Canada then and now: Cruz, Cruz, Nelson, Patenaude, Thomson

 New York Yankees bench coach Robbie Thomson slips on a Team Canada jersey for pictures to pose with his teammates from the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Photo: Rod Heisler Studios.

New York Yankees bench coach Robbie Thomson slips on a Team Canada jersey for pictures to pose with his teammates from the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Photo: Rod Heisler Studios.

By Bob Elliott

Wearing red hats, decked out in red and white uniform tops, Canada’s 1984 Olympic team stood proudly behind the red velvet rope as the New York Yankees took batting practice.

Second baseman Starlin Castro put one souvenir after another over the outfield fence Monday at the Rogers Centre.

Yet, the Canuck team only had eyes for former teammate Robbie Thomson, Yankee bench coach who now lives in Stratford, and sports five World Series rings. 

Never has a man hitting ground balls been scrutinized so close. 

Watching were Thomson’s former manager Eric MacKenzie, outfielder Doug McPhail, catcher Jim Eliopoulos and shortstop Tom Nelson, to name a few on the Rogers Centre carpet thanks to Jason Zillo of the Yankees. 

Nelson was known as a Hoover vacuum cleaner in 1984. And if Canada has a weakness as a baseball nation it is its inability to produce shortstops. In the first three World Baseball Classics Canuck shortstops -- Peter Orr, Chris Barnwell and Cale Iorg -- combined for two hits in 20 at-bats.  

Less than 100 feet away from Nelson and the Olympians in the Blue Jays dugout, breaking news was unfolding.

“I would play for Canada,” said Trei Cruz, son of former Blue Jays outfielder Jose Cruz. Trei was born in Toronto when his father was a member of the Jays (1997-2002) which makes him WBC eligible.

Entering his senior year playing for the Episcopal High Knights in Houston this fall, Trei has committed to Rice University and is ranked 32nd on Perfect Game’s top prospect list from the great state of Texas for the 2017 draft.

“I would love to play for Canada,” said Antonio Cruz, a year younger than Trei, plays outfield and was also born in Toronto.

A switch hitter, Trei comes from a family tree littered with line drives. His father Jose had 1,167 hits with the Jays, Los Angeles Dodgers, Arizona Diamondbacks, Tampa Bay Rays, San Francisco Giants, Boston Red Sox, San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners. His grandpa by the same name had 2,251 hits with the St. Louis Cardinals, Houston Astros and the Yankees.

“I remember watching Team Canada with Ray Carter (Baseball Canada president) and asking if that was Garth Iorg’s son,” said Jose Cruz, honored with nine other Jays hitters on Sunday. Sunday’s sluggers signed autographs for two hours post game and then the father took his two sons for diner with Carlos Delgado and Shawn Green. 

“My father throws BP to the kids and dad is always telling me ‘calm down, calm down,’ how is that for one of life’s ironies?” asked Cruz, who became a 30-30 man in 2001 with 34 homers and 32 steals for the Jays.

“I stole my 30th against Cleveland and John Rocker. Robbie Alomar was at second and congratulated me. Two pitches later I stole third.”

And this spring the bag he stole was found in a back room of the clubhouse.

Trei was impressed meeting Edwin Encarnacion (“he’s so mellow”), Josh Donaldson and Devon Travis, while Antonio was excited to meet Mookie Betts (“he’s my size”) and Chilli Davis of the Red Sox on Sunday. 

The next WBC is nine months away March 3-to-23, which will be too soon for Trei Cruz, but maybe 2021?

“Guys you watch Canada play, their lineup is eight left-handed hitters ... and Russell Martin.”

Martin attended Chipola College, as did Jose Bautista and Laval’s Alain Patenaude.

Patenaude was behind the rope with Canuck pitching coach Dick Groch, who signed Derek Jeter, lefty Steve Wilson, Yanks Pacific Rim scout, a teammate of Yanks manager Joe Girardi with the Chicago Cubs and others. Chase Headley, Giradi and Thompson came over to chat. 

The group gathered Sunday night at The Badali Bar and Cucina, some seeing each other for the first time since the Los Angeles Olympics.

“I told my wife when we got on the plane in Denver,” Patenaude said. “I spent 45 days together with these guys in Windsor, Holland and Los Angeles. We had the time of our lives. I haven’t seen anyone but Robbie Thomson in 32 years and now we’re spending all this money to go see them.”

After going 9-0 at Chipola he was recruited by the University of Miami Hurricanes, won the 1985 College World Series and was drafted in the 13th round by the Detroit Tigers.

Patenaude, who could pass for a twin of TSN’s Michael Farber, runs a sporting goods store in Denver which sells NIKE clothing and Oakley sun glasses. He coaches hockey on the side. One of his players is Kyle Huson, son of Rockies broadcaster Jeff Huson. He asked Huson to put him in touch with Thomson when the Yankees visited Denver.

Besides the Olympics, the pair had been minor-league teammates in 1986.

Michelle Thomson used to sit with Angela Patenaude as the class-A Gastonia Tigers went 59-80.

And Sunday, 30 years later, they sat together again as grown men spoke about the best days of their lives.