Ask Jordan Procyshen where he’d be if he’d never heard of Dawgs baseball and he will tell you – probably at home on the couch. Entering the academy five years ago, he was a self-described short, stubby kid with no athleticism, just “a mind for the game.”
By Peter Worden
Baseball culture in Alberta is changing dramatically. For a long time Alberta fielded no top prospects, no first-rounders, no Chris Reitsmas and no Jim Hendersons. All of a sudden six Alberta players are on the junior national team, and 18 year-old Jordan Procyshen is one.
At his first tryout five years ago, coaches made an instinctual and fateful decision to move Procyshen from his position at shortstop to back-catcher. “They already knew,” he said, recounting the story like it was magic; as if his coaches were clairvoyant, seeing something he didn’t or couldn’t. “That’s how good they are.”
Procyshen (sounds like “precision”) has been a catcher ever since.
In high school he was called up to college-level games. He spent last summer travelling the globe with the Canadian junior national team. The week before this interview, he was training in St. Petersburg, Florida and before that in Orlando (for the second time) practicing against the Blue Jays spring squad with the likes of pros Aaron Hill and John McDonald (who even played a little).
“You don’t think you could be in high school playing against major league players,” said Procyshen. This summer he’ll play in the Dominican Republic, Cuba, North Carolina, Columbia and, if all goes to plan, championships in Seoul. Come fall, he’s off to Northeastern Junior College in Sterling, Colorado on a near-full scholarship as a catcher. So when it comes to his coaches’ day one decision, he’s understandably humbled and appreciative.
The Dawgs are a two-part program: an increasingly well-respected academy of young up-and-comers, and perhaps better known (at least locally), the Western Major Baseball League summer collegiate team. By dint of experience on both, Procyshen is the club’s proud – if unintentional – ambassador.
Last summer, the collegiate team needed a catcher and Procyshen fit the bill. July 16, a night game, with the lights shining down, he went to bat in front of 2,200 local fans.
“The atmosphere was completely different than the 30 parents we had at high school games,” he said, laughing.
But if there ever was the ideal place for a young Alberta player to get a semi-pro start, Okotoks is it. Head coach David Robb said fans there respect the team and, it would seem they are happy enough simply having one.
“Here, even if the opposition hits a homerun fans clap because they just like to see the homerun,” he said
During a series in Lethbridge last summer, fans harped mercilessly on both teams, shouting at the coaches in the dugout and riling players on the field. Teams like Lethbridge and Medicine Hat are minor league affiliated and their professional background, Robb believes, lends itself to ragging on the players.
“They expect the players to be good,” he said. “They’re getting paid for it. So it’s a ‘I paid my money,’ sort of thing.’”
By comparison, the most angst-ridden experience for a Dawg at home field is when the announcer calls for a “beer batter” – a gimmick whereby if a batter strikes out, beer at stadium kiosks goes on sale for half-price. No player wants the undue pressure. The team interacts with fans between innings, playing Are you smarter than a Dawg and letting kids run the bases after the game.
In Grade 11, playing with a bunch of college guys, Procyshen flourished in the forgiving home field atmosphere, took the audacious out-of-town fans in stride and benefited from the team’s jock-like camaraderie. Older teammates imparted wisdom like, if a pitch hits a batter, calmly walk up to the mound because in college, players may take it personally and charge the pitcher. Over the rest of the season, he batted a formidable .300.
I met Procyshen in the video conference room of the Duvernay Fieldhouse, a $2-million indoor complex dominated by a full-size turf infield adjacent the Dawgs’ Seaman Stadium. Above a row of lockers is plastered a life-size photo of an impromptu Dawg-pile on the pitchers mound – the first of back-to-back-to-back championships.
“Basically, the town loved us,” said assistant head coach Brett Thomas, explaining how the team came to Okotoks in 2007, and won the first three summer seasons which spurred and solidified the reputation of its year-round academy. Today the place has six batting cages, movable mounds, a clubhouse, a workout area with flat screen TVs and the latest software for video analysis. “It’s pretty well the best in the country,” says Thomas, one of six full-time coaches when most programs can barely support two. Outside, giant shovels are busy carving out two new fields.
Twenty Dawgs players attend Holy Trinity Academy in Okotoks, six of whom moved from out of province – one from Florida – specifically to attend the academy. From its first pack of Dawgs graduates, a telling 11 have gone somewhere to play college ball.
Raised in a southeast Calgary suburb, Procyshen explains how and why he moved to Okotoks himself. He grew up a Blue Jays fan, and the year he was born (1993) was the same year the Jays won back-to-back World Series. Asked how it feels knowing he might realistically play for his dream team one day, he responded with the same pragmatic and humble approach his coaches have imbued in him since the day he came in a shortstop and left a catcher:
“It comes down to a lot of factors. One team just has to decide that they want you.”
Some history: In 2005, a bitter falling out with Calgary Vipers team over the use of Foothills Stadium in Calgary meant the Dawgs had to suspend their 2006 season. They moved to Okotoks and resumed in 2007 at the brand-spanking-new $8-million Seaman Stadium funded by Don and Doc Seaman. It was the first season for the academy and the Dawgs won the championship. They won again in 2008 and again in 2009. Almost instantly they became the top-drawing collegiate baseball team in Canada averaging 2,000 fans per game.