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HALL OF FAME

HALL OF FAME

Learn about the greats within the Lethbridge Bulls Baseball Club.

Original Bulls Jersey, 1999

Posted on February 29, 2024 by albertadugoutstories

By IAN WILSON

It was a bullish move that transformed the baseball scene in Western Canada.

The creation of a Saskatchewan Major Baseball League (SMBL) franchise in Lethbridge was initially intended to fill the void left by the departure of professional baseball.

Decades later, the legacy of that team can be seen at ballparks across Alberta and throughout the Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL).

They were humble beginnings that came about when the Lethbridge Black Diamonds – a Pioneer League squad that served as the rookie-level affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks from 1996 through 1998 – bolted for Missoula, Montana.

“In November of 1998 they backed a trailer into the back of then Henderson Stadium and loaded it up in the dark of the night and took off to what they thought was greener pastures in Montana and left the city with a big hole to fill at what is now Spitz Stadium,” recalled Kevin Kvame, who initially worked as an advisor to the Lethbridge Bulls.

Lethbridge city officials pondered what to do with the ballpark and what type of baseball could occupy the facility when the winter snow gave way to summer’s green grass.

Doug Jones – the president of Baseball Alberta in the early 1990s and the founder of Prairie Baseball Academy (PBA) – was enlisted for advice.

“Doug, being the visionary that he has been, thought that the best opportunity was the Saskatchewan Major Baseball League,” said Kvame.

The SMBL at that point was just a four-team circuit that included teams in Swift Current, Moose Jaw, Melville and Weyburn. Alberta had entered clubs in the league before, including the Oyen Pronghorns and Coaldale Gophers. The Pronghorns even won a championship in 1995, but the Alberta teams didn’t take.

SASKATCHEWAN SALVATION

Jones invited Kvame on a winter road trip to Saskatchewan, where the pair asked for an expansion franchise for Lethbridge.

“In front of five or six people, the Bulls became a reality,” said Kvame.

That portion of bringing the Bulls to life was relatively easy, but the hard work of fielding a team and attracting fans was just getting started.

In a February 1999 Lethbridge Herald article, Jones emphasized that the Bulls were set to become a fixture in the Windy City.

“We have given a five-year commitment to the (SMBL),” said Jones, who was the team president.

 

“Even if there is a return of pro ball, we will still be here. Maybe not at Henderson, we may move to Lloyd Nolan Yard if we have to. That is something we’ve talked about.”

Jones also told Herald reporter Cameron Yoos that further SMBL expansion, including more Alberta teams, was likely on the horizon.

“The league was down to four teams a year ago, and this year we will have six,” he said.

“Saskatoon and Regina have also shown interest and Medicine Hat has interest, but we just haven’t found the right person to head it up.”

More immediately, a 24-game regular season schedule that included 12 home dates and 12 road games was rapidly approaching. The franchise still had to unveil a team name, put in place a head coach and assemble a roster for the summer.

Their name included a twist. Instead of just incorporating the city directly into the moniker, officials chose to go with a handle of “L.A. Bulls” – the L.A. stood for Lethbridge, Alberta.

“The idea was to give it something unique and to try to stand out and try to draw attention,” Kvame explained to Alberta Dugout Stories.

“It’s a spinoff of the L.A. Dodgers, of course, and pays reverence to the fact that the Dodgers had a farm club in Lethbridge, so I think between those two things it was a fit there at the start, but ultimately I think it was more confusing than it was worth, which is why after two years of that we decided we’re from Lethbridge and we’re going to promote the Lethbridge brand with the Lethbridge Bulls.”

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Original L.A. Bulls Logo

Todd Hubka, who had played for the Oyen Pronghorns, was installed as the team’s first head coach and his roster was filled with local talent from the Prairie Baseball Academy (PBA). The list of 17 players on the squad, which was printed in the Lethbridge Herald ahead of opening day, included 15 PBA pupils.

