THUNDER BAY – If all goes according to plan, the 2019 campaign will have been a building year both on and off the field for the Thunder Bay Border Cats.
While the Northwoods League club’s win-loss record during the first season with a new all local ownership group left much to be desired, the organization is firmly looking ahead to 2020 without any doubt about whether the team will return next summer.
“We have a good building block after this year to continue forward,” chief executive officer and general manager Tony DiPaolo said.
“This year was a rush to get things in order to get into operations. We feel that we’re ahead of the game already for next year.”
A 16-9 Sunday afternoon defeat against the playoff-bound St. Cloud Rox at Port Arthur Stadium closed the book on a 24-47 slate that left the Border Cats with the second-worst overall mark in the league.
The new local ownership group, a 21-member consortium, announced late last December that they had formally taken control of the franchise after the previous owners backed away, guaranteeing the continuation of summer baseball in the Lakehead.
Officially hired days later, manager Eric Vasquez found himself down a strike trying to catch up not only with fellow Northwoods League squads but competing with other summer collegiate circuits in trying to add talent to the lineup.
“Even though the numbers and the averages don’t represent it, we had them out every day working it and getting them ready for the fall,” Vasquez said. “We’re sending them back (to their schools) better people, better humans and better players.”
Slow starts out of the gates in both the first and second halves entrenched the Border Cats in the cellar, far out of contention to end a postseason drought that now dates back more than a decade to the franchise’s championship winning campaign in 2008.
Despite the overall record, there were some bright spots. Pitcher Joe Moran, a right-hander from unheralded NCAA Division III Anderson University, represented the team at both the league All-Star Game and the Major League Dreams Showcase and slugger Jake Engel crushed five dingers to win the home run derby. Engel hit six long balls over the course of his 39 contests, including a pair in his final home game on July 12.
Given the whirlwind nature of summer collegiate leagues with players seemingly always coming and going, Thunder Bay had only two players who were on the active roster on both opening day and the season finale in outfielder Jakob Newton and pitcher Alex Dafoe.
Newton, from Oakville, Ont., was originally signed to a temporary contract but proved his value and earned his keep for the whole 72-game campaign with a .292 batting average, hitting three homers and driving in 23 runs.
“Mentally it challenges you every single day and you’re facing the best talent in the country in one of the best leagues,” Newton said. “Having that experience, it definitely prepares you for the next level.”
DiPaolo said the front office intends to bring Vasquez back next year, adding the veteran skipper has a three-year plan for the team.
Vasquez, who wouldn’t confirm that he will return but coyly noted that his passport is updated and ready to go, said he has already been in contact with NCAA programs like Creighton, Long Beach State and Saint Mary’s.
“We’ve already talked to coaches beforehand because they’ve known this is a new development. They’re hearing good things,” Vasquez said. “It’s just staying ahead of the game a little bit quicker this time around.”
Though the team had the lowest average attendance in the league, the 837 fans per game at Port Arthur Stadium was the organization’s highest turnout since 2012. Those numbers were boosted by a season-high 1,525 attendance in their penultimate game followed by a crowd of 1,106 for the finale.
“We’ve had more butts in the seats and people have enjoyed the games even though the team didn’t do so well,” DiPaolo said. “Traditionally Thunder Bay follows winning teams but the atmosphere here was great.”