By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
AJAX, Ont. – Brock Kjeldgaard knows what it’s like.
The 29-year-old knows how it feels to win gold for Canada, he knows what it’s like to be a part of a special team that feels like it can do anything, Kjeldgaard knows how it is to stand on the podium and hear his country’s anthem at the end of an international tournament, and he even knows exactly what it feels like to become a hall of famer.
Team Canada’s right-handed designated hitter was a part of the national squad that won gold at the Pan Am Games four years ago in Mexico, just after capturing bronze at the World Cup in Panama, with a team that had a significant duration together to develop chemistry, using it to accomplish a feat that had never been done in Canadian Senior National Team history.
“We had a great group,” Kjeldgaard said. “We all worked together and we were together for over a month so you get to know everybody pretty well. Then we started rolling and we just clicked when the Pan Am Games were in Mexico and went from there.”
The scenario at the Games in Ajax, Ont., is a little different, with the squad only having six days and three exhibition games in Cary, NC before suiting up together for Pan Am play, but this time around Team Canada is at home, and now the consistent underdog is the defending champion.
“It’s a little bit more challenging here, but we also have that it’s at home in Toronto,” Kjeldgaard said. “That helps everything, everybody is kind of familiar with where they’re at instead of going to a different country where they’ve never been. That will help us. There’s a little bit more pressure but I know I expect when I come on this team that we’re going to win.”
Since the moment he first learned that the Games were going to be held just a couple of hours away from Kjeldgaard’s hometown of London, Ont., he had been looking forward to the event and hoping for a chance to be a part of it, which he jumped on when it was offered.
“I mean, I haven’t played in Canada for so many years, since before I signed professionally [in 2005 as the 34th-round pick of the Milwaukee Brewers],” he said. “So it is a lot of fun to play here and for some people to get to see us play who maybe haven’t seen me play in a while. There is a lot of excitement.”
Kjeldgaard not only gets to share that excitement with the family and friends he’s had in attendance at the Games, but it is also a chance for several of the young players he’s coached with the Great Lake Canadians – a high-school-aged elite program – to see him in action.
After taking his opportunity to see his Great Lake players perform on the field for the first time during their spring training trip to St. Petersburg, Fla., in March, he now knows what it’s like to watch the game from the sidelines with pride.
“I would work with them indoors and everything, and I had gone out in the fall a little bit, but not to the extent that I got to see them in the spring,” Kjeldgaard said. “So for sure it was fun, watching the kids and how they improved over the off-season to get to see what they could do.
“You don’t get to see a lot indoors, but once they got outside you get to see how they play and you get to see the results that come from all the work they’ve done. It’s a different excitement obviously, being on the sideline, but it’s pretty gratifying.”
So far, the Pan Ams have been pretty gratifying for Kjeldgaard and Team Canada, the squad rolling into first place in the standings with a round-robin game still to be played, after consecutive wins over Dominican Republic, Colombia, Nicaragua, Cuba and Puerto Rico. The Canadians will host USA Friday night before the semi-final and medal rounds on Saturday and Sunday.
“We show up to the park every day; we think we’re going to win,” Kjeldgaard said. “So it’s a good feeling. You never have that [question], are we going to win? We show up and we think we’re going to win every game …
“[Now] we hope to just keep it rolling. Obviously our pitching’s been great … so when you get strong pitching and you get off to a good start, it usually goes well.”
With a solid staff of arms, good defence and timely hitting, that’s what happened four years ago for Kjeldgaard and the defending champs. This isn’t the same group of players, but there’s no doubt in their minds that they can get a similar result.
“It’s a different group but there’s still some of the same guys,” he said. “But I mean anytime you get a bunch of Canadians together you bond pretty well and it goes pretty well usually. Every time I’ve been on the team [it has].”
Kjeldgaard also represented Canada between both of its Pan Am Games berths, playing at the World Baseball Classic qualifier in Regensburg, Germany in 2012.
But before that September tournament, he had the unique opportunity to stand in for the squad – unfortunately because of a broken thumb suffered in an attempt to break up a double play – as one of two team representatives, with Mike Johnson (Sherwood Park, Alta.), to attend the ceremony when the gold medal winners were inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame the following summer.
“It was a tough time because I was hurt but it was awesome to go there,” he said. “To be able to be there and see everything and see what happens, how you get inducted and all of that was a lot of fun. I mean, it sucked that I was hurt but it was a nice event to go to and it was a lot of fun.”
This entire experience has been enjoyable for Kjeldgaard and the rest of the team as well, and a welcome pitstop along the road that is the everyday grind of his 10th minor league season.
With the Sioux City Explorers in the independent American Association, the outfielder has hit .274/.374/.522 through the first 41 games of the year, with nine home runs, eight doubles, two triples and 38 RBI, bringing that success with him to the mid-season playoff-like atmosphere in Ajax.
“It’s always exciting when you get here and it’s always an honour to play for Team Canada,” Kjeldgaard said. “Anytime you can get the call it’s something that you look forward to and you hope that it happens. Then when it does happen, it’s always an honour…
“It’s still baseball but it’s a different mindset. It’s more of a team game than anything. We’re obviously playing for our country. When you’re in the minor leagues a lot of the time you’re playing for your team but you’re also playing for your individual stats. You’re playing to move up in the organization and everything, so this is a different mindset and it’s a lot of fun.”
Kjeldgaard’s most enjoyable game yet came in Thursday’s 11-4 win over Puerto Rico, when the hitter went 4-for-4 with his second home run of the tournament – the first a pinch-hit solo shot on Sunday against Colombia – two runs scored, and four runs driven in.
“It’s huge,” Team Canada manager Ernie Whitt said. “I mean, he’s a big part of this team. We’re dominantly left-handed hitting so we need that right-hander to step up and do his job because we’re going to see a lot of left-handed pitchers. We knew that coming in, so it’s nice to see that Brock stepped up tonight and had a great night.”
Added Kjeldgaard: “It’s just one of those days when it kind of clicks. The past two games haven’t been the best for me, but the team’s really picked it up. Every day it’s been someone different stepping up.”
Among the many players who have stepped up for Team Canada on the trip is Rene Tosoni (Port Coquitlam, BC), who has played right field for the country north of the border and gone 8-for-19 over five games, with five runs, three RBI and three walks. The 29-year-old also happens to be Kjeldgaard’s teammate with the Explorers, and a reason he landed with the team at the end of last season.
“I played with him last year in Sioux City and then we played together in 2013 in Huntsville, Alabama,” Kjeldgaard said. “I spent the whole year there. So that was kind of one of the reasons that I went there, word of mouth, and then I got a call from the manager and all that. It’s always good to have Canadian teammates; it’s nice not to be the only one on the team.”
Both players returned to Sioux City this year when they didn’t hear from any affiliated clubs, and they’re making the most of their time, hoping to keep the winning atmosphere they’ve found with the national team and the Explorers going when they head back.
“You always hope that you get a call from somebody else, but nothing ever came up in the off-season,” Kjeldgaard said. “I had planned that I had talked to Sioux City and I knew that was an option. It ended up where I didn’t have any other affiliated options so I went back there and our team has been really good this year, so it’s been fun there too.
“Obviously the goal is to get out of there but if you’re there you might as well win. So it’s been a lot of fun, we’ve had a lot of wins so far and hopefully we keep that rolling.”
The club in Ajax is hoping to do the same thing.
“We’re very confident that we can compete with anyone we play at any time,” Whitt said. “Tomorrow we would love to go undefeated the whole tournament, so we’re going to come out and we’re going to try to win the ball game.”