KAMLOOPS, BC—One of the main purposes of the West Coast League is to develop. For the second year Kamloops NorthPaws franchise, they have taken the 2023 season as a learning experience in every sense.
Not only have the players on this year’s roster learned the ups and downs of summertime baseball, but so too have the coaching staff.
For Keith Francis, Jose Bautista and Fernie Lorea, this season has had more valleys than peaks as they languish in the lower depths of the WCL North Division.
Not to look for excuses, but the coaching staff was ‘behind the eight ball’ before the start of the campaign. Very few of the players recruited to play for the NorthPaws this season were familiar to the three coaches. Francis took over the head coaching job March 31st, just weeks before the start of the season.
“As the season has progressed, I have learned so much about what it takes to compete at a successful level,” he says. “We didn’t get enough pitching for this level. For those who we were expecting to produce offensively have struggled. Add to that, some of the players who were supposed to be here didn’t show up due to injuries. They couldn’t help that. Those who did come here tried to the best of their ability.”
Francis put the players through three days of training before the season started. “There are whole lot of 4 o clock hitters (time for batting practice), but there are very few 7 o clock hitters. We found that out this year.”
He and the coaching staff tried different methods to kick start the players in batting practice while at the same time, keeping a positive attitude. “I try to be a turtle,” Francis says. “Coming out of my shell every day as it is a new day. In baseball, you have a chance to win every day. That is one philosophy the players have come to accept.”
The NorthPaws did have a number of returnees from their inaugural season. Francis praised infielder Tommy Green and pitcher Tyrelle Chadwick for their efforts. “Tommy was a leader both on the field and in the dugout. Chadwick led by example when he was on the mound. “
“We had some younger players who tried to step up despite their inexperience.” Francis pointed to Cooper Neville (Glendale, AZ) and Nathan Grey as two players who have tried to make the most of their opportunity here. “Cooper has been unbelievable and consistently our best player. He has been positive every night. Nathan struggled offensively but as a pitcher, his skills have really come a long this year.”
Jose Bautista came back to Kamloops this season after being with the NorthPaws on their inaugural run. He says the key difference between the two years has been the pitching. “Pitching is key in this league. Last season we had a lot of players who had control of their pitches and were in the right way. This year, the talent level wasn’t as deep. A few guys were doing pretty well but overall, it was tough.”
Bautista felt many of the pitchers on this year’s club were behind developmentally for the calibre of the West Coast League. “It is a big challenge for them to try and compete.”
During a short season, Bautista tries to build a relationship quickly. “We try to focus in on one or two fundamentals.” He admits he had to accelerate the learning process.
“With the age of the players here, I have concentrated on getting the pitchers to believe in themselves,’ he says. “Most players get it quickly. I just get them to focus on strikes. “
He points to the development of Tyrelle Chadwick, Hayden Walker and Christian Spitz as highlights. “ They improved and did a good job when they were out there.”
The pitching coach also credited the development of New Zealander MacLain Roberts as well. ‘Coming from a country where there isn’t much baseball. He has been able to handle himself when he got the chance.”
Bautista feels one of the biggest challenges for himself was to have the players focus on the ‘job ‘aspect of baseball rather than them focusing on the ‘social’ aspect of summer baseball.
He agrees with Francis that patience must be a strong suit during the trials and tribulations of this season. “I have to have patience—I have eight kids,” he laughs. Adding that his pitching staff become his surrogate children during the summer.
Baustista coached 22 seasons in professional baseball. He has experienced less than ideal seasons. “The difference is in the pros, you have a longer season so there is always hope to turn it around. Here, time is so short.”
Fernie Lorea is the third member of the NorthPaws coaching staff. Just a year removed from playing university baseball himself, he was an assistant coach at New Mexico State before coming to Kamloops. He believes the team has bought into ‘learn from all experiences’ philosophy. “You need to love to learn. You lose –you learn. You win—you learn. No matter what it is a learning experience.”
Lorea believes the biggest thing he will take away from the 2023 campaign is the be patient and see how everything plays out before you jump on things. He says it is easier said than done at times.
“What I have said to the players in the dugout is to put it (losses) behind you. This is a new set up, a new game, new everything. If there isn’t someone to say that to them (the players), they could lose hope. If that happens in baseball, you are just defeated”.
Lorea praised the leadership displayed by his former summer ball teammate Green. “Being able to see his leadership style, many of the guys took what he offered to heart.”
Lorea’s big takeaway from the year? “Just how everything was so hard this year. Not in a bad way but something I could grasp and learn from. “
Francis on what he has learned this year. “ What I have learned the most is how the roster should be put together. I have learned from the other teams on what it takes to succeed. The league is very competitive. “
Message for NorthPaws fans? “Hang in there. I think this has a real future here. It was a less than successful season but the fans have stuck with us. We will get the right players here next year and be successful.”
Bautista has a message for fans as well. “They have been very supportive. I hope they will continue to do that. We will be better and the results will be better moving forward.”
Francis and and Lorea will head to Pima Community College in Arizona at the conclusion of the West Coast League season. Bautista will return home to the Dominican Republic.