CORVALLIS, Ore. – Playing on the Cape is still the goal for most collegiate players during their summer break.
Pro scouts flock to the league to look at prospects, but there’s a sense on the Left Coast that a summer in the West Coast League can prove a player’s ability to perform at the next level as well.
“For someone who wants to see if they can handle the day-in, day-out grind of Single-A play – the long bus rides – this is the league to do it in,” WCL commissioner Dennis Koho said. “We mirror the Northwest League wonderfully. We have the same sort of bus rides, stay in the same sort of motels, we’re in cities that the Northwest League used to be in in many cases. If there’s any question in your mind if a player can handle the stresses, this is the league to put them in and find out.”
The Cape Cod League played 44 games this summer and allowed ties. In the West Coast League, which began play in 2005, there were no ties and teams played 54 games before the playoffs.
“Our schedule mix is good,” said Corvallis Knights manager Brooke Knight. “We don’t have so much that guys arms wear down, but we also play more than (the Cape) does. We have some great venues and places. The Cape doesn’t play as much as we do – that 48 to 54 games, it gives you enough games to get everyone on the roster playing time to improve. You play a real schedule.”
Knight’s team won the WCL for the third time since 2008. Corvallis – which has sponsorship from Nike co-founder Phil Knight’s wife Penny – is an annual contender with players asking to return to the roster. The Knights play in Goss Stadium, home of the Oregon State Beavers, while other teams around the league play in similarly revered stadiums around the Northwest.
The WCL added two teams in 2013 – Victoria, British Columbia, and Medford, Ore. – and will bring in another in 2014.
Expansion has been good – very good – for the WCL.
Victoria hosted the all-star game and drew a league record 4,210 for the event. The new-born franchise finished second in the WCL behind Bend for season attendance, drawing more than 1,400 per game. Medford won a tie-breaker with Bend to finish second in the South Division and reach the playoffs in the Rogues’ first season.
“This is not a league, of course, where you have players that have been together for five years. It’s just not that sort of league,” Koho said. “You have what happened in Medford – most of the front office and management came over from another franchise and they were able to start up right away. Then they had to attract good players and they were able to do that. They put on a good show down there and it shows.”
Every season has been about putting on a good show, throughout the WCL. Longevity in the front office and coaching staffs at a handful of “foundation” franchises has helped the league’s profile grow.
Wenatchee (5) and Corvallis (3) have won more WCL titles than the rest of the league combined.
“They have coaches that have returned and keep returning,” Koho said. “They’ve had some good coaching in Bend, too.”
Ed Knaggs has been the coach at Wenatchee dating back to its membership in the old Pacific International League. Brooke Knight has been managing the Knights since 2008. Bend has former Major League left-hander Alan Embree on its staff as the pitching coach.
Seven of the 11 teams in 2013 had .500 or better records and Corvallis was ranked No. 3 in the country by Perfect Game after winning the WCL title in a two-game sweep of Wenatchee. The teams ranked ahead of Corvallis? Brazos Valley of the Texas Collegiate League and Cape champion Cotuit.
“The Cape obviously has been around for many years, it’s still perceived as the premier league to send players to as far as talent and from a professional standpoint, pro organizations tend to focus on the cape during the summer, based on talent,” Knight said. “But I think it’s a little bit of a different business model.
“You can pull up your chair there as a fan, which is kind of neat, but the expectations are a little different there as opposed to the West Coast League. The guys are expected to run some clinics there (during the day), which from a communal standpoint is outstanding. We also do a little bit of that, but we also want our guys to be able to relax, focus on strength and conditioning, focus on baseball and get a little work in to develop their craft instead of have a lot of daytime commitments.”
Koho wants to see the WCL continue to grow its profile – drawing the best players possible – while also shortening its schedule. Some players had returned to school by the time the playoffs arrived, and Koho believes compacting the schedule by a week would allow teams to finish their seasons with their top roster in action.
Knight believes the best of the WCL can certainly compete with any other summer collegiate team in the nation, so why not the entire league?
“I’m going to be a little bit biased here, but our 2008 team could compete with any team in summer collegiate,” Knight said. “I think our ’09 team, even though we didn’t get it done at the very end, could. If you look at those pitching staffs, nearly every starting arm is or has played professional baseball. Our ERA in ’09 was 2.22. That team could match up. I’d take nearly any club we’ve had and jam them into any collegiate division in the country.”
But for the league to really become the Cape of the West – even with travel spanning two states and a Canadian province – the WCL needs to do one thing: stick around.
“There are two or three things we need to do,” Koho said. “No. 1 is longevity. We need to continue to be here and put on a good show for the fans and provide good playing opportunities for the players.
“One of the things that we need to address is facilities in some areas. There’s nothing that’s unusable, but there’s some that are better than others. When we can provide better facilities, players like and love to play there.”