By: Alexis Brudnicki
AJAX, Ont. – Life with Team Canada has been an adventure.
Ashley Stephenson has been a part of the Canadian Women’s National Team program since its inception 11 years ago, and she’s been through natural disasters, on-field catastrophes, a variety of different teammates and rosters, and she wouldn’t change it for the world.
Except maybe that time in 2005, when the now-32-year-old was on her second trip with the national squad. They were in Havana, Cuba, just three days into a friendly tournament against the Cuban women’s team, when she was told to pack her bags and evacuate the premises. A Category 4 hurricane was on its way.
Stephenson’s room essentially became the worst swimming pool she had ever experienced, and the native of Burlington, Ont., woke up – if she had slept at all – to her suitcase floating by her bed, with a stray palm tree or two in the living room. Since the toilet in the room was overflowing with backup and whatever else the room was flooded with, the women had to use the balcony.
Or if she could, maybe Stephenson might change what happened in Caracas, Venezuela during the fourth Women’s Baseball World Cup. Hong Kong’s team was on the field against the Netherlands and shortstop Cheuk Woon Yee Sinny was shot in the leg by what the local authorities called, “an object similar to a stray bullet,” citing the nearby military base as its departure point.
Tornadoes and earthquakes that followed on subsequent trips to international tournaments seemed like nothing compared to what Stephenson had experienced before, along with Kate Psota (Burlington, Ont.), the only current teammate she has who has been along for the entire ride. And it’s hard to miss the fact that after each incident, the events continued and baseball was played.
“The show must go on,” Canada’s third baseman said.
After the shooting in what is considered one of the most dangerous cities in the world, security was heightened. But even before that, the team had been escorted by local law enforcement everywhere they went. There were even officers in manager Andre Lachance’s office beyond the dugout, who got to experience firsthand his reaction to a disappointing loss for his squad.
Team USA didn’t participate in the opening or closing ceremonies at that World Cup. It was too risky.
And after the veteran infielder and her teammates had finished praying to get out of Cuba alive to follow the first hurricane they’d ever experienced, the women’s team finished the final two days of their tournament. The stadium they played at still housed some of the homeless squatters it had welcomed during the storm. “Extra fans,” they called them.
One guy found himself a new home at one end of Canada’s dugout in Havana, and no one from north of the border was about to tell him otherwise. The Canadian squad was unsure of whether the smell emanating from that extra fan in particular was alcohol, urine, or a mixture of both, but he kept offering high fives so, “at least he’s rooting for us,” Stephenson said.
But none of it really mattered.
“In the end, we just want to play ball,” the high school teacher said.
And finally, on a bigger stage than ever before, with more amenities and support and excitement and recognition than they’ve ever had, the Canadian Women’s National Team got the chance to do just that. For the first time in a multi-sport event, women’s baseball was introduced to the Pan Am Games in Toronto – all of the diamond sports taking place in Ajax, Ont. – a huge step in the right direction for the development of the sport.
If she could, Stephenson might also change a few things in the final matchup that saw the squad on home soil take silver after an 11-3 loss to Team USA, matching their best-ever international finish after winning silver at the World Cup in Japan in 2008, but there’s no mistaking the progression they’ve made.
“Obviously it’s grown a ton,” Stephenson said. “We’re disappointed in today but looking back, now I’m one of two players left here since 2004, and the talent isn’t close to where it was then…there’s a ton of talent out there, and over all kinds of different countries, not just in Canada and the US but Venezuela had a great tournament, Puerto Rico played everybody tough, and Cuba keeps coming.
“This is a huge opportunity for our sport to hopefully continue to grow. We hope that we put on a great performance and a great tournament, and we expect to be back in four years. That was our goal, and we really hope to see it back [in the Pan Am Games] in four years, because it was a great tournament.”
From start to finish, the experience for the women’s team was like no other, being around other competitors from other disciplines, sharing the Athletes’ Village with all of the members of team Canada across all of the sports, and being treated like kings while playing on home soil.
“It’s a wonderland for athletes,” Stephenson said. “You’re walking around [the village], there are Olympians walking by, Canada House is phenomenal…We’ve never experienced something like this before. For us it’s been really nice.
“Even just to come and watch the men’s [gold medal] game, we’ve never even seen our own men’s team play because we’re always off on our own, so for us it was a great experience to be around other athletes; other sports.”
The women’s game has always been different than that of the men, just for the fact that the players all have full-time obligations outside of their sport. All of Baseball Canada’s gold medallists who defended their Pan Am title from four years ago – the first in Senior National Team history – play professionally, and pursue the game on a daily basis.
While they’ve played internationally before, many of the Women’s National Team members are experiencing some of the things they’ve missed out on before being included in a multi-sport event.
“We have a cop, we have a doctor, a couple PhDs – we’re a smart group, actually,” Stephenson said. “We’re bright. We’ve always grown up like that right, so when you’re a kid you go to school and you play. Now I just go to work, which is still school [as the head of the Phys. Ed department at Frank Hayden Secondary School], and then I still play.
“So for us it’s a little different maybe than the guys…but all the girls, we’re just used to that. Some people say it’s a disadvantage. Obviously we’d love to play baseball for a living, but we don’t and we’ve never had that opportunity. I have a job that I absolutely love and I have people there who are extremely supportive and then I play baseball and I love it. So for me it’s kind of the best of both worlds.”
And what a difference home soil can make. Not only has the national squad avoided any disastrous incidents or interruptions to the tournament and their enjoyment of the entire Games experience, they’ve been able to do it with the Canadian crowd on their side.
The woman at Canada’s hot corner experienced some great fans in Edmonton, Alta., where the first Women’s Baseball World Cup was held in 2004, and then was the host city again in 2012, but she was blown away by the Pan Am pandemonium over the final weekend of play at the Games.
“This crowd was fantastic,” she said. “Edmonton was pretty solid too, but these guys were good. Give credit to the US crowd too, they were battling it out with us, so that was fun. It was fun out on the field, seeing them go back and forth, USA and Canada…obviously it’s fun just to have people in the seats screaming and yelling. It was a nice atmosphere.”
With the women’s team getting its first opportunity to play at the Pan Am level, and in the comfort of its own country, each of the 18 members of the squad took in absolutely everything they could, having the time of their lives and cherishing each moment.
“Obviously we’re not in the Olympics right now, so for [women’s baseball] this is the biggest stage we’re on, and we’re soaking it up,” Stephenson said. “It’s our time, and we’re here…It’s been absolutely spectacular. Toronto has done a fantastic job.”
From past to present, the first World Cup in Edmonton to the Games in Ajax, from battling through natural disasters to having their own baseball cards for the first time, Baseball Canada’s Women’s National Team program has come a very long way and is excited for more.
“It’s super exciting,” Stephenson said, fighting off tears. “Obviously, we’re disappointed in the way today finished, but I said to the girls, ‘Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but in a year or so, we’ll be proud of this medal.
“We’re really disappointed, but this was a huge opportunity for us and we appreciate the fans. The fans were fantastic, our friends, our family, and I’m so proud of the girls, proud of our coaches, and proud of what we did here.”