Hamilton key piece of Baseball Canada Pan Am puzzle

Greg Hamilton, left, of Baseball Canada checks with Josh Naylor (Mississauga, Ont.) selected 12th over all in the June draft. Photo: Alexis Brudnicki.

Greg Hamilton, left, of Baseball Canada checks with Josh Naylor (Mississauga, Ont.) selected 12th over all in the June draft. Photo: Alexis Brudnicki.

By Alexis Brudnicki

Canadian Baseball Network

He is the King Midas of Canadian baseball. 

Everything Greg Hamilton touches turns to gold. Maybe not literally, but there was that time he took Team Canada’s senior squad to the World Cup in Panama and then the Pan Am Games in Lagos de Moreno, Mex. They came home with bronze and gold medals, taking the top spot from Cuba for the first time in 44 years. 

And now four years later, a new squad with a mix of fresh-faced national team players and experienced veterans will look to defend their Pan Am championship on home soil in Ajax, Ont., but that’s just one piece of the puzzle for Hamilton. 

The Peterborough, Ont., native has shaped the way the sport grown and changed over the last two decades in Canada, directing the country’s national teams for Baseball Canada, finding and honing young talent on the Canadian Junior National Team, and bringing the best available players together to take on the world at the senior level. 

“He’s been amazing,” former big leaguer, senior team member, and current junior squad coach Adam Stern (London, Ont.) said. “He’s a guy who does the job of four people and he’s always trying to get around and do stuff like this and promote the game. 

“It’s tireless work and it’s endless work, and sometimes it’s thankless work that he does. You can tell by the product he puts on the field in both the junior team and senior team, he just does a great job. He’s a big part of everything that goes on in this country.” 

Among the plethora of reasons why Canadian players want to suit up in the red and white, playing for Hamilton and the incredible coaching staffs he puts together – the current Pan Am squad is led by Ernie Whitt (Clinton, Mich.), Larry Walker (Maple Ridge, BC), Denis Boucher (Lachine, Que.), Stubby Clapp (Windsor, Ont.) and Paul Quantrill (Port Hope, Ont.) – is right at the top. He’s helped many a Canuck along their way, and it is considered a great honour to be on his roster. 

“You want to go play for him because of everything that you know that he’s done in the country for baseball,” Pan Am gold medallist and Triple-A Buffalo Bisons pitcher Andrew Albers (North Battleford, Sask.) said. “A lot of guys in the Team Canada program, the national team program has been a stepping stone for their careers. 

“A lot of guys are very appreciative of that and a lot of us wouldn’t have had the opportunities that we have had without it. It’s something where it’s nice to give back, but it also ends up being a great experience because of how Greg runs things and the guys we get to play with.” 

Added Jimmy Van Ostrand (Richmond, BC), former Team Canada veteran and 2012 IBAF Senior Athlete of the Year: “Greg is one of the best people that I’ve come across in baseball. He is such a hardworking and genuine person, and it comes across in how he deals with all the people anywhere from the staff to the players to anybody he comes across. He’s just unbelievable to be around and I’m blessed to have been able to spend as much time with him as I have.” 

Said Triple-A Columbus Clippers hurler Dustin Molleken (Regina, Sask.): “Hammy is unbelievable. He’s a huge part of our national team, he does everything for everybody, and he’s just hands-down one of the best baseball people I’ve ever known … He knows how it is and he knows everything about it. He could be a head big-league guy in a front office someday. His knowledge is unbelievable and he’s just an outstanding guy. I can’t say enough about him.” 

Since their playing days with Hamilton have ended, a few fortunate men have had the opportunity to experience the other side of the game with him. Former Team Canada mainstays Stern, Shawn Bowman (Port Moody, BC) and Chris Robinson – who came out of retirement to play in the Pan Am Games – joined the coaching staff of the Junior National Team and gained an even deeper perspective of Hamilton’s efforts.

“Greg’s got a tremendous amount of patience and a lot of belief in guys,” Stern said. “When I first started coaching with the junior team – I never got to play on it so I didn’t know the whole process of it – I saw that he really has a vision for some guys. He seems them through thick and thin when it’s easy to give up on guys. 

“When you get on the other side of it – coaching and not playing – you get to see that. Probably as a player, someone would have given up on your pretty easy if you had a bad game or week or month or whatever. He has a tremendous amount of patience and that’s the key in doing what he does at the junior team level because they’re kids and you never know what you’re going to get day in and day out.” 

Bowman added: “There’s nobody like him. This program doesn’t grow like it does without him. He’s a great evaluator of talent, he understands the dynamics of a team and what it takes to build a team. You can’t replace him. He’s irreplaceable.” 