Kvame said the ties between the PBA and the Bulls were crucial to the SMBL team’s success and survival over the years.

“I don’t think the Bulls have ever gone far from their roots. Prairie Baseball Academy has been a huge partner in the city and in baseball since the inception. I don’t think the Bulls would exist if it wasn’t for Prairie Baseball Academy,” he said.

At that point, players in the league did not have to be college students, but the Bulls leaned into that demographic.

“It was an idea to keep some of those players around and give those college athletes a competitive experience in the summer season,” said Kvame.

Hubka said the unknowns of the inaugural year created a unique learning experience for players, coaches, team officials and baseball fans.

“Those early years it was trying to figure out if you could actually have a team in Lethbridge and keep competing and be able to run one financially. The ownership group did a really good job and the Lethbridge Bulls are very successful now,” said Hubka.

“Looking back on it, it was a learning curve for sure for the Lethbridge community and us as coaches, too … it’s changed a lot, I remember back then we didn’t go and charter buses. I drove one van and the assistant coach drove the other van and you’re trekking across Lethbridge, heading east to Swift Current, Moose Jaw and Saskatoon.”

OUT OF THE CHUTE

Following exhibition matchups against teams from Medicine Hat and Red Deer in early June, the Bulls prepared for their SMBL debut, which saw them hit the road for their first action.

Weekend rainouts in Swift Current and Melville pushed back their season opener to Sunday, June 13th in Weyburn. The Bulls received shutout pitching from Chad Blackwell and Fort Saskatchewan’s Brett Kondro, as well as three runs and three stolen bases from Colin Rudko during the 5-0 victory.

Blackwell – a native of Fort Lauderdale, Florida – would go on to pitch for the NCAA Division 1 Iowa Hawkeyes before the Kansas City Royals made him a sixth-round draft pick in 2004. He made it as high as Double-A as a reliever and also pitched for the indy league Edmonton Capitals in 2010 and 2011.

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Inaugural roster for the 1999 LA Bulls of the Saskatchewan Major Baseball League (SMBL)

The first home date in Lethbridge Bulls history was slated for Wednesday, June 16th against Swift Current, a club that had collected seven SMBL titles in the 1990s. Hubka couldn’t wait to show off his team.

“I’m really looking forward to this year,” Hubka told Herald sports editor Randy Jensen.

“We’ve got a good bunch of kids, we’ve got good pitching and good hitting … we can run with anybody and we can definitely pitch. We’ve got great pitching depth. We should be pretty strong. We’re just getting going, but if there’s a better pitching staff in this league I’d be surprised.”

That pitching depth included Slave Lake, Alberta product Les McTavish, another PBA graduate who worked out of the bullpen for Washington State University.

McTavish was named the starting pitcher for the home opener at Henderson Stadium and he didn’t disappoint, giving up just six hits over 7.1 innings. The righty moundsman only allowed one ball to reach the outfield and that didn’t happen until the eighth inning. Centre fielder Denny Puszkar scored all three runs for the Bulls, who won 3-2 in front of a crowd of 617 fans.

With that, the Bulls were off and running. Stocked with a starting pitching rotation full of Division 1 arms, the team was instantly competitive. By Canada Day, when they welcomed the Kelowna Grizzlies senior men’s team for an exhibition tilt, the Bulls had a record of 7-4.

Despite the on-field success, challenges remained when it came to attracting fan interest.

 

“There was no concessions really at the stadium, it was antiquated at best. There was a little shack at the stadium,” remembered Kvame, who held the title of vice-president of operations that first season.

“Attendance was weak, at best, bleeding red ink for the team. The stadium was certainly not to the standard it is now. We had a lot of work to do to make it grow.”

Credibility on the diamond, however, was not an issue.

The Bulls finished the regular season with a 16-8 record and finished tied for top spot in the SMBL with the Moose Jaw Miller Express.

