* Blue Jays C Russell Martin (Montreal, Que.), left, a Canadian Junior National Team grad talks with Jrs. coach Greg Hamilton (Ottawa, Ont.) as part of the family reunion at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium in Dunedin. The two chatted before the fourth meeting between the two teams as no less than 15 Canucks players and coaches wore Jays' blue. Photos: Alexis Brudnicki. ....
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By Alexis Brudnicki Canadian Baseball Network DUNEDIN, Fla. – It’s a family reunion and the family just keeps getting bigger all the time.
When the Toronto Blue Jays hosted the Canadian Junior National team at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium for the fourth annual spring training event on Sunday – missing only March 2013, when the World Baseball Classic was unfolding – there were plenty of hugs, handshakes, and familiar faces from around the Canadian baseball community.
“It’s fun,” said Stubby Clapp, Team Canada legend and Blue Jays minor league coach. “You look forward to it every spring training. You know you’re going to get one day where you get to hang out with the young kids and you get to be a part of their career a little bit for a day, and maybe tell them some advice here and there.
“And you get to obviously reunite with everybody that you got to grow up with playing through the system and see a bunch of good baseball people.”
Added Tim Leiper, former national team coach and current Toronto coach: “It’s a great day. It’s nice because [13-year minor leaguer and East York native] Todd Betts is in the stands, so for me all the generations are covered right now. It’s always a great time. We share so much in common, we’re all really, really close. To me it’s like a family day.”
On the field, the Blue Jays started two Canucks, with Mississauga native Dalton Pompey leading off and manning centre field, and Montreal’s Russell Martin behind the plate for R.A. Dickey’s five-inning start.
“There was a kid from Quebec at the plate [JF Garon] and he had a big smile on his face. He talked to me in French and said ‘Hey, how’s it going?’, ‘Comment ca va?’ ‘Ca va bien.’ And I think he got a hit in his second [at-bat] …
“They’ve got some talent on that team. I’m sure they were probably pretty nervous, playing against some big-league guys out there. I know I would be if I was in their shoes. But I’m sure they’re enjoying the opportunity, enjoying the experience, and it’s something for them to remember.”
Added Pompey: “They obviously always have great players who play in that program … and Greg [Hamilton, Baseball Canada’s director of national teams] is putting on more trips and stuff like that, so it’s more opportunity for these kids to make the most of the opportunity they have to either play pro ball or go to school.
“He’s done nothing but a great job over there, and I love it every time we get a chance to play against them. Me being there five years ago, no matter how long I play this game I still owe it to Greg and all the people at Baseball Canada for giving me that opportunity.”
The Blue Jays brought Vancouver-born Jeff Francis and North Battleford, Saskatchewan’s Andrew Albers into the game for an inning apiece out of the bullpen. Rehabbing Victoria, BC native Michael Saunders was also on hand for the day, and took batting practice with the two teams.
“I was there too,” Saunders said. “And Russ and all these other guys were there as well. Pompey just went through the program and he’s got a younger brother (Tristan) in the program, so they’re doing an incredible job with Baseball Canada.”
Added Francis: “It’s a pretty cool deal. It’s great that the Blue Jays bring them in here and play against them and even bring all the Canadian guys from the minor leagues up. You could see during batting practice I was kind of a reunion. Everybody was making sure they saw everybody and caught up. It’s a great thing for Canadian baseball.”
Drayton Valley, Alberta’s Shane Dawson was ready for an inning in his first glimpse at big-league camp, but didn’t end up getting into the matchup.
“This is really exciting,” Dawson said. “This is my first time to be doing anything with Team Canada so I’m going to take advantage of it … [the program] is unbelievable. If things keep going the way they are, we can maybe challenge the US, Dominican, all those types of countries, and be a contender every year for the World Baseball Classic.”
The left-hander made the trip from the minor-league complex, along with Canucks Marcus Knecht (North York, Ont.), Mike Reeves (Peterborough, Ont.), Justin Atkinson (Surrey, BC), Tom Robson (Ladner, BC), Andrew Case (Saint John, NB) and Jordan Romano (Markham, Ont.).
“It’s really cool, seeing some of these guys on TV growing up and then getting to be in the clubhouse with them, and getting to do drills and stuff with them,” Romano said. “It’s cool that Team Canada is out here playing. I know a lot of those guys and I played on that team so it’s a pretty cool day.”
Robson added: “It was awesome. For the first part, we got to come here and stretch and work out with the big-league guys before so that was a good experience. I haven’t done that yet so it was cool to be able to do that. Not only that, but I got to talk to all the coaches who are with the JNT who I used to be with. I haven’t seen them in a while so that was nice. It’s weird because last time I saw this team the only guy I knew was Gareth [Morgan] and now everyone’s new so I didn’t really know many of them at all.
Case said: “You turn your head and there’s Marcus Stroman, there’s Aaron Sanchez, there’s Daniel Norris, Edwin Encarnacion. Everyone’s in there and you look at them kind of differently, but then you don’t at the same time because that could be you one day. That’s what you hope and that’s what you dream, but to be here with them it’s unbelievable. It’s crazy.”
