Photo by: Peter Bailley, 2013
This article was published by the Canadian Baseball Network, December 4, 2016.
By: George Rigakos, Carleton University.
You’ve probably never heard this said before so let me start out by stating it outright: there is university baseball in Canada and it’s pretty darn good baseball. No one could blame you for not knowing. I wasn’t aware that my very own Carleton University had a baseball team until a year ago and I’ve been teaching there for 15 years!
It’s real a shame I missed all that great baseball and it’s a too bad many students and faculty at my own institution and at universities across Canada aren’t aware they have their very own baseball teams.
After learning about the existence of university baseball in Canada, and perhaps in typical professorial fashion, I spent months finding out as much as I could about the state of the game: where teams play, how they are organized and the level of talent and support they have. I called many a university baseball coach, some varsity program coordinators and, of course, scoured the net for as much information as I could.
This is a summary of what I have found. My aim is to help orient Canadian High Schoolers, their parents, college and university students, and just lovers of baseball like me to understand the lay of the land and the possibilities when it comes to university baseball north of the 49th.
University baseball in Canada is divided into three non-affiliated regional groupings. These are: (1) the Canadian Collegiate Baseball Association (CCBA) stretching across Eastern Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, PEI and Nova Scotia; (2) the Ontario University Sport (OUA) grouping of Ontario University baseball teams in southern and western Ontario; and (3) the Canadian Colleges Baseball Conference (CCBC) which covers Alberta and British Columbia.
There are two other notable teams that play in the US-based National Association Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA): the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds and the University of Winnipeg Wesmen which can be treated separately.
The Canadian Collegiate Baseball Association (CCBA) is the largest university baseball association in Canada covering five provinces, two divisions and eleven teams. The CCBA schedule is typically a 16-game regular season running from early September to mid-October but it also offers a rather lengthy playoff schedule culminating in a National Championship in late October. A team that wins the CCBA National Championship may have played up to 28 games.
Schedule: 16 regular season; up to 12 playoffs
List of participating universities (alphabetically):
Saint Mary’s University
St. Francis Xavier University
Université de Montréal
University of New Brunswick
University of Ottawa
Ontario University Athletics (OUA) is the only provincial or regional member of Canadian Intercollegiate Sport (CIS) or “U Sports”, the governing authority for varsity sports across Canada, to recognize baseball. The OUA runs a schedule almost identical to that of the CCBA with a more condensed playoffs ending in an OUA championship mid-October.
Schedule: 16 regular season; up to 6 playoffs
List of participating universities:
University of Toronto
University of Waterloo
The Canadian Colleges Baseball Conference (CCBC) is the smallest and most geographically challenged of the three regional associations. Based in western Canada including teams from British Columbia and Alberta, unlike the CCBA and OUA, the CCBC does not play a Fall schedule, though member teams do play non-conference or exhibition games in September and October.
Instead, the regular CCBC schedule runs from March until June, typical of American college baseball programs. Moreover, some teams in the CCBC play games into August.
There are two other important structural differences to note about the CCBC that further sets them apart from both the CCBA and OUA. First, not all of the member teams are actually made up of university-enrolled players.
For example, the Prairie Baseball Academy Dawgs, who have won five consecutive championships, are affiliated with both the University of Lethbridge and Lethbridge College and are largely set up as a regional springboard, or showcase team, for former High School players to get a crack at a U.S. junior college scholarship.
Few players on the Dawgs roster actually attend the University of Lethbridge. Other members of the CCBC are either college rather than university teams (ie. Okanagan College) or are a type of baseball institute affiliated with a university (Vancouver Island). Most also have large junior and junior varsity programs to facilitate development of high school players and to finance the program including expensive long-haul road-trips over vast distances.
Second, and again unlike the OUA and CCBA, the league is run by the British Columbia Premier Baseball League (BCPBL) which likely makes the CCBC the only university league in North America not administered by a university-based athletic association.