Major League Baseball’s first-year player draft this year was an eye opener for many who know little about baseball north of the border and the Canadian Junior National Team program. With 30 Canadians chosen, two in the first round, three on the first night, and a record-matching 10 in the first 10 rounds, some light was shed on the success that is continuing to build in Canadian baseball. 

“It just goes to show the programs we’ve got running here,” fourth-round Reds pick Miles Gordon (Oakville, Ont.) said. “With Team Canada and the program that Greg runs for us, we’re lucky. To be honest, myself and the other guys wouldn’t be in the position we are today without that program. It just goes to show how good of a job Greg is doing. He’s really the guy that I’ve got to look to and thank for all his hard work and belief in me.” 

Power-hitting first baseman Josh Naylor (Mississauga, Ont.) led the charge in the draft when he was taken by the Miami Marlins with the 12th overall pick, becoming the highest position player ever chosen hailing from Canada, and the fourth-highest Canuck ever. He was followed by right-hander Mike Soroka (Calgary, Alta.), chosen by the Atlanta Braves at No. 28. Both play for Hamilton and the junior squad. 

“The national program that he’s built is unique and better than any other program in the world,” MLB scouting bureau Canadian supervisor Walt Burrows said. “There’s no program that brings players together as often as Baseball Canada does and exposes them to the talent level they face. The schedule that these kids play is harder than any high school player in the world. 

“They’re playing almost exclusively against professional teams … which is really stiff competition and it exposes the kids to how they have to play and how good the professional game is. It’s really helpful in their development. Greg came up with the idea in 1999 and on that first team that went to Disney were Jeff Francis (North Delta, BC) and Justin Morneau (New Westminster, BC), who are two pretty good guys.” 

Added Quantrill, who has been on multiple Team Canada staffs and has seen his son Cal – just finished his sophomore year at Stanford – go through the process: “Our program is better than anyone’s. It is because of Greg and because of his leadership. He just cares so much about getting young guys opportunities. 

“For me the junior program is really, really special because, yes I’ve seen my kid come through it and what a difference it’s made in both his baseball life and his life in general, but also in coaching off and on for six years with Greg. With the juniors, seeing the young men grow up and mature as much off the field and on the field, it seems to make them a lot better players. I don’t think you would find anyone who would say anything different who has ever been around the program, up close or from afar, it is because of Greg’s leadership.” 

When all was said and done, of the 30 Canadian players chosen in the draft, 18 of them have played for Hamilton, or are currently still with the program. Some, like Ryan Kellogg (Whitby, Ont.), Owen Spiwak (Mississauga, Ont.), Chris Shaw (Winnipeg, Man.), Michael Foster (Pickering, Ont.), Philip Diedrick (Ajax, Ont.), Daniel Pinero (Toronto, Ont.) and Joey Hawkins (Whitby, Ont.), have been drafted more than once, this time after pursuing the college opportunities afforded to them at least in part because of Baseball Canada. 

“The junior team did pretty much everything for me,” Kellogg said, before he was selected in the fifth round by the Cubs. “Without them I would not be [at Arizona State University], I wouldn’t have had the chance to travel the world like I did, I wouldn’t have been able to represent my country – all of those things have made me into what I am today, on and off the field.” 

Hamilton’s exceptional eye for talent and his patience with players are what others cite as the biggest difference-makers for the Canadian program. Not only is he able to find the country’s best players, but he finds them at all different ages and levels and helps all of them elevate their games. 

“I can think of numerous players who seemed like long-shot prospects or long-shot college players who ended up fulfilling their potential with the national team,” one American League scout said. “That’s what makes what Greg does so impressive. It hasn’t been just one player or one example. 

“He has continually shown an ability to bring on a player who has potential but is physically overmatched, and then help them develop into marquee players. This elite draft class isn’t a coincidence, it’s the fruit of years of strong development and pushing those players with high potential into situations that promote growth.” 

One particular player who stands out as having raised his stock immensely since he joined Team Canada is Demi Orimoloye (Orleans, Ont.), the fourth-round selection of the Milwaukee Brewers who was thought to be chosen even higher heading into the process. Born in Nigeria, the toolsy outfielder joined the national team at 15 years old after his parents had to be coaxed into it by Hamilton because they didn’t completely understand the process. 

“He’s really good at developing players and he’s patient,” Burrows said. “He’s a coach and you need diplomacy and everything like that, but he brings players along slowly and lets them develop without the pressures of the performance that goes with it. Demi is probably one of the best examples of that. 

“When he was first part of the national program he was a tremendous athlete without a lot of game skill. Greg has nurtured that and brought that along to a point where now he’s an entirely different player. He’s a good player. Most coaches wouldn’t do that – you’re looking for immediate results – and Greg is not like that at all.” 

