Canada's WBC journey ends on sour note

By: Alexis Brudnicki

Canadian Baseball Network

MIAMI, Fla. – It’s a tough pill to swallow.

Disappointing is probably the best word to describe the end to Canada’s World Baseball Classic berth in Miami, where it finished without a win and failed to advance out of the first round of play for its fourth consecutive tournament.

After four-and-a-half months of intense training to gear up for his first appearances on a mound in three-and-a-half years – for a chance to contribute to the game in his home country and wear the red-and-white uniform one last time – there’s little doubt that 39-year-old major league veteran Ryan Dempster would have preferred to be moving on with his last set of teammates, rather than rushing into the clubhouse after the game to make sure he was the first person each player saw as he entered, for one last handshake and hug to say goodbye.

“I wanted to for a couple different reasons,” Dempster said. “I wanted to be able to represent my country again, I wanted to set an example to my kids, to younger players, that if you put your mind to something, you can accomplish anything. And I know you look at the end results and it doesn’t seem like I accomplished much but at the end of the day, to not pitch for three-and-a-half years, and I got the chance to pitch against two all-star teams in a matter of three days, that was kind of fun.”

Dempster’s return to the hill was an attempt to give his team a chance to win. So too were the additions of middle infielders Pete Orr and Jonathan Malo, who were called to duty out of retirement not just because of the absence of some of Canada’s active players but also because of what they offered to the squad with their international experience, veteran presence, and willingness to prepare for months to lay it all on the line for their country over what ended in a matter of days.

“I can't thank those guys enough for giving up their time and coming and trying to help out and play for their country,” Team Canada manager Ernie Whitt said. “There's so much pride that you can't say enough about it. Unfortunately, we came up on the short end and it's unfortunate, but the guys are not going to change. They're still great quality people that we have in this system.

“To be quite honest with you, for us to compete at this level at the WBC, we have to have all of our players, all of our professional players. We just can't put our roster up against teams like the Dominican Republic and United States if we don't have all of our big-league players. And until they make a commitment that they're going to do that, we're going to struggle in the WBC. We can win a game every now and then, but it's just not the same type of roster that you would have if you had all of your players.”

With several of Canada’s major leaguers declining to commit to the squad at the Classic, and others – like Russell Martin, who was added to the roster as an assistant coach to lend his support – facing injury and insurance issues, the 28-man team it brought to the event was overmatched and outplayed in a pool with the reigning-champion Dominican Republic, USA and Colombia.

“In order for us to beat rosters like that you have to be flawless, from pitching to defence to hitting and everything, you get overmatched,” Dempster said. “And it’s not a knock on anybody in that locker room, it’s not a lack of effort, definitely not a lack of effort or preparation. The guys in there have humongous hearts and played the game the right way, but the talent level wasn’t quite what the Dominican or the US has, so you do need those players and you see it…

“But at the same time, to each their own and everybody’s got their own reasons. I’ve been there before. But it was just a great, great experience to compete with these guys, to play with these guys, and we didn’t get the results we wanted but we went about it the right way.”

Marking the end of the road for not only Dempster, Orr and Malo, the WBC also left uncertain endings for 2006 American League MVP Justin Morneau and 2003 Cy Young award winner Eric Gagne, looking for jobs but knowing that the Team Canada jersey might be the last one they ever wear.

The event saw 32-year-old Chris Leroux’s career come to an end, the right-hander knowing that he wanted to go out wearing the red-and-white uniform, spending his winter months in both the Venezuelan and Dominican winter leagues, just to prove that his heart was still in the game so that he could take the mound one final time in his country’s colours.

“It was actually really important for me to be on this team,” he said. “So I finished in Buffalo [in Triple-A with the Blue Jays last year] and then I went to play winter ball, strictly to stay ready for this….It’s special to be on a team where you don’t care about what you do personally as long as your team wins the game.”

While the national squad was unable to field a roster full of active major leaguers, and couldn’t notch any wins against the best without its top talent, it meant a lot to its clubhouse to get the commitment of the players it did, with an appreciation for the guys it sends into the next chapter as the WBC continues without Canada.