Schedule: 30 regular season; up to 6 playoffs
List of participating universities:
Prairie Baseball Academy
University of Calgary
Vancouver Island Baseball Institute
Thompson Rivers University
University of Alberta (new)
National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. As of 2016, there were two Canadian University teams playing in the NAIA: the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds and the University of Winnipeg Wesmen. The Thunderbirds play in the NAIA West Group’s Cascade Collegiate Conference and the Wesmen play in the North Star Conference.
NAIA conference games begin in March and culminate in the NAIA World Series in Lewiston Idaho in early June. Including pre-season and other Fall exhibition matches, both UBC and Winnipeg play about 40-50 games each year. The UBC Thunderbirds receive significantly more institutional support, have unrivaled training and infrastructure, and are far more competitive, winning the NAIA West conference in 2016.
UBC has also been a training ground for a number of Major League Baseball draft picks including retired starter Jeff Francis. In 2016 alone, three players were drafted by MLB clubs from UBC and a fourth received a free agent contract.
Unlike UBC, which is a full institutional member of the NAIA, the Wesmen are a single-sport entry and have struggled to compete. Their membership exceptionalism was recently reviewed by the NAIA and they were given an extension. It is not clear how long their single-sport status will be maintained.
In order to remain financially viable the Wesmen levy player fees in order to cover costs (quite common in Canadian university baseball). In the end, they posted a 3-20 record for last place in their ten-team conference in 2016.
2. Level of competition
Aside from the remarkably well-financed UBC Thunderbirds which are clear stand-outs, there is very little to distinguish rival university baseball programs across Canada. A number of university teams have demonstrated streaks of excellence over the years in their respective groupings including the Brock Badgers in the early nineties, the University of Toronto Blues in the eighties, and Western University and McGill University more recently to name just a few.
Yet, just looking at game results demonstrates how evenly matched many of these teams really are. In 2016, the McGill Redmen won their third consecutive CCBA championship, yet they did so on a walk-off home run against a host Université de Montréal team that finished well below .500 (5-11) in a tightly contested game. While McGill (15-1) seemed dominant during the regular season, their only loss came against the last-place University of Ottawa Gee Gees who were 3-13.
Throughout the OUA, as well, lop-sided blow-outs are quickly followed up with one-run games. As in all baseball, so much depends on pitching and the biggest difference seems to come down to depth. Most teams have at least two good starters. Those without tend to struggle.
Many folks I talk to about university baseball seem to want to know: “How do the Canadian teams stack up against US teams?” It all depends. Judging from the results of non-conference games and the sporadic history of CCBA teams travelling to the US for exhibition games it seems that the better Canadian teams would be fairly competitive against most NAIA, NCAA III and some NCAA II teams but not against NCAA I teams.
This is not surprising given that the vast majority of US university teams wouldn’t be competitive against fully-funded, high scholarship NCAA I teams either. Weaker CCBA and OUA teams with consistent losing records would not fare well at all.
It is also worth noting that quite a few Canadian university clubs feature foreign-born players. Some of these players have played professional baseball and regained their amateur status, have exhausted their NCAA eligibility, or have registered at a Canadian university for graduate studies.
At my our own Carleton University, our shortstop was born in the Dominican Republic, our ace rookie starter was from New Hampshire, our left-fielder is Korean-born, and our top hitter was a Canadian kid who played junior college baseball in Texas. This is not rare in the CCBA where a wide range of returning and experienced players take the opportunity to extend their student-athlete baseball experience.
3. Varsity status
The best way to understand Canadian university baseball is as a varsity sport without full varsity status.
University baseball “club” status describes teams that play below that of the varsity and junior varsity team at any given US college or university.
Indeed, there is an entire national organization of club baseball teams in the United States, the National Club Baseball Association (NCBA) with over 300 members from coast to coast representing all three NCAA Divisions and the NAIA.
They are largely self-financed through student levies and, if you’re a baseball romantic and university educator like I am, they are perhaps the best representation of collegial sport and the purest student-athlete experience available.
These are university students playing purely for the love of the game even after they’re told they’re not quite good enough to represent their university on the varsity squad.
