By SEAN ROONEY on May 16, 2019.
The champagne was still flowing last August when Sal Rodriguez made up his mind about returning to Medicine Hat in 2019.
The fan favourite for the Medicine Hat Mavericks likely would’ve been back anyhow following his senior year at Minot State University, but a Western Major Baseball League championship certainly clinched it.
“Oh no, it was 100 per cent from basically the time we lifted the trophy, right there Mo (Mavs owner Greg Morrison) said whoever wants to come back, go ahead,” said Rodriguez. “Unless there was pro ball calling, I was going to come back to the Hat.”
In two weeks the Mavericks open their season at home against the Brooks Bombers, and Rodriguez will be among at least eight returnees from the championship roster. The first baseman from Illinois knows that means the majority of players are completely new, so he doesn’t think there’s any added pressure to repeat.
That said, another set of rings is of course the goal in the newly-renamed Western Canadian Baseball League.
“I feel if we go out and play our style of baseball, I have complete faith in the coaching staff, Mo and my teammates that we’re going to go out there and get the job done,” said Rodriguez.
Morrison’s been busy at Athletic Park, thankful he moved his sports therapy business to the Medicine Hat Curling Club’s building in the off-season. A new turf floor for the batting cages was added this week, with coaches (including new head coach Tom Vessella) and players starting to filter in next weekend.
“Well ready or not, it’s coming,” Morrison said of the season. “We’ve got great front office staff, it’s what we do. It’s like a startup every year, from training new staff to trying to build a roster to talking to sponsors, getting tickets printed, it’s a lot of nuts and bolts.”
Aside from Rodriguez, there are plenty of familiar faces on their way. Colton Wright is back for his third and final season, while fellow catcher Reed Odland also returns. Hometown second baseman Nolan Rattai and outfielders Jordan Dray and Julien Ly make for a lot of regulars. When Jaymon Cervantes or Evan Sutta are pitching the team could reasonably have seven veterans on the field at the same time.
“It’s a flavour between guys who red-shirted, young guys, to senior, proven guys who’ve been with us in the past,” said Morrison. “I’m just excited to get these guys here.”
Among the newcomers, Austin Sojka from California batted .391 with 12 home runs and 61 RBI in 60 games as as shortstop for Oklahoma Wesleyan this past season – playing with graduated Maverick Tyler Shumpert. PJ Garcia of Arizona, another infielder, hit .410 with Oklahoma Science and Arts. Morrison also added pitcher Owen Steele of Calgary, who had a 1.46 ERA with the WCBL’s Yorkton Cardinals last summer.
Rodriguez only had one home run for Minot State, hitting .283 but made it count. It was his 29th round-tripper for Minot, a career record for the school.
“My power numbers weren’t where I like them to be but I’m not too worried about that,” he said. “After four years of Minot State baseball it was a great time, I’m looking forward to a new season here in Med Hat.
“You look back and think I just spent years getting to this point, now it’s over. What do I do now? I’m one of the lucky ones that gets to play beyond college, even if it’s just an extra summer.”
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