The Bullpen: Team Canada has bright future
From March 11:
By the time the next World Baseball Classic is staged in 2017, 22 of Team Canada’s current 28 players will be in their 30s. Where is the new young talent coming from?
Five current Canadian players were also on the first WBC team in 2006 — Justin Morneau, Chris Robinson, Pete Orr, Adam Loewen and Scott Mathieson. That’s the most of any team in the tournament. The next generation?
Two young Canadian players who stood out were right-fielder Michael Saunders, 26, (right, No. 20 in photo above)) and starting pitcher Jameson Taillon. Standing in the shadow of Joey Votto and Justin Morneau in the Canadian lineup, Saunders was spectacular, earning MVP honours with a .727 average, four extra base hits, seven RBIs and a 2.042 OPS. His two-run homer gave Canada the early lead over the USA.
“I didn’t really feel like I needed to step up,” the Mariners outfielder said. “I felt that we all had great at-bats. We had runners on base the entire tournament and with guys like Morneau and Votto in front of you, those are guys that you can learn from. I was happy to be able to be there in the five hole with those guys on base all the time. It’s a lot easier hitting with runners on.”
Saunders, in the absence of Brett Lawrie, who injured his ribcage in the final exhibition, was the second-youngest position player, next to 22-year-old Tyson Gillies. Canada’s offence came entirely from Votto, Morneau, Saunders and Chris Robinson. Taylor Green did his best to replace Lawrie.
“Yeah, it was a tough go for Lawrie,” Saunders commiserated. “He’s a great competitor and he wanted to be there more than anybody, but it comes to a point where you’ve got to look out for the player and the organization as well.”
The 26-year-old from Victoria, B.C., started to establish himself as a major-leaguer with the M’s last year, but few people noticed, playing as he does in the Pacific northwest, away from the East Coast media glare.
“Well, two off seasons ago I knew I needed to change, because things in the past just weren’t working for me,” Saunders said of his improved hitting. “I took it upon myself to work with a guy out of Colorado, Mike Bard, and he helped me dramatically on shortening my swing.
“It was something that everybody was trying to do over the years. It’s just, sometimes language or whatever it may be, sticks with a player. Seattle had been trying to get me to shorten down my swing for quite some time. But something about working with Mike clicked and it allowed me to be more consistent. I tried to continue with that process this offseason and do more fine tuning and being very critical on myself and really being hard on myself to try to take the next step to the next level.”
Despite not advancing to the second round, count Saunders a big fan of the WBC.
“I think the WBC is great,” Saunders said. “And with the Olympics no longer available to us, this is the next best thing. It’s the top players in the world and I felt like every single country represented themselves very, very admirably.’’
It’s a tight-knit group of players, he added.
“Canadians and baseball, we may go our separate ways for a few years, but when we come back it’s like we haven’t skipped a beat. It’s going to be tough to leave these guys. We have a lot of fun playing the game, we play hard, we play it the right way, and it’s a tight fraternity.
“It starts with guys like Larry Walker, Morneau, Votto, these guys that have had success and really showing the world and showing our kids growing up that Canada’s not just a hockey country any more. I know that I idolized these guys growing up and watched these guys on TV. I feel like that they really helped me fall in love with the game and pursue my dream. I hope that, just being mentioned with those names that I can help Canadians continue with baseball as well.”
On the pitching side, 21-year-old Jameson Taillon made the biggest impression, working four strong innings against the Americans on Sunday. He said he felt immediately welcomed into the tightknit Canadian brotherhood as soon as he pulled on the jersey.
“It was a fun team to be a part of,” Taillon said. “For me it was a great experience. I got to meet a lot of great guys in there. It’s something I can really build off for the future. It’s a different atmosphere than anything I’ve been a part of. Winning is everything and we put it all on the line out there. It was a great week out here with everybody. Hopefully I get to do it again.”
Under the unique citizenship rules of the tournament, Taillon qualifies for Canada, even though he was born in Winter Haven, Florida and grew up in The Woodlands, Texas. It so happens that both his parents are Canadian and much of his family on both sides still lives north of the border. So what are the chances he continues to play for Canada if the U.S. ever comes knocking on his door?
“Team Canada, taking a stab, taking a chance on me, giving me a jersey to play for them, that was huge,” Taillon said. “I don’t think I’ll ever forget that going forward. Since the first day I got here, they played a street hockey game over at Morneau’s house. They took me in right away. Great guys, guys that I’ll keep in touch with forever. I felt a big part of it the whole time.”
And there are even more talented Canadians on the way in time for the 2017 WBC.
