By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
THUNDER BAY, Ontario, Canada – With the U18 Baseball World Cup set to begin in, exhibition games in the rear view, and pre-tournament practices all complete, each of the 12 teams in northern Ontario will immediately look to be the squad that can come out of the gate the hottest and fastest.
Though the host nation’s team has had a consistent core over the last couple of years for a number of trips to match up against professional competition, Team Canada’s challenge becomes whether the squad can flip the switch from its development focus into win mode as soon as they cross the white lines at Port Arthur Stadium.
“That’s something we’ve talked about a lot in the last couple weeks,” said Greg Hamilton, Baseball Canada’s director of national teams. “We spend 95 per cent of our time on development and we really deemphasize the winning piece, and focus on getting better and getting your work in, and doing the things you need to do to move on as a player. Obviously that has to change quickly, and that’s why you need a couple weeks in a training camp to get guys to understand that it’s playoff baseball.
“The score does matter, and it does count, and it’s not just getting your work in. It’s competing as a group. The one thing that will really allow them to understand that quickly is the opening day crowd. You realize it’s different when you walk into a stadium that’s full and the energy’s there, and in our case, on our side.”
Canadian shortstop Jason Willow understands how different the environment in Thunder Bay will be to all of the spring training and instructional league games he and his teammates have played in Florida, taking on Chinese Taipei to open the event, but he believes that his team is prepared for what lays ahead.
“Because of the schedule we play, it’s not the most competitive and intense schedule,” the native of Victoria, BC said. “It’s a lot of laid-back games, and we’re always playing to win, but at the same time not with that competitive edge you always want. Greg’s prepared us well, and coming into it, we’ll be able to flip the switch and come out swinging, and hopefully have a really good tournament.”
Carrying a roster full of impressive individuals, Team USA will open its tournament berth against the squad from Netherlands on Friday. American manager Andy Stankiewicz knows that his team’s biggest challenge will be whether that talent can translate to the team atmosphere required in an environment like the one in Thunder Bay.
“That is probably our biggest concern,” Stankiewicz said. “All of these guys are very skilled, but they’ve been doing showcases all summer. They’ve been playing some team baseball, but not at this level, so it’s been a little bit of a challenge. Our first couple of games, you could see some of the swings were about hitting the ball as far as they could to try to showcase for scouts.
“But by Games 3 or 4 of our [pre-tournament exhibition] series down in Minneapolis, guys were starting to buy in, realize that this is about getting on base, scoring runs. It’s not an easy task. [USA Baseball’s 18U program director] Matt Blood has done a great job of trying to find a skilled player, but also a young man who understands that and wants to be a part of a team more than just showing off what he can do.”
Team USA centre fielder Michael Siani believes that he and his teammates are well on their way to finding the balance they need to continue in the world tournament, and looks forward to seeing what they can do collectively.
“It’s hard, getting everybody together and knowing each other well enough, being able to know each other’s instincts, what’s going on, and having time to be together is really important,” Siani said. “Playing a couple exhibition games before coming up here was definitely helpful, to see how we play with each other.
“You’ve got to have a good team to compete for a gold medal, which is what we want to do. So it’s a challenge, but this team this year is going to overcome it. We’re really tight and it’s going to take us a long way.”
Returning to Thunder Bay after the World Cup was held in the same spot seven years ago, Hamilton’s fondest memories of the previous tournament were of the energy that the city brought to Port Arthur Stadium, and he’s hoping that there’s only more to come.
“For young players, it’s not too often you get to be home and look up and see a sea of red every night,” Canada’s manager said. “They’re loud, they’re boisterous, and they’re patriotic, which is great. We got to the semi-final that year and played a great game against Chinese Taipei and the place was electric. Hopefully we can duplicate that game and move a little further this time.”
Venturing north of the border for the first time, Siana is excited by what he’s seen so far and looking forward to much more as his team gets into tournament play.
“I’ve never been to Canada before, and it’s a great place,” the 18-year-old outfielder said. “It reminds me of home, and it’s not too far. And they really take this seriously, which they should. It’s a big event, and they’re doing a great job, and the fields are in great shape, so everybody’s really impressed from our side.”
The host Team Canada will take on Korea, Chinese Taipei, Australia, Italy, and Nicaragua as it looks to head into the super round of the tournament, before medal rounds begin. Team USA will compete in Pool B against Japan, Cuba, Mexico, Netherlands and South Africa.