By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
AJAX, Ont. – Shawn Hill is having fun.
The 34-year-old right-hander is playing at home for the first time in years, his family gets to see him throw and even spend a little time with him, he’s been reunited with old friends on the diamond, and Team Canada is winning.
“It feels like you’re going back to little league and you’re a travelling little league team with really good players,” Hill said, after throwing six scoreless innings against Cuba on Tuesday night to give the Canadians their fourth consecutive victory at the Pan Am Games.
The environment at the international tournament in Ajax, Ont., is nothing like what Hill has experienced throughout his parts of seven seasons in the big leagues and pieces of 13 in the minors. And he’s played – and excelled – for the national squad before, but it’s been some time since the native of Georgetown, Ont., had the chance to take the hill right in his own backyard.
“A lot of my family, extended family, they haven’t been able to see me at home for a while,” Hill said. “Probably have to go back to 2010 for my family, when my mom and dad got to see me in Toronto [pitching for the Blue Jays]. They saw me when I was in Athens [at the Olympics] but clearly that’s not home. It was this type of environment.
“[This] is a rare occurrence. So the fact that I was able to have everybody here, a good team, good competition obviously – it wasn’t a blowout game or anything like that – is something good for them to watch.”
Playing on home soil makes defending Canada’s gold medal at the most recent Pan Am Games in 2011 in Mexico – the first in Senior National Team history – all that much better. The experience is a new one, Canada always being labelled an underdog when it comes to the international game, but both this team’s similarities and differences from four years ago are what might help carry them to the end.
“[It’s] similar in that we’ve still got a core group of guys,” Hill said. “It’s been a little different in No. 1, it’s a longer tournament. It was hit and miss last time. We had the World Cup before which kind of led up to it [where the team won bronze], but the guys – we really have almost a split. We’ve got some older guys and we have a lot of younger guys. We only have a handful of guys in between.
“It’s a good dynamic. We’re taking a little bit of getting used to each other and seeing what they’re trying to do, the young guys and all that stuff. The coaches, the same thing – we try to feel them out. Obviously being at home it’s a little bit different too.
“We’ve got the family, going out in town out of the [athletes’] village. When we were in Mexico we were stuck in a hotel in the middle of God-knows-where, so we went back, hung out, we played cards and did whatever. So there’s a lot more going on here, a lot more opportunity to keep busy. So in that sense, it’s enjoyable. It’s fun.”
There hasn’t been a trip with Team Canada that Hill hasn’t enjoyed, and the former sixth-round pick of the Montreal Expos would be hard-pressed to find a reason to say no. As a longstanding member of the Baseball Canada family, there was little hesitation for the York Revolution hurler – a squad in the independent Atlantic League – to take a return trip home for a couple of weeks.
“[It’s] just the environment, the guys,” Hill said of what puts playing for Canada at the top of his to-do list. “Greg [Hamilton, Baseball Canada’s director of national teams], first and foremost, and the way they run Baseball Canada – it’s like a big family. Obviously playing for Canada, there’s the pride factor there and all that stuff.
“For me, it comes down to playing for Greg, playing for [manager] Ernie Whitt, [Denis Boucher], Stubby [Clapp], all the coaches and guys. It’s an entirely different environment than playing affiliated baseball, whether it’s the big leagues, minors, whatever. If I gave up five today and we won 20-5, I don’t care…And that [attitude] doesn’t exist – for the most part – in affiliated baseball.”
Tuesday’s win for the squad from north of the border was Hill’s first outing of the Games, taking on the toughest test the Canadians have faced so far after beating Dominican Republic, Colombia and Nicaragua in their first three matchups. He dominated the Cuban lineup, allowing just three singles – just two to the grass – with only a handful of balls leaving the infield.
“I was alright to start off, but as the game [went on] you kind of feel the flow, and feel out the other team,” Hill said. “It’s obviously not a team I see all the time, so you’re trying to feel out what they’re trying to do to you, what your stuff is doing that day, what the zone is – all that kind of stuff. I felt fine early, but as I got going I definitely got into a groove.”
It was nothing Whitt hadn’t seen before, seemingly getting dominance from Hill every time he steps to the mound in a red-and-white uniform.
“Shawny’s been with me a long time and I kind of expect that type of stuff out of him,” Team Canada’s skipper said. “He’s just a true professional and he knows how to pitch. He doesn’t light up the radar gun, but he knows how to pitch, move the ball in and out, change speeds, and he kept a good Cuban team off balance.”