HarbourCats and PBL go hand in hand

By Jonathan Hodgson

At the core of the HarbourCats mission is a commitment to promote the game of baseball, better the lives and careers of athletes, and positively affect the communities in which they serve on Vancouver Island.  With that in focus, the West Coast League club is set to host the annual British Columbia Premier Baseball League (PBL) regular season game at Royal Athletic Park on June 2. It will feature the all-Victoria rivalry between the Victoria Eagles and Mariners.

Victoria Eagles manager Anthony Pluta says both teams look forward to taking the field at Royal Athletic Park

“Playing a game at Royal Athletic Park (RAP) is great for these kids. They really look forward to these games, playing in the stadium on such a big stage in front of a large crowd.” Pluta said. “We were fortunate enough to host the PBL Final Four last year at RAP, but for some of them it’s their first taste of that kind of spotlight and “big game” atmosphere. Added to the fact that it’s obviously a rivalry game for us, both teams always get up a little more for these games.”

Pluta was a veteran of 13 professional seasons during his playing career, and was a third-round draft pick of the Houston Astros in 2000. He was at the helm of the 2013 Eagles team that won the PBL championship.

The PBL is acknowledged as one of the top developmental high school leagues in North America, annually featuring many promising prospects at its ‘premier’ or U18 division, and boasting an extensive list of collegiate, professional and major league alumni.

The Mariners and Eagles are annual PBL powers, routinely finding themselves near the top of the standings and contending for league championships year in and year out.  With both teams representing Victoria, it is a natural rivalry whenever they play, but the two sides have a unique link.  Players on both teams attend and train at Lambrick Park Secondary School in Victoria, creating additional familiarity.

Both coaches say that this heightened familiarity adds fuel to the rivalry whenever the teams play.

Mike Chewpoy has been the manager of the Victoria Mariners since 2004, and skippered his team to a PBL championship in 2010. Under Chewpoy, the Mariners are a perennial league power and have placed more than 90 players on scholarship at US colleges and universities.

The ranks of team alumni are headlined by Michael Saunders of the Toronto Blue Jays. Following his time with the PBL Mariners, Saunders attended Tallahassee Community College in Florida, and was drafted in the 11th round by the Seattle Mariners in 2004. After reaching the majors in 2009 and playing parts of six major league seasons, Saunders was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays prior to 2015 spring training.

The Victoria Mariners have also produced 12 MLB draft picks including 2013 HarbourCat Kelly Norris-Jones. Additionally, 10 Victoria Mariners have played for Canada’s Junior National Team, including Norris-Jones and current shortstop Jason Willow (Victoria, BC) who is on Canada’s roster for 2016 Junior National Team spring training.

Chewpoy, who is annually included on Bob Elliott’s 100 most influential Canadians in baseball list says the relationship formed with the HarbourCats is extremely valuable, and says much praise should be directed towards the HarbourCats managing partner.

“From top to bottom it is clear to see why the HarbourCats have and will continue to succeed,” said Chewpoy. “They provide fans in Victoria with the quality baseball product they have longed to see, and Jim Swanson is the man behind it. He has not only produced a quality baseball experience for even the most novice of fans, but has made RAP a ‘place to be on a summers evening!’ Jim surrounded himself with quality people, and with such a strong front office staff returning, there is no doubt that they will excel in all areas again in 2016, and will claim that long-awaited playoff berth for Victoria.”

On the Eagles side, a name that should be familiar to HarbourCats fans is right-handed pitcher Nick Pivetta.

Pivetta graduated from the Eagles in 2011 and pitched collegiately at New Mexico Junior College in 2012-13. With substantial interest leading up to the 2013 draft, Pivetta signed with the HarbourCats for their inaugural season, and started the first game in HarbourCats history on June 5, 2013 at Royal Athletic Park. The Victoria native pitched eight innings and earned the win that night, and took the mound one more time, a week later, earning another win before professional baseball came calling.

Pivetta was selected in the fourth round by the Washington Nationals, and reported directly to the club’s Gulf Coast League affiliate.  In 2015, the Nationals traded the 6’5’’ right-hander to the Philadelphia Phillies in exchange for major league closer Jonathan Papelbon.

Once players graduate high school and finish their PBL careers, options to play baseball in Canada, and even more so in B.C., are limited as players will look to the United States for college baseball the majority of the time.  Combine that with the fact that professional baseball is not what it once was in Canada, with the Vancouver Canadians being the last remaining Canadian affiliated minor league franchise, players often have to shelve any dreams of extending their careers in their homeland beyond high school.

That is where the HarbourCats fill a significant void, says Pluta, giving players something tangible to aspire to, and opening the door for young prospects to showcase their talents in their hometowns in the summers while in college.

“It has been great having the HarbourCats in town. These guys are playing at the level that all our players are aiming for, big-time college baseball,” Pluta said. “They bring in a lot of NCAA division 1 players with pro futures, and it’s great for our younger players to see it up close and know that it’s attainable for them if they keep putting in the work.”

Take a look at the HarbourCats current and past rosters, and you see exactly that happening.  Three B.C. natives are signed with the HarbourCats for 2016; all three are PBL graduates, and two are from Vancouver Island.

Griffin Andreychuk, a product of Nanaimo, has become a core player and a fan favourite, as he enters his third season playing in Victoria, as he returns to Vancouver Island each summer from Seattle University (NCAA Div. 1).  The talented middle infielder is a PBL alum of the Nanaimo Pirates and Langley Blaze.

The second island native with this year’s HarbourCats is pitcher Josh Burgmann, a former Nanaimo Pirate and commit of the University of Washington (NCAA Div. 1).  The right-hander is expected to be a significant contributor, and is a two-year member of Canada’s Junior National Team.

Another B.C. native who brings a wealth of talent is North Vancouver’s Will McAffer. The right-hander is a graduate of the 2015 PBL champion North Shore Twins, was a 32nd round pick of the Cincinnati Reds that year, and is currently a freshman at South Dakota State (NCAA Div. 1).

Another part of the HarbourCats involvement with the PBL will see the West Coast League team face a PBL selects team in three exhibition contests (May 30, 31, June 1) at Royal Athletic Park.  They will also travel to Nanaimo to play the Pirates in an exhibition at historic Serauxmen Stadium on July 3.

As members of the West Coast League (WCL) the HarbourCats assemble elite collegiate talent each summer. The WCL is acknowledged as one of the top summer collegiate leagues in North America, boasting talent from many of the best NCAA division 1 programs in the country.

The HarbourCats have seen increased success on and off the field in each of their first three seasons, and managing partner Jim Swanson says that a strong commitment to the community is a central reason for it, and will remain a top priority.

“This is where we live, this is where we work, and this is where we are fortunate to get to play,” said Swanson. “Our ownership group stepped up to solidify this because the community has shown it wants baseball to be here. Our commitment is to keeping the HarbourCats a key part of Victoria summers for a long, long time, and it’s exciting to be entering our fourth year and to continue to be involved with programs like the Mariners and Eagles.”

The HarbourCats cherish their relationship with the Victoria Mariners and Eagles, and the BCPBL as a whole. The vision is to see PBL action at Royal Athletic Park become a staple for many years to come.

Each other’s successes go hand in hand, as do the missions of all organizations involved: To better the lives of athletes and positively affect the communities in which they serve.  Based on that, heading into 2016, this partnership is touching all the bases.

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