By: Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – They ignited an entire country.
The Blue Jays may have come up short in the American League Championship Series against the Royals, but knowing that they brought baseball back to the forefront in a hockey nation after a 22-year playoff drought – the longest in professional sports – is no small consolation.
Toronto’s accomplishments come at the tail end of an incredible year for the Canadian game, with one of the most successful drafts the country has seen, a silver medal for the Women’s National Team in its first-ever appearance in a multi-sport event, and a gold medal on home soil for Baseball Canada’s senior team, defending its Pan Am Games championship from four years ago.
The Blue Jays also had five Canucks on their roster for a single day this year, with Russell Martin (Montreal, Que.), Dalton Pompey (Mississauga, Ont.), Jeff Francis (North Delta, BC), Michael Saunders (Victoria, BC) and Andrew Albers (North Battleford, Sask.) making history in May.
But Canada’s only major league team and its post-season run made the biggest impact on the game that the country has seen in years. Canadians were on the edge of their seats at home throughout the playoffs, with up to a third of the country tuning into watch each Blue Jays game on television, and at Rogers Centre, a packed house for every game following the flurry of game-changing moves the organization made leading up to the trade deadline.
“The future is bright in Canada for baseball,” said Martin, the only player from north of the border to remain on the roster from start to finish. “We had a tremendous year, definitely didn’t have the finish that we wanted but we’re definitely going to hold our heads high. I’m proud of the group that we had, I’m proud of how we fought. But giving credit to Kansas City, they have a tremendous ball club and they deserved it.”
Pompey was with the team through the first month of the season and returned from a stint in the minor leagues in September, and then earned a spot on both of the squad’s playoff rosters. A native of the Greater Toronto Area, he might know better than anyone on the team how impactful its winning ways were, the support evident anywhere and everywhere he went.
“It’s the whole country,” Pompey said. “We see a small little bit of it there [in Toronto] but everybody was watching us, no matter where they were, and they were always reaching out to us and stuff like that. That’s huge. It grows baseball across the country. We finally were able to get them a winning team, something that they haven’t seen in a long time.
“Unfortunately, we came up short but it’s not the end of the world. We can build off this and we can continue to move forward. Hopefully a lot of these guys are still here next year and we can just take it from there. We also lost to a pretty good team over there too, so we can’t really hold our heads down that low.”
The 22-year-old outfielder is the team’s only hometown player, and a product of the World Series championships Toronto won when it was last in the post-season. He felt the effects of growing up locally early in the year, when he remarked that the pressure had taken a toll on him, with the weight of a country on his shoulders.
When he returned, that nation was all in on his team and Pompey felt that it was behind him, supporting him. The former Canadian Junior National Team member made five post-season appearances, stealing four bases and notching a hit in his one at-bat.
In Toronto’s final game at Kauffman Stadium, Pompey came in to run for Martin in the ninth after he led off the inning with a single, the catcher’s only hit in the ALCS. When he stole second base – before also swiping third – he uncharacteristically showed a burst of emotion, realizing exactly what he was doing and the bigger implications it held.
“The inning or two innings before – Russ hadn’t gotten a hit – and I kind of tried to bless his bat,” Pompey said. “I said, ‘I’m going to give you my hit. Take mine,’ because in my one at-bat I got a hit. I said, ‘You’re going to get a hit, you’re going to get a hit,’ and next thing you know, the guy gets a hit.
“I was going through to the weight room and I see that he gets a hit and I run and I think, ‘Oh my God, I’m running.’ So I sprint out of there and I get to first base and I know I have to get to second base. I know that sometimes [Wade Davis] lifts his leg high and I have a chance, and he lifted his leg. I didn’t have the greatest jump in the world but I was just looking at it, staring at second base and thinking, I have to get there.
“When I got there, it was emotional for me because I’m not playing for myself. I’m playing for an entire country. And I’m the tying run right now and it’s a big spot, the biggest spot I’ve ever had in my career and I wasn’t even at the plate. I got to second base and I couldn’t help it. It just kind of came out. It was crazy.”
While it is hard for the players to see the season as a success, watching Kansas City head to the Fall Classic for the second consecutive year, this time to match up against the New York Mets, the Blue Jays built a team that found success and has a chance to contend in the future. As one of several young players, Pompey has a lot to glean from what his squad did, and will look to build on exactly that as his career continues.
“It’s been amazing to learn from a lot of these guys,” he said. “A lot of veteran guys, a lot of great players and all stars in this game – to have a chance to be surrounded by them and learn from them and watch what they do – it’s something that you can’t duplicate. I’m going to remember this season for the rest of my life. And going forward in my career, as a stepping stone to me building myself and my own brand as a player, and then hopefully I can take this winning mentality onward.”
Martin has been to the playoffs more often than not in his career, getting there with the Dodgers, Yankees and Pirates before joining the Blue Jays. He felt strongly that this team was champion-calibre, but knows there is more to come and is happy with the success they found.
“I felt like we battled all year,” Martin said. “And made some key acquisitions at the trade deadline, and from then on it felt like we had what it took to take us all the way. Unfortunately, we hit a road block here, but I’m not going to keep my head down here. I’m proud of the way we fought. We didn’t get the result that we wanted but I enjoyed every little bit of it.”