Remembering Calgary’s last professional baseball team the Vipers with Drew Miller

They call him “The Bat from The Hat.”

And while baseball eventually delivered Drew Miller to Medicine Hat, he actually grew up in Schuler, a small town about 60 kilometres northeast of The Gas City.

Baseball fans in Calgary, meanwhile, are more likely to recognize Miller from his time with the Vipers, an independent league team that played out of Foothills Stadium between 2005 and 2011.

Miller played for the Vipers for the entire existence of the franchise and if you look at an offensive category, odds are he holds the team record for it. Over seven seasons with the Snakes, he posted 691 hits, including 142 doubles and 79 home runs. The hard-hitting outfielder also scored 451 runs and recorded 426 RBI. Perhaps a nickname like “The Snake Who Could Rake” would be more appropriate.

The achievements were not bad at all for a player who ended up with the Vipers by chance. Miller spent his early 20s playing for another indy league team, the Roosters of the Frontier League, but after three seasons in Richmond, Indiana, he was unable to secure a visa for the 2005 season. That same year, the inaugural season of the Vipers, Calgary’s pitching coach was Steve Maddock, a man who knew Miller well from his time managing the Windy City ThunderBolts of the Frontier League.

“He told me he had tried to trade for me while I was in the Frontier League, and when he saw I was available he made the trade for a player to be named later, but there never was a player named later,” Miller told Alberta Dugout Stories.

Even though the Vipers and Roosters played in different leagues, trades between independent leagues were a common occurrence. Following the Miller trade, the Roosters only played one more season in Richmond – but they forgot to claim their player to be named later and moved to Traverse City, where they became the Beach Bums.

None of that mattered to Maddock and Miller, who were united in Cowtown and couldn’t wait to hit the field.

“I found out that Greg Morrison was signed by the team as the first player on the roster. He is still the person I consider the best ball player to come out of Medicine Hat, and I was amazed I was going to be able to play on the same team as him,” said the 38-year-old Miller, who was 25 when he joined the Vipers. 

“I was the third player to be signed. I was extremely excited to play so close to home. I hadn’t played a game that most of my family and friends had been able to see since I was 18. So many people I hadn’t seen in a long time appeared in the stands and I loved every minute playing in Calgary.”

While he could barely contain his excitement about playing in Calgary, Miller admits there were growing pains for the Vipers.

The Northern League announced its expansion into Calgary and Edmonton, where the Cracker-Cats called Telus Field home, in 2004. Japanese businessmen Hiro Masawa and Naoto Higuchi owned the Calgary team and promised major renovations to Foothills Stadium, but when they failed to deliver, the league took back the franchise and sold it to Winnipeg’s Jeffrey Gidney. Despite having just a few months to assemble the team and hire staff, Gidney made sure Calgary was ready to play and on May 20, 2005, the Vipers traveled to Sioux City for their first game, a 7-3 loss to the Explorers. Their first win came the next night, a 12-2 victory over the same opponent.

The Vipers first home game “was a bit of a mess,” Miller recalls. On May 27, the team was set to fly back to Calgary from O’Hare International Airport in Chicago – along with the Joliet Jackhammers, the team they were facing that night – but a leaky fuel line delayed the flight.

“Both teams arrived at the field 30 minutes before game time,” said Miller.

“The crowd that first game was pretty big and they weren’t equipped for so many people. There was a line from the box office all the way up to where you park for the Stamps games, so they decided to delay the first pitch by an hour so everyone could get in.”

Miller hadn’t heard the Canadian anthem before one of his baseball games since he was a teenager.

“Hearing everyone in the stadium sing, it gave me chills,” said the left-handed hitter, who was eager to impress the home crowd.

The Vipers jumped out to a 7-0 lead after the first four innings, but Joliet stormed back to tie the game and the Jackhammers eventually won it by a 9-8 score in 11 innings.

“We came out swinging and took an early lead and thought the game was ours,” said Miller, who is now an assistant coach with the University of Calgary Dinos and the manager of the Coyote Den baseball training centre.

“It was a bit heartbreaking and not the first impression that we wanted to make for our home crowd. But that season we played solid baseball and just missed the playoffs.”

As far as compensation went, Miller said the pay wasn’t great. When he started playing in Richmond in 2002, he was making the league minimum of just $550 a month (the maximum pay in the Frontier League was $1,250/month at that time), and when he moved to Alberta, he said the Northern League minimum was close to $750, while the top end players could make as much as $2,500 per month. His living costs were offset by staying with a host family in Indiana, but in Calgary Miller had to find his own accommodations and pay rent.

