Lawrie look-a-like O'Neill top Canuck HSer

* Tyler O'Neill (Maple Ridge, BC) son of Mr. Canada, was the top high schooler selected in the June draft going to the Seattle Mariners by the same man, scout Tom McNamara, who chose Brett Lawrie  six years ago. .... 2013 Canadian draft list 2014 Canadian draft list 2013 Canadians in the Minors  2013 Canadians in College  Letters of Intent


By Bob Elliott

“Who does No. 42 remind you of?” a scout asked me last year before the British Columbia-Ontario, Canada Cup gold medal game at London’s Labatt Park.

After watching Tyler O’Neill run and walk, the answer was easy: Brett Lawrie.

It’s easy for a scout or a lowly writer to toss around comparisons from the grandstand.

No one saw more of Lawrie, than scout Tom McNamara, responsible for the Milwaukee Brewers choosing the Langley, B.C. teen-ager who now plays third base for the Blue Jays, in the first round six years ago.

Now, scouting director of the Seattle Mariners, McNamara chose O’Neill in the third round on Friday, Day II of the annual three-day draft.

McNamara was asked about the Lawrie-O’Neill comparison Friday in Seattle.

“I’ve heard the similarities, I don’t like to put a tag on them,” McNamara said. “When it comes to their confidence and their strength I see the comparison. They’re both strong.”

Lawrie played shortstop until his drafted year when he switched to behind the plate and even spending time in centre to improve his draft stock.

“Lawrie was a catcher when we drafted him,” said McNamara, “but he wasn’t a guy you thought was gonna catch.  He was OK. That’s where the similarities are.

“We took Tyler because of his bat potential he’s athletic enough that he can play the corner outfield positions, plus first or third. We’d rather see him develop as an outfielder. His path to get here will be quicker without the developmental time behind the plate.”


* * *

Like all good story tellers ... and this is a good one ... McNamara starts at the start.

Five years and three weeks ago McNamara returned to his hotel room in Long Beach.

“I’d seen outfielder Aaron Hicks and it was a pretty good day,” said McNamara of Hicks who went 14th over all and is now part of the Minnesota Twins outfield. “And then the phone rings.”

It was Brewers scouting director Jack Zduriencik calling: “Tom, you have to be in the Dominican tomorrow.”

So, off McNamara went catching the hourly Long Beach-Santo Domingo hourly shuttle (: (:

The next day he went to see the Team Canada Junior National Team in a doubleheader.

Lawrie had four home runs, two to left, two to right all on 90 MPH fastballs, when he came up for his final at-bat of the day.

Someone asked a Dominican scout what he thought of Lawrie so far?

“Ah, two to left, two to right, he hasn’t hit one out to centre,” said the veteran scout.


Lawrie went deep to centre.

The other scouts laughed and one asked “what have you got him down for now old timer.”

“Well,” said the scout, “I had him down as Babe Ruth, but I might be a bit light.”

So, began the legend of Brett Lawrie, which is told and re-told around the island where baseball is the national sports -- baseball is runner up in popularity -- every May Team Canada comes to the island.

Lawrie is not Ruth.

He has 25 career homers in 205 games.

It projects to a 25-homer season over 162 games. Yet Lawrie has been injured in 2011 (hit by a pitch, last year (when he went down a photographer’s well at Yankee Stadium) playing 125 games and now he’s in Florida after a sprained ankle due to an awkward slide at second.

McNamara could not get any cell reception and could not reach Zduriencik until returning to the hotel. For sure McNamara figured he was flying home. Zduriencik said McNamara should stay another day.

Lawrie homered in his first at-bat.

And the Brewers chose Lawrie with their first over-all pick.

Now, McNamara has again selected the top Canadian high schooler, after O’Neill was at Safeco Field for a work out.

“At the Safeco Field workout, (McNamara) told me how he was there the day Brett went off ... five homers in a double header,” said O’Neill. “It’s pretty cool being compared to Brett. I hope to meet him.”


* * *

There was talk O’Neill would be amongst the first 73 picks and be selected Thursday on Day I.

“I was hoping to go Thursday, but I slept OK, I always sleep OK,” said O’Neill.

At 7 a.m. (PST) Friday he received a call that the Mariners would select him.

O’Neill was at a high school graduation ceremony and didn’t hear his name called. Teams can say “we’re picking you,” but until a player hears your name called one never knows for sure.

The slugger wanted to be valedictorian but was away with the Team Canada Junior Team at nomination time, saying he’s a good public speaker: “I like to consider myself a good speaker, I’m comfortable on any stage whether it’s speaking or playing ball.”

Besides McNamara, area scout former Canadian Baseball Network Scout of the Year, Wayne Norton of Port Moody, B.C. evaluated O’Neill.

They see his future as a right fielder.

Could there some day be an all-Canadian outfield in Seattle?

Right now Michael Saunders of Victoria, B.C. is in centre and Jason Bay of Trail, B.C. has been spending time in left.

With a scholarship to Oregon State, O’Neill says he’s “excited to get on with his pro career.”

Translation: he’ll likely sign. Suggested slot money for the 85th pick over all is $631,100.

Lawrie’s most memorable day was his five-homer day.

O’Neill knocked in 10 runs in a BC Premier League double dip against the Victoria Eagles. He was 4-for-4, with two homers and two triples in the opener and hit a two-run single in the nitecap for a 10-RBI day.

Big crowd of scouts to see it?

