By: Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
SYDNEY, NSW – The Toronto Blue Jays are well represented at the World Baseball Classic Qualifier in Australia.
Among the four teams competing for a spot at next year’s WBC – host Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and the Philippines – every squad has a coach who was originally signed by the Canadian big-league club and had a memorable time in the majors with the Blue Jays.
Currently the bullpen coach for the Southern Thunder at the tournament in Sydney, Graeme Lloyd was the first of the four national team staff members to play for Toronto, signed by the organisation as an international free agent out of Australia in 1988. While he didn’t make it to the big leagues with the Blue Jays until more than a decade later, it was a bright spot for the former hurler.
“I have so many,” Lloyd said. “Just playing there – they were the initial team that I signed with, and to get to play with them finally after playing for so many other teams was my highlight.
“Also, I remember being the setup guy with a chance to close games and be a big part of the team. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to the playoffs under [Jim] Fregosi but I had some really good times there and I loved the city there.”
Before taking on his duties as the manager of New Zealand’s national team, former infielder Chris Woodward started and ended his major-league career with the Blue Jays. Drafted by Toronto in the 54th round in 1994, the California native spent parts of seven seasons with Toronto.
“I had a few highlights with the Blue Jays, because it was my first place I got to play,” the Diamondblacks skipper said. “I’d say the first game was a pretty big highlight. The first day in the big leagues was pretty special.
“Probably the second one was the game where I hit three home runs. That was a surreal moment. We ended up losing the game, which kind of sucked but it was pretty surreal to be able to accomplish that.”
Selected in the second round of the 2002 draft by Toronto, Dave Bush spent three of his nine years in the majors with the Blue Jays. Making his way onto the international baseball scene just recently, the right-hander from Pennsylvania joined South Africa at the qualifier as the squad’s infield coach.
“I’ve got a couple of Blue Jays highlights,” Bush said. “Just pitching in Toronto, and then I got to pitch the home opener in 2005, that was a big one. That was the first place I played, that was the team that drafted me, and that was the last place I played too. So it bookended nicely. I have really fond memories of the time I spent in the city and with the organisation.”
Jesse Litsch spent all five of his seasons in the big leagues with the organisation that drafted him in the 24th round in 2004 and the Floridian has the fondest memories of the very first time he got to take the mound in a Blue Jays uniform.
“Throwing 8 2/3 on my dad’s birthday was cool, and anytime you make your debut is great. It was going to be hard to beat that,” Litsch said. “It’s your debut, your first game in the big leagues is your main goal, and then to do that and I went out there and had a really good game…
“And there was one time in Boston where we had a chance for the playoffs and I got to go on three days’ rest. That was fun, and in 2008 we had the best pitching staff in baseball. That was cool.”
Following his playing career, Litsch ventured to China with Major League Baseball before his international connections landed him the pitching coach position with the Philippines. Representing his own country only in a friendly tournament while he was in junior college, the right-hander has enjoyed his opportunity in Sydney.
“Being a part of this is great,” the 30-year-old said. “These guys got put together within five days. All these other teams have been playing together, they’ve been doing some stuff together.
“We got the short end of the stick with no games, no practice, but seeing the camaraderie and how they buy in together, the Philippines culture is pretty cool. You see all these teams together and you’re playing for a nation and it’s not hard to get up and go.”
Bush shared LItsch’s sentiment in his first chance to be a part of a team on the international stage, and has enjoyed learning as much from the experience as he can offer in return from his own.
“This has been really cool,” the 36-year-old said. “The last year or so I’ve gotten involved with international baseball, and these tournaments are different. There’s a lot of emotion involved for these players. To wear their national uniform is a pretty special event for them, so in a lot of ways it’s more emotional, it’s more exciting, it’s more intense.
“In some ways, I can help them understand what it’s like to play meaningful games day after day. A lot of these guys don’t come from baseball backgrounds that include something like that, but they’ve welcomed me very easily…This is a different change of pace from what I remember in pro ball. Pro ball is more of that six-month grind and this is a weekend of intensity. It’s a lot of fun.”
Added Woodward: “It’s very different. It’s cool to see how the game is thought of and played, and the approach to the game in different countries. This is the third time I’ve been a part of it, twice the WBC and once another international tournament.
“You get to meet different coaches, see the players, different styles. It’s really cool to see the game from a different perspective than what we see in America. You see that at the WBC, the excitement and what we may not like sometimes, the showmanship, it’s common in other countries. It’s cool to see the variations of the styles.”
Neither Bush nor Woodward was ever fortunate enough to don the red-white-and-blue jersey, giving them an added appreciation for just how much it means to their players.
“That’s one message I send to these guys is that they’re pretty lucky that they get this opportunity,” the 39-year-old Kiwi coach said. “I had a decent career, as far as the major leagues and stuff like that, but I never even came close to making a USA team. There were way better players than me.”
Added Bush: “I did not play for Team USA, but I certainly would have. I like that emotional side. It’s a different approach to baseball that we don’t get in pro ball in the US. It has its different rewards. It’s been fun out here.
“They’re very receptive to the coaching. They want to get better. They don’t have access to the same amenities, the same competition, the same schedule that we’re used to in the US, so if nothing else I can leave them with the fact that here’s something to aim for.”
Lloyd has played and coached with Australia’s national team program since his career in the big leagues came to an end, cherishing every moment on the field, as well as his time working with the junior team, senior team, and on the staff for the women’s squad at the last World Cup.
“The highlight of my national team career was 2004 in Athens [at the Olympics] where we got the silver medal,” the 48-year-old said. “That was a great experience and it was the first time I really played for my country in an international competition after I signed.
“It was an amazing experience, a lot different than the professional experience…I love pro ball in so many ways but the heart is overflowing when you play for your country.”