celebrating the 2006 Bardo Athletics PBL Championship in Bardo.
There have been numerous on-field, maybe even off-field, rivalries in the Powerline Baseball League over it’s history. Was there a particular rivalry that you were involved in that was memorable and why was it so memorable?
As always it would have to be the Bardo-Ryley rivalry. One thing that made it awesome to be apart of was the fact that a good portion of players on both teams were good friends growing up. Was a ‘leave it all on the field’ mindset. We always joked about a bench brawl because the average size of Ryley at the time had to be 220lbs. I always had dibs on Corey Epp.
Are there any rural baseball stories that you have heard, seen yourself or know about that would be great to share with the community?
I honestly couldn’t think of one story that sticks out of the rest but I will take a page out of Mike Leclaire's book and share one about Milt Malik. Aside from catching with no shin pads, eye opener for a teenage player, he was at bat one game in one of his last years of playing and our pitcher, Chris Mittlestadt, who was always very accurate in his locations could not pitch to him is his life depended on it. Well of course Chris threw one inside (not on purpose) of course and caught him direct in the ribcage. I can still hear the thud. I think the entire crowd had their wind knocked out from that pitch. Milt took a second and leaned on his bat like a cane or crutch and stared Statter down and proceeded to take his base. Chris thought he killed him. The crowd cheered Milt on (even though it was our home game) it was amazing.
Craig at bat for the Bardo Athletics in 2012.
What was your favourite baseball field to play on and what were some endearing features of that field that made it your favourite?
Having played in Bardo for most of my career I would have to say there. It was known as the field of dreams to many due to nature of its build in the middle of a cow pasture. As Mike Leclaire had mentioned previously the whole community took time out of their busiest season to all join in for a day of cleanup and fix anything had to be fixed. The Rude and Stauffer families were pivotal to ensuring the diamond was kept up to best possible condition. It shows what can be accomplished when a community sees the value in preserving it’s history. We spent so many hours out there on non-baseball days trying to make sure the diamond was playable the next day. I think this has to be the only diamond that had a club house where we would go on early season games to get out of the cold or mid-June to get away from mosquitoes. We had BBQ’s regularly after games where we could just sit back and enjoy some beers and talk baseball. Go over all of our shortcomings of talent and discuss what we need to do better next game. It was truly a family out there and some of my fondest memories of baseball came from after the games.
Were there any memorable moments that have stuck with you about the PBL tournaments?
We went to enough tournaments but our teams were getting older, more families/kids/work caused for not near enough travel tournaments. The July 1st tournament in Tofield was always a great time. Teams would travel from quite some distances to take part. Bardo Sports Day was another great tournament as families from all around the surrounding communities and towns would come to watch. Putting pride aside you knew it wasn’t for the quality of baseball but the for the legendary Bardo pie.
Bardo Athletics with the Lefty Stauffer Trophy for winning the 2012 Bardo Sports Day tournament.
What was your experience on the PBL Executive like?
I was a president for three years and a treasurer for another two years. We ran simple meetings, discussed the issues from years past and tried to come to some resolution that worked for all. There was always some obscure issue from the year prior that came up whether it was ineligible players or a five way tie for first.
How has baseball remained a part of your life towards the end of your Powerline Baseball League playing days and what is in store for you in the future?
I am still playing but due to time constraints with coaching and running Tofield Minor Ball it only allows me to play maybe 75% of the time. Tough to transition out of baseball but it is a fun challenge moving forward.
Anything else about your time playing in the Powerline Baseball League?
Bardo took me on as a 15 year old player. I believe they had to had to get an exception at the time but am not sure. It allowed me not only to play a sport that was not available at the time but become part of something bigger that was the history of bardo. People tend to look down on the PBL at times due a perceived lack of talent or organization but we have seen some great players come through the league and I would put the top players/teams against any of the senior leagues (with exception of the sunburst). It is a big part of my life and I try to carry that on through Tofield minor baseball in order to give the youth in the area a place to play once they move on from minor ball. I have made lifelong friends in this league not only on my team but across the league.
The Neufeld Family has become staples at ball fields (and hockey rinks) in Tofield.
Thank you to Craig for the trip down memory lane and highlighting some important aspects of what makes senior baseball so great. Be sure to follow the Tofield Braves this season when they return to the field to challenge for the 2021 Powerline Baseball League Championship.