by Blaine Meller
There’s an old saying: making history is easy, repeating it is the hard part. Such is the challenge facing the Calgary Vipers. When the Vipers captured the 2009 Golden Baseball League title last September, defeating the Tucson Toros three games to one, they became the first Canadian team and first privately owned franchise to claim the league championship. Now, less than a month away from spring training, the team knows what awaits them.
“Defending is going to be tough. We know we have that bulls-eye on our backs now,” said Vipers pitcher Joe Sergent. “But it’s going to be fun.” Sergent went 7-3 last season with an earned run average of 3.88, striking out 72 and only allowing 27 walks. Now 31, he knows the incoming crop of rookies and younger players will be looking to him for leadership. When spring training opens May 7, Sergent says honest communication will play a key role in how these players develop.
“I always say, ‘Tell me the truth on everything. If I make a bad pitch, tell me it was a bad pitch. Don’t try to make me feel better by lying,’ ” he said, adding that only three other pitchers are “likely” returning for the coming season.
“That’s alright. Burkie (field manager Morgan Burkhart) assures me we’ll have a good team,” Sergent grinned. But will the Vipers’ on-field success translate into success at the box office? Last season, Calgary’s average home attendance was 1,525, placing them sixth out of nine teams and well behind the Tucson, Ariz. average of 3,661.
According to Patrick Haas, the Vipers’ media relations director, drawing fans to the ballpark is a challenge. Hass said there is a “big gap” between Calgary’s major sports draws – the Flames and Stampeders – and teams like the Roughnecks and Vipers.
“We’re not selling the actual game of baseball up here. What we are trying to sell is an affordable family outing, sitting in the sun, having a hot dog and talking to people. We’re trying to sell the social aspect of the game,” he said.
Exposing and expanding the game through local media outlets is another challenge the Vipers face. Newspaper deadlines often won’t allow for game coverage, and radio stations are not sold on the product, said Hass, adding that all home games can be heard via webcast at Sportsjuice.com.
The Vipers have implemented concepts such as the Baseball Buddies program, where little league teams and their coaches can attend Vipers’ home games free of charge. Having players actively promote and teach the game in the community is another.
Sergent and teammate Colin Moro, along with former MLB pitcher Chris Reitsma teach at the Absolute Baseball Academy adjacent to Foothills Stadium, working with young players on the nuances of pitching and hitting. Sergent hopes this helps grow the game in Calgary.
“I don’t think the City of Calgary understands what we are,” he said. “The Golden League is the same as the CFL, an independent league of professional athletes. It’s just football and baseball.”
The Vipers open the 2010 season May 19 in Yuma against the Scorpions. The home schedule kicks off May 27 with a tilt versus the Maui Ikaika; 7:05 p.m. at Foothills Stadium.