When Evan Bailey took over the Okanagan Athletics in 2010, Kelowna’s top midget baseball program was coming off six seasons filled mostly with futility and frustration.
Formerly the Kelowna Cubs, the B.C. Premier Baseball League club won only 16 per cent of its games and never made playoffs, while graduating only a handful of players to college programs in the U.S. or Canada.
In Bailey’s seven years as head coach of the team—and more recently the program director—the A’s turnaround has been nothing short of dramatic.
Okanagan’s team has compiled a regular season winning percentage of .618, while making the playoffs in five of the seven years.
The Athletics won the PBL championship in 2012 and have been to the final four in each of last two the seasons.
In 2016, after a program-best 30-14 regular season record, Bailey’s A’s finished third at provincials.
But perhaps the most telling statistic of Bailey’s tenure is the number of players who have gone on to play college and/or university ball either south of the border or here at home. Bailey has helped 48 former Athletics make the baseball and academic jump, including five this year—Sam Avila, Matt Brodt, David Tongue, Brendan Coulter and McCoy Pearce.
Gary Yates, who was Athletics’ GM for three seasons and still serves on the board, said once the program established a stable and consistent presence at the top, the pieces began to fall into place.
“The biggest thing with Evan is that he was able to develop a baseball culture, he gave us strong leadership at the top, providing a platform for kids to have success…to have the same systems in place, year after year is important,” said Yates. “We had so much change in the past that there was just no continuity, we were losing kids to the coast, we didn’t have the program for them.
“Evan provides stability, he has his way of running the program and it’s been very effective.”
As much as wins and losses are important, Yates and Bailey agree that the purpose of the program is about much more than getting results on the field.
In addition to helping his players land scholarships and prepare them for the college game, Bailey said baseball can help teach some basic life lessons.
“I think really what you’re trying to do is develop young men that are going to be successful in life,” said Bailey, a Kamloops native who was a pitcher at the University of Utah. “We’re not all going to be baseball players, people can find success in life through those things they learn through baseball…good work habits and working amongst a team to achieve a common goal. It’s that sweat in a bucket that sets you up for life.”
And if players do happen to get an opportunity to play at the next level, Yates said Bailey will have them well prepared.
“The primary function of the program is to obviously make sure kids play baseball, but also to help promote them to the college level and move them on,” said Yates. “The next level is exponentially harder and Evan teaches them how to play the game the right way. It’s also about how you present yourself, how you’re handling winning and losing, all the things are crucial when you head to the next level.”
Known for his no-nonsense coaching style, Bailey admits to being demanding of his players—but not at the cost of compromising a player’s character or personality.
“I’m very demanding, but in the same sense I’ve also learned it’s important to develop a culture where you let individuals be who they are,” Bailey said. “There are core values and beliefs you instill, hard work and accountability so that guys are mentally ready to play. I’m demanding, yes, but that’s because I want them to be the best players they can possibly be.”
Jared Young counts himself among the many former A’s who consider themselves in a better place thanks to Bailey’s tutelage and guidance.
A second baseman, Young is headed to Virginia this fall for his first year of NCAA Div. 1 baseball at Old Dominion University.
In addition to being a strong technical and fundamental coach, Young said Bailey’s firm but fair approach made him the player he is today.
“I can’t say how much he helped me and changed me as a player,” said Young, who played for the A’s in 2013 and 2014. “When you’re on the field, it’s strictly business. Off the field, he’s a player’s coach. Ask him for anything and he’ll help you out, anything to help you be a better player.
“You listen to what he says, if you don’t there’s a consequence,” Young continued. “That’s the way it should be, I love it. He teaches you how to play the game the right way.”
In the early years of his tenure, there were the predictable growing pains for Bailey who came to the A’s some coaching experience, but none as a head man.
Bailey credits both A’s founder and former GM Greg Stearns and Gary Yates for setting the course and keeping the program on the right track.
“There have been some really good people involved and Greg and Gary have both instrumental in the reason we’ve had success,” said Bailey. “They’ve made this a really easy ride for me.”
And much like the program itself, Yates said Bailey, the coach and mentor, has also continued to evolve.
“He’s matured a lot over the years, he’s a different coach than he was eight years ago,” Yates said. “He didn’t have experience and, like any new, young coach there were some adjustments. But he’s grown and become, I think the best coach in the PBL.”
As for both his immediate and distant future with the Athletics, Bailey said as long as he has a passion for the work, there are no plans to go anywhere.
“It’s season by season right now, but I’m still enjoying what I do,” Bailey said. “It takes a lot of time and energy, and as soon as it’s too much time and energy, that will be the time to stop. The worst thing you can do is stay in it when you’re not 100 per cent there.
“I still like what I do and being around the players.”