By: Alexis Brudnicki
AJAX, Ont. – The countdown began long before the Canadian Women’s National Team arrived in Ajax, Ont., to start their portion of the Pan Am Games.
It’s something they’ve been waiting for, building toward, and looking forward to for a long time, being included in a multi-sport event for the first time in the program’s 11-year history. Team Canada has been to six World Cups, but each international tournament has consisted of only baseball and just eight countries.
When the final countdown began, announcements being made from the two-hour mark all the down to having 10 minutes left on the drive from their last pre-tournament exhibition matchup location to their ultimate destination at the Athletes’ Village in Toronto, the moment was surreal.
“You could feel the excitement on the bus,” veteran third baseman Ashley Stephenson said.
The Canadian squad had just finished watching A League of Their Own, fitting for the 18 women about to break a brand new barrier in baseball. Not unlike the teams in the classic film, Canada’s women were on their way to do something they never thought possible.
“Everything has been amazing,” Stephenson said. “This has been the most unbelievable experience I’ve ever had playing sports.”
Each of the women participating in the event has a full-time obligation outside of their sport. The Canadian squad has a few students, one in high school and the rest post-secondary, one police officer, a couple of teachers, a doctor, and so much more. They’re athletes at the very top level of their sport – dedicating all of their free time to the game – but they still don’t quite feel like they fit in with the rest of the crowd at the Pan Am Games.
“We’re just completely starstruck,” Stephenson said. “I walked up to Larry Walker, oh my goodness. He was sitting on a Muskoka chair, and couldn’t be more Canadian. I walked up and asked to take a photo with him. We were chatting about baseball, he was talking about the women’s program, and he’s fantastic.
“I saw [Scott] Richmond in the stairwell and couldn’t help but yell, ‘Oh my God, it’s Richmond!’ He started laughing at me and I said, ‘I watched you when you pitched for the Blue Jays.’ And then Olympic [and Pan Am] gold medallist, trampoliner Rosie [MacLennan] was walking by and I thought, ‘This is just crazy.’
“[Team Canada first baseman Kate] Psota was in the laundry room and Lorie Kane, professional golfer, walks in. She said, ‘Hi, I’m Lorie Kane,’ and we’re just thinking, ‘What is going on right now?’ Everywhere you look there are Olympians and unbelievable athletes, and people who have committed their lives to their love of sport. It’s unbelievable. I’m having a tough time finding the words, but it’s really unbelievable. It’s so cool.”
The Athletes’ Village has been a wonderland for Team Canada, never having experienced anything like it. From the moment they arrived, the squad was treated like royalty. There hasn’t been a time in their lives where they’ve felt so special, and it’s about time.
“It was good,” manager Andre Lachance said of their arrival at the village. “You could see all the smiles on the girls when we arrived, and it was outstanding. They could have taken a lot of good pictures of them smiling. Giving them the [first] day off to explore and discover everything was what we had to do, and it was priceless. It was absolutely priceless.”
The first and perhaps biggest noticeable difference for the national team as they made their entrance at the Games was that people knew and acknowledged that they play baseball. Often mistaken for softball players, it was nice to even be asked.
“Actually, when we were walking in we had all our ball bags and stuff like that and I heard a couple people asking, ‘Is this the women’s fastball team or the baseball team?’” Stephenson said. “So the fact that they were asking which one we were was a nice surprise, because a lot of people maybe didn’t know before. And the men’s team, a lot of the guys came over and introduced themselves and were chatting with us.
“Is it the majority of people who know that we’re playing baseball? Probably not, but obviously the word is out a little bit more and for now at least they’re asking the question – which one are we? So hopefully we’re kind of educating and getting the word out, but it is much better than it has been before. Is there room for growth? Absolutely. But the fact that people are aware is a step in the right direction.”
As far as the competition goes, the Pan Am Games have a different look than the World Cups have had. Japan holds the top spot in world rankings for women’s baseball, has captured gold in the previous four World Cup championships, and is obviously not a Pan American country. Australia ranks third, and is also not a participant at the Games.
Team USA and the Canadians are early favourites in the tournament, the pool rounded out by Cuba, Puerto Rico and Venezuela.
“It’s a little bit different,” Psota said. “It’s still early to figure that out, but definitely the level of competition we’ve been facing [in exhibition games] has been good.
“If there were any nerves, it was a good time to get them out, and playing people who are as good or maybe a little better has definitely helped us get ready. As far as the team attitude is concerned, everyone is very focused. Everyone is pretty much ready to go at this point.”
The women matched up against men’s senior teams and midget triple-A squads on their way to the Pan Am Games, before one scrimmage against Team USA on Saturday. For the most part, they played high-calibre competition that helped them on their way to what they’re hoping could be their first run at gold in program history.
“Obviously the guys are very quick when they’re running, the speed at which plays happen is maybe just a hair quicker; the quality of pitching is probably pretty similar,” Psota said. “So that way it really helped us get ready for the Games, but definitely plays happened a lot quicker.”
Stephenson added: “They were great competition for us. It exposed things we needed to work on, which was to be expected. It also showed us that we can compete against some definite top competition. We were in every one of our games, and finished with a big win in Cornwall [before beating the Americans]. That gives us huge momentum coming in.”
Opening play on Monday against Cuba, the women are eager to get started and make history on home soil.
“Going into the tournament, we have all kinds of confidence,” Stephenson said. “People really just want to get started. You want to get that first ground ball, you want to get that first at-bat under your belt, and kind of get the atmosphere flowing a little bit. But we’re definitely looking to get back on the diamond…and people are extremely confident and are definitely excited.”