Jared Young

Former Okanagan A’s star Jared Young waits for the ball during practice for the Myrtle Beach Pelicans. Young says his time playing ball in Kelowna was instrumental in becoming a prospect of the Chicago Cubs.

Jared Young doesn’t mince words when he speaks about his time playing minor baseball in Kelowna for the Okanagan Athletics.

The 25-year-old Prince George native is now in Arizona as he prepares for what is — hopefully — the beginning of a more predictable baseball season.

“It’s the only reason I’m here now,” Young said of his time with the A’s. “If I would’ve stayed in Prince George, I don’t think I would’ve played college baseball. I don’t think I would’ve gone on to, really, anything.”

No university scholarship to Old Dominion in Virginia, no Major League draft and no pro career with the Chicago Cubs.

Perhaps most importantly, he may never have been named the Cubs’ minor league player of the year in 2018.

And all because of Kelowna?

“It really changed my life,” said Young.

By the time Young turned 15, he was outgrowing Prince George. He needed more competition, and relocated to Kelowna to play for the A’s. He ended up graduating from Kelowna Secondary, catching the eyes of college scouts and launching his pursuit of pro baseball. He’s eager for more after spending his last minor-league, coronavirus-free season with the Cubs’ single-A affiliate in South Carolina, the Myrtle Beach Pelicans.

Stories like Young’s keep A’s coach Evan Bailey going. It’s one of the reasons he started the Okanagan A’s program a dozen years ago.

A college and pro player himself, Bailey is a staunch supporter of how baseball can turn boys into healthy, happy, productive young men. When someone like Young breaks through, it reinforces the program is on the right track.

“First and foremost, he was a hard worker, great kid, funny, eager to learn,” Bailey said. “A special kid in that way, very kind. You could see that he was going to do very well in baseball. Jared could always hit and he could always play. He just needed to get stronger, and he was able to do that in college and university.”

Bailey is convinced there are more Jared Youngs out there. He’s also convinced that the A’s — along with Kelowna Minor Baseball and the Okanagan College Coyotes — are building a robust baseball pipeline capable of more.

Now, all they need is a little more support.

Kelowna has just one full-sized diamond — aging Elks Stadium — and no baseball-specific indoor training facilities. There are many softball diamonds, but they’re too small for older kids to play baseball on.

Bailey and Coyotes coach Geoff White have had discussions with City of Kelowna about supporting high-end facilities, but have thus far not convinced officials to write baseball into the budget more aggressively.

While both coaches are aware baseball is one of many sports that need help, White said Kelowna has an amazing opportunity in the North End around Elks.

“Our program continues to grow, baseball in Kelowna and the population continues to grow,” White said. “However, there hasn’t been any addition of new fields or facilities in 20-plus years, maybe more. …

“If you ride your bike on the Rail Trail by (Elks) stadium, it doesn’t exactly look like an inviting place to watch baseball. I firmly believe with the recent development in the area with new highrise condos, restaurants, bars, micro-breweries, it could be a major part of the downtown core and a place people would enjoy watching baseball. Also, it could be a great outdoor venue for other entertainment purposes.”

Kelowna is trailing behind similar-sized cities like Kamloops and Nanaimo, which have both invested in their facilities.

White and Bailey worry it’s leading to more kids leaving to play elsewhere, or choosing different sports in Kelowna. Their goal is operating high-end teams from 12 to 18 years old, and they’re virtually there.

They’ve launched a Junior Coyotes program at the under-13 level, the Athletics have U15, U16 and U18, and the Coyotes offer post-secondary education and athletics.

On-field success is happening, too.

The Coyotes won the 2018 Canadian College Baseball Conference championship. A year later, the Tampa Bay Rays chose OC pitcher Trevor Brigden in the 17th round of the MLB draft. The A’s regularly graduate players into the college ranks, and are 2012 B.C. Premier Baseball League champions.

“If we could advance our facilities, we would be able to build even more on our success,” White said.

That’s led White and Bailey to talk frequently about what’s next. They spoke just recently about the next five years in Kelowna, and want to avoid burning out themselves, and their volunteers.

“I’m still as in love with the game as ever, but I’m hitting a point where I also want to be around a little more for my own kids growing up,” said Bailey, a father of two young children. “I would like to see in the years to come — I don’t know when that point is — I would like to see myself transition to a little more so off the field.

“At the end of the day, whenever I leave baseball, hopefully I’ve left it in a better state than when I entered, meaning, more kids playing, more access to fields, maybe — again — a better indoor facility. I think those are big goals of mine.”

Another Jared Young wouldn’t hurt either, and Young himself says it’s more than possible in Kelowna.

“The more you put into it, the more you’re going to get out,” Young said. “If you give people the resources, if you give people a place to do something, if you give them a means to do it, you give them coaches ... you have a bunch of good baseball people in Kelowna. People just have to know about it, and have access to it.

“My story isn’t exactly a straight line to where I am now, but the fist thing I did was play for the Athletics.”