* Chris Robinson (Dorchester, Ont.) will be the starting catcher for Team Canada in the WBC since Russell Martin (Montreal, Que.) decided he'd only compete if he could play shortstop. .... 2012 Most Influential Canadians 2012 All-Canadian Team 2012 All-Canadian stats
By Bob Elliott
CLEARWATER _ No one knows the Team Canada catching duo as well as Ryne Sandberg.
The Hall of Fame second baseman managed Chris Robinson at triple-A Iowa in 2010 in the Chicago Cubs system.
And he managed John Suomi at triple-A Lehigh Valley in 2011-12, the Philadelphia Phillies top affiliate.
With Pittsburgh Pirates catcher Russell Martin deciding not to play -- if he could not play shortstop -- Robinson of Dorchester, Ont. will start and Etobicoke’s Suomi is his back up for the third World Baseball Classic next week.
“Both have their pluses and minuses,” said Sandberg after an infield session hitting ground balls to a group of infielders which included Michael Young and Peter Orr at Bright House Field Thursday morn.
Orr will play second for the Ernie Whitt-managed team, which arrives in Arizona on Sunday. After two workout days and two exhibitions, Canada meets Italy in the opener next Friday.
“They’re both catchers, I know they aren’t going to tryout for a new position,” said Sandberg. “Playing against the best in the world, I don’t know if that’s the right time to try it.
“The reason players are asked to play in the WBC is that they are the best at their particular position from their countries.”
Sandberg said Robinson handles pitchers well, describing him as a leader.
“He’s a general, who cares very deeply about winning and he’s not afraid to show it,” said the Phillies third base coach.
Robinson hit .326 in 2009, his first year at triple-A.
“He got off to a slow start the next year for me, even though he hit the ball hard,” Sandberg said. “That kind of snowballed. On a team trying to make the playoffs he was the guy I had catching.
“That’s how much loyalty and respect I have for Chris Robinson.”
The year remains one of Robinson’s favorite summers.
“I loved him as a manager, he was intense and wanted to win. I was stuck behind a couple of prospects and he fought tooth and nail to get me into the lineup,” said Robinson. “I don’t think I’ve had a year where players were so close, the wives were so close.
“Ryne’s wife Margaret got players involved in the Des Monies community, you don’t see that in the minors. He’s a solid family man.”
Iowa and Memphis battled to the wire.
“We went into the last homestand having to win three of the last four against Memphis,” said Robinson from Fort Myers. “We won the first two, now we only have to win one to advance. We lost in 16 and the final day we lost on a walk-off homer.”
The top Canadian drafted in 2002, the London Badgers grad, is in his ninth pro season spending time with the Detroit Tigers, the Cubs and now is in his second year in the Baltimore Orioles system.
“I viewed him as another coach,” said the Hall of Famer, “he’d take charge whether on the field or in the clubhouse. He’s very vocal.”
Robinson, 28, has played 566 games.
Robinson recalls the night late in the season when Iowa was in Albuquerque trailing by six in the ninth. Iowa scored seven to win.
“I was on second, our guy hit a line drive and it went through the third baseman’s glove, I get to third and he says with a look of shock: “Robbie the ball went through his glove!’” said Robinson. “I told him, I know that’s why I’m here.”
The Cubs reached the clubhouse celebrating as if they’d won the World Series and Sandberg was on Cloud Nine too.
“A lot of people see Ryne as a Hall of Famer, take him the wrong way because he’s so introverted,” Robinson said. “Ryne was involved, he was an instigator and he get me to stir the pot.”
Robinson and his sister Dana will fly their parents Don and Kathie to Phoenix for the WBC as an early birthday present for his father.
Suomi, 32, has appeared in 788 in 12 seasons, after being drafted in the 22nd round in 2000 by the Oakland A’s from University College of the Cariboo as the first player ever recruited to Kamloops, B.C. by coach Jay Lapp.
Since signing, Suomi has been elevated or demoted 26 times, making 21 stops with five different organizations, also playing in the Washington Nationals, Kansas City Royals and Pittburgh.
Suomi toured the Phillies system in 2010-11 making stops at class-A Clearwater (17 games), double-A Reading (65) and Lehigh (99): where ever he was needed. Last year he spent the entire season in one city for the first time time since 2006 at class-A Lynchburg.
“John made the most of his opportunties,” said Sandberg, sometimes the back-up catcher, sometimes the third catcher. “He swung a hot bat for two months, hitting clean-up.”
For May and June the Etobicoke Rangers grad, sometimes called Johnny Finland, hit .359 (28-for-78) with two homers and 11 RBIs.
So it will be Robinson and not Martin behind the plate.
“Like I told Justin Morneau, there isn’t one stat you can find where I start over Russell Martin,” said Robinson, “but I’ll do my best, leave it all on the field.”
Sandberg would not expect anything less.