By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
DENVER, Col. – They know what’s happening in Canadian baseball.
Justin Morneau, the reigning National League batting champion, has spent much of this season on the mend, finally making a long-awaited return from the disabled list last week after being sidelined in May because of a serious neck injury.
John Axford, his Colorado Rockies teammate and the squad’s closer, then middle reliever, and then closer again, has had his own ups and downs on and off the field this season, changing his mechanics ever-so-slightly and seeing his now-three-year-old son Jameson battle a rattlesnake bite that happened during spring training and has continued to affect him.
And somehow through it all, they’ve always made time to keep up with Baseball Canada.
It’s been a big year for the Canuck organization, which has seen its Junior National Team take the usual trips – that were not so usual when Morneau and Axford were teenagers – to St. Petersburg, Fla., in March, Orlando in April, Dominican Republic in May, and will return to Orlando in October.
Additionally, the junior squad travelled to Australia in August for an exhibition series before finishing sixth in Japan at the U18 World Cup this month. That followed a silver medal for the Women’s National Team in its first-ever multi-sport event at the Pan Am Games in Toronto, on the heels of the defending Pan Am champions – winning gold with Teams USA and Cuba at their sides on the podium.
In June, the country north of the border saw one of its best drafts yet, with two first-rounders in Josh Naylor, selected 12th overall by the Miami Marlins, and Mike Soroka, taken 28th overall by the Atlanta Braves – both of whom share the same agent with Morneau – a record-matching 10 Canucks selected in the first 10 rounds, and 30 Canadians chosen in total.
“I was on the first or second junior team that went down to Disney in April for spring training,” Morneau said. “Just to see the amount of guys who have been drafted in the first, second, or third round now – especially in the last few years – has been impressive.
“It’s a direct result of the junior program. It’s so well-organized and there are good people in charge; you have good baseball people there. It’s great for kids to have something to look at other than hockey, and to have an opportunity to be taken high in the draft and have a good opportunity to play in the big leagues, as a result of what Baseball Canada is doing.”
Morneau had the inside scoop on the draft this year, with his agent Mark Pieper constantly giving him Canadian updates, so he was more tuned in to the process than most. Axford paid a lot of attention to the Pan Am Games, where many of his friends and former/future Team Canada teammates were having the times of their lives winning gold on home soil.
“Pan Am definitely is on my radar,” the Ancaster, Ont., resident said. “The draft, I don’t know if I honestly pay attention to it as much anymore. I did obviously when I was going to be drafted – wasn’t drafted – and then maybe my first few years, but now I’m more focused on the guys who I’ve been around and played with and have been with and shared moments on the baseball field with.
“Those are kind of my biggest moments, so when I watch the Pan Am Games or try and catch up and see how those guys are doing, you have an emotional connection to those guys, because I’ve played with them at the WBC or I’ve played with them in the minor leagues, big leagues, it’s just great to have that connection.
“Canadian players seem to have it no matter what, no matter where they live now, no matter where they play now, there’s always that connection between them, especially if you’ve played together or been together on a team before.”
It was that connection, in part, that helped get Axford to Colorado this year. Entertaining offers from multiple teams in the off-season, the Rockies came into the picture in January. Immediately, the right-hander thought of the only two people he knew there, now-Toronto Blue Jays reliever LaTroy Hawkins and his World Baseball Classic teammate.
“Justin convinced me,” Axford said. “He did [at the Baseball Canada banquet], actually. He messaged the GM while we were discussing it. He just said, ‘I’m going to message the GM, I want to talk about it.’ And I talked to LaTroy Hawkins also, when they were interested. There were only two guys I knew – LaTroy Hawkins and Justin Morneau – so I called LaTroy right away and asked him what was going on, and then literally two days after I talked to LaTroy I was going to see Justin in Toronto.
