VANCOUVER - Minus his hat, Terry McKaig looks different.
Baseball lifers are seemingly born wearing their hats, pulled down low on their brows, with sunglasses perched on the brim if it’s a day game. But this is a day off for the coach of the UBC Thunderbirds baseball team and he is sitting in a coffee shop on campus, discussing his program, where it has come from and where it is going. He is wearing a golf shirt minus the hat. There are no sunflower seeds in sight either.
McKaig, 43, reached a milestone last week when his T-Birds, a team he began from the ground up in 1998, won its 500th game.
“You don’t set out to have a 30-win, or 40-win, or 25-win season, you’re always shooting for that playoff spot, the league title and to have your players drafted into professional baseball,” said McKaig, now 503-332-1 overall and 29-11 this season. “It’s the dream of every kid, from Little League on, to play professional baseball so it’s been about giving players that chance if they’re good enough. It’s been about working hard with major league scouts so they know who your guys are.
“In saying that, 500 wins is definitely a milestone in collegiate baseball. It is a big one. It is celebrated.”
McKaig didn’t grow up with his heart set on running a baseball team. He loved the sport, of course, and performed at a high level. An outfielder and left-handed hitter, he played in the U.S. college system for four years before coming home to join the Vancouver-based National Baseball Institute. He made the Canadian national team in 1995, suiting up alongside future major leaguers Eric Gagne and Jeff Zimmerman.
Before he chose baseball, he played basketball and volleyball in Vernon — he was born in Terrace — and a little bit of hockey.
When Team Canada failed to qualify for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics in baseball, McKaig figured his playing days were over. So he opted to finish his human kinetics degree at UBC, which he did in ’97, and then seek out a career.
“It was a crossroads type of thing,” he explained. “I guess towards the end of my playing career, I thought about coaching. I mean, I’m a baseball player and this is what I do. But if it wasn’t baseball, I was going to go into education and become a teacher. Then, just after I graduated, there was talk about starting a college baseball program at UBC. Bob Philip was the athletic director and a local guy named Mark Hiscott decided he wanted to fund this thing for the first couple of years.
“So I was hired in the fall of 1997. It was kind of interesting because I went straight from being a player to a coach without any coaching experience. I had never been to a coaching clinic, never coached in Little League. I had always been a player.”
McKaig scrounged for talent and the T-Birds played as an independent team the first two seasons.
“We really were a rag-tag club,” he recalled. “We threw together a makeshift 40-game schedule and played on community fields, or whatever we could find.”
Then two things happened in 2000. Philip was able to get the T-Birds admitted to the NAIA, the small-school U.S. sports association, making UBC baseball a true varsity sport eligible for funding. The second was a lanky left-handed pitcher from North Delta, kid named Jeff Francis, choosing to play for McKaig and the T-Birds, rather than in the NCAA Division 1 for either San Diego State or Oregon State, two schools also pursuing him.
“It made history for us,” McKaig noted. “Jeff Francis was a big fish in the recruiting pool. He put us on the map. He showed you can stay in Canada without hurting your draft status. He went ninth overall in the first round (to the Colorado Rockies) in 2002 and, five years later, he was pitching in the World Series.”
In 2006, the T-Birds qualified for the NAIA World Series and finished fourth. The program, the only one of its kind in Canada, was rolling along. Then last year, like every other varsity sport at UBC, it became subject to the controversial athletic review. Its existence was suddenly threatened.
“It was a big wake-up call,” said McKaig, who lives in Tsawwassen with wife Davina and children Jenna, 6, and Trenton, 4. “I had a little different stance than a lot of people on the review. I believed the review was necessary. In the business world, they do reviews all the time. Whatever the reason, the athletic department hadn’t been reviewed in all my time here. I think a lot of the bigger sports were: ‘Like, OK, it’s an exercise we have to go through. Tell us what we have to do.’ You’re not thinking you might not make it through.
“But then I got really worried. We were on the chopping block. It got really serious. It really stressed me out. It made you realize you can’t just sit back and rest on things. Our season hadn’t started yet and I was having to tell players don’t transfer, please don’t leave, I think we’re going to be OK.”
McKaig was right. Baseball was OK and survived the cut, partly because he had already been working on a grand plan prior to the review. In 2011, when UBC dropped its application to join the NCAA, McKaig began to think about the program’s long-term future. He envisioned a new Canadian university league that would play a 110-game schedule from May to September. (It is projected to start in 2017.) He envisioned a new 12,000-square foot indoor training centre and a new 2,000-seat stadium.
He envisioned, with those elements in place, UBC baseball could run clinics, camps, host tournaments for every age group, and generate all sorts of revenue streams.
The $3.5 million indoor training centre has been approved, McKaig noted, and is being privately funded. Ground breaking is scheduled for October and it should be open for business by the summer of 2015. The stadium has been costed out at $6.5 million.
“The indoor facility is funded and ready to go and now I’m doing a capital campaign for the stadium,” said McKaig. “When we decided not to go the NCAA route, it hit me that my job as the head coach and program builder was to forecast the future and keep building it. It was: ‘Let’s get out in front of it, let’s think of something different.’ I think with our own facilities, the indoor training centre, a new stadium, playing in a summer league with people buying hot dogs and beer, we will be able to fund ourselves.”
If McKaig can pull that off, it might be his biggest victory of all.
’BIRD BIT: The T-Birds will play host to the five-team NAIA West regional playoff tournament, which begins next Friday. Their first game is at 4 p.m. The winner of the tourney advances to the sectionals, the second step en route to the NAIA World Series.
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