“My parents,” said O’Neill.


* * *

Mom Marilyn and father Terry O'Neill are regulars at O’Neill’s games. Terry says they aren’t the type of parents who jump up and down on every one of his hit.

“We look at each other after a homer and shake our heads -- another homer? -- in disbelief,”

This success all a surprise for Terry O’Neill, who played junior B hockey in North York in 1968 for three months moving to Toronto after working on a dam in Gillam, Man.

“As recently as last summer we never thought he had a future as a big leaguer,” said Terry, whose son was a guy his team looked to, no matter the sport.

There was a time when O’Neill played them all -- hockey, soccer, lacrosse, basketball, volleyball, rugby -- before concentrating on baseball under Langley Blaze coach Doug Mathieson and Jamie Bodaly, who said earlier this year O’Neill was a better hitter than Lawrie.

In the last six Junes either the top Canuck or the top Canadian-based high schooler has come from the Blaze program: RHP Tom Robson in 2011, C Kellin Deglan in 2010, Lawrie in 2008 and now O’Neill.

RHP Kyle Lotzkar (Tsawwassen, BC) went second over-all behind Phillippe Aumont in 2007.

Some people call Terry O’Neill, Mr. O’Neill.

Others call Terry O’Neill, Mr. Canada, who won the 1975 body building title in Vancouver.

Body building is not bench pressing like Olympics competition. It wasn’t about power lifting, but rather about body definition, which he obtained from using dumb bells, and judges decided on who the winner was in three categories: large, medium and small.

So you were one of those guys who stood on stage oiled up and posed to the music, the baseball writer out of his element asks?

“Yes,” Terry O’Neill answered.

What music did you pose to?

“Don’t remember 1975, I competed until 1986-1987,” Terry O’Neill said. “At the end I probably had one of Lover Boy’s hits playing.

“I had to work hard for everything I had,” said the father. “Tyler walks into the gym, looks at weights and they respond, he gets stronger.”

Terry O’Neill, Mr. Canada, says his son gets his athletic abilities from his mom Marliyn from Castlegar, BC. “Dad’s always sound like dads when they talk about their sons,” said Terry about Tyler. “Whatever sport Tyler played he’s been an athlete who was a go-to kid. He wanted the ball, wanted the shot on net or to be the guy in the championship game.

“He’s always risen to be one of the better players even playing older kids. He doesn’t look at the maybes, he thinks ‘I’m going to do it.’ He always has speed. Now he has strength too.

“But this isn’t about me ...”


* * *

The Mariners saw O’Neill a lot: with Team Canada, with Team BC, with the Blaze over the last year and a half.

“The unique thing about the Canadian team is they play in Arizona and Florida during the spring,” said McNamara. “The team plays against class-A pro prospects, so you’re seeing 17-18 year-old kids go up against pitchers with stuff they won’t see against high school pitchers.

“We saw him really handle some good pitchers, older guys who didn’t care who he was. They went right after him. They were really good match ups.”

The M’s had O’Neill work out in right field on his visit.

“He throws fine, moves around fine,” said McNamara. “He’s a physical guy with a lot of strength he’s a very confident hitter.”


* * *

After a week in the Dominican with the Team Canada junior team playing at closed-to-the-public complexes, save for the final game in the capital, O’Neill flew to Phoenix for a workout in front of Arizona Diamondbacks scouts at Bank One Park.

Then, he flew to Dallas and on to at double-A Frisco, north of the Dallas-Fort Worth airport to strut his stuff for Texas Rangers scouts, then Safeco in Seattle and then home. Earlier he’d flown to Los Angeles and worked out for the Houston Astros at a mini-camp in Compton, Calif.

“Arizona was like a golf course, Safeco is one of the nicest parks and in Frisco was a real nice park,” said O’Neill. “I’d like to thank Greg Hamilton, plus Jamie Bodaly, Doug Mathieson, my friends, teammates and family.

“Doug helped get my name out there, whether we were in Arizona ... a big part of this goes to him. He’s always on people “you have to compete.” He didn’t say it to me too often.”

For selfish reasons, the O’Neill family is happy that the Mariners called their sons name. Class-A Everett and triple-A Tacoma both in the state of Washington are on the Mariners ladder to get to Seattle.

O’Neill was recovering from a sports hernia surgery so he moved out from behind the plate -- he was uncomfortable going down and popping up to throw to second -- they Blaze didn’t want him to exploded out of his crouch.

Two weeks after his surgery he returned as a DH in Kelowna and a few innings into the game was diving into second.


* * *

Five Canadians were selected in the first 10 rounds, the same as 2009, and second most since 2007. Edmonton lefty Rob Zastryzny of the Missouri Tigers was the top Canuck, going 41st on Thursday -- 13th highest Canadian drafted.

The Washington Nationals took Victoria B.C. righty Nick Pivetta from New Mexico Junior College in the fourth, the Baltimore Orioles chose Peterborough lefty Travis Seabrooke from the Ontario Terriers in the fifth and the St. Louis Cardinals chose Mississauga infielder Malik Collymore from the Ontario Blue Jays in the 10th.


* * *

“Tyler has always been a horse,” said the father, “you can’t stop him unless you have a tight pull on the reins.”

Sound anything like Lawrie, the wild stallion?

McNamara left the Brewers to join Seattle and Lawrie was dealt to the Jays.

He’s hoping to keep the Lawrie 2.0 model longer.