Soroka joined the squad two Octobers before signing a $1.975 million contract with Atlanta earlier this month. Playing with the PBF Redbirds at home in Alberta helped the young right-hander along the way, but Team Canada was a game changer. 

“Getting a chance to play with the Junior National Team has just been a wild ride,” he said. “I can’t even put into words how much it’s helped me with everything from performance, confidence, just being a better person – the life experience it gives you is through the roof. Everyone at Baseball Canada – Greg Hamilton, [pitching coach] Chris Reitsma (Calgary, Alta.), even all the hitting coaches who I don’t really work with – they’ve been there the entire way and I can’t thank them enough. I wouldn’t be here without any of that.”

Soroka’s first-round selection wasn’t a shock to those familiar with Baseball Canada, but he hopes that his success and that of his teammates will help to get the word out about what has been happening in the Great White North. 

“There are many big names in Baseball Canada and we’re definitely gaining more respect as we go,” the 6-foot-4, 195-pound hurler said. “Especially now. That was a really big eye-opener. The MLB teams realize we have something, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that, but there are a lot of services and media publications that have never followed us throughout the entire spring. As a few of our names are off the board they’re realizing there is something up here and I really believe that it’s just going to get better.” 

Hamilton played four years of collegiate baseball at Princeton University, where he also suited up for the hockey team in his freshman year. In 1991, the Ottawa, Ont., resident was the assistant coach and recruiting coordinator there. 

Two years later, he started a five-year tenure in Montpelier, France, where he captured three Division-I national championships with the Barracudas, who later named their ballpark after him. Didn’t know about that -- that’s the way he wanted it.

Hamilton was also the pitching coach for the French National Team in 1994 at the World Cup qualifier before taking over the assistant coaching role at the University of Maine in 1998. 

Hamilton has been with Canada’s national baseball organization on a full-time basis for 16 years, though he made his first appearance on a coaching staff with Baseball Canada in 1992. Since then, things have changed immensely on the baseball landscape in the country. Though he won’t take credit for the progress, Hamilton is quick to express how much he loves working with the country’s up-and-comers.

“I enjoy the front end of the process, and I really enjoy the patience and tolerance that it takes as a group, a collective, to get where we believe we can ultimately get,” Hamilton said. “It’s fun to watch the cycle. Every step in the cycle is enjoyable because you see the progression. 

“It takes patience, but it also takes persistence and a little prodding from time to time too. It’s just fun to see players develop athletically and as a people and reach their ceiling and be able to move forward.” 

Toronto Blue Jays broadcaster and former big-league catcher Joe Siddall (Windsor, Ont.) has seen the changes in Canadian baseball firsthand, from growing up in the sport when his only stint with the national team program was a trip to Albany, NY, to seeing his son Brett play for Team Canada as a high schooler. So, what does Siddall think when he hears Hamilton’s name?

“Development of youth baseball in Canada,” he said. “And certainly putting baseball on the map in Canada. It’s come so far from my day. To see these kids – and of course having a son now who has been through this program, that I got to see up close and personal – and the experiences for these kids, it’s just off the charts for them to have the opportunities. 

“No. 1, to play for a national team with Canada on your chest, we all know you take a lot of pride in that, but then it’s the opportunity to play on these big stages. What a tremendous experience for these kids because it’s going to help them in college baseball and for the ones who get the opportunity to go pro, it’s going to help them. They’re playing international competition at these high levels, and Greg’s behind all of this and providing these opportunities for these kids.” 

Burrows has had a good look at the changes as well, keeping more records and documentation on the players from north of the border than anyone.

“He’s been huge,” Burrows said of Hamilton. “He started around 1992 and then the Disney [trip for the junior team to face professional competition] started in 1999 and before he was involved they put together a makeshift team to play world championships right after the Canada Cup. 

“They would go to Canada Cup, look at all the teams, put a team together, they would practice about a week after the Canada Cup, and then go to world championships. Then he did the Disney trip and started scouting a lot better and finding the best players regardless of the programs they were in and from that point on, everybody who was anybody has been a part of the program.” 

There is no doubt in Burrows’ mind that the growth in exposure and experience for Canadian baseball players, leading to an upswing in success and recognition, starts with Hamilton. 

“Without what he does, baseball wouldn’t even be close to what it is,” Burrows said. “You won’t find any player who is playing who won’t say glowing things about what Greg and the program has done. It really creates a bond with the Canadian players because they become friends when they’re 16 years old and that bond continues when they go to the Pan American Games, the World Baseball Classic, all of the tournaments. 

“It’s really a solid group of guys. You can see that when you go to the Baseball Canada [banquet and fund raiser], how connected everybody is and how much everybody genuinely likes each other. You don’t get that anywhere else. He’s the main piece of the puzzle there. Without what he does it wouldn’t be anywhere near what it is today.”

