Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Victoria HarbourCats reach league finals after record-setting season

Local baseball club caps off dominant home-field summer by giving home crowd a thrilling playoff win

Mark Brennae
August 13, 2023
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Victoria HarbourCats reach league finals after record-setting season

Local baseball club caps off dominant home-field summer by giving home crowd a thrilling playoff win

Mark Brennae
Aug 13, 2023
James MacDonald / Capital Daily
James MacDonald / Capital Daily
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Victoria HarbourCats reach league finals after record-setting season

Local baseball club caps off dominant home-field summer by giving home crowd a thrilling playoff win

Mark Brennae
August 13, 2023
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Victoria HarbourCats reach league finals after record-setting season
James MacDonald / Capital Daily

The HarbourCats are headed to the West Coast League (WCL) Final after narrowly—thrillingly—bouncing the Bellingham Bells 7-6 in the North division final last night. After setting a league record for wins at home this season (25-2), Victoria’s baseball team rewarded loyal locals at Royal Athletic one last time this summer.

The locals flipped an early 0-5 deficit into a 7-5 lead and held on to that lead sometimes by the skin of their teeth. In the 7th inning, a savvy pitching eliminated the threat posed by the Bells’ loaded bases, and then the game’s end went down to the wire.

The Bells scored once to get within one run, but Victoria cycled through multiple pitchers in the final frame to ultimately shut Bellingham down with the tying runner languishing on second base.  

The ‘Cats move on to face the Knights—a perennial powerhouse that beat Victoria in the 2017 and 2019 finals—in Corvallis, an Oregon city in a county of 100,000 people. Tomorrow’s game will also be a single-elimination rather than the previous three-game series format.

Whatever happens tomorrow, this has been a banner season for the HarbourCats, who are finally on the other side of the crippling pandemic.

But Jim Swanson, managing partner, and chief cook and bottle washer down at the local ballyard, began the season with a pressing problem.

Finding a way to get a head

Bit of a spoiler alert here, but 10 days before the start of the season the head for Harvey the HarbourCat costume was seriously damaged in a dry cleaning malfunction. 

Nine days before Opening Day, Swanson was going to have to either kick off the season with a headless mascot, allow the mascot to hit the field looking like he got his face caught in a cheese grater, or explain to hundreds of kids that Harvey was sitting the first game out. 

“We were doing everything we could to make sure Harvey could be there for Opening Day, all sorts of ‘medical attention’,” Swanson says. “We just couldn’t start the season without the best mascot in the city.”

Was this a Harvey harbinger to a hellish HarbourCats season? Not a chance.

Swanson pulled a rabbit—make that a HarbourCat head—out of his hat, by somehow convincing the mascot manufacturer to produce a replacement and to get it here from Anaheim, Calif., in a week and a half.

Maybe that was the harbinger because from Opening Day (which Capital Daily covered the behind-the-scenes of) right through the regular season, all Swanson’s team did was win. 

Coaches and players warm up for the first time ahead of opening day's game. James MacDonald / Capital Daily

Record-setting home field success may stand for a long time

The HarbourCats went 25-2—that’s remarkable .926 ball—in the friendly confines of The Wilson’s Group Stadium at Royal Athletic Park, along with these two extra playoff wins.

“The fact that we did that is pretty astonishing," says Christian Stewart, the club’s general manager. “The fact that we lost one of those games 11-0 (against Kelowna) was probably like ‘how the heck did that happen?’”

Swanson thinks that 25-2 West Coast League (WCL) record is one of those marks—think MLB legend Cal Ripken Jr.'s 2,632 straight games played—that will never be broken.

“I just can’t see someone going 26 or 27 and 0 in the regular season,” Swanson says.

Swanson in his office. Photo submitted.

What happened this season for the HarbourCats can be summed up by Ricky 'Wild Thing' Vaughn, or at least the guy who portrayed him in Major League.

“Winning” is how Charlie Sheen described things, right? (No more of Charlie Sheen later in this article. Promise).

