*The Maple Leaf flew high over Lagos de Moreno, Mex. as Canada beat Team USA to win gold at the Pan Am Games.
By Bob Elliott
The Godfather may be the greatest movie ever, next to Casablanca of course.
And in The Godfather, Michael Corleone decides it is time to “settle all family business.”
And in a city of 153,000 people, in a town called Lagos de Moreno in a country south of the border, Mexico, a group of players put on their black and red Under Armour Canadian jerseys and grey pants.
They then went out proceeded to settle some old family scores.
Canada edged Team USA 2-1 as lefty Andrew Albers (North Battleford, Sask.) pitched 6 2/3 innings for the win.
Scott Richmond (North Vancouver, BC) pitched the final 2 1/3, striking out three for the save.
Jimmy VanOstrand (Richmond, BC) hit two-run double for the difference.
Canada had medalled once in the Pan Ams, gaining a bronze.
Canada had never finished first in an international event involving senior players.
Canada had won only one medal its first 17 appearances in the World Cup, winning bronze two years ago in Italy. It won a medal earlier in the month in Panama.
They headed to the clubhouse, sang O Canada, changed into their track suits and sang O Canada again with silver medallist Team USA on one side and bronze medal Cuba, eight time Pan Am champs shuffling and making cranky faces on the other.
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Manager Ernie Whitt (Clinton Township, Mich, a Windsor, Ont. suburb) thought of Winnipeg.
Whitt made his debut coaching Canada for the princely sum of a plane ticket, meal money and a hotel room.
“There were a lot of flashbacks,” said Whitt.
Like Winnipeg ... when Canada finished with a 6-1 record but finished third and failed to qualify for the Olympics, despite beating both Cuba and the United States, the two Olympic qualifiers.
“There were times over the years when we stood on the podium listening to Cuban or USA anthems,” Whitt said. “Our guys stood and sung, so proudly. They did it with hard work and perseverance. I preach the passion and the pride of wearing the Canadian uniform. You win a gold medal against countries that are supposed to be superior ... what a feeling. I’m so happy for them.”
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Shawn Hill (Georgetown, Ont.) who pitched five innings for the win in the semi-final 5-3 decision over host Mexico and work five innings in the Pan Am opener against Puerto Rico (10 innings, four runs allowed) thought of Athens in 2008.
Hill has turned a 3-2 lead over to the bullpen in the semi-final game against Cuba. A win and Canada would meet Australia for gold.
There was a clank a few hits, a comeback and then Kevin Nicholson’s pinch-hit bid for extra bases into a stiff breeze, a ball that died at the wall for the final out.
We’ll never forget the Cuban third baseman hanging his head ... he thought the ball was gone.
“I was thinking of Athens during the game, I was a spectator against Team USA,” Hill said. “Remember in Athens how they always played that theme music from Zorba the Greek?”
“They started playing it the last few days, I heard it and mentioned it to Mike Johnson,” Hill said. “In the gold-medal game I said ‘Hey MJ do you hear it?’ This not the same situation, but sort of, it is a little bit of redemption.”
A flashback from the baseball gawds to an unpleasant memory, or a good omen?
Or, maybe it was played due to the fact Lagos de Moreno is called by Mexicans, with some hyperbole, the “Athens of Jalisco” because of the numerous writers and poets born there.
Despite his right elbow “barking the last couple of innings each start,” Hill forged on ahead.
Hill went to spring training with the Florida Marlins was injured and then had stem cell surgery similar to the one New York Yankees right-hander Bartolo Colon had last winter.
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Richmond thought of the 2009 World Baseball Classic at the Rogers Centre.
He was the best bullet, national teams director Greg Hamilton manager and Whitt had. Canada had to win two games in pool play and was expected to lose to Team USA, beat Italy and Venezuela was a jump ball. They elected to save Canada’s best for Game 3 against Venezuela. Mike Johnson pitched well as Canada was edged in a one-run game before an electric crowd at the Rogers Centre, but Canada was eliminated by Italy 7-2.
Richmond got back on the plane to Dunedin without throwing a pitch.
“I wanted to pitch so badly,” said Richmond, who won eight games in 24 starts for the Jays in 2009. “I’d been to Taiwan twice with Canada and the WBC. This is the biggest moment in a lot of our careers.”
