BUFFALO, NY – The road to success is never easy, but there was a period of time where Dalton Pompey was on a path seemingly paved just for him.
By the time spring training rolled around this year, his sixth professional season, the native of Mississauga, Ont., was a role model like he never had been before. Young baseball hopefuls from north of the border looked up to him and his story motivated others to strive for better, helping them realize that hard work really can pay off in the long run. It does happen.
Just five years removed from the Canadian Junior National Team, Pompey played against the same program in March on the big-league side, encouraging his young and talented fellow countrymen – including his 18-year-old brother Tristan – and making the dream seem real. As one of the minor leaguers participating in the matchup the previous three years, all of a sudden Pompey was held in a new light.
He was an inspiration.
“I think so,” Pompey said after that spring exhibition game. “From where I started to where I finished, it shows that it’s attainable for them, and also that I was on this team five years ago and I’m in the position that I am now, so they’ve just got to keep their heads up and really dig deep and if they have the opportunity, they’ve just got to try to make the most of it, and not put too much pressure on themselves.”
Oh yes, the pressure.
For Pompey it mounted slowly, turning from excitement into expectations, and less than a month into the season, things had not continued as planned. The former 16th-round pick, selected by Jamie Lehman from the Oakville Royals in 2010, found himself struggling. Hitting .193/.264/.337 through his first 23 games, Pompey was sent by the Blue Jays to Triple-A Buffalo, where he had appeared in just 12 games during his rapid rise to the majors.
“I’m not going to lie, there was a little bit of pressure,” Pompey said. “[I put it] on myself, as well as from outside sources whether it’s friends, family, media or whatever. I feel like that just comes with it. But for me personally just being from there, it was a lot.”
For the first time in his career, and perhaps even his life, Pompey’s confidence waivered. He was unsure of himself, and he didn’t know how to fix it. He started to realize that the expectations he had set might have been out of reach. Thrust into the role that he once dreamed of having, all eyes were on him and he had become the guy he once had his own eyes on.
“You want to model your [game] after him,” said Miles Gordon, a member of Team Canada and a longtime friend of the Pompey family. “He was in the same position, and it’s cool having someone to look up to. It’s personal, instead of just saying that I watched him on TV. To see him go through the minors to where he’s at, and then playing against him [in spring]…was really cool.”
It was really cool for Pompey too, but he was setting a bar for himself without perhaps having enough of the big-league picture to really know how.
“[It was] a head game, physically I wasn’t performing to the best of my ability,” Pompey said. “It’s a lot easier for those other guys like Russell Martin andJose Bautista because they have a track record. I don’t really have a track record.”
The 22-year-old was heading to Rogers Centre each day trying to find some facet of positivity to lean on in order to find success. Immediately upon his arrival to Buffalo, the outfielder felt that weight lift off his shoulders.
“It felt good,” Pompey said after his first game with the Bisons. “I felt relaxed for probably the first time in a long time. I was able to just go out and play. I didn’t feel any pressure.”
With the understanding that he can use the time in the International League to get back to being the player he was, Pompey’s mature approach to the roster move is encouraging. It has also been made easier by the presence of his teammate Daniel Norris, who rose through all the same levels of the minor leagues last year as Pompey did, just as quickly, and was sent to Triple-A one day earlier.
“Last year I went really fast and they put me in the situation where I would come into the big leagues and be the starting centre fielder [this season],” Pompey said. “I thought I was ready mentally but maybe experience-wise I wasn’t, and that’s no knock against myself or other guys here like Daniel Norris, who’s back here.
“We’re just learning as we go and we’re just trying to get better the best we can. I’m not bitter at all; I don’t feel any emotions. I’m actually here to work and I want to better myself because I’m only 22 years old and there’s a lot of good that can come from that …
“[Norris and I] have been through a lot together and we do feed off each other. We’ve been there for each other for a long time now and we know each other pretty well, so it’s good to have him as a shoulder to lean on, and he can lean on me at any time too.”
With his best game of the season on Monday, his four hits helping the Bisons to a victory over the Durham Bulls at Coca-Cola Field on the back of a start from Norris that saw the southpaw go 6 1/3 innings, allowing four runs (two earned) on five hits with three walks and seven strikeouts, it appears as though his plan is back in motion. Pompey is making the work he’s putting in work for him.
“[I’m focused on] my swing, having good at-bats [from] both sides; swinging at good pitches,” he said. “I felt sometimes when I was up there I was swinging at too many bad pitches. [I’m] just trying to refocus, focus on every pitch, mainly just getting my swing right and getting my confidence back, having some good games [and] trying to help the team win …
“There are always bumps in the road and it’s how you respond after that.”