June 22nd, 2024

The Bulls are back


By Dale Woodard on June 12, 2021.

A funny thing happened Friday morning at Spitz Stadium.

Some baseball.

In any other year, that wouldn’t be too far-fetched in mid-June, but after a COVID-ravaged past year that ejected the entire 2020 Western Canadian Baseball League season, the Lethbridge Bulls were back at the plate and on the base paths for the opening day of training camp.

With the Bulls 2021 WCBL home opener just around the corner this Friday when the Okotoks Dawgs come to town, it looks like the Boys of Summer will actually get a summer at the ball yard with provincial COVID restrictions continuing to lighten and Alberta’s Open For Summer initiative heading into Stage 2 as of Thursday.

It’s been a while, to say the least.

“Gordo (Bulls trainer Gord Watt) said it’s been 20 months since he’s been out on the field,” said Bulls pitcher Kyle Poapst, one of 13 pitchers on the roster this year. “It’s been really nice to see everybody back out. Things are back to normal.”

In a season that will feature all-Canadian lineups due to border issues with the pandemic, Lethbridge product Chance Wheatley will take the coaching reins this year, working alongside fellow local coach Luc Hebert.

“It’s awesome to have everybody back,” said Wheatley. “Once you’re away from it, you miss it, but you don’t realize how much you miss it until you’re back.”

Still, the opening day of training camp was kept pretty simple.

“It wasn’t anything too crazy,” said Wheatley. “They just ran through some ground balls and had batting practice. We’ve had some guys out in smaller groups lately, so we’ve been throwing quite a bit with those guys. (Friday) was more about just getting together as a whole group and getting things going.

“There was lots of energy out there. Even the small things like warmup, the guys were just bouncing around. Everybody was kind of vibrating, lots of energy. It was really good.”

Originally hailing from Stettler, but a product of the Prairie Baseball Academy, Poapst was able to settle back into the familiar surroundings at Spitz Stadium.

“It was very comfortable,” he said. “We have a lot of guys who have played around Lethbridge growing up or Vauxhall. I think being all Canadian, everybody knows someone who knows someone. It feels really comfortable as a team so far.”

The all-Canadian roster will mean a team full of local talent for fans making their way to the ball park this summer with seven Lethbridge players on the roster. Another two are from Coaldale and another is from Cardston.

“We’re very lucky in Lethbridge to have a very good talent pool and in the surrounding areas with Vauxhall Academy and the Prairie Baseball Academy,” said Wheatley. “A lot of guys are current players in those programs or alumni.”

Vauxhall Academy will the opponent this weekend as the Bulls play host to a pair of exhibition games, today at 2 p.m. and Sunday at noon at Spitz Stadium.

The games are only open to fans invited by the players.

“Lots of our players haven’t played in two years,” said Wheatley.

“A lot of players are going to make mistakes, it is what it is. It’ll be great to see the live speed. I think that’s the biggest thing the guys have been missing. Everyone has taken live at-bats against their pitchers at school in a practice situation. But when you’re in a game everything speeds up a little bit more. That will be the biggest challenge.”

With two new catchers on the roster, Poapst said working with the new additions will be the main order of business for the pitchers.

“Working with the catchers is a big thing, sequencing-wise,” he said. “I think that’s what a lot of guys are going to be working on this weekend. It’s nice to give Vauxhall some games, too. I feel bad for some of the Grade 12 kids having their last year taken away. It’s nice to have that relationship with the academy there. It’s going to be nice to get our feet wet before the season starts.”

This weekend’s exhibition games are invite-only, but that won’t be the case Friday when the Dawgs come calling. Between 400 and 500 fans are expected to be allowed to attend.

And if the Open For Summer initiative stays on track, a Canada Day double header versus the Edmonton Prospects could have a capacity crowd of 2,300.

“Even with four or five hundred fans, that’s going to make such a huge difference,” said Wheatley.

“It’ll bring that atmosphere that guys have been craving for two years now. Everyone is definitely looking forward to it. We were prepared to possibly play with little or no fans and just to be able to get the fans here is a huge boost.”

“Everybody is excited, I think it’s going to be electric on opening day,” added Poapst. “Maybe even people who weren’t huge baseball fans might be coming out, just something to do in the summer and a good vibe for everybody. We can’t wait to have people back in the stands.”

The Bulls continued to make roster additions over the past week.

On Friday the club announced hometown right-handed pitcher Kyle Bloor had been added to the roster, while on Wednesday the Bulls signed fellow right-hander Jake Anderson from Calgary.

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