Richmond explained how the players would gather before taking the field, all scream “CANADA!”
“Everyone has something to say, everyone had a piece in some way, young guys, older guys,” Richmond said. “Young pitchers were cheering each other on ... Another team would bring in a new pitcher and five or of six guys would be in front of the dugout, all swinging the bat ... timing his pitches.”
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Mike Johnson (Edmonton, Alta.) who started against Cuba in Canada’s lone loss in the Pan Am, thought of Athens, where he was a member of Canada’s rotation.
“We really didn’t know what to expect know coming in, we defied odds the whole month,” Johnson said. “Mexico and Athens were opposite ends of the spectrum. In Athens we were so close to getting to the gold medal game and experienced the type of sadness no player should have to suffer.
“Here we had a team that believed. We weren’t playing for the names on the back of the uniforms, we were playing for the name on the front. It didn’t take the younger guys long to pick that up.”
Johnson said he was happy for Hill, for Whitt, for pitching coach Denis Boucher (Lachine, Que.), third base coach Tim Leiper (Altoona, Pa.), coach Greg Hamilton (Ottawa, Ont.), business manager Bernie Soulliere (Windsor, Ont.) and equipment manager Keith (Critter) Sanford (Windsor, Ont.).
All were in Athens and experienced the pain.
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Pitching coach Denis Boucher remembered Cuba and the 2006 World Baseball Classic where Canada was supposed to beat South Africa, lose to Team USA and beat Mexico. Canada upset Team USA, but lost to Mexico and failed to advance.
“Mostly I thought of the semi-final against Cuba,” said Boucher. “This year everything went right. It was great, it was awesome, our guys pitched well both tournaments,
“It helped that we knew the US team from playing them in exhibition games in Cary, N.C. plus some of our guys had played against them in the minors. Shawn Hill beat the US in Panama. We knew they were beatable, we pitched to our strengths and their weaknesses
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Hamilton thought of the loss to Cuba in Athens.
“You couldn’t help but think about it during the gold-medal game, looking down the bench and seeing Shawn Hill and Mike Johnson,” said Hamilton. “That’s the most painful loss.
“This group that really jelled together, they quickly understood the sudden death concept.”
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Winnipeg in 1998, Athens in 2004, Phoenix in 2006, Toronto in 2009.
Not erased from the memory banks.
But a gold medal can ease memories from past decades.
So, who are these guys (we’ll get to that as we have other years), but how did these minor leaguers not on 40-man rosters bring home gold.
Well, Albers was dominant.
USA right fielder Brent Caroll, who has played 175 games in the majors with the Florida Marlins and the Milwaukee Brewers, spending this season at triple-A Pawtucket, doubled off Albers and scored on a first-inning single by A.J. Pollock, a first rounder the Arizona Diamondbacks gave a $1.4 million signing bonus in 2009, who played at double-A Mobile this summer.
That was about it.
“He was phenomenal, he talked me into to leaving him in and my bullpen phone was working,” said Whitt.
Said Albers: “it wasn’t just me, my catcher Cole Armstrong (Surrey, BC) was on side, the competitve juices took over.”
Albers was released by the San Diego Padres in 2010 coming off Tommy John surgery and wound up pitching for the Quebec City Capitales in the independent Can-Am League in 2010.
He pitched this summer at class-A Fort Myers and double-A New Britain, going 8-2 with a 2.16 ERA in 35 outings, making seven starts, walking 14 and striking out 80 in 95 2/3 innings.
With 13 games of double-A experience, Albers faced a Team USA lineup of Jordan Danks, who played at triple-A Charlotte; A.J. Pollock, Mobile, Joe Thurston, triple-A New Orleans, Brett Carroll, Pawtucket, Matthew Clark, triple-A Tuscon, Jody Mercer, triple-A Indianapolis, Chad Tracy, triple-A Round Rock, Thomas Mendonca, double-A Frisco and Tuffy Gosewich, double-A Reading.
“Albers didn’t give up an run the entire time in Panama (15 innings at the World Cup) and went against a strong against Team USA lineup,” said Richmond. “They scored 20 against the Dominican, 11 against Panama, got beat 3-2 by Mexico and put up 12 against Cuba, which had not lost Pan Ams gold in 40 years.
“He located the ball well, he was 0-2, their hitters had no idea what to expect.”