This is not what we have in Canada. Canadian teams are the sole baseball representatives at their given institutions. They hold competitive try-outs. At Carleton University over 50% of students trying out for the team were cut in the first week.
But there is one Canadian team that plays in the NCBA that we haven’t mentioned yet: The University of Windsor Lancers. The Lancers are technically a campus “recreation club”, like every other university baseball club in Canada. Yet, as in all cases north of the border, they are also the only team on campus.
Not surprisingly, and as further evidence of the difference between American club teams and Canadian programs, in 2016 Windsor was 14-3 and went on to win the NCBA District 5 East Championship.
Smaller universities with fewer registered students in Canada will likely have different experiences but it does not change the fact that they are, in the end, the best available baseball players at their given institution.
4. The Future of Canadian university baseball
Without a doubt, therefore, the most significant pressure affecting Canadian university baseball teams (with the exception of UBC) is adequate financing. Few teams have varsity standing in their respective universities. University baseball teams raise their own funds and receive some support as competitive sports teams, clubs, or non-varsity teams but this is rarely enough for the team to operate. Coaches rent vans for out of town games because they cannot afford buses. Uniforms are re-used and seasons are kept short.
This is largely a function of the relatively late arrival of organized baseball to the Canadian university system in the 1990s under the now defunct Canadian Intercollegiate Baseball Association (CIBA) that housed a mish-mash of university and college teams.
Today, U Sports (the former CIS) functions to organize the regional and provincial university athletics associations (ie. the AUS, RSEQ, OUA and Canada West) for the purpose of facilitating a national championship, setting recruiting and establishing scholarship regulations. Only Tier 1 Sports such as hockey, basketball, and football among others get this kind of attention.
In the only U Sports region that recognizes baseball, the OUA, baseball is considered a Tier 3 sport. The OUA cannot offer a national championship because it has no mandate to do so as a provincial body.
In fact, in the OUA, baseball has received support above that normally ascribed to other Tier 3 status sports including scheduling and statistics. OUA baseball, therefore, is under constant pressure to manage its own affairs.
The issues of varsity standing, the facilitation of a national championship, and adequate financial support for university baseball in Canada are thus interdependent. There can be no U Sports national championship for baseball because it is a not a varsity sport.
And since U Sports does not provide a national championship, baseball is typically ascribed club status by member Canadian universities. It’s a catch-22 that is difficult to change.
Yet, there is a path. Here’s would it would take to make baseball a Canada-wide Tier 1 sport recognized by U Sports. Needless to say, it would require a coordinated effort. To start, the CCBA would need to disaggregate and its two divisions would have to join provincial U Sports bodies. The Northern division would move to the RSEQ and start a university baseball conference there and the Atlantic teams would join the AUS and do the same.
The CCBA would stay on to fulfill its core mandate which is to hold a Canadian University World Series but now it would do so in conjunction with the OUA, and the new RSEQ and AUS conferences. Perhaps the CCBA could also act as a catalyst for an expanded schedule and regional inter-conference tournaments?
Canadian university baseball could then have its cake and eat it too by lobbying from within U Sports for baseball’s rightful place while also enjoying the benefits of a World Series not offered to other Tier 3 sports.
The inclusion of the CCBC, however, would remain a tricky proposition and so the CCBA would have to make a decision about the eligibility of specific programs on a case-by-case basis. There is a chance that the potential for certain Western teams’ inclusion in a World Series could spur reform where needed. Hopefully, a Canada West baseball conference within U Sports would emerge.
In the end, in order for Canadian university baseball to move forward and offer the same type of student-athlete experience found in the US it must benefit from expanded funding, a longer league schedule of 40-50 games, and, of course hold a bona fide Canadian University World Series.
At this time no organization other than the CCBA seems able to act as a catalyst for this change. Baseball leaders across Canada would do well to give the CCBA all the help it needs.
To be sure, there is work to be done but as the tired baseball adage goes “if you build it, they will come.”
In the meantime, you can find me at the local ball diamond taking in another university baseball game. There’s not much more relaxing on a crisp Fall afternoon.