PLAYOFF PUSH

Matt O’Brien, who pitched with McTavish at Washington State, took the mound for the Bulls in their postseason opener, a 3-2 loss to Swift Current. The Seattle native went the distance, allowing seven hits and striking out five batters. The southpaw was drafted by the Oakland Athletics the following year and pitched at the Triple-A level in the Pacific Coast League (PCL) in the early 2000s.

St. Albert pitcher Zach Murray, another lefty who played pro, helped the Bulls bounce back with a Game 2 win in front of 500 fans at Henderson Stadium and then Blackwell guided the Lethbridge club to an 8-4 win in the third game.

During the best-of-five series, the Bulls were also presented with several SMBL awards. Blackwell, who went 5-2 with a 2.58 earned run average (ERA), was named the circuit’s top pitcher, while he, Hubka and catcher Jon Boruch were named first-team all-stars. Boruch also claimed top rookie honours. Kondro, Puszkar and outfielder Bryce Coppieters were selected as second-team all-stars.

Swift Current responded with a 6-5 win to force a winner-take-all Game 5 matchup, which saw Hubka pull out all the stops to earn a 5-3 victory and advance to the SMBL championship final. The Bulls used three of their best starters – including Blackwell, O’Brien and Murray – to prevail in the final game of the series.

“I wish I didn’t have to do what I did, but our season was on the line,” Hubka said of the pitching deployment.

A date with Moose Jaw followed, pitting the top two regular-season squads against each other in a battle for league supremacy.

McTavish, who had also been working as a pitching coach with the Lethbridge Elks that summer, got the nod for the first game and pitched eight frames in an 11-9 win at Henderson Stadium.

“I’ve been concentrating on my duties as a coach,” McTavish told the Herald after the high-scoring victory.

“It can be tough to get back into the player mode. I didn’t have my best game, but I never felt totally out of it.”

McTavish allowed 11 hits and seven walks, but he also stranded 11 Moose Jaw base runners.

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25th anniversary logo for the Lethbridge Bulls franchise.

It was another back-and-forth playoff series that ultimately went the distance and forced the Bulls to empty the tank in the fifth and deciding game in Moose Jaw.

Hubka had to go from calling the shots in the dugout to taking the mound for the Bulls.

“I couldn’t sleep last night, trying to think of all my options,” confessed Hubka to reporters.

“I was hoping it would never come down to that – we just had no arms left. I think 10 games in the playoffs, that really hurt us. We went the distance with Swift Current in the semifinal, while Moose Jaw won three quick in their series. You could see they were a lot fresher in the final. They deserved to win, but I’m proud of my guys. In our first year, we proved we can contend.”

For his part, Hubka went the distance in the 5-2 loss.

McTAVISH MILESTONE

After making the first home start in franchise history in 1999, McTavish returned to Henderson Stadium the following summer and etched his name in the team record books yet again.

On June 17, 2000, McTavish tossed a seven-inning no-hitter against the Miller Express, resulting in a 3-0 victory for the Bulls.

“It was my only no-hitter at that type of level. It was neat to have that experience, to be able to throw a no-hitter at home,” said McTavish, who has been the head coach and director of baseball operations at the Vauxhall Academy of Baseball since 2006.

McTavish told the Herald at the time that he had not even witnessed a no-hitter in person prior to his big night.

“I first realized it in the fourth inning but you can’t start thinking about that when you’re out on the mound or you’re in trouble,” he told reporter Trevor Kenney.

“I was nervous when the seventh came around though. I walked the first guy and then I thought, oh no, the negative thoughts started creeping in. But we turned a great double play that Kurtis Paskal started and I got the next guy to 1-2 and he hit a ground ball and it was over.”

Lethbridge baseball fans had to wait until 2023 for the next no-no from a Bulls pitcher. Javier De Alejandro achieved that feat during a 7-0 win over the Brooks Bombers at Spitz Stadium. The 22-year-old threw 105 pitches during that nine-inning performance.

