Canadian Baseball Network: Victoria HarbourCats building momentum

The owner of a training and sports medicine clinic sued Major League Baseball and several of its employees Thursday. (Ben Margot/AP)

By Jonathan Hodgson

The date June 7, 2016 will mark a significant milestone for the Victoria HarbourCats. That night, the club will play its fourth home opener at Royal Athletic Park, as members of the West Coast League (WCL).

The HarbourCats have enjoyed immediate and sustained success on and off the field since joining the WCL for the 2013 season. Between the lines the team has added to its win total each year, from 22 in their inaugural season, 24 in their second, and a jump to 29 wins in 2015. The HarbourCats missed clinching their first WCL playoff berth by just two games in 2015, making that a top priority for second year head coach Graig Merritt heading into 2016.

It is the organization’s off-field success and stability however, that has the local ownership group most encouraged and confident for the future of the organization in the long term.

The ownership group comprised of John Wilson, Jim & Ken Swanson, and Rich Harder leads the HarbourCats confidently into the future, with a team that was an instant hit with the fans and at the gate, in a league that has a long-time track record of stability, and a reputation of excellence, as one of the premier summer-collegiate baseball leagues in North America.

The local ownership group took control of the team from John McLean in spring 2015, after the team posted a 22 and 24 wins in their first two seasons, while crowds increased from 1,425 per game in 2013 to 1,576 the next season. In the first season under the leadership of the local ownership group, attendance jumped to 1,910 per game, with total attendance eclipsing 55,000.

Victoria played host to the wildly successful 2013 WCL All-Star game, which set a league record for All-Star game attendance, with a crowd of 4,210. Through the team’s first three seasons, the HarbourCats have played for some of the largest crowds in league history, including the team’s home opener in 2015, which set the current franchise record with an attendance of 4,627.

The HarbourCats, one of two Canadian teams in the WCL along with the Kelowna Falcons, led the 11-team circuit in attendance both seasons.

Most importantly to ownership it is the sound overall business structure of both the HarbourCats and the West Coast League, which provide the biggest reason for belief that the HarbourCats will bring elite-level baseball and entertainment to British Columbia’s capital city for a very long time to come.

2016 will be the HarbourCats fourth season in the WCL, a mark that Victoria’s modern day professional baseball predecessors were not able to achieve. The Victoria Capitals lasted just half a season in 2003 before the independent Canadian Baseball League folded. Similarly, the Victoria Seals were very popular during their two seasons in 2009 and 2010, but were plagued by the unstable Golden Baseball League, ceasing operations after just their second season.

Victoria is a city with a proven love for baseball, and HarbourCats managing partner Jim Swanson says it is that same love that drives the organization to serve the community to the best of their abilities, through baseball.

“Our owners and staff love baseball, but our fans are the ones who fuel the passion for the game.” Said Swanson. “Victoria is a great market, a vibrant community with a lot of pride and an excellent vibe for supporting sports. We love seeing people smile at our games, or at events we attend with our mascot, Harvey.”

Zachary Fraser is the president of Pacific Baseball Ventures, which owns the Walla Walla Sweets and Yakima Valley Pippins, two of the WCL’s top performing franchises. He says that success in Victoria means a great deal to the league as a whole.

“[Victoria] has the potential to be a strong representation of what great summer collegiate baseball can be,” says Fraser, formerly the general manager of the immensely successful Orem Owlz, the Pioneer League affiliate of the LA Angels, from 2005 to 2007.

He says that the Victoria and Vancouver Island market offers a new dynamic to the league.

“Victoria is the largest market – population-wise – in the WCL and adds a very cool international feel (along with Kelowna) to the league. I think our Canadian friends add that type of feel to our league. If the WCL does it right, that could be a selling differential when attracting players compared to competing leagues,” Fraser continues, “The majority of WCL markets are small markets, too small for minor league baseball, but big enough to strongly support the WCL. I think Victoria lends a little of that – I’ve been impressed with the friendliness of those I’ve met – but adds a bit of the “big city” feel that makes it unique.”

Well-supported baseball is nothing new for Victoria, a city that can trace its history of professional baseball back well over 100 years, into the 1800s. The city’s first professional baseball championship came in 1920, when the original Victoria Capitals won their league championship, playing before a crowd of more than 4,200 on Opening Day, at a brand new ballpark then constructed behind the landmark Empress Hotel.

Royal Athletic Park, home of the HarbourCats, was originally constructed in 1946, and first played host to the Victoria Athletics, who were a ‘Class B’ affiliate of the New York Yankees, from 1946 to 1951. The team changed its name to the Tyees in 1952, and won the Western International League pennant in their final year in 1954.

Modern day Royal Athletic Park was rebuilt in 1967, after a large fire at the original. The Victoria Mussels (1978-79) and then the Victoria Blues (1980) played out of the ballpark in the affiliated Northwest League.

Victoria was then devoid of elite level baseball until 2003, when the Capitals of the Canadian Baseball League were a hit with fans, but were done in by an unstable league, which folded halfway through its first season. The Victoria Seals were similarly successful at the gate in 2009-10, but were also victimized by a faulty league structure, ceasing operations after two seasons.

The HarbourCats are the first Victoria based team to play more than two years, since the Athletics played from 1946-51.

The West Coast League is thriving into its 12th season in 2016. From the eight-team circut founded in 2005, six founding members of the original ‘West Coast Collegiate Baseball League’ (WCCBL) remain core members of today’s WCL. These teams include the Corvallis Knights (then the Aloha Knights of Gresham), the HarbourCats’ Canadian cousins, the Kelowna Falcons, the Kitsap BlueJackets, as well as perennial league powers, the Bellingham Bells and Wenatchee AppleSox.

Origins of many current day WCL franchises predate the league, with teams like the Corvallis Knights, Kelowna Falcons, Wenatchee AppleSox, Bend Elks, and Bellingham Bells tracing their origins in the Pacific International League as far back as 1999. The Corvallis Knights franchise has been in operation continuously since 1990, and was champion of the 2004 National Baseball Congress World Series, before joining the original WCCBL.

Having carved out a name for itself, the league simplified its identity to the West Coast League in October of 2008. The league has since expanded into several passionate baseball markets in the Pacific Northwest over the past several years. In 2010, the league welcomed the Cowlitz Black Bears and Walla Walla Sweets, the HarbourCats were born in 2013, in 2014, the Yakima Valley Pippins joined the fold, and finally, the WCL will welcome the Gresham GreyWolves in 2016.

With a league-wide average of over 1,100 fans per game across its 11 member teams that span two U.S. states plus two Canadian franchises in B.C., the WCL is one of the highest-drawing collegiate summer leagues, and one of the most stable baseball leagues in existence today. Coupled with a reputation as one of the preeminent summer collegiate leagues in North America drawing talent from many of the elite college programs and conferences, leading to 25 alums in Major League Baseball in 2015, and more than 200 in affiliated professional baseball, and it is clear to see that West Coast League baseball is a model for success and showcases some of the very best baseball at its level.

Victoria is arguably Canada’s most beautiful, picturesque city to live and spend a summer in, and has an indisputable passion for baseball. Uniting Victoria with the West Coast League is a partnership that we can confidently say will ensure the HarbourCats will be ingrained in the summertime traditions of Victorians for many years to come.

This post was first published at the Canadian Baseball Network.