By: Alexis Brudnicki
AJAX, Ont. – Tim Smith is right at home.
The 29-year-old has played baseball professionally for nine seasons, for three different affiliated organizations, two teams in independent leagues, and for one winter in Australia, but suiting up for Team Canada is a completely different story.
“It’s pretty awesome,” Smith said. “It’s a different feeling. You can’t really compare it to everyday pro baseball, minor league stuff, or indy ball. It’s more of a family. We’ve known each other for a long time, most of these guys.
“The second we see each other, from Day 1, there are smiles everywhere. It’s a different feeling. You get more pride and you’re more grateful to be on the field with what pretty much feels like your family members than somebody you’re competing against.”
Not only has the Scarborough, Ont., native been reunited with his band of Canuck baseball brothers, but he happens to be playing right in his own backyard, with Ajax hosting all of the baseball events at the Pan Am Games.
“It’s pretty special,” he said. “It’s tough being Canadian – your family and friends don’t get a chance to watch you play often, unless they’re willing to make a trip and they have the time and money to do so…My dad and family have seen me play but to be honest, the majority of my friends have never see me play. It is really special to have the CANADA across the chest on home turf.”
Smith was one of several big players four years ago for the Senior National Team when Canada won its first gold medal in program history at the Pan Am Games in Mexico, following a bronze-medal victory at the World Cup in Panama. With back-to-back international tournaments, the team had almost a month together, that time helping them to the win.
“It was really a chemistry thing,” Smith said. “Some of the teams we played against were probably better names on paper than us, but we did a lot of fundamental things right. We did a lot of situational hitting and our starters got six or seven innings in, the bullpen had their routine, and we had some extra innings throughout the World Cup and Pan Ams and we’ve been pretty successful with that extra-inning rule.”
After the win, Smith knew that the squad would be defending its victory on home soil this time around. There was never a second that the hitter didn’t want to be a part of it, but four years removed from those Games and three years out of affiliated baseball, the former seventh-round pick didn’t want to get too far ahead of himself for fear of being disappointed.
“I tried not to have expectations,” Smith said. “I knew I had an outside chance, just because I’ve been involved, but I wouldn’t say I was worried. I just wasn’t going to set my mind on it because I didn’t want to be let down or upset about it. I tried to go about my business outside of the Baseball Canada world, stick to my routine, and I tried not to think about it because I wanted it. I wanted it bad. But I didn’t want to be let down, and even if I wasn’t coming I would still have been playing and cheering for Canada…
“These are my boys. Baseball is a business and I’m aware that I’m not at the point in my career where I once was. At the same time, this is a family so you pull for your brothers. We’re defending gold and I was a part of that. So even if I wasn’t a part of this, I still would have the same respect and the flame within to want the repeat, especially on home turf. This is big. It’s cool.”
Even though he’s not where he once was, and Smith’s nine-month-old, dyed-jet-black beard is getting more attention so far at the Games than his play, through two games the designated hitter is 3-for-6 with two runs scored and a run driven in. He’s seeing the ball better, making better contact, and just starting to get settled in.
“It’s been good to work with Stubby [Clapp],” Smith said. “That’s not to put anybody else down or anything but I’ve been with Stubby for a long time and he understands my swing. I’m still not where I want to be but every day we’re working. He understands my swing and I understand what he’s trying to bring to me, so it’s been fun to touch base with him.
“I’ve had a couple rough years and I’ve been mentally drained a little bit, trying to rebuild myself. But I’m going back to my old ways and old habits and I’m starting to feel good again, starting to clear my mind.”
While the familiarity of the Baseball Canada atmosphere has been helping Smith, some of the team’s newest faces have already made major contributions to the team. After three veterans pitched in the Canadian win to open the tournament on Saturday, Sunday’s 10-3 victory over Colombia saw three hurlers make their Senior National Team debuts. As per usual, everyone is doing their part.
“It’s tough to have expectations [with new players], but you’ve just got to stick to your game plan,” Smith said. “We play our game and we play hard. It was good to get the new guys in there and get their feet wet in a higher-scoring game so the pressure was a little bit down, to maybe get some jitters out of the way. They could be called upon when it’s big time, so it was good for them to get their feet wet.”
Smith can’t remember what it felt like when he first dipped his toes in international waters, and it was different for him because he had been on the Junior National Team and had grown up playing with some of the players he was reunited with, but he’s seen fresh faces on every trip, and he’s also seen consistency in the welcoming of the newcomers.
“It’s tough being a new guy,” Smith said. “You’re around older guys and guys who all know each other and it’s tough to just jump right in. You don’t want to be pushing your boundaries and you don’t want to be that awkward guy at the same time.
“The older guys are aware of that and we try to go out of our way to joke around, have fun, introduce ourselves, get to know each other’s stories, where they came from, went to college, where they’re playing right now, and you chip away to get to know the other guys.”
On the road to the gold medal four years ago, Team Canada’s squad had a different look – and so did Smith before he completely abandoned the thought of a razor – but there’s no doubt that the camaraderie, the attitude, and the atmosphere remains.
“Last time we were young and we got it done, but we still had those older players who played a big leadership role,” Smith said. “The mid-tier-aged players like myself and the older ones accept the fact that we have to be the leaders now and help the younger guys. It’s pretty similar and it’s a mix of both.
“Some faces are gone, which is unfortunate, but it’s not for the wrong reasons. We’re going to miss those faces that we all know but it’s not going to make a difference on the field for us because we’re going to stick to our game…
“Just being fundamentally sound and doing the little things and playing hard is Canada’s game. We’re scrappy – breaking up double plays, back in the day we were taking the catchers out, and we play hard. Those things over the course of nine innings add up.”