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The Wheat City Whiskey Jacks players might not have to stay home this summer, but they can’t come here.
When Premier Brian Pallister said Wednesday that live sporting events with fans wouldn’t happen in Manitoba until September due to COVID-19, Whiskey Jacks owner and Expedition League president Steve Wagner knew he had to make a call.
They’ll still play under the same name, just in a North Dakota city yet to be determined until they can potentially return in 2021.
"Our goal was to play this year in Brandon of course. We had a great season last year, loved introducing the Whiskey Jacks and Expedition League baseball to the great people in Brandon," Wagner said via phone interview on Friday.
"That decision really gave us the answer," he said of Pallister’s statement, adding the border closure doesn’t help. "There’s no way we could play without fans. It’s an important part of what we do and it’s an important part of the business model. … It really made the decision for us."
Wheat City already had more than 20 players on board for its second season in the league. All-stars Cody Kehl and Lucas Allen were among the players set to take the field May 26 — an Opening Day that was also postponed on Friday.
The league, which offers college players a place to develop over the summer with an intense 64-game schedule, is looking to expand beyond its current 10 teams. So it’s likely the Whiskey Jacks’ temporary home is the site of a new squad in 2021. Wagner is hoping to hire a front office staff that could transition into that permanent team before handing the Whiskey Jacks back after this season.
"All of our interns, the concession manager we had hired (in Brandon), those positions certainly aren’t needed and just those people crossing the border is impossible," Wagner said.
"We’re still working through exactly what to do with Ray (Walker) as our GM. We want him to continue to be a part of the team."
Wagner said anyone who had purchased tickets to attend games at Andrews Field would be refunded. He also noted that the change leaves little time to drum up corporate partners and sponsors in the team’s new location.
In terms of sponsors that supported the team in its first year in western Manitoba and were intending to stay on board, Wagner said there are still details to work out.
"I think hiatus is the right word there," Wagner said. "We’re kind of gone for the season because obviously that decision was made for us. Then we’ll return for the 2021 season."
If the season does get underway at some point, fans can subscribe to watch games on stretchlive.com.
Wagner is hopeful the season will happen, although South Dakota and Nebraska ranked 13th and 18th, respectively, in total cases per capita on Friday afternoon. Neither state locked down, while North Dakota and Wyoming have both had partial reopenings.
If the whole campaign is a write-off, Wagner is confident that it wouldn’t be the end of the Expedition League.
"In the event that we wouldn’t play a single game this year, we’re back. All 10 teams are back, the league is back, we’re not going anywhere. Certainly our hope is we have a season this year and I do believe we will, but we’ll come back strong for the 2021 season," Wagner said.
"… We are 100 per cent committed to Brandon, Manitoba. I love the community, love the people. I think we started something really great there. We are absolutely going to be back for the 2021 season, which means we’ll be getting started this fall."
» Twitter: @thomasmfriesen
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