“It’s amazing,” said Jamie Romak, who left big-league camp with the Padres to say yes to the tournament. “It’s not shocking, when you’ve known these guys for a long time, what sort of guys they are, but it’s an amazing commitment to their country and to Baseball Canada. 

“And further to that, what they’ve been able to do, as far as jumping into this level of play and be pros, take professional at-bats and make the plays in the field, it’s incredible. It’s amazing to me. I don’t know if I’d be able to do that. So we’re so fortunate to have them, they’re a huge part of the team.”

Added Scott Richmond, who joined the squad from Taiwan, where he is currently playing: “These guys are staples. They come back, every time they’re called, they’re there. And that’s all we can ask for. We don’t have the depth that these other countries have, and we need our guys, they step up and they put their families aside and they come out and give us their best. And there’s a new chapter starting and every team kind of has that, so we wish them all the best for sure and just to open the door for new opportunities for the younger group.”

The end of an era for Team Canada also marks the dawn of a new day for the program, with room on the roster for a number of bright young stars to get their feet wet on the highest international stage.

For former members of the Canadian Junior National Team like Padres prospect Josh Naylor, Cardinals fast-rising minor leaguer Rowan Wick, Pirates farmhand Eric Wood, Blue Jays outfielder Dalton Pompey, Daniel Pinero entering his first full season of pro ball with the Tigers, young Cubs southpaw Ryan Kellogg, and Phillies hurlers Nick Pivetta and Jesen Therrien, the WBC marked their first time with the senior squad.

“It’s exciting,” Richmond said. “I hadn’t seen some of these guys here, and they’re bringing mid-90s with good breaking stuff, they just need some experience and to be around the veteran group. And having Russ here and the guys, and Eric back and Dempster coming back and pitching, just to be around the elite guys for Canada, it’s just good experience for them. And for me as well, it’s just great to be around these guys. We’re passionate about baseball and we’ve got a great group in there.”

Joining 21-year-old Mariners prospect Tyler O’Neill, the team’s newest players – most of whom were provided the exposure they needed to get their first opportunities in the professional game because of Baseball Canada – were offered an experience that can’t be matched, with a taste of the big leagues and the tutelage of some of best as they move forward.

“I'm hoping some of these young kids develop and gain some experience,” Whitt said. “That's the whole purpose of our program, and some of these guys are playing in the big leagues the next time this comes around. But again, we have other events that are going on, other international games that we're going to be playing. And it seems like when we play those, we can compete and we're very competitive. We just have been unfortunate.

“We just have not been able to get out of the first round, and I think that's one of the main reasons is that we just can't compete with some of these other rosters until we get all of our players to play. And again, I'm not beating on the guys, they have the right to turn it down, but I guess we have to do a better job of convincing them to come and represent their country.”

With the world tournament over for Canada, there isn’t much to do but look to the future of the program and know that there is more to come.

“Behind these guys there’s another crop of young guys that I’ve seen play [during his time as a coach with the junior team] who will be in the draft this year and next year that are going to be special players, so you hope that they keep progressing,” Orr said.

Added Dempster: “You’re seeing it year in and year out where it feels like we’re getting more people drafted, you see this young talent that’s coming up, and the guys north of the border. For us Canadians to realize that we can compete at the highest level with people south of the border or south of the equator, it’s a really really kind of a cool thing to realize that it doesn’t have to be hockey.

“It can be baseball too, and we’re capable of going out there and playing some really good baseball. And I think it’s going to continue to grow that way and you’re going to see more and more Canadian players drafted and being out there playing in the big leagues.”

Said Richmond: “The future’s bright.”

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Alexis Brudnicki

Baseball has been a part of Alexis' life since her parents took her brother to sign up for Eager Beaver Baseball in London. Alexis wanted to play and asked to sign up, too. Alexis played ball until the boys were all twice her size and then switched to competitive fastball. Her first job was as an umpire for rookies with the EBBA and since then Alexis has completed her education with an undergraduate degree from the University of Western Ontario and graduate studies in Sports Journalism at Centennial College