Along with New Hampshire Fisher Cats hitting coach Clapp acting as the home squad’s third base coach for the majority of the game and Leiper at first base, Paul Quantrill (Port Hope, Ont.), an advisor with the big-league organization, also made the trip to the main stadium for the day. Both base coaches have been consistently impressed with how much the program has grown over the years.
“It’s absolutely exciting,” Clapp said. “Leiper, Greg [Hamilton] and I were talking about it out in centre field, and how far the program has come and how important it’s been to the development of our guys. You’re starting to see it obviously at the big-league level, not only playing but contributing up at a high level with [Justin] Morneau and Russell Martin and Saunders and [Joey] Votto, good pitchers with [John] Axford, and I can keep going on. All those guys are making major contributions at the highest level and it’s a tribute to that program.”
Leiper added: “The thing that really stands out for me with the kids right now is they’re so much bigger physically … and you see more right-handed hitters. Those are the two things. It shows that baseball has really grown. Before we always got guys who really didn’t want to play hockey and now you get guys who are playing baseball because they want to play baseball. It’s the success among the players who have gone through the program have changed the fact that people are a little bit more baseball first than hockey first sometimes. But it’s nice for them to have that hockey mentality.”
Also playing in his fourth matchup on the Blue Jays side, Knecht was just as impressed as Leiper at the physicality on the field with Team Canada.
“I wish the best for all these guys,” Knecht said. “I’m cheering for everybody. I like to watch players, what they’ll look like, and they’re all pretty good in size. I don’t remember being that big when I was their age but it’s definitely fun watching them and how they compete against big-league and professional players.”
Longtime Blue Jays bullpen catcher Alex Andreopoulos, also Clapp’s former catcher and an East York native, was a part of the event for the first time, travelling with the other half of the split squad during the three other games. Watching the Canuck high schoolers before the game, he fondly recalled his own memories with the junior national team, from 1989 to 1991, with a tournament in Holland being his favourite trip.
“This is great for them,” Andreopoulos said. “We didn’t do anything like this.” Toronto’s current Canadian minor leaguers agreed that the game was a fantastic opportunity for the next generation of players.
“It’s cool,” Reeves said. “It’s fun. It’s exciting for these guys because they get an opportunity to come play in a big-league game and see guys like Russell Martin, Jeff Francis or Andrew Albers, because those guys went through all this and it’s cool to see the development and how baseball has come such a far way in Canada … To be 18 years old and in that position is a dream come true. These guys are facing R.A. Dickey. That’s a pretty amazing experience.”
Added Case: “[The younger players] see me and I’m someone, but I didn’t sign for very much or do anything like that,” Case said. “But it’s the fact that they can see me and that I’m here with the big guys and hopefully I can lead by example. It’s knowing that they can get here as well.”
Romano said: “It’s really big, actually having these guys come out, they get to face big leaguers with a lot of scouts in the stands. This trip is really good for them, with the exposure. They get to pitch in front of the GM and the manager of the Blue Jays, so it can’t get much bigger than that.”
Making the transition from being members of the junior national team to playing professional baseball within the Toronto organization, both Atkinson and Robson recall their Team Canada days fondly and are grateful for how the experience prepared them for the next level.
“Looking back on it now, we had it pretty good,” Robson said. “It’s only getting better for these guys now. Trips like these, we had over at the other field, but to come here it’s a bit different because it’s the Blue Jays’ home field and it’s really cool … These guys get the glamorous side of things. I don’t think they really know too much about what it’s really like but for them to go through this and see what it can be like later down the road is really cool. When I went through it, I definitely took advantage of it and I learned a lot being with the junior national team.”
Added Atkinson: “It’s special for me to see all the Canadian guys come over here and be on this side of the fence, instead of that side. It’s the best of both worlds … [my experience helped] a lot. Obviously coming down to Florida a lot, getting that exposure, playing against the Blue Jays, playing in Orlando at Disney; playing with this team has really helped me get to where I ended up.”
Canada’s top high school hurler heading into the draft, Mike Soroka, got the start for Team Canada. Showing no nerves and shaking off some rust in his first outing of the year, the right-hander from Calgary enjoyed everything the moment had to offer.
“I felt good,” Soroka said. “It was nice to get back in the warm weather. It’s pretty nice in Calgary right now, but not quite this nice. First outing of the year against the Blue Jays and I went at them with all I had and just left it all on the table …
“I had nothing to lose. Even if I gave up three home runs and a bunch of doubles, I didn’t really have anything to lose. They’re big-league hitters. They should. There’s nothing to lose, and you go at them with everything you have and see what happens.”
As anticipated as the matchup was for the young squad, there was some buzz across the diamond for the game as well.
“Most of them handle themselves pretty well,” Knecht said. “These guys are exciting and they [faced] a pretty good pitcher today. It’s definitely exciting, and it feeds through and leaks onto us so it’s pretty awesome.”