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Expedition League, Whiskey Jacks pleased with positive response after quick transition to Grand Forks

In 2022 Grand Forks is expected to have a team of its own, but this summer the Expedition League’s Whiskey Jacks have called the city their temporary home. They did it with only a two-month transition.

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The Wheat City Whiskey Jacks and the Sioux Falls Sunfish face off in an Expedition League baseball game at Kraft Field on Friday, May 28, 2021. Nick Nelson / Grand Forks Herald
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Kyle Myers and son Jordan walked up the Kraft Field steps and witnessed an attempt to steal home during Monday's game between the Wheat City Whiskey Jacks and the Sioux Falls Sunfish.

“That was awesome,” both gasped simultaneously.

It was a moment that has been seen often this summer at Kraft Field – two casual fans connecting with the sport at the local ballpark.

In 2022 the city will have a team of its own , but this summer the Expedition League’s Whiskey Jacks have called Grand Forks their temporary home.

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“Back in February we sealed the deal to bring a new team to Grand Forks starting in 2022, but it became apparent to me in December that the border was not going to open and we were going to need a new home for the Whiskey Jacks,” Expedition League President Steve Wagner said.
Normally located in Brandon, Manitoba, they did not participate in the 2020 season and were still unsure where they stood for the 2021 schedule.

It was a role bestowed upon Grand Forks in a very short period of time. The league announced the change in venue for the Jacks in late March , with the season starting in May.

Typically a new team for the league would be announced in August or September, allowing a nine-month build-up.

This left little time for the normal marketing and preparation an Expedition League team would get before playing games. Whiskey Jacks Assistant General Manager Jaydon Simonson was involved in allocating players, staff and equipment, all while the pandemic was still looming.

“It was probably a year’s worth of work in about a month,” he said. “That was anywhere from marketing the team, food sponsorships to make sure we had pregame and postgame meals, plus there was inventory that all had to be shipped from Canada to Grand Forks. All that fun stuff.”

There was little time for players and others in the organization to become acquainted with the community. Such a quick turnaround sped up the process of getting players situated with host families.

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“I had to essentially cold-call people, businesses, community members to see if anyone was interested,” said Simonson.

Some are still searching for host families, but those that have settled have been welcomed with open arms, including head coach Robbie Laughlin.

“It’s been as great as it possibly could have been, knowing that they were going to have a team in two months,” he said. “We have a pretty decent turnout. People are excited to come and watch some baseball. I think it has the potential to be a good market.”

Although it may have happened sooner than expected, Expedition League baseball in Grand Forks has been in the works for some time. Wagner has had his eye on Grand Forks and always hoped to add a team to Kraft Field.

The Expedition League looks at four to five key attributes when assessing a city for possible expansion. Grand Forks checked all those boxes for Wagner.

“It’s got a good-sized population base and it has younger families, which is important to us. The business and entrepreneurial climate certainly exists in the Grand Forks and East Grand Forks area. Plus the ballpark is vital,” said Wagner.

Laughlin has found he is a big fan of the temporary home. He has enjoyed his time in the area and another key element for him comes inside the confines of Kraft Field.

“The turf infield is huge, and it's a really nice turf so it doesn’t speed the ball up like in other places that have turf in our league,” Laughlin said. “Plus, being the head coach I enjoy playing at pitcher’s ballpark like Kraft. It definitely gives us an advantage for sure.”

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With the Whiskey Jacks acting as a trial run of sorts for Grand Forks’ unnamed 2022 team, the league stands to benefit from an extra six or seven months. There is more time to get the word out and with a visual aid in the form of the Jacks.

The Whiskey Jacks just started the second half of their league schedule, finishing the first half in fourth place in the league's Lewis Division with a 14-16 record.

So far in the second half, the Jacks are 2-2, including a 9-7 loss to Sioux Falls Monday night. The teams were scheduled to play a doubleheader starting at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, July 6, and after that, the Jacks host Minot for a single game at 7:05 p.m. Friday before heading into a six-game road trip. They return home July 16 for a series against the team from Pierre, S.D., and will play nine home games over the following two weeks.

East Grand Forks native Jake Hjelle has added a local flair to the Whiskey Jacks and is among the league's leaders in batting this summer with a .343 average.

The team promotes a quality and intimate product, which gives players and staff a chance to see the support from the community up close. Throughout the early months, players have interacted with fans, and especially kids in attendance at games.

“The feedback has been great. They’re excited to have baseball back here in Grand Forks. The atmosphere is great and we’re not only looking forward to continuing our season here but the future of our league in Grand Forks as well,” Simonson said.

The positives Wagner saw in Grand Forks have started to become reality. There has been an average of approximately 200 fans at each game, and Wagner says that number has been building throughout the year.

“We draw about two-thirds of our fans at almost every location in the last half of the season. So, we’ve been very happy with what we’ve seen. It continues to build as the season goes on,” he said.

From the fan’s perspective, Kyle and Jordan Myers are excited about what the future may hold for summer collegiate baseball in Grand Forks.

“I think the model works. There’s a ton of potential and it is setting up nicely for the next team coming in,” Kyle said.

For the father and son, it also provides an opportunity to switch things up during a long summer without some of the more popular sports in the area.

“If you’re not into racing, you’re basically waiting for the football season to start,” he said. “It’ll be a nice change of pace and I think it will do well.”

There is still room for improvement when it comes to Kraft Field. Given it hasn’t housed a collegiate level team since 2016, when UND dropped its baseball program, there is some need for upgrades to the overall atmosphere.

Wagner and company have already taken these concerns into consideration.

“There are some plans and drawings being done for the fan experience which will improve and enhance things like bathrooms, concession stands, seating configurations and covered grandstands. Those are things that just make it a better experience for the fans,” said Wagner.

Another important announcement will soon come in the form of the team name. Minor league and collegiate level baseball has always boasted unique team branding. This includes teams in the Expedition League like the Fremont Moo, Hastings Sodbusters and Casper Horseheads.

Wagner hopes to get the community involved in those decisions.

“I love it when we start that process of naming the team and you get suggestions from the fans and the community. It really starts to kind of take on a life of its own where you get some really cool names,” he said. “Then it really helps the community to feel like, ‘Hey, this is our team.’ So we're really starting to roll into that right now.”

Those decisions may not arrive until the normal August or September time range, when everything can hopefully be back to normal for the Expedition League. Come next year, though, Grand Forks will have its own team with a one-of-a-kind name.

For now, the Whiskey Jacks are calling Kraft Field home and are thankful they’ve had the pleasure to do so.

Related Topics: BASEBALLKRAFT FIELD
Digital Content Producer and Sports Reporter at the Grand Forks Herald since December of 2020. Maxwell can be contacted at mmarko@gfherald.com.
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