Hill had praise for Albers saying “he did an unbelievable job, he’s never been in this situation, he gave up the one run and buckled down, keeping us in the game.”
When Quebec’s Pat Scalabrini phoned Albers couldn’t even promise him he could pitch ... he saved 17 going 3-0 with a 1.40 ERA in 40 games.
After the season he returned to the University of Kentucky where his former pitching coach Gary Henderson set up a bullpen session for Twins scouts Tim O’Neill and Earl Win. They were impressed and sent him on to Fort Myers for another look and Albers was soon signed.
“To get the gold medal start, I can’t imagine it getting much better than this to win gold representing the whole country,” said Albers. “I kind of made a mess of things in the seventh.”
Clark singled leading off the seventh, was bunted to second and Tracy singled. Albers struck out Mendonca and on came Richmond to the rescue.
After a wild pitch put runners on second ant third, Richmond popped up Gosewisch on a fly ball to right.
Richmond got the final six outs, the final pitch strike three.
When Richmond struck out the 27th and final out, Boucher sprinted to the mound, pitch counter in hand.
“I threw my arms in the air, Armstrong rushed out and I picked him up, I hope it looks like Yogi Berra jumping into Don Larsen’s hands, I have to get a picture of it,” said Richmond. “Denis Boucher is so positive, this is such an unbelievable pitching coach. Now I know I have it in me.”
Boucher said Richmond “struggled a little in Panama and this was his first game here, he was rested.” Richmond had control problem against Panama, leaving a slider up for a three-run homer.
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As Canada’s international tree runs in this golden era, Stubby Clapp (Windsor, Ont.) was Mr. Baseball.
He begat Adam Stern (London, Ont.).
And this team’s fireplug?
“This was a different group, a quieter group,” said Whitt. “We won the semi-final and the bus was quiet. This is very unusual. They came ready to play.”
VanOstrand, who has been on every Team Canada since 2007, said “we knew had one more game, we battled the whole way.
“We got some great pitching, got some breaks, made some breaks, everything aligned,” said VanOstrand.
He doubled off Andy Van Hekken, who broke in in 1999 and pitched at triple-A Oklahoma City this season, scoring both Chris Robinson (Dorchester, Ont.) and Tim Smith (Toronto, Ont.) had both singled with two out.
VanOstrand hit .474 (9-for-19 ) with four RBIs.
Richmond explained majority of the players are younger, with the exception of Hill 30, Johnson, 36 and Richmond, 32.
“We didn’t have a Mike Kusiewicz, a Jeremy Ware or an Adam Stern, we didn’t have anyone who was ‘Sternie loud.’”
Richmond singled out first baseman VanOstrand, Canada’s best hitter as well as shortstop Jonathan Malo (Joliette, Que.), who earned all-tournament honours in Panama at the World Cup.
“Jonathan Malo was a good choice, I can see him playing shortstop in the next Classic,” Richmond said. “It’s nice to see all the up and comers.”
Hill praised relievers Dustin Molleken (Regina, Sask.) and Chris Kissock (Fruitvale, BC).
“Tim Smith carried us for a while, Jimmy VanOstrand was solid, very consistent the whole time,” said Johnson. “Shawn Bowman (Port Moody, BC) was another guy who contributed big time.
“Chris Robinson was very vocal, I tried to do my part, this team had a different personality.”
Johnson said it reminded him of Canada’s trip to Panama in 2003 when the red and white qualified for the Athens Olympics and Team USA did not.
“We had Justin Morneau, Stubby Clapp, Ryan Radmanovich, Russell Martin, Todd Betts, Pierre-Luc Forest, Aaron Guiel,” Johnson said. “Guys put their egos aside. We don’t need one leader, we need a group that works well together.”
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Canada went 4-1 in Mexico, a tournament which began three days after Canada went 8-3 to win bronze at the 39th World Cup in Panama ... 12-4 (USA was 10-6) two medals, one gold, one bronze ... one wonderful month.
“We had a chance to win gold in Panama too,” said Richmond.
Canada was the only team to beat The Netherlands, winners of the World Cup.
And so after years of listening to other anthems, some close calls, some not so close, the Canadians stood on the podium and sang.
“I don’t know who the best singer was, it sure wasn’t me,” said Richmond, “but it sure felt good.”