McTavish’s sons – Brennan and Shaye – were both members of that Lethbridge roster.

“I made sure this past summer when Javier threw the no-hitter for the Bulls and my two boys … I reminded them, ‘Hey, that’s the second no-hitter for the Bulls.’ It’s a great memory,” laughed McTavish.

CHANGING LANDSCAPE

As the Bulls entrenched themselves as a mainstay in the SMBL, Jones and Kvame sought to broaden the horizons of the league.

“We found that the Saskatchewan Major Baseball League wasn’t a big drawing card in Lethbridge. We needed a rebrand and basically told the league after the third season in 2001 that you either need to change the name of this league or we can’t be in it, because there’s no connectivity between a Saskatchewan League and Lethbridge, Alberta, so that’s when the name changed to the Western Major Baseball League,” noted Kvame.

“It didn’t take long to realize that we wouldn’t survive without our rivals like Medicine Hat or Red Deer or those type of communities.”

The creation of the WMBL resulted in expansion, but Saskatchewan led the charge. After playing as a four-team circuit that included Lethbridge, Moose Jaw, Swift Current and Melville in 2001, the league doubled and added the Regina Maaco Maroons, Weyburn Beavers, Saskatoon Yellow Jackets and Yorkton Cardinals for the 2002 campaign.

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A Western Major Baseball League (WMBL) logo adorns the back of a Medicine Hat Mavericks ball cap at Athletic Park … photo by Ian Wilson

“We changed (the name) to attract more teams from Alberta,” said Jones, the newly minted WMBL president, in the May 29, 2002 edition of the Regina Leader-Post newspaper.

“Saskatchewan kind of limited it. With Western, it doesn’t matter whether you’re part of Saskatchewan or Alberta.”

The shift was seismic, swinging the door open to the Calgary Dawgs and Medicine Hat Mavericks in 2003, a summer that was monumental for both the Bulls and the WMBL.

GROWING THE GAME

In Lethbridge, the Bulls stepped up their efforts by adding new promotions, introducing a mascot named T-Bone, offering a fan bus for trips to Calgary’s Burns Stadium and hosting the WMBL All-Star Game & Home Run Derby.

A local radio station, Spirit FM 97.1, also committed to carry play-by-play broadcasts of all 32 regular-season home and away games for the team.

“It is very important for us to get that exposure in the community and to let people know that they can listen to Bulls’ games on the radio,” said Kvame at a Henderson Stadium press conference in May of 2003.

“It’s also huge for our exposure within the league market. We feel we’re the team that sets the pace in this league and we want to continue to do that.”

Kvame, the general manager of the Bulls, also reflected on the state of the league and its future.

“A four-team league with Lethbridge as the only Alberta team is not a credible entity,” he said in a Herald article.

“It doesn’t attract attention from the media, it doesn’t attract attention from the fans and it doesn’t attract attention from the kids in the community to strive for. You start to talk about a nine-team league, soon to be ten, you are then to the viability stage and you’ve got a product you can promote.”

The Bulls were looking to improve how they promoted their brand of baseball, as well.

“You noticed in the past years we put the baseball games on and the games have been good. We’ve seen some good talent on the field and some exciting games but the atmosphere in the crowd wasn’t at the level of the Black Diamonds. We didn’t put on many promotions because that required extra staff and so forth. We stayed away from that until we saw some viability and now we see it,” he said.

“The Bulls are here, the Bulls are going to stay and we’re going to continue to drive this league to be the best summer college league in Canada and one of the best in North America.”

McTavish, who was now coaching the Bulls, was encouraged by the developments in Lethbridge and around the league.

“I think it’s going in the right direction,” he told the Herald.

“We’re trying to make it the best summer college baseball league in the country and compete with some of the bigger ones in the United States and it seems to be working. Lethbridge people want to see that and hopefully we can provide a good product.”

