But Joe Wiwchar s first recollections of baseball are as a city kid playing pickup and 500 as a kid, and riding his bike across Winnipeg to play on a little league team in the city s West End.
He started coaching girls softball at the age of 17 in the 1950s and Wiwchar has never left the field. He s been a coach, administrator, registrar, scheduler, umpire, scout, mentor and all-around booster for the sport.
Wiwchar was inducted into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame earlier this month in recognition of his lifelong dedication as a baseball builder in rural Manitoba.
Most days you ll find Wiwchar surrounded by the memorabilia of many other provincial baseball heroes; he s also volunteer curator of the Manitoba Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Morden, which he s been doing since 1999.
It s my hiding place, or that s what my wife calls it anyway, jokes Wiwchar, adding that any recognition really belongs to her for putting up with all the years ball kept him from doing the house and yard work.
But ball is a family affair too his three sons and six grandsons all grew up playing and loving the sport like their dad and granddad.
One grandson has more (coaching) certification than I do, says Wiwchar, proudly.
Love of the game
His volunteer work as a coach, which spans not years, but decades, has seen him take on as many as three teams a year, including boys, girls and mixed softball teams. Some teams he s stuck with for decades, like the Morden Mohawks, which he continuously coached between 1971 to 1998.
He not only loves the game, he loves what it can do for the young people who participate in it. He struggles to find the words to describe what makes it so rewarding to take on a new team in the spring to develop.
The biggest reward is seeing what the game makes of the people who play it, says Wiwchar. It s a home run every time to hear of someone he s coached making something of themselves.
Seeing players learn to accept responsibility and act as team players in good character has been the biggest thing, says Wiwchar.
I kind of take pride in that, he said. I always tell my players that I would rather have a player who respects the sport, respects themselves and respects everybody else and helps out by carrying the equipment bag and that sort of thing… than have a superstar.
He s seen two generations go by since the early 1970s. He s often been invited to players weddings. Many of them now have kids of their own, and now he s coaching them too.
I have hope to see a third generation, said Wiwchar.
As for the game itself, baseball is still big in Manitoba. Baseball Manitoba, organized as the Manitoba Baseball Association back in 1968 has helped grow amateur ball in the province. Today it represents about 15,000.
The game reached a fever pitch in the early 1990s, when the Toronto Blue Jays were World Series champions (1992 and 1993).
Those were the years that Manitoba had the highest registrations, said Wiwchar.
It s a bit like farming, though, as fewer get into the game nowadays.
Despite some local hotbeds and huge ongoing interest in the sport, overall registrations have been declining.
You just don t see what you used to, says Wiwchar, adding times were you had your pick of tournaments to attend, with spectators out in droves to watch their teams.
Now, events like Clearwater s big draw Canada Day ball tournament, held without a miss since 1949, are becoming rarer.
That s an inevitable outcome of rural depopulation, says Wiwchar, adding that fewer kids have other sports and activities to choose from nowadays.
You don t find many pickup games going on, he said. You do see it occasionally but you don t see much of it.
Plus, there s now a seasonal overlap between ball and hockey, and as a weather-dependent game, if it s raining, you can t play.
It takes dedicated coaches to keep the next generation coming out. And they re most certainly out there, says Wiwchar, who says he s encouraged by the increased level of professionalism he s seeing as the years go by.
Coaching has definitely got a lot better in the last few years, he said.
He would like to see a mentorship program established for young coaches, he adds.
He s seen fine players develop over the years. Baseball has been good to me.
The rural baseball builder joins several other well-known Manitobans inducted in 2011 into the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame and Museum, including Kerry Burtynk, (athlete/curling), Bob Cameron (athlete/football) Glenn McWhinney (veteran athlete, football/basketball), the 1967 Winnipeg Mixed Five Pin Bowling Team, and the 1975-76 University of Manitoba Bisons basketball team.
This year among Manitoba sports heroes joining the Manitoba Sports Hall of Fame is Morden s Joe Wiwchar, recognized for a lifetime volunteer service as a builder of baseball in rural Manitoba.photos: lorraine stevenson
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