By Alexis Brudnicki
AJAX, Ont. – There’s a lot that Skyler Stromsmoe remembers about his first trip with Team Canada.
Four years ago, he was 27 years old and he had been hoping for the opportunity for his entire baseball-playing life. When Baseball Canada’s director of national teams Greg Hamilton called, the switch-hitting second baseman almost couldn’t believe it.
It was a dream come true when Stromsmoe joined the squad for its trip to Panama, where they won a bronze medal at the World Cup, before solidifying his spot in program history as a part of the team’s gold-medal win at the Pan Am Games in Mexico immediately thereafter. He was on the same field as big leaguers he’d been watching, representing the only team he will always be a part of.
“We had some veteran players who had some big league time, and just getting to put that Canadian uniform on, with guys like that, and my whole life wanting to play for the national team and then finally getting the opportunity, I was like a kid in a candy store,” Stromsmoe said. “With all the gear we got, and playing with the guys who had the experience that I remember following, it was kind of surreal. It was such an honour to finally put it on.”
That was a special team. Beyond winning gold for the first time in Senior National Team history, they were afforded the unique opportunity to be together for about a month in total, from one international tournament to the next, helping the inevitable camaraderie and perhaps playing a part in the victory.
“We gelled really quickly and we pitched really well,” Stromsmoe said. “We pitched well and played good defence. To win in Mexico like we did, we had the clutch hits when it mattered. That’s kind of what it came down to – it’s such a cliché – but if you pitch well and play good defence and get the timely hits, which we did in that tournament, you end up winning.”
Four years later, the team defending the Canadian hardware on home soil in Ajax, Ont., hasn’t had as much time together – arriving at the event after four days together playing three exhibition contests in North Carolina – but it never takes long for players to get acclimated.
“It does happen pretty quickly,” Stromsmoe said. “It’s a little different with this being in the middle of the season. It’s definitely a different feel because the other times I’ve played it’s at the end. It’s kind of that last thing before your big [off-season] break; everyone’s excited for one last chance at it.
“You go through the grind of a minor league season and you finally get to have fun playing to win and playing for something. So it does change it up a little bit playing in the middle of a season, but it’s a nice break for everybody and everyone’s excited to represent Canada.”
Not only to represent the country north of the border, but also to do it right at home.
“It’s always nice to play on home soil,” Stromsmoe said. “The home field advantage takes over for us. We’ve gelled well and we’ve been pitching extremely well here, just like we did in 2011. You look at teams that win championships, that’s usually what happens.”
The native of Bow Island, Alta., is in Toronto for the first time, if you don’t count flying through for a 16-and-under tournament in Windsor almost half his lifetime ago. To be in Ontario, he left his Sacramento River Cats team, the Triple-A affiliate of the San Francisco Giants, where he had been getting limited playing time in his ninth minor league season. While the Pacific Coast League is just one phone call away from the majors, Stromsmoe didn’t hesitate to take his chance to wear the red-and-white uniform again.
“It was the easiest decision I’ve ever made, other than marrying my wife [Rachel] probably, to represent Canada again,” he said. “Four years ago, it wasn’t until the actual Pan Ams in Mexico when I found out Canada was hosting the next one.
“I was already thinking man, if I can play in this tournament four years from now – I thought No. 1, I’ve got to be healthy, and No. 2, I’ve got to still be playing and hopefully still be playing well enough to make it. But once I found out there was an opportunity to play I was definitely all in, and everybody here can say the same thing.”
Canada has never been known as a hotbed for middle infielders, and Stromsmoe is hoping that the trend might change after having the chance to play at home in front of sold-out crowds and young fans at the Games. The tournament follows a College World Series win for Virginia shortstop Danny Pinero (Toronto, Ont.), which Stromsmoe thinks can’t hurt the cause either.
“There are a couple young guys, like Pinero from Virginia,” Stromsmoe said. “He’s the next wave of young middle infield prospects coming up and hopefully guys are watching him, and hopefully some young Canadians are watching us in this tournament, and that will peak more interest.”
After three commanding Pan Am victories for Team Canada against Dominican Republic, Colombia and Nicaragua, and everyone on the roster seeing some playing time already, the 31-year-old is happy with the way this Canadian squad has come together so far.
“I like where we’re at,” Stromsmoe said. “The young guys aren’t putting any more pressure on themselves. Being in Canada you’re going to feel even more pressure, and being the defending gold medallists.
“But at the same time, I remember my first time and the older guys embraced me. That’s what we hope the veterans do for the young guys here, that they make them feel comfortable and let them play. Everybody’s here because they can play and they’ve showed they can, so just let their natural abilities take over and we’ll be fine.”
On Monday against Nicaragua, Stromsmoe showed some natural and irregular power when he hit his first home run in 725 days, a two-run shot, to go with an RBI-single and a walk on the night.
“I was just happy to square up a ball,” Stromsmoe said. “I hadn’t really squared any up. It’s the first home run I’ve hit in two years. I was kind of surprised when I hit it.”
His wife and parents, Nyle and Vicki Stromsmoe, missed his strong performance but they will be in Ajax for the final two round robin games and the weekend of semi-final and medal rounds. Canada’s second baseman is excited to share the experience with his family, the people who have helped him and been with him every step of his journey.
“Hard work and never giving up and having a strong support system back at home,” Stromsmoe said of what’s led to his success. “I didn’t start until I was 27 playing for the national team, so it’s been a long road, but never taking anything for granted.
“We’ve got some older guys on the team, [Scott] Richmond (Vancouver, BC), [Shawn] Hill (Georgetown, Ont.), [Pete] Orr (Newmarket, Ont.), they’re in their mid-upper-30s and still playing. You’ve got to love the game and that’s what [the difference is] at our age. You’ve got to love it and every day just try to get a little bit better and enjoy what we’re doing.”
Before his immediate family arrives to town, Stromsmoe certainly is enjoying his time with the band of brothers that is Baseball Canada. He’s been grateful to be a part of it, and is appreciative of the efforts of the staff to make the experience what it is.
“It starts at the top,” he said. “With what Greg’s been doing, he’s the mastermind behind this whole thing. Then from there down, from him to [manager] Ernie Whitt to the rest of the coaching staff and the support system with Critter [Keith Sanford, equipment manager] and [athletic therapist Dave] Blatz and Bernie [Soulliere, business manager], they’ve been doing this for years.
“When you get that stability at the top, it just filters down. People feel like it’s home, coming back is a big family reunion. Then when you put [the jersey] on, by default you’re all a family.”