The Lethbridge Bulls were also garnering positive reviews from some of their competitors.

Harv Martinez, Swift Current’s head coach from 1987 through 2007, credited the Bulls with rescuing the league from potential extinction.

“When you only play four other teams, the variety and the marketability, it was a tough sell. Playing 28 games against only four teams, it gets monotonous,” Martinez told columnist Cameron Yoos in June of 2003.

“They kind of saved the day – they came in at the right time, did a lot of things right, and they gave some credibility back to the league. You have to give credit to Doug Jones and Kevin Kvame for having some courage and vision to make the move west. Any change is going to be treated with some reluctance, but in this case it was about survival.”

Martinez described a night-and-day difference regarding the calibre of play in the SMBL and the quality of athletes in the WMBL.

“When I first got here, this was a league to give guys something to do between hockey seasons. A lot of guys who played in the WHL (Western Hockey League) played in our league just to stay in shape,” noted Martinez.

“What has happened is that each year, the league tried to do little things to increase the marketability for the players and the fans, and the first thing was a focus on the college player, guys who want to hone their skills, get better, maybe have aspirations of pro ball.”

GRABBING THE BULL BY THE HORN

The WMBL continued to prosper, as did the Lethbridge Bulls.

Team alumni were drafted by MLB teams and individual honours were claimed by a number of hitters and pitchers over the years.

Jesse Sawyer (2011), Ridge Gonsoulin (2012), Brandon Bufton (2015) and Kaleb Warden (2019) won WMBL regular-season most valuable player (MVP) nods, while Dylan Dyson (2015) and Bryce Oriold-Fraser (2021) took home playoff MVP awards.

Warden, who set a league record for RBI in a season with 66 in 2019, also picked up the 2018 Rookie of the Year award.

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Kaleb Warden (left) gets an at bat at the 2019 WCBL All-Star Game in Edmonton. Warden was the league’s 2018 Rookie of the Year and the 2019 regular-season MVP. He holds the WCBL record for RBI in a season with 66 … photo by Ian Wilson

Meanwhile, Mike Moffatt was selected as the Canadian Rookie of the Year in 2016.

The Bulls had to wait a while to claim their first WMBL championship, but they achieved that goal in 2015.

After going 34-14 and finishing first overall in the regular season that year under head coach Ryan McDonald and assistant coach Jesse Sawyer, the Bulls went undefeated in the playoffs with a perfect 9-0 record. Lethbridge swept three straight best-of-five series with triumphs over Swift Current, Medicine Hat and Regina.

The Bulls had appeared in league finals three times previously: 1999, 2001 and 2007.

In 2018, the Bulls were able to make their home field, Spitz Stadium, more comfortable with $2.3 million in renovations. The upgrades included the addition of an upper concourse behind the grandstand; a new entrance and ticket office; and additional washrooms and concessions areas.

The WMBL underwent its own facelift in 2019, rebranding with a new logo and a different name: the Western Canadian Baseball League (WCBL).

Lethbridge returned to the championship final in 2021, a season that saw the league limited to five Alberta teams due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and won another title that year.

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Kvame, who is now the president of the WCBL, looks back after a quarter century of Bulls baseball with amazement.

“The changes over the 25 years are tremendous, however, I don’t think we’ve reached our peak,” said Kvame.

“We have a stadium that we’re very, very proud of and it continues to be one of the premier fields in the league … we feel like we’re more and more part of the community and want to showcase the team to more and more fans in the years to come.”

Hubka also marvels at the evolution of the Bulls and the WCBL.

“It was the right move that the ownership from the Lethbridge Bulls made to join that league and look what it’s become now, the powerhouse teams are the Alberta teams,” said the PBA coach.

“How much it’s changed, it’s grown so much and the fan bases of the communities have grown so much.”

It’s no bull to say the league wouldn’t be the same without Lethbridge.

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