Following Terry Puhl … signed at midget nationals

by on August 11, 2012

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* Terry Puhl (Melville, Sask.), the last Saskatchewan player to appear in the majors, was signed by the Houston Astros at the Baseball Canada midget nationals …. 

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By Brent M. Loehr

1991. On the 29th of May that year, Terry Puhl appeared in his last game as a Major League player.

No one from the province of Saskatchewan has made it to the big leagues since. World class hockey players are mined regularly from the Prairie province yet prospecting on Saskatchewan diamonds finds its own struggles unearthing that rare gem of a player.

In Puhl’s case, the Cincinnati Reds showed an interest in his raw talent at age 15. A couple of years later, while playing with his hometown of Melville, his pro career budded after attending the Baseball Canada national midget championships held in Barrhead, Alta.

“We ended up winning the tournament and I was named the MVP,” said Puhl. “The Houston Astros had a scout there, Wayne Morgan, and he asked if I was interested in signing a pro contract.

“He said he would venture down to Melville in a couple of weeks to put me through a workout. Two weeks to the day Wayne was sitting in our kitchen when I returned from school. He immediately took me to the local diamond and threw me from right field, ran me … and then informed me he wished to sign me.”

Puhl was on the fast track with the Astros and was playing triple-A at 19. He made his major-league debut on July 12, 1977 and never appeared in the minor leagues again. He was named to the National League All-Star team the following year and his superlative defense made him a lock in the outfield; his .993 fielding percentage is the highest all-time for an MLB outfielder.

His career path is an anomaly for Saskatchewan players nowadays with most who show pro baseball potential initially toiling in American colleges and the few who have been drafted and signed entering the lowest of minor leagues before being dismissed during their ascent to the Show.

Most sports in Canada struggle snagging the best athletes available — many of which gravitate to dreams of pro hockey. Having players from your vicinity enter the highest of leagues makes the dream more plausible.

The NBA’s popularity was augmented in Germany with Dirk Nowizki’s stardom and also in Canada with Steve Nash’s basketball prowess; specific sports programs benefit when their elite athletes qualify for the Olympics and bring heightened awareness to their activity. The profile of baseball in Canada was elevated when the Blue Jays won the World Series in 1992-93 and continues with more and more Canadians appearing each year in Major League Baseball.

What would an MLB player from Saskatchewan do for recruitment and retention of baseball players in the Wheat Province?

“It might have some impact,” said Greg Brons, Saskatchewan Baseball’s high performance director. “Players in Saskatchewan may think, ‘Hey, why not me?’ As a kid I was an avid baseball card collector — any time I saw Terry in the pack I was pretty happy to see born: Melville, Sask.”

Talented baseball players have come out of Saskatchewan, but with a provincial population that hovers around one million there are simply less of them.

There is no easy road to the Show and making it proves even more difficult with certain challenges to overcome. Saskatchewan’s infamously fickle weather can cause all too frequent game and practice cancellations, that is, after the snow is gone and the grey transition of Winter to Spring has subsided.

“I played baseball three months of the year; hardly anywhere close to my American peers (while growing up),” Puhl said.

A realistic competitive phase within the window of May to August is an actuality others don’t face in more balmy locales. As an association, Saskatchewan Baseball has made strides over the years to extend the season and develop those deemed potential prospects with pre and post-season camps and southern trips to the United States.

“It is a very hard game to play,” Brons said. “A person has to have a tremendous amount of coordination in order to be successful in baseball and many players don’t have the patience it takes to develop those skills. Furthermore, with our short season those skills don’t get fully developed.”

Another reason for the lack of MLB representation is instruction.

“Again, the U.S. is light years ahead,” Puhl remarked. Competition against elite level peers and exposure to scouts on a regular basis is also a hindrance. “This has changed somewhat with the advent of the Canadian Junior Team.”

One could ponder if a stellar hockey goalie from Houston would get the same number of looks from scouts as they would if they were blocking shots in Saskatoon and, on the flip side, where that netminder would regularly face more quality competition to truly measure their talent level.

There are players all over the world who are underexposed, but no matter where anyone lives, the tools and skill set must be present, identified, and developed in order for athletes to reach their fullest potential. Players can’t be just good … they need to be exceptional and be exceptional against top-level competition.

Saskatchewan baseball fans are ravenous waiting for a homegrown player to finally have another MLB at bat or offer a pitch to the plate. Regina’s Dustin Molleken came the closest in a long time. A 2012 attendee of the Colorado Rockies at spring training, Molleken pitched for the Colorado Springs Sky Sox, the triple-A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies, before signing this past July to play in the Japan with the Nippon-Ham Fighters. Originally drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2003, the 6-foot-4 right hander had reached the highest level of minor league baseball and was a call-up away from busting the over two decade long drought of a Saskatchewan player in the majors.

When the next player from Saskatchewan makes the majors their career will be facile for fanatics to follow compared to that of Puhl’s playing days—the bulk of which occurred in the internet barren 1970s and 80s.

“Friends and family kept track of me through The Sporting News while I was in the minors. The Melville Advance ran a special following of me on a weekly basis. My parents also subscribed to the Houston Post,” Puhl offered.

Times have certainly changed since then. Live Satellite TV and radio packages broadcast every game of every team, pitch-by-pitch action is available on smart phones, internet sites host clips and condensed games, and with the brevity of tweets and Facebook posts even the most casual of fans could stay acquainted with that player’s career; quite a difference from a few decades ago circling a few trite descriptions of exploits with a ballpoint pen in week old newspapers.

Ball players from Saskatchewan who aspire to play major league baseball have some struggles ahead of them … as do others with similar goals across the country and indeed the world.

Becoming the first Saskatchewan ball player to make it to the Big Leagues since 1991 remains elusive. It is only a matter of time, however frustrating that is for those who impatiently wait. Making it will require tremendous talent coupled with opportunity and will certainly be a remarkable accomplishment. Following that upstart’s career will ironically require little effort at all.

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