(Photo via UBC Thunderbirds site, gothunderbirds.ca, seen here)
The ultimate goal for any collegiate baseball program should be to win while simultaneously developing talent. Having a player drafted in the Major League Baseball draft is often considered a crucial feat for these programs. In America, many schools have the money and resources to recruit top-level talent and build elite programs, but institutions in Canada have historically undermined sports, diminishing the potential advantages elite sports programs can offer.
So if I told you about a baseball program that since its inception has had 23 players selected in the Major League Baseball draft, including three (plus a free agent) in 2016, while maintaining a .659 win percentage over the previous three seasons playing against Division II-level opponents, where would your mind wander? Would you assume that program is in Florida? Texas? Maybe even a small town in Louisiana? Well, that program is right here, on the west coast of Canada, in Vancouver, British Columbia. That program is the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds, coached by former Major League player and scout Chris Pritchett. And that program is only getting bigger and better.
In 2015, 18 years after Terry McKaig resurrected the UBC Thunderbirds baseball program, McKaig moved from the dugout to the newly created position of Director of Baseball, leaving the head coaching job vacant for the first time in almost two decades. McKaig wanted “to do bigger and better things for the program,” he said at the time of his promotion. “Which means getting more money for scholarships, for coaching, and for facilities, so that’s going to be my job.”
Despite building an incredibly successful program in a place as unlikely as Canada, the only Canadian baseball program that competes south of the border (in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA)) and had won five NAIA West Grouping Championships in the last seven years with 20 players drafted into the MLB during his tenure, McKaig wasn’t satisfied.
“I feel I have an obligation to Canadian baseball to show the world we can play as well as anybody else. So, my drive and determination, I think, comes from wanting to grow the game in Vancouver and B.C. and the country as big as we can grow it. That’s what I’m committed to,” McKaig said.
Improving the program and growing the game is exactly what McKaig has done since becoming UBC’s director of baseball, but he hasn’t done it alone.
Chris Pritchett was drafted out of UCLA in the second round of the MLB entry draft by the California Angels in 1991. The first baseman arrived in Vancouver to play for the Triple-A Canadians four years later, playing 466 games and collecting 467 hits. Pritchett would get the opportunity to play 61 games in the Major Leagues between 1996-2000, before returning to UCLA to complete his Bachelor of Arts degree and receive a Masters in Exercise Science at the National Academy of Sports Medicine.
Pritchett came back to Vancouver to work with local players and serve as a hitting coach for the Canadians before landing a gig as an international scout with the Boston Red Sox, covering Canada and the Pacific Northwest. In 2015, Pritchett came back to Vancouver to succeed McKaig as the second head coach in UBC Thunderbirds modern history. In his first season as head coach, the Thunderbirds went 39-22 with an appearance in the NAIA Baseball Championship Opening Round and had three players selected in the 2016 Major League Baseball draft (while another signed as a free agent). Last year, in his second season, the Thunderbirds went 32-16. This upcoming season the Thunderbirds brought in what might be the best recruiting class in the program’s storied history thanks in large part to Pritchett’s scouting background and player-development focused coaching philosophy.
“Right now we’re the only university in Canada that plays competitive baseball south of the border,” Pritchett told me over the phone. “We like to think that we’re a destination where the best student-athletes and baseball players in Canada have a place to go and compete at a very high level. And also they’re going to get a really top-notch education and a chance to move on to the pros.”
What separates UBC baseball from most high-level baseball programs around the world is that, according to Pritchett, the Thunderbirds “are equally invested in these kids’ development as [we are] winning.” Although that’s easy to say, it’s extremely hard to put into practice when your team is expected to win. But Pritchett doesn’t just talk the talk; he walks the walk too.
That means constantly keeping scouts updated on how players are doing and when they are pitching so they can be seen properly. It means encouraging players to work on new parts of their games, including a secondary pitch for example, despite it maybe not being the best for the team’s success. It means encouraging players to enter the draft when they still have leverage, as a junior for example, instead of holding onto them for four years until they are seniors like many programs prefer to.
All in all, it means the program is equally invested in the development of these student-athletes as they are winning, and this philosophy is paying off by attracting top-level high school recruits from the 2018 class including Jayden Knight, Cam Sanderson, Nick Jaeggin, Dylan Whittaker, and Ben Mitchell. These are prospects that could play Division I or II ball in the States but are choosing to stay home due to all the work McKaig and Pritchett have put into growing the program. Including the shiny new facilities, of course.
Without the time-consuming duties that come with being a head coach, McKaig has been freed up to spend his time growing the program in other ways. Namely, gaining funding for new facilities. Last year, UBC opened a $3.5 million indoor training facility that is 12,500 square feet with four batting cages and state-of-the-art technology to track launch angle and exit velocity for hitters and rotation and spin for pitchers. The school is also in the process of finishing an $8 million 1,000-seat stadium that should be ready to host games this spring. These elite facilities are rare in the Canadian school system, but the advantages cannot be understated. Not only have they already helped recruit top-level talent and provided the varsity team a place to train year-round, but they are also open for youth programs to train as well.
“For kids to love the sport and want to keep playing it, they have to come to facilities that inspire them to dream and to want to come back,” said McKaig. “This will be their Yankee Stadium. And that’s a very powerful thing for parents, for people who want to come and watch down to the local little league kid. We want these kids to dream of playing at UBC one day.”
Coach Pritchett also understands the importance of recruiting talent to UBC, now and in the future. He understands that top-level recruits have traditionally chosen baseball programs south of the border, but he also believes UBC has the power to change that.
“You have to show an ability to compete at a high level and have coaching that is able to develop players and continue to put guys in the draft and put together a product that is top-notch,” Pritchett told me. “We’re in the process of doing that and we’re starting to gain credibility with the evidence of this next class as kids are starting to take notice and start to call up and make that choice.”
Whether it’s the new facilities, the program’s winning history, the experienced coaching staff, the focus on development, the attention from scouts, or the high-level education for a fraction of the cost of American schools, there are a lot of reasons to choose UBC baseball. Being called a “Thunderbird” is just one cool perk.