by Steve Mims
When the West Coast League was seeking a 16th team, Springfield became the perfect fit.
The Springfield Drifters join the Edmonton Riverhawks as new franchises when the collegiate summer baseball league starts its season next month.
“When we have a chance to add a team in our geographic footprint, we will jump on it if everything works,” said Rob Neyer, the respected baseball journalist who has served as commissioner of the WCL since 2018. “We have to have a combination of location, a solid stadium, and we want a good ownership group. Springfield checked off all the boxes.”
Local business owners Ike Olsson and Kelly Richardson created the Drifters, who start the season at Bellingham on May 31st. Springfield opens the home schedule on June 3 against Cowlitz at the new Hamlin Sports Complex.
“Ike and Kelly are respected around the region on the sports and business side,” Neyer said. “They have great reputations and have built great relationships with multiple people in our league. They were able to get a lovely new ballpark built in time for this season. Everyone is excited about their addition to our league.”
The West Coast League was founded in 2005 and has become one of the top collegiate summer leagues in the nation and certainly the best on the West Coast. There were 33 players on Opening Day major league rosters with experience in the WCL, including Cleveland pitcher Shane Bieber and outfielder Steven Kwan, Mitch Haniger and Marco Gonzales of the Mariners, and first baseman Rhys Hoskins of the Phillies.
“We’ve done various studies on our league in relation to other summer collegiate leagues,” Neyer said. “I am a numbers guy, so I try to be careful and not say things I don’t trust so I don’t say this lightly, but if you combine the various metrics, we are one of the top five or six collegiate summer leagues anywhere. The Cap Cod League has the most talent and has for years, but once you get past that, it is difficult to say who has the most talent among the summer leagues so that is why you look at the metrics. The West Coast League is the top summer collegiate league in the western half of North America. There are a few teams here and there in the west that could compete in our league, but no other league that would compete with ours. There are a lot of fine collegiate players who could not be everyday players in our league or rotation starters because the talent level is too high. We have high-level talent and some tremendous coaching staffs. We have a commitment to technology in our league. It is all about the players and they are not going to find a better environment for development than the West Coast League.”
The Drifters will play a 59-game schedule with 33 games at home. The Corvallis Knights, Portland Pickles, and Bend Elks are among the opponents on the schedule.
‘We have had teams in Bend, Corvallis and Portland for years, so Springfield fits perfect in terms of travel,” Neyer said. “We love our geographic footprint and the nature of our league with 16 teams and probably more some day. We are aware of the travel difficulties and don’t want our players to have too many long road trips, so when we have a chance to add a franchise like Springfield in our footprint, we will jump at it.”
Edmonton is the other new addition to the league this year, joining Kamloops, Kelowna, Nanaimo, and Victoria as Canadian franchises. Due to COVID restrictions, the league cancelled its 2020 season and teams in Canada were unable to play last year, so the WCL bumps up from 10 teams to 16 this season.
“When I was hired, we had two teams in Canada and now we have five so that is a massive change,” Neyer said. “Our geographic footprint is by far the largest in all of summer collegiate baseball and one of the largest in all of pro baseball with the addition of Edmonton. We have four teams starting this year that have never played before because Nanaimo and Kamloops were scheduled to start two years ago before COVID. We have a larger profile all around North America than we have ever had and this should be the most interesting and exciting season since I have been around and maybe since the league has been around.”
by Steve Mims