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This article was published 3/10/2018 (1373 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
With one baseball door seemingly closing, another is set to open in Brandon next summer.
The Brandon Marlins are unlikely to return to the Manitoba Junior Baseball League next summer without a management team in place, but the Expedition League is set to take their place.
The wood bat league features collegiate baseball players and a 64-game regular season from late May through mid-August. The teams are based out of the Great Plains region in North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming and Nebraska.
League president Steve Wagner said his vision first developed about five years ago, and he’s happy to add Brandon to what he describes as a combination of top-tier baseball and solid in-game entertainment.
"That’s what we’ll do here," Wagner said. "We’ll work our tails off to pull people into the ballpark and give them a great time at a great value. The place will be rocking. Andrews Field, it will be pretty fun in here this summer. We have an opportunity to do a lot of really, really neat things."
Wagner and his wife will own the Brandon franchise until they find an ownership group. Wagner has spoken to both people outside the community and in Brandon about potentially purchasing the franchise.
For Nate Andrews and Alex Campbell, the duo who have kept Andrews Field afloat in recent years — there is no civic involvement beyond a $15,000 annual grant — it’s a potentially low-risk, high-reward proposition.
"It’s all upside," Andrews said. "If we said no to Steve and didn’t let him come, then we’re in the same situation that we were. When I looked at this, I thought from an Andrews Field perspective, with the loss of the MSBL and questions regarding the junior Marlins, why not?"
The team will pay rent to the facility.
The season is set to begin on May 24, and end on Aug. 5. There will be one week of playoffs. The league also holds an all-star break, from July 15 to 17.
According to Andrews, the facility will need some sprucing up.
"We’re 10 years on now from doing the major upgrades when dad (Neil) passed away and things get tired over 10 years," Andrews said. "We’re not in bad shape here by any means but there are always a lot of things you can tidy up and clean up and make that client experience better."
Andrews said he has an itemized list of potential improvements and will be looking for help to restore the facility to tip-top shape.
Mayor Rick Chrest was at the ball diamond for the announcement on Thursday afternoon. He said the city would be receptive to talking to the Andrews Field board if more help is required from the city as the park gets busier.
"The flip side of it is that this should be a great opportunity and naturally there should be more revenues coming in, and they’re not going to be maintaining a relatively empty ballpark," Chrest said. "Now it’s going to come to life.
"But with this amount of activity — there is a lot of ball that is going to be played here, 32 home games in this league alone — it’s probably going to need more care. We’re always available to talk about what needs to get done."
Last season the league included the Western Nebraska Pioneers (Gering, Neb.), Hastings Sodbusters (Neb.), Casper Horseheads (Wyo.), Hub City Hotshots (Aberdeen, S.D.), Spearfish Sasquatch (S.D.), Pierre Trappers (S.D.), Badlands Big Sticks (Dickinson, N.D.) and Souris Valley Sabre Dogs (Minot, N.D.)
The league unveiled a ninth franchise two weeks in Freemont, Neb., and will operate with 10 teams next summer. Wagner’s ultimate goal is to have more than 20 teams.
The Brandon franchise is seeking fan suggestions for a nickname through social media and website, and after the ideas are collected, internal meetings will take place and then voting will be held. Fans can go to expeditionleague.com with their ideas now.
Wagner expects the team will be named by Nov. 15.
The team already has commitments from 15 players, and has named a manager. Grant Hamilton, who is the assistant coach at Montana State University will lead the squad. Hamilton served as an assistant coach with Spearfish in the Expedition League last summer.
The team has also hired Rick Hlady to serve as the team’s corporate sales executive.
A big part of the league’s mandate is to appeal beyond a hardcore baseball audience. With everything from face painting and bouncy castles for kids to beer gardens for adults, the in-game experience is key, Wagner said.
His goal is to eventually average 1,000 fans per game for each franchise. In its inaugural season, the league averaged 650 fans per game, and drew 160,000 fans overall.
Western Nebraska, which won the league title, led in attendance with 931 fans per game, and drew more than 1,200 per game in the playoffs.
"What we saw was that the attendance grew over the course of the year as people became familiar with who we are and what we do and the fact that it’s not just baseball, it’s entertainment and all the fun that goes with it. Then we just steadily saw attendance grow."
Wagner said he’s hoping Brandon can average 700 to 800 fans per game next season.
Brandon last had a level of baseball in the city higher than senior AAA from 1995 to 1997 when the minor league Brandon Grey Owls, who became the West Manitoba Wranglers, played in the Prairie League and finished last all three years. After drawing an average of 688 in 1995, attendance steadily declined and the team attracted just 7,119 fans in 35 home games in 1997.
The Brandon Marlins averaged about 50 fans per game last summer.
In an interesting economic twist, the new Brandon team won’t have to worry about earning in Canadian dollars and spending in American greenbacks with the resulting 22-cent premium due to exchange rates.
The home team provides accommodation and pre- and post-game meals for the visitors in every market. The local players billet in the community.
Along with the local spending, Andrews said the new team will help the Andrews Field board to focus its goals.
"This just helps give some new life," Andrews said. "We pass the concession area on to the team and now we’re coming in here and purely looking at keeping the grounds proper for players."
Wagner said in its first year, the league had excellent people working for it, did a terrific job with in-game entertainment and had good food offerings.
"Our job is to put on an entertaining show for people so that when they come to the ballpark, they’re not thinking about other things," Wagner said. "They’re just out there having fun."
Wagner estimates that there are about 40 similar leagues spread across North America, including the 12-team Western Major Baseball League in Saskatchewan and Alberta.
Wagner noted that from a player perspective, all of the coaches are returning and a lot of players are too.
"The feedback we got from collegiate coaches who sent us players has been outstanding," Wagner said. "We took good, good care of these kids … We gave them an experience where they could improve their game and also have some exposure to professional scouts and hopefully up their stock to potentially be drafted."
On the other side of the ledger, he said lines were sometimes too long at concessions and fans couldn’t get into the ballpark quickly enough.
Wagner is happy that Brandon baseball fans will get the benefit of the experience earned last season.
"I love the feel of Brandon and love the city," Wagner said. "I can’t wait to be up here for games this summer. We’re going to have fun here. It’s going to be exciting."
» Twitter: @PerryBergson