The HarbourCats won a lot, compiling an overall record of 38-15—that’s .717 ball—only two wins shy of the ‘Cats WCL record 40-win season of 2016, despite losing one game off the schedule when a delayed game got no make-up date.

Swanson attributes the home-field success to the players' love of the field and the city’s grounds crew—he says the groundskeepers will even be in the team's baseball cards set.

Combined with slick promotions—from Winning Wednesdays, to the dog lovers' Bark in the Park, to the popular fireworks displays—-along with exceptional weather and a competitive team, made for a winning season in the stands, as well.

“We have our mojo back” after pandemic hiatus

The HarbourCats averaged approximately 2,400 fans per game, so basically pre-COVID numbers.

“First year back (2021) wasn’t great and last year, I think there was hesitancy by everybody, just socially,” Swanson said from his office Friday afternoon.

“But it feels like this year, we have our mojo back and we’re trending to where we were before anybody knew what COVID was.”

The HarbourCats celebrate after clinching their first ever playoff appearance in July of 2016 Photo: Submitted / by Christian J. Stewart

Long-term they'll have to do a little better than pre-COVID, however. Swanson calls rising costs the 'Cats' biggest concern, and inflation has expenses sitting noticeable higher than a few years ago, and housing especially is a challenge.

"We used to be able to rent an apartment for the summer for a coach for $700, and [this year] I got offered one place for $26K for the period of time my coaches are here. It’s insane."

Mojo or nojo, the HarbourCats returned to the entertainment forefront of this city, hanging in during the pandemic like a .280 hitter choking up to get a piece of every pitch.

Three years—but only one season—removed from the start of the pandemic, baseball is back in Victoria as the ‘Cats completed one of their best seasons in their decade of history.

“It’s our tenth anniversary—even though we’ve only had eight seasons because of two years being off,” Swanson quipped as he counted American $20 bills for staff and players in case the team has to go Stateside for the WCL championship game (it's now confirmed that they will).

The best moments, and the boys who delivered them

On the field there were great moments, including one of Swanson’s faves, when the ‘Cats swept both Wenatchee and Bellingham at home this season. 

“It's not that we won, it's that we dominated them. It wasn’t 25-0 or anything, but both of those teams left here going ‘yeah, we got beat.’”

Hudson Shupe (right) is congratulated by Tyler Davis (48) after hitting a home run against Bellingham on July 1 Photo: Submitted / Christian J. Stewart

More recently, the ‘Cats being no-hit, before exploding for three runs in what would turn out to be a 4-2 division-series clinching victory.

Marco Pirruccello broke up a Wenatchee no-hitter last week with a triple that was followed by Hudson Shupe’s double and a two-run bomb from Tripp Clark. 

“Just that inning, the way the crowd went from pensive to an explosion of noise—that was a lot of fun,” says Swanson.

Shupe is one of several players who had great seasons on the Island. The Washington state shortstop competed for the league batting title by hitting .353 over 163 official at-bats in 39 games.

Moments after clinching Saturday's win. (HarbourCats livestream screenshot)

California catcher Tyler Davis was proficient behind the plate, hit .316 and knocked in 43 runs in 44 regular season games, en route to the team’s player of the year award.

On the bump, Vancouver’s Logan MacNiel went 6-0 and pitched to a 1.08 ERA, not easy to do in a hitter’s league.

Davis Franklin had a miserly 1.44 ERA and struck out 30 batters in 25 innings to share pitcher-of-the-year honours with MacNiel. 

Swanson says all four were heavily scouted in their junior years and expects each to be drafted by major league teams. And he hopes they'll all be among the 10 or 15 or so expected to return to play in Victoria next season, which is about average.

This stadium was good to the 2023 'Cats, and they were good to its attendees. 25 wins in 27 home games set a new West Coast League record

An Island advantage

Swanson agrees that there’s an advantage selling the Island’s beauty when recruiting college-age players to the HarbourCats and up-UpIsland rival Nanaimo NightOwls.

