Victoria HarbourCats: The Swanson Effect
© Copyright - 2017 - Victoria Sports News
Steven R. Covey, author of the best-selling book: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People wrote, “Successful people surround themselves with great people”.
The story behind the success of the Victoria HarbourCats West Coast League baseball franchise is due in no small part to Managing Partner Jim Swanson and the team on and off the field that he has surrounded himself with.
Swanson has experience; he was the Vice-President and General Manager of the Grand Forks Varmints of the Prairie League in 1997, the year before he ran the Prairie League office. Swanson has also coached international and local level athletes.
Covey also wrote that successful people are plugged into their passion, “they really love what they do”. It is clear, by demonstration, that Swanson loves running a baseball team. He can be found pre-game mingling with spectators, often he sits in the stands with season ticket holders, however, he is just as likely to grab a microphone and start a between-innings contest, like Dizzy Bats or Protect Your Pills (yes) or a dance-off between a sponsor and a spectator.
Dizzy Bats: Two spectators enter the field between innings, are given a bat and subsequently touch their forehead to the small end of the bat – bent over, as the bat is in contact with the ground – each contestant (at the same time) spin, get dizzy and then they all fall down, much to the delight of the audience.
On July 27th, when the usual Dizzy Bats contest was going to take place between a young couple Daniel Sanchez and Kortney Hannah, Swanson got in on a marriage proposal. Swanson told the two that an instructional video will take place on the big screen for the game of Dizzy Bats, but instead what appeared was a photo slideshow. Sanchez got down on one knee and proposed, Hannah said yes. Tears followed.
Swanson starts all games at Royal Athletic Park by honouring someone who has done something in the community or has accomplished something special. He also introduces the ceremonial pitcher, which could include several guest pitchers at one time.
He has recruited many well-known Victorians including Mayor Lisa Helps, two-time world kickboxing champion Stan Peterec, Mann Cup champion Shamrock’s Head Coach Bob Heyes to name a few. The whole team showed up and passed the Mann Cup around, to the amazement of the crowd.
Swanson has a strong front office crew including General Manager Brad Norris-Jones who has been with the franchise since day one. His son, a former HarbourCat and Blue Jays draft pick, is an assistant coach. There is also new Head Coach Brian Mcrae, who takes over for Graig Merritt, an intense, hands-on leader. The full complement of staff can be viewed at the HarbourCats’ website.
At the end of the day, it is up to the players on the field to get the job done. In 2016 they won the first half of the regular season schedule with a jaw-dropping record of 23-4, which represents a winning percentage of .852. During that time they won 19-consecutive times to set a new league record.
Asked about how he recruits players Swanson said, “It is an intricate process, we work with 45 different schools primarily in the NCAA and NAIA. We look for mature players mentally and skill-wise. There are steps in their career toward major league ball or wherever they are going to end up and playing here is part of the process of helping to develop more mature players.”
Swanson is confident in the process. He is also confident that the HarbourCats will effectively develop young players. “I say to the coaches where I am recruiting, send us your best players and we will make them better.”
At the HarbourCats disposal there are excellent local facilities, which are attractive to a player considering moving to Victoria for the baseball season. “PISE is fantastic for example and as important as having great facilities available we make sure we are working with a professional culture. From behavior in the clubhouse, wearing professional uniforms, behavior on and off the field, the whole operation is about professionalism. It is ideal preparation for the professional leagues.”
“The players know well that they are representing the team and city and metaphorically have “Victoria HarbourCats” tattooed across their forehead, even when the uniform is off. The difference for these players coming here is it is all about baseball, like in a professional situation. The schedule is game-heavy.”
While at school the players have fewer games, but they also have distractions, like exams, their social calendar and reading breaks.
“Here, it is an approximation to professional ball – very similar, except for the money, we don’t pay them and there are no trades. We have yoga every day with the players. The guys love it, actually. Skills are worked on that are baseball centric and they are in the gym almost daily. And that is some of what a professional player goes through day-to-day.”
“It used to be, “don’t go to the gym, you are a baseball player”. Not anymore. Now it is very different and we help to develop the whole player for the next step in their professional development.”
The HarbourCats have the highest rate of returning players, although that is in danger of changing as they also had one of the highest drafted teams from the major leagues in 2016. During this year’s draft, eight HarbourCats were selected by Major League Baseball teams.
The HarbourCats led the league in attendance for at least 2015 and 2016. During the 2016 regular season, the HarbourCats became the first team in league history to break the 50,000 benchmark in attendance; they did one better and broke 60,000 during their final game.
“The fans in this city have been great all season long. They get baseball,” said Merritt after the final game of the regular season.
During that final game, the HarbourCats defeated the Yakima Valley Pippins 11-4, to take another record: 40 wins in a season, the all-time league record was 39.
“The proudest moment so far is that night when the Tragically Hip was here in town or their emotional farewell tour, the music festival Rock the Shores was also on and there was a car show downtown in the harbour called Deuce Days, which attracted thousands. The HarbourCats still had 1900 fans that night and we didn’t even have fireworks,” shared Swanson.
Swanson won’t stop moving at 40 wins or 50,000 fans.
Covey also said, “Start with the end in mind”. It is very likely that Swanson, as focussed as he is on this post-season, it is likely that the ingredients to put together a successful 2017 are already in play.