While Hamilton is at the forefront of everything happening in Canadian baseball, he somehow always finds a way to blend into the background when it comes time for praise or recognition. Quantrill believes that trait is just one of the many things that make Hamilton the successful figure that he is. 

“What makes Greg really special is No. 1, he’s so humble,” Quantrill said. “He doesn’t like to take credit for all the things he does. He’s a very, very smart guy. Greg sees things for what they are, and that is that not all the Canadian kids are going to end up playing in the big leagues. Most will probably get at least the college experience of baseball, but he’s very objective about that and he wants the best for all of the kids. It isn’t just this superstar or that kid who is going to go on to be something special. 

“He’s created a program and a template that really works for all our kids and works toward getting them to the highest level they can play at. He genuinely cares and that’s his only focus, to help the kids. Nothing is ever done so Greg will be applauded. Everything is about getting that kid to the next level and giving him an opportunity that you just don’t get in Canada. 

“In the US, I’ve got to be honest, that’s much easier. You go pitch in a high school game like I did when I was living there, and I happened to be paired up against [eventual Hall of Famer] John Smoltz. He was a year or two older than me but 25 or 30 scouts came to see John Smoltz and well I’m going to get seen, and then suddenly I’m followed. We have much more coverage these days but having a real following and an opportunity to shine in front of scouts and college recruiters, the reason it’s changed so much in the last 20 years is Greg.” 

Seeing things for what they are is a trait that Hamilton tries to pass on to those who come through the program. With wide eyes and big dreams, players are easily discouraged when they join the Junior National Team and match up against professional players who are older, stronger, bigger and faster. But Hamilton makes it easier for his players to look beyond that, and figure out how to make the most of everything they have to offer. 

“The biggest thing we try to do is highlight the fact that there are not too many five-tool players,” Hamilton said. “You have to figure out what you can do at this level and be confident in it and be comfortable conceding in other areas where you may not be. Some of the things, you’re not going to be able to do, but your strengths are going to be good enough. So they need to believe in those strengths. 

“It’s important to have confidence around the fact that maybe they don’t have power as a hitter but they can play the game in a different way – they can move the ball around the park, they’ve got speed, they can play some defence – to get them to believe that that’s good enough and that they’re not going to be able to have success here and beyond unless they figure out who they are as a player. For the first time, they look on a field and see guys who are big, strong and fast … they go from the game is relatively easy, for lack of a better term, to getting their confidence shifted in a hurry. 

“You’ve got to get them to understand that there’s a process, be patient, but understand that there are certain things that maybe they’re not going to be able to do that well, but don’t worry about it. Don’t spend a lot of time on those. Play to your strengths, be confident in your strengths, believe in your strengths, and you’re going to have a chance to be successful.” 

When it comes time for the senior team to compete, Hamilton finds a way to get the most out of his players while also working with them, their affiliations, the stipulations put on them, and all of the outside factors contributing to their careers, and those players are incredibly appreciative of his efforts. 

“He’s done a tremendous job,” Albers said. “When you get the opportunity to play for Team Canada, Greg does such a good job of accommodating you and making sure that he’s not going to do anything as far as harm your future, harm your career. He does everything that he can and everything in his power to make it a great experience, which it usually ends up being, and then to make sure that he’s not hurting anything that you have going on in your career.” 

That’s just one of the reasons why winning the first gold in Baseball Canada’s history was so special for the players involved, being able to give back a little bit of what King Midas has been working on for so long. 

“When we won the Pan Am, the reaction that Ernie had was incredible, but more specifically Greg,” Team Canada veteran and current York Revolution pitcher Shawn Hill (Georgetown, Ont.) said. “You could just tell the utter joy that overcame him. Basically all the fruits of his labour came to fruition there. And I was happier and more proud that we were able to win for him – and not just for him but for the organization, knowing what it was going to mean for the organization moving forward – than I was for myself. It was still cool and all that, but I knew what that win meant for them and that’s obviously going to help catapult what he’s doing back home. 

“When I was drafted [by the Montreal Expos in the sixth round in 2000], they had the program going and it was doing well but compared to what it’s doing now and the amount of Canadians who are coming in at a higher level now, and the exposure that he’s able to give them is night and day – and after 15 years, which I know is not the shortest time, but it’s obviously not the longest time either – so it’s incredible. 

“I don’t think there’s a harder-working person in baseball. Obviously I don’t know them all but I’d be hard-pressed to find somebody who does more for a particular organization than he does. That’s another reason why I want to be back in the Pan Ams. The main reason for me is because of him and the organization. It’s … like a little family. And the players will tell you the same thing, it means a lot to us in that sense. And it starts with him, so I can’t say enough about the guy.”