“It’s exotic. It gives us a big advantage. Our reputation gives us the best advantage. Our coaching staff's reputation gives us the best advantage.”

It’s an advantage the ‘Cats hope to use next season as they once again pursue a league championship. 

But first, they’ll try to win this year’s title tomorrow. 

Q&A with Jim Swanson

As a sports reporter in Prince George, did you ever think you would run a baseball team?

I remember when I got the call about taking this on and it was kind of a no-brainer to have a chance to work on the Island and to work in baseball. There are not many baseball jobs in Canada where you can make a living and hopefully pay a mortgage and to do it in Victoria, I’m blessed and to do it in Nanaimo with the NightOwls and the Golden Tide team, we are very blessed to have an impact on baseball here and to do it such a beautiful city—that I’m never leaving. This is my love.

The original owner, John McLean called. He said what do you think about Victoria and baseball? And I was pretty much sold even before he started to talk about it.

Did you ever have an oh, no, this-is-not-working-out moment with this job?

When we took [the team] over. We took it over with a lot of debt following the 2014 season. I was just the GM, I didn’t have the full view of all the financials. There were a lot of things in the start-up that were a challenge. John Wilson, myself, my brother Ken and Rich [Harder]--it’s not dramatic to say that we saved this team going into the 2015 season.

I don’t know if people are aware how close this was to closing down around Christmas-January going into 2015. Cash crunch, there wasn’t an official owner at that point. We had to come in and take care of all that debt, even though it wasn’t ours.

And then . . . COVID happened.

It was a very, very hard couple of years, and yet we’re proud because we didn’t cut anybody, we didn’t lay anybody off. We reduced some hours and things like that, like I think a lot of good businesses had to do, but we stuck to our guns and believed we would come out of it. First year back wasn’t great. Last year, I think there was hesitancy by everybody, just socially. It had nothing to do with us, it was just a general, social thing. But it feels like this year, we have our mojo back and we’re trending to where we were before anybody knew what COVID was.

What’s the biggest challenge facing the HarbourCats?

It’s a really good league and staying competitive and as good as we’ve been since 2016, it’s not easy to recruit and to put a very good team on the field. And I think that has been part of our calling card.

We haven’t won the championship yet. We’re damn close here, and hoping we can finish this off. And you know that, and rising costs that are hitting every business. We’re certainly not the only ones that have that. It’s not unique to us.

I’ll also say this, the shrinking media, the shrinking sports media has been a huge challenge for us. As a 20-year media member, I’m ticked that the media has shrunk to what it is. And we have to fight to get recognition.

What could the organization do better?

I would love to staff up more. We work really hard from April through September and there needs to be a break in there. People need a holiday at some point in any job and this is no different.

If I could staff up and have us at every charity golf tournament and every charity fundraiser, every dinner and have a presence at that, that would be a big part of it for me.

What’s your biggest joy with the HarbourCats?

Seeing the reaction of people in the crowd and seeing how much they enjoy this. It’s seeing kids with our mascot. It’s watching people dance to the music and get up just spur of the moment, it’s hearing the roar of the crowd when we have a great play.

And honestly, my favourite part of every game, strangely enough is, at the end of the game we like to go—the owners, my wife and others—we go to the gate to say thank you to people and wish them a safe ride home. And I think that connection we have with the community and with our fans I think has been an understated key part of what we’ve done here.

What's on your wish list?

I would absolutely love to have a brand new stadium. Better designed, modern design, maybe on Rock Bay grounds ... on the waterfront.

Greatest accomplishment?

Slow and steady wins the race. Our biggest accomplishment has been engaging with the community. None of the owners are in this to get rich. We’re not profiteers. We are here to bring something great to the community. Anybody who knows [part owner] John Wilson knows exactly what he’s about. He just does integrity stuff. And that’s exactly what we’re here to do.

Answers edited for brevity and clarity

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