“I would say 99 per cent of the guys playing indie ball didn’t do it for the money,” said Miller, who was named the Vipers’ most outstanding player during his second season with the team in 2006.

“Most of the time I was able to make enough of a living for the months I played ball to not have to find a summer job. I would do kids camps and appearances for a little extra money but I didn’t rely on that.”

When he did have to take on a non-baseball job, Miller had summer employment waiting in Medicine Hat with an oilfield company.

“I would save as much as I could, so I could concentrate on baseball and not have to worry as much about money. It sure wasn’t an easy way to make a living when it’s just yourself, but there were a lot of guys trying to chase the dream with families they were helping support. It isn’t for everyone.”

While his paycheque wasn’t enough to make him a high roller, there were other perks to the job.

One of those perks was playing with and against former Major League Baseball (MLB) players like Felix Jose, Mac Suzuki, Jose Canseco and Jose Lima.

“It was amazing to think that you were able to share the field with guys that you watched play on TV growing up,” Miller said.

The Oklahoma Baptist University alum remembers his first game against the Yuma Scorpions in 2011, when twin brothers Jose and Ozzie Canseco were coaching the team.

“It looked like two adults talking to a bunch of kids … the Canseco brothers just towered over everyone,” said Miller, who went 3-for-4 with a home run in the first half of a doubleheader against Yuma, only to be intentionally walked three times during the second game.

“It seemed strange to me, because I was just an indy guy, not someone with big league time that should be pitched around. As we were shaking hands, Canseco shook my hand and said, ‘It wasn’t anything personal, but I respected your bat too much. I knew that your bat got the others going and I wanted the other bats to beat us, not yours.’ That blew me away that only after one game, he saw all of that in my hitting.”

Miller also has fond memories of the right-handed pitcher Lima, who won 21 games with the Houston Astros in 1999 before joining Calgary’s northern rivals, the Edmonton Capitals, 10 years later.

“For all the antics that you would see when he struck someone out, he was one of the nicest guys in baseball,” said Miller, who hit a home run off “Lima Time” to straight away centre at Foothills Stadium.

After the game, Lima spotted Miller’s four-year-old nephew playing with a broom stick and replaced it with an autographed baseball bat.

“My nephew still has the bat, and I love telling that story. It’s still sad to think that it was his last season before he passed away,” said Miller, who wore jersey number 18 with the Vipers.

Lima died of heart failure at his Pasadena, California home on May 23, 2010. He was just 37 years old.

In addition to the personalities, another perk for Miller was winning. The Vipers made it to the 2007 and 2008 league championship finals but lost both best-of-five matchups in the fifth game.

They were determined to not have that happen again in 2009.

“The 2009 Vipers team was like playing on a Triple-A team. Our pitching staff was unbelievable,” recalled Miller.

“Those that had been there for both of those game five title losses were on a mission to take this championship. Right out of the gate, we took it to the league. We didn’t want to give any doubt to anyone what our goal was. We were there to win every game and would do everything to win it.”

After a successful regular season, Calgary eliminated the Edmonton Capitals from the playoff picture. Then the Vipers got a shot at redemption against the Tucson Toros in the championship finals. The Snakes returned to Calgary with a 2-1 series lead, needing just one win to clinch the city’s first pro baseball title, something that not even the Pacific Coast League’s Cannons were able to do during their 18 seasons at Foothills Stadium.

“There was the anticipation of being so close and counting down each out, just knowing that anything could happen in baseball. Then there was the explosion of emotions as the final out is called and you all race to dog pile and celebrate the grind that you have all been through,” said Miller of the historic Sept. 12, 2009 moment.

After his stellar 2010 campaign, Miller would play just one more season for the Vipers, who folded after the 2011 season.

He would wrap up his playing career with another independent league team, the Trois-Rivieres Aigles of the Can-Am League, before retiring as a player and settling in Calgary, where he continues to coach and teach people about the game that he loves.

“I have been blessed to play the game I loved for so long, and I couldn’t have ever imagined that it would also create lasting friendships and memories the way it has for me,” said Miller.

“Baseball is still my life and I hope it always will be.”

(This story was excerpted with permission from Alberta Dugout Stories. To read the full story and other great tales from the baseball diamonds of this province, please visit them.)

(Photos courtesy Ian Wilson.)

Ian Wilson is the co-founder of Alberta Dugout Stories, a website and social media presence devoted to celebrating baseball in the province. He grew up on Medicine Hat Blue Jays baseball, pines for the Pacific Coast League to return to Calgary, and is most happy when watching a game at Seaman Stadium in Okotoks.