Canucks look to defend Pan Am gold

 * Canada, managed by Ernie Whitt, will try to defend the goal medal it won four years ago in Mexico when the Pan Am Games come to Ajax and the President's Choice Pan Am Ballpark July 10-26. ....  

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By Alexis Brudnicki Canadian Baseball Network Maybe they were a team of destiny.

The version of the national squad that brought home gold from the last Pan American Games – held four years ago in Guadalajara, Mex. – had the right timing, setting, environment, and of course, the players it needed in order to come out of the tournament successful.

“We had the right blend of experience and youth and it really worked,” said Greg Hamilton, Baseball Canada’s director of national teams. “Guys were at the right points in times in their careers to be productive players at that level, and we had a group that was very focused and very experienced in international baseball. That’s a big thing.

“All those players had come through the junior program, they had done a lot internationally with the senior program up to that point in time, and they had significant minor-league playing experience. So it was the timing, and the chemistry in the group that clicked at the right time.”

The game at the international level is a different beast than when it is played by any other standard. Every game is the most important, because the only way to get to the next one is to win that day. Unlike baseball in the minor leagues – where the majority of the players were loaned to the event from – winning is the only thing that matters.

Shawn Bowman was one of several veteran players on that team in 2011, a squad whose performance eventually landed each of the players in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. At the time, the New Westminster, BC native was in his ninth professional season, playing the corner infield in the Atlanta Braves organization.

“It was awesome,” Bowman said. “Mainly because there was a good core of about eight to 10 of us who had been together for four years, so we were all very familiar with each other. It was a veteran group. We took our work seriously and we knew what we had to do. We don’t take light games easily. It was a fun experience. Obviously to get a gold medal was the icing on the cake.”

Chris Robinson was in his seventh professional season, catching in the Chicago Cubs organization that summer, before he headed off with the squad to claim a couple of medals. The native of Dorchester, Ont., felt the exact same way about that experience as Bowman did.

“The way it ended, it was probably pretty much one of the best baseball experiences I’ve ever had,” Robinson said. “With that group of guys that we’d been with for so long, it was just the icing on the cake for us, so to speak.

“But [this year] it’s going to be a little bit of the changing of the guard. A lot of us who have been around for a while won’t be there. But there will be some guys, and you can speculate with the roster all you want, but Jamie Romak, Rene Tosoni, Brock Kjeldgaard, and guys like that who were on that team could be back there. They’re always going to need that kind of leadership in a tournament like that, but it will be interesting.”

Robinson and Bowman both recalled the tournament during their latest trip together, each coaching with the Canadian Junior National Team at spring training in St. Petersburg, Fla., in March. The 30-year-old backstop retired after earning a big-league call up to the San Diego Padres roster two Septembers ago, while the 30-year-old infielder hung up his cleats the year after the Pan Am Games.

“It’s always a learning curve,” Bowman said. “There’s always going to be