“I asked him the same questions and just tried to see and gauge their thoughts, whether negative, positive, their concerns, their outlooks, all those kinds of things. I didn’t know much about the organization, staff, players, ownership, anything like that. I knew the city a little bit and I’ve always enjoyed coming here. It’s always been one of my favourite spots to come play and visit but other than that I had no idea. So it was good to actually get a couple guys who have been around for a long time and get their views of an organization that was a potential for me.”
When the Pan Am Games rolled around, an added bonus of the move was that Axford had someone else watching and supporting the team that eventually came out on top, a fact that he might have mentioned to his American teammates on occasion after the event ended.
Morneau kept an especially close eye on his former Twins teammate – and roommate, when the former American League MVP invited the rookie into his Minnesota home during their playing time together – Rene Tosoni, and stayed in touch with Rockies legend and Team Canada first base coach Larry Walker throughout the tournament.
“I couldn’t get the feed down here so I was watching those dots around the bases,” Colorado’s first baseman said. “I got a text from Walker right after … It was exciting. I have a good friend in Rene Tosoni and he was there so it was exciting for me to see him play for Canada again, and obviously it was a cool moment.
“It was cool to see Pete [Orr] have a moment like that [scoring the winning run to walk off Team USA for the gold medal], one of the best pictures you’ll see all year, after scoring that run. It was exciting to see that. Maybe when I get done it would be fun to be on the coaching side of that, to be around and get to represent your country even if you can’t play anymore. It would be fun.”
When the men’s Pan Am run was over, Morneau’s first message was to Greg Hamilton, the director of national teams for Baseball Canada, as well as manager for the Junior National Team since the native of New Westminster, BC’s year on the squad, and coach with the senior team. Morneau has seen the progress the game in Canada has made since Hamilton took over the program and is excited for what it could mean for the future.
“I’m hoping he stays in that position for a long time,” Morneau said. “Major league teams are starting to take notice, if they haven’t already taken notice of what he’s done with that program. His ability to go across an entire country and find talent, and find players to fill teams and the junior team, everything he’s done there is better baseball.
“He’s the guy I dealt with when I was younger and he was there for me then, and obviously his knowledge has continued to grow and he’s a guy who truly cares about every guy who goes through that program. That’s as important as everything. It’s not just a cog in the machine that’s going through and trying to make as much money as he can – it’s a family-type atmosphere and everybody who goes through there actually cares for him.
“That also helps the program, with guys being loyal to the program and coming back and all that type of stuff, and Greg [is a] reason for that. I don’t know where the program would be if he didn’t come in when he did and hadn’t done the things that he’s done. With baseball being out of the Olympics and funding going down and all the rest of it, what he’s been able to do is impressive.”
Downplaying his own role in the continuing rise of baseball in his home and native land, Morneau is hopeful that his accomplishments have and will motivate young Canadian athletes, and open their eyes to the possibilities that exist in baseball.
“When I was younger, obviously I had all the Blue Jays games on TV and they were good,” Morneau said. “Growing up on the west coast, basically when I came home from school the games started. I got to watch a lot of those games, and then having Larry Walker and playing at Larry Walker field, and my cousin [Steve Sinclair] also played in the big leagues, so I like to look at [my own influence] that way.
“When I was that age I had people to look up to, so the thing I hope most is that kids look at it and they go, ‘We’ve got this guy playing in the big leagues – I can do it too.’ That’s the thing that’s pretty neat from my side of it.”
It has been 14 years since Axford was a Junior National Team member. Over parts of seven seasons in the big leagues during that time, after graduating from Notre Dame and getting a Master’s degree at Canisius College, he has posted a 3.48 ERA in 393 appearances and 384 2/3 innings, with 136 saves between the Milwaukee Brewers, St. Louis Cardinals, Cleveland Indians, Pittsburgh Pirates and Rockies.
Of the 16 years since Morneau was a member of Team Canada’s junior squad, he’s spent 13 in the majors with Minnesota, Pittsburgh and Colorado. The infielder has a .281/.348/.482 career slash line, with 241 home runs and 955 RBIs, after being selected in the third round of the 1999 draft out of high school by the Twins and scout Howie Norsetter.