Stewart makes broadcasters eat their words

By: Alexis Brudnicki

You’re not going to hear that again anytime soon.

That’s what the broadcasters on MLB Network implied on Tuesday afternoon just after they announced the Toronto Blue Jays ninth-round draft selection, a Canadian player from Canisius College. The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference isn’t exactly known for breeding a large number of higher-round picks, and neither is the country north of the border, so they figured they were safe.

Two teams and barely a few minutes later, they ate their words when the Cleveland Indians selected Devon Stewart 274th overall, a right-hander who spent four years with the Golden Griffins, hailing from Maple Ridge, BC. He followed teammate and Etobicoke, Ont., native Connor Panas.

“It was awesome to see his name get called,” Stewart said. “When it came up I was watching and the broadcasters said, ‘Canisius College, you won’t hear that name very often, you won’t hear another Canadian guy,’ and then I went two picks later, so they kind of had to say, ‘Well, we take back what we said two picks ago.’

“That was cool.”

The 22-year-old righty had been hoping that he might get his opportunity late on the second day of the first-year player draft, within the first 10 rounds, but right up until it happened he wasn’t sure where he would land. When the Indians called him at the beginning of the ninth round and asked him to sign under slot – with no leverage as a college graduate – Stewart was happy to say yes.

“I had a pretty good idea that it was going to happen eventually, I just didn’t really know what round or to what team,” Stewart said. “I just tried to relax. I understand with senior signs our money and everything is just kind of limited, so I was looking forward to a team drafting me, hopefully a little earlier than later, but I wasn’t going to get too worried about it, so I was pretty relaxed.

“Then ever since I got called it’s been pretty hectic. I’ve been on the phone and bouncing around and trying to respond to countless people who have congratulated me. It’s unreal to see how much support I’ve gotten.”

From the time Cleveland called him the first time to when they called to let him listen in on the draft room happenings when they announced his name officially, Stewart thinks there might have only been a 15-minute gap, though he said, “It felt like it was about two hours.” The waiting period became a whole lot more exciting when Stewart saw and heard his friend’s selection by his hometown squad.

“I saw Toronto and I saw the Yankees and all of a sudden I heard Panas’ name get called, so that was cool,” he said. “I didn’t know that was going to happen. I talked to Connor a little bit and he was probably in the same situation I was, where he might go at the end of Day 2 but he didn’t know for sure.

“It got to the ninth round and I thought okay maybe he might not go. I don’t know what he was looking for, I didn’t know if maybe he wanted a little bit more money or something, or if someone was trying to hold off on him until tomorrow, so I was up in the air.”

Within the first two days and 10 rounds of the draft, Stewart and Panas were two of 10 Canadians selected by major league teams, matching an all-time high for Canucks set in 2007.

“It was awesome,” Stewart said. “I mean, it was awesome to see how many Canadians got picked Day 1, and then even Day 2, it was crazy to see. I remember back when I was in high school I watched it a lot because I knew a lot of guys back then who were draft-eligible Canadians, and we would kind of wait until the third day and that was back when we had 60 rounds. That last 10 rounds a lot of guys would go, so it was awesome to see so many guys get drafted so high. It’s definitely nice to see the Canadian recognition getting higher and higher every year, so that’s pretty crazy.”

Stewart and Panas were two of three Canuck players from Canisius College selected in the process, with Windsor, Ont., native and Griffs junior outfielder Brett Siddall taken by the Oakland Athletics in the 13th round on Wednesday.

The trio were a part of two conference championship titles, and Stewart couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity the school and head coach Mike McRae (Niagara Falls, Ont.) provided him after his days were done with the Langley Blaze. His final year was his best statistically, posting a 3.43 ERA in the regular season over 86 2/3 innings, walking just 22 batters and striking out 67 over that span.

“It’s unreal,” he said. “I’ve got to start back in Langley. I was lucky I was a late birthday so I got to play a year after Grade 12 with Langley and that was huge for me. It gave me an opportunity to go play at Canisius and I got a lot better. Obviously every year at Canisius I got a little bit better each year.

“I haven’t been one of those guys who’s been super good his whole life, I just slowly progressed and tried to fill into my body. I know I grew quite a bit when I was in high school, my later years, I got taller. I just tried to work hard, get stronger, bigger, and started throwing the ball harder. It was huge to get on the program at Canisius and play Division-I baseball, that was definitely a huge reason why I was able to get drafted.”

During the selection process, Stewart was at his parents’ home on the west coast with his father Don. Their attention wasn’t fully focused on the draft until the hurler got that phone call, but then they were completely dialed in and got to share in the special moment.

“It was just me and my dad,” he said. “I was just hanging out and I got the call that they were looking to take me so I went into the living room and said, ‘They’re going to take me this pick.’ So we put it up on the computer and watched it and we were lucky we could both watch Panas get drafted because we were watching when that happened.

“Then it was awesome to actually hear my name get called. The northeast scout called me so I could hear the actual draft room. They announced it a little bit sooner than the actual draft on the live stream and they all clapped and it was awesome.”

Before crossing the border and heading to Seattle to meet Cleveland’s northwest area scout Conor Glassey to sign the papers on Wednesday, Stewart was having a hard time processing everything that had happened the night before.

“It’s still not really hitting me,” the 6-foot-2, 200-pound pitcher said. “I definitely think coming into the draft it was a huge goal to go in the top 10 rounds. I know they separate it into days and that shouldn’t really be a big thing but that was a goal of mine and that was nice to see.

“Ever since being at Canisius I just tried to work as hard as I can and try my best to do the best I can every day. I’m kind of a perfectionist so it’s nice to see everything come together and all the hard work pay off. My family’s been unreal. My mom [Lori] was crying all day at work because she found out and my dad was all excited. He’s the same way I am, he doesn’t really believe it’s real.”

Home for just a brief time after winning the MAAC championship with the Griffs and advancing to his second NCAA tournament regional in the last four years, Stewart is likely to join Cleveland’s short-season Class A affiliate Mahoning Valley Scrappers when they begin their season in the upcoming days.

“I’m still trying to take it in,” he said. “I don’t think it’s really hit me yet that I’m not going to back to Canisius and it hasn’t hit me that I get to play pro ball here pretty soon. Obviously the four years I had at Canisius were unbelievable. I couldn’t ask for anything better. I met some of the best people I’ve ever met in my life there.

“I spent a few days in Buffalo just hanging out and trying to take in as much time with my friends and teammates as I could and it was definitely tough leaving but now I guess it is that next step in the journey to where I want to be. I’m looking forward to it.”