THE LIST: TOP BLUE JAYS AMATEUR SIGNING BONUSES
1-Adeiny Hechavarria 2010$4.0 million
2-Adonys CARDONA 2010$2.8 million
3-Ricky ROMERO 2005$2.4 million
T4-Felipe LOPEZ 1998$2.0 million
T4-Deck McGUIRE 2010$2.0 million
T4-Daniel NORRIS 2011$2.0 million
7-Matt SMORAL 2012$2.0 million
(Source: Baseball America)
At every major baseball event, MLB commissioner Bud Selig will find the time to stage an impromptu press conference, either before or during the actual game. MLB P.R. chief Pat Courtney will stick his head into the press box and say, “Bud will be available in about 10 minutes.” The group of national writers will dutifully grab notepads and tape recorder and head back to meet the Commish.
On Friday night, while Team USA was on the field losing to Mexico, Selig held court, covering a variety of topics, all of them things that he wanted to promote. The major points of discussion were the globalization of baseball, using the WBC as a vehicle and Bud’s concept of a true World Series.
“What is the final goal, long after I’m gone?” Selig asked, rhetorically. “The thought of having a real World Series and the interest in the world, that’s why (the WBC) is important. That idea is breathtaking. And so it’s very, very important. Yes, it has economic potential that is huge. I mean huge. But it has sociological potential which for me is greater. Baseball will be huge. The internationalization of the game has the means to take this sport to heights that we can’t imagine.”
Sadly, the WBC’s ratings on TV in America on the MLB Network, have been modest and the interest in terms of attendance and media coverage has been less than spectacular. But Selig is not fazed.
“I keep hearing the theory that, ‘Well the U.S. isn’t into it,’ but remember we’re trying to internationalize the sport,” he said. “Television ratings in Japan are at an all-time high. That’s big. That is really big. Is this doing what it set out to do? You bet it is. It is doing what we set out to do.
Selig, similar to the NHL, uses David Stern and his worldwide spread of the NBA’s roundball message as his model. There are 16 countries in the WBC but over 80 are ranked by the IBAF. Most of them are not very good, but having that many nations with national programs is a strong start.
“You take a sport that is as popular as it is here and in Japan and in Korea and the more that you can globalize that sport the bigger the sport is everywhere,” Selig said. “And so when you globalize it that’s big. Tonight I stood and watched the national anthems being played and it’s a great sight. For me, I believe that baseball can grow, with economic growth, sociological growth, a new meaning for all of the world. It’ll make the sport better here. It’ll make the sport better everywhere.”
But it was the idea of Bud’s dream, a true World Series with champions of various countries’ professional baseball leagues playing off after the MLB World Series that was most intriguing.
“Some day you will have the United States vs. Japan in a real World Series,” Selig predicted. “That would be ideal. That would be the goal. All the potential that I can think of and the vision that I can think of is being worldwide. And as a result, the sport everywhere will be much stronger. We have more contacts in countries in Europe today than ever. Someone said the other day that they wanted to start the (regular) season in Europe. Five years ago if you had said that people would have laughed.”
There has been criticism of the selection process and how players can always find a reason not to compete in the WBC, while some clubs may make it difficult for their players that wish to compete.
“Joe Torre is the guy to talk to about that,” Selig said. “He’s talked to players that wanted to play, but have a little injury problem or they were a little nervous about it. But I think for the most part, they’re happy with the player response. I know Joey Votto had some (physical) problems and he wanted to play. It’s good. Is it perfect? No, but I think each four years it will get better and better and better.”
The clubs have been good about releasing their players, Selig maintains.
“Most clubs have been very cooperative,” Selig said. “Some of the players that aren’t playing, (we) accept as valid reasons why they’re not playing. I know Joe told me how Justin Verlander told him he really wanted to play, but for whatever reason he couldn’t, and that was valid.
“I keep asking that question, because it’s easy for me to make the call if someone is not cooperative. But they haven’t said that, so you look around and you’re going to see (Ryan) Braun and (Joe) Mauer and (David) Wright and so on and so forth, (Jimmy) Rollins.”
It would have really crushed the ratings if Team USA had lost to Canada, but baseball lucked out and America lives to fight another day, while Canada regroups, looking ahead to WBC 2017.
Personally, I love the WBC concept and what it does for the awareness of baseball in Canada. But it took a moment like the sprawling brawl between Mexico and Canada to drive home the rampant paranoia that grips major-league baseball when it comes to moments of potential controversy.
The NAFTA fight was the most talked about subplot all weekend, drawing what should have been welcome attention to the WBC in the US of A. Before that there was none. But baseball tried to sweep it under the rug before Larry Walker’s dance partner Alfredo Aceves could even be exorcised.
A terse statement was read to the press by MLB, the first paragraph reading as follows:
“We are extremely disappointed in the bench-clearing incident that marred the conclusion of today’s game between Canada and Mexico. The episode runs counter to the spirit of sportsmanship and respectful competition for which the World Baseball Classic has stood throughout its history.”
Zzzz. The two managers spoke, but none of the players were available. The clubhouses are always closed after games, like it was an Olympic-style event, but usually players are brought out to speak to the press. Not on Saturday. Mexico’s manager Rick Renteria swears he didn’t see his third baseman Luis Cruz signal to Arnold Leon to plunk Rene Tosoni. Renteria blithely suggested that the press ask Cruz, knowing that Cruz was sequestered away in a locked clubhouse.
No players were made available although catcher Chris Robinson, whose bunt precipitated the skirmish, and first-base coach Larry Walker, who was almost drilled by a baseball from the stands, both defied authorities and spoke candidly about the incident. In fact Walker’s humor saved the day,
If baseball had its way, no media would ever talk to any player unless it was a closely supervised, MLB controlled, preferably scripted opportunity. MLB sometimes just doesn’t get it. Their players are the game and their personalities presented to the public are what sells the game. Hey MLB, quit being obstructionist and let the public appreciate the sport, warts and all.
ON THE ROAD AGAIN
ThereI was last Tuersday speeding through the pitch black of a central Florida night with a mere 14 hours to get back to the Star condo at Jays camp, pack a bag and catch a flight from Tampa for a date with Team Canada and the WBC in Phoenix. No time to panic. Sure I was lost, but I was making good time. Thank God for satellite radio. Wait, was that the theme from Deliverance on Classic Vinyl?
I focused on keeping the white line on my lefthand-side as 18-wheelers flew by headed in the opposite direction. Blinded by the light. E-Street radio. Was I the only one headed west? I was on a two-lane highway with the number 98 that seemed to be getting narrower and narrower. The night seemed to be getting darker and darker. Completely lost, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Earlier in the day, I had watched my son Patrick catch his first Div. 2 game as a freshman for the College of St. Rose Golden Knights, part of the Palm Beach Challenge. They had competed hard, but lost to Concordia College of Bronxville, New York. They had five more games in Florida, but I had a date with another group of young Canadians, many that had taken the same road as Pat.
I had taken Patrick for a bite to eat after the game, a nice little cafe in downtown Boynton Beach. This entire area on the east coast of the state was familiar from my days with the Expos, staging training camp for my final 24 years in West Palm Beach. In fact the tournament fields in Lantana were a complex of diamonds built by the Expos to be home for their minor league clubs. Small world.
Why was I here? Why was I lost? Well, it seems the day before, coming across from Dunedin, I had seen a turnoff in Okeechobee with a big “98” on it. Then two hours later as I passed the exit for the Palm Beach airport, I saw another sign that said “98”. Putting two and two together I figured that I could get to Okeechobee, maybe even quicker, by linking Highway 98s. That’s it! A shortcut! Not!
Dazed and confused, I pulled into a small gas station/convenience store in the middle of nowhere, in a place called Belle Glade, which translated from its original French, I believe means Beautiful Air Freshener. I had stumbled upon it only after taking a wrong turn and ending up on top of a steep hill that I believe may have been made out of pure potash with signs that said “No Exit.” It was then that I had a midlife flashback and realized where I was. Not quite an Archidemes “Eureka” moment but it helped me with my understanding of why I always get lost and refuse to buy a GPS. Hey, if I want a woman’s voice telling me where to go I can always stay home.
Yes, it seems it was back on April 1, 1984. Georgetown was facing Villanova for the NCAA basketball championship and Hall-of-Fame broadcaster Dave Van Horne and I were driving in my car back from a Grapefruit League game vs. the Jays — Dunedin to West Palm Beach. Pre-GPS, Van Horne was my navigator. We were lost. I had turned off on what I believed would be a shortcut as night settled in. Completely disoriented, we had pulled into this very same gas station some 29 years earlier.
It got worse. After getting vague directions that I didn’t really understand, perhaps needing a Rosetta Stone for central Floridians, we set off hoping to still catch the second half of the Hoyas-Wildcats at home. Somehow, I ended up circling Lake Okeechobee and missing the entire game.
Back to the present. Finally on this Tuesday night in 2013, on my own, with knowledge gained through history, that there actually was a way out of Belle Glade, I found a familiar road, Highway 70 West, arriving back at Casa El Star in time to pack my bag and catch my flight.
You gotta love it.