By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
CARY, NC – Chris Robinson ran through the list of Canadian catching candidates in his mind.
Greg Hamilton, director of Baseball Canada’s national teams, had called the 31-year-old retired backstop to explain the dilemma he was in and to say that he was looking for some help. Hamilton had lost his back-up catcher for the upcoming Pan Am Games and was actively seeking a replacement. He was running out of options and he was running out of time.
Robinson was juggling the phone in one hand and his two-month-old daughter Norah in the other, while “playing zone defence” with his 3 1/2 year-old twins Griffin and Laine, with his wife Amy out of the house. One by one, he silently ruled out a number of Canuck catchers who he knew were unavailable or wouldn’t be able to leave their teams for the duration of the tournament, and finally thought, “Who else is out there?”
While the Dorchester, Ont., native had been trying to come up with name after name in his head, Hamilton had been steering him down an entirely different path, one Robinson hadn’t been expecting.
“So, can you do it?” Hamilton asked Robinson.
It was right around that moment that Norah started crying, certainly unaware that her father was about to commit to being away from home for a period of time, but giving Robinson a reality check on how much life has changed since he was a member of the Senior National Team that won the first gold medal in Baseball Canada history four years ago at the Pan Am Games in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Between then and now, in addition to having three children, Robinson achieved his lifelong goal of making it to the big leagues, earning a call up to the majors with the San Diego Padres two Septembers ago. He retired when the season ended and dove headfirst into coaching full-time, helping to build the elite Great Lake Canadians program in London, Ont., and occasionally acting as a guest coach for Hamilton and the Junior National Team.
But now he’s back to defend the championship he shared with seven of his current teammates – Tyson Gillies (Vancouver, BC), Tim Smith (Toronto, Ont.), Brock Kjeldgaard (London, Ont.), Skyler Stromsmoe (Bow Island, Alta.), Kyle Lotzkar (Tsawwassen, BC), Andrew Albers (North Battleford, Sask.), Shawn Hill (Georgetown, Ont.) and Scott Richmond (Vancouver, BC) – all part of the gold-medal winning team inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in St. Marys after bringing home the hardware.
This time, he’ll have a chance to share the moment with his family, friends, and the twins, who were never really old enough to understand their father the player.
“I’m just super excited,” Robinson said. “Especially getting Laine and Griffin to get a chance to see me play, hopefully … Or they can come sit down near the bullpen, that’s fine with me. They don’t know the difference of daddy being on the field or daddy being in the bullpen. And that’s not the only reason I wanted to play, but it was a big deal to me.”
It’s also a big deal to many of the young players Robinson has been a mentor, coach, and friend to since taking on his full-time role with the Canadians. At least, it was once they gained an understanding of why their coach was all of a sudden stepping up to the plate to take batting practice with them.
“We have such a great group of kids and a great group of parents,” Robinson said. “When they found out about it they were so happy, especially after the first day when I jumped into batting practice and no one knew. They were like, ‘What is this guy doing? Is he just trying to show off for my kids?’ But I’ve had a tremendous amount of support.”
Robinson wasn’t without his reservations, knowing that while he has been actively in the game on a daily basis since retiring as a player, nothing is the same as facing live pitching and high-level competition. But as soon as he arrived in Cary, NC, for the Americas Baseball Festival, leading into the Pan Am Games, he quickly felt right at home.
“It really is a family,” Robinson said. “I’ll be honest, I was a little anxious coming, just with the thought of me playing. But when I got here [Saturday] night, I went out to eat with Richmond and Skyler and Hill and even though I hadn’t done anything baseball related yet, it was really calming.
“It’s almost like I’m trying to keep this going for two weeks where I forget that I actually haven’t played. Now I’m back in the environment where it’s like I just left my team wherever I was and now I’m coming to play. Obviously reality will set in at some point, but I’m going to try to take it as long as I can get it.”
Including his turns as an instructor with the juniors, Robinson has been with Team Canada 13 times, definitely ranking near the top for national team appearances. Each time has been special, and the international tournaments where he’s been able to represent the country north of the border have always marked highlights in his career.
“It’s funny because I joke that I’ve got a lot more national team experience than [big-league veteran] Jeff Francis (North Delta, BC),” said Robinson, who sent Francis a message immediately after committing to the team, letting the southpaw know that he had to search no further for his roommate in the Athlete’s Village. “But he’s got a lot bigger bank account than I have.
“I was always available to play. And the really good part of my career was that I got to be here a lot, and have the experiences I got here because I always had the chance. Guys like Jeff and even Pete [Orr] (Newmarket, Ont.) have had a lot of time where they could have been here probably at least that many times, but they were too busy making a lot of money.”
In all seriousness, Robinson’s presence with the squad is invaluable. While he is an asset to the team in every facet of his game, his knowledge of the pitching staff and his abilities as a leader and mentor might be the most appreciated. Passing the Team Canada torch on to 23-year-old catcher Kellin Deglan (Langley, BC), just having Robinson around has been huge for the Texas Rangers prospect.
“Robbie is a great catcher,” Deglan said. “He had a great career and he really slows the game down back there. We haven’t talked too much about catching and dissecting our catching, but just watching him and his presence and seeing him back there – I’m taking notes on everything and picking up little things. He does a good job of commanding respect on the field and working with the pitchers.”
In his second stint on the senior team, Deglan getting his first shot in Regensburg, Germany for the World Baseball Classic qualifier tournament almost three years ago – behind Robinson and Cole Armstrong (Surrey, BC) – this will be the first time that he is the main man behind the dish at this level. Robinson doesn’t think it will take a whole lot of helping to get him through it.
“He’s been here, so he knows what to expect,” Robinson said. “Even this morning he was catching Phillippe [Aumont] (Gatineau, Que.) and I’ve caught Phillippe a bunch, so I was able to bring that experience on Phillippe. That’s an exciting role, and that’s what I’m looking forward to in the role. It’s a little bit different now. It used to be me and Cole, and we were jacked up and ready to play, and now Degs is the guy.
“Hopefully he has a great tournament because he’s a great player … He’s a good leader type who can control the game, which at that level in that type of tournament is what you need. He’s going to be a good choice for us.”
And Robinson certainly was the best choice to come out of that phone call from Hamilton, no matter how long it took him to realize it.