WALLA WALLA — Zachary Fraser has a vision of the Walla Walla Valley as a bastion of baseball within the next decade and a half.
That includes youth, prep, college and pro baseball — and the Valley is already on its way to that end.
Fraser, the general manager of the Walla Walla Sweets of the summer collegiate baseball West coast League, brings his message to the 30th Walla Walla Valley Youth Baseball and Softball dinner/auction fundraiser.
The event, which raises money to support youth ball in the Valley, begins with a social hour at 5:30 p.m. Saturday at the Walla Walla Fairgrounds Community Building.
More than 100 auction items will include wine and tasting packages, trips to Hawaii and Mexico, a trip to a Mariners-Yankees game, dinners and golf packages, among others.
For Fraser, it’s a chance to convey his views on baseball in the Valley — a very upbeat one.
“Right now, the future of baseball in Walla Walla is the best it’s ever been,” he said Wednesday as preparations for the Sweets’ fourth season of play are made. “We want to develop a format that allows baseball to be a positive contributor in the community in the future. There’s a lot that can be accomplished by baseball both on and off the field.”
To highlight his vision of making baseball a career possibility, Fraser uses the example of Sweets manager J.C. Biagi, a DeSales and Walla Walla Community College grad who remains entrenched in the Walla Walla baseball community he grew up in.
In addition to managing the Sweets, Biagi is an assistant on WWCC’s baseball team — under another Walla Walla baseball product, Dave Meliah, who assists Biagi with the Sweets and played pro ball before returning to town.
“J.C. benefitted from the youth baseball structure in Walla Walla, which gave him an opportunity to play and get a college degree (from Centenary College in Louisiana),” Fraser said. “Baseball isn’t just a career for J.C., it’s a lifestyle for him.
“So we say, how do we provide opportunities for kids to be the next J.C. Biagi, make this the place in Southeast Washington where people come to develop in baseball.”
The Sweets are just a part of that vision, Fraser says, which includes all the youth baseball and softball groups and schools working together toward that goal.
“We need to encourage a flourishing baseball community,” he said, “and that only happens when we work together.”
Fraser has brought the Walla Walla Valley into his heart after arriving in town to establish the Sweets four years ago, leaving his position with the Seattle Storm WNBA franchise to do so.
He had a two-year plan to be in Walla Walla at the time, but that has turned into what he describes as possibly a 10-year plan as Fraser and his family have settled into the community.
“For every one benefit of living in Seattle, there are nine living here,” he said.
The Sweets have turned into a fan attraction, continually leading the WCL in attendance.
“We’ve been lucky,” Fraser says of the attendance. “The thing that hurts us fan-wise is the weather, and I can’t control that.
“We’ve been blessed to have people caring about what we’re doing, and we’re doing everything we can control to keep that going.”
In addition to fan-friendly activities at Borleske Stadium, the Sweets are also bringing back six players from last season’s team — including four of their top offensive performers — for the 2013 season, which begins June 5 when Bend comes to town.
“Baseball is a game of familiarity,” Fraser said. “The more familiar you are, the more at home you feel. We try to create familiarity as soon as they step off the plane.”
This year, Fraser is using statistics-based sabermetrics to focus on specific players to bring to the team based on their playing history, a system made famous by Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics 10 years ago.
But it hasn’t been used at this level of baseball, Fraser said.
“We’re trying something new,” he said of the effort. “It’s a scientific approach to the game.”
And, glancing at the whiteboard filling one wall of his office, he’s excited about this summer’s squad.
“On the board, we look awesome,” he said.
A key for the Sweets is a better start to the season, getting into July at .500 or better, Fraser said, and getting some of their college players into town.
“We’ve traditionally played great baseball July 1 on,” he said of the successful Sweets history.
Indeed, they played the Corvallis Knights for the WCL championship in 2011.
And, much like his vision for baseball in the Walla Walla Valley, Fraser sets his sights for the Sweets high.
“It’s a goal for us to make the playoffs.”