By: Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
MIAMI, Fla. – Team Canada welcomed five first-timers into the fold ahead of the World Baseball Classic in Miami, with two of those new faces squatting behind the dish and quickly learning what the squad from north of the border is all about.
Both George Kottaras and Mike Reeves got their starts in professional baseball after playing their high school days in the Ontario Blue Jays program – seven years apart – and then getting in some collegiate time on the field, with Connors State College and Florida Gulf Coast University, respectively, and the pair of backstops couldn’t have been happier to get this opportunity.
“It’s a special feeling,” 33-year-old Kottaras said. “This is something I’ve never really done, as far as being a part of Team Canada. And I’ve always wanted to. It just never really worked out before, so it was a good feeling when I was called to be a participant…at the end of last season, Greg [Hamilton, Baseball Canada’s director of national teams] put it in my head about being ready for it, and as time progressed it became something that was going to happen, and I told him I was committed to it.”
Originally pencilled into a catching spot with Kottaras, Yankees minor leaguer Kellin Deglan had to back out of the tournament after starting behind the dish for Canada at both of its most recent international events, the Pan Am Games and Premier 12. Suffering medium-grade sprains of his sub scap and supraspinatus in his shoulder, Deglan opened the door for Reeves to accomplish a lifelong goal.
“It is everything I thought it would be and more,” the 26-year-old said. “It’s an honour to wear these colours. The team chemistry is really good, so it’s actually more than I thought. The older guys are really taking me under their wing and it’s nice. It’s a tight-knit family, and I feel like when I came everybody had open arms.”
That sentiment is one shared by both of the Canuck backstops.
“It’s a great experience,” Kottaras said. “The guys are great, we’re having a lot of fun, and just trying to show well for Canada. It’s an easy clubhouse to come into. Everyone knows what they’re doing and it’s a great environment, and everyone is able to have fun so it’s a good time.”
While the only international experience Reeves had prior to the WBC was watching his older brother Jeff play for the Canadian Junior National Team, Kottaras has been on the world stage before, playing for Team Greece at the Olympics in Athens.
“I’m Canadian, that’s the bottom line,” the Scarborough, Ont., native said. “Playing for Greece in the Olympics, I was approached by them when I was younger, so that’s just kind of how that went, but it’s a real honour to play for Canada as well, and now I’ve been able to do both so it’s great.”
Getting his first glimpse of playing for a country, Reeves thought he was nervous when the Blue Jays farmhand travelled with the big club to Quebec at the end of spring training last year for its exhibition matchups at Olympic Stadium, but even without getting into a game at the Classic so far, the experience tops everything he’s done in his career.
“This is No. 1, by far,” the native of Peterborough, Ont., said. “I went to Montreal last year with the Blue Jays and I was pretty nervous going into that, but this is a different feeling. It felt like I was playing for the Toronto Blue Jays there but this is a whole country we’re playing for. There’s a sense of pride in that…nobody’s playing for the name on the back, we’re all playing for the name on the front.”
With little personal experience with Team Canada’s pitching staff, both catchers had to adjust quickly and make the most of their time with the hurlers at the WBC. Travelling from team to team throughout his career – making it to the big leagues with the Red Sox, Brewers, Athletics, Royals, Indians Cardinals and Blue Jays – is something that Kottaras feels has been an advantage in this scenario, if not anywhere else along the way.
“I knew some of them, and some of them from playing against them,” he said. “But other than that, nothing. The guys are great and they’re easy to get along with, so it makes it easy. [Learning the staff] is just asking questions and going with the flow. The good thing for me – if you can call it a good thing – is I’ve been bounced around where I have to deal with learning pitchers quickly. I just do my best to try to figure them out as quickly as I can and make the best of it.”
With Reeves returning to Toronto spring training when his time at the WBC comes to an end, and Kottaras still on the lookout for a job for the upcoming season, both backstops enjoyed every moment in the Canadian uniform while it lasted.
“Being on the field, you get pumped up,” Kottaras said. “Coming to the ballpark, you get that adrenaline. It’s good to be out here. I love the game and respect the game, so I’m just trying to do my best…I’m going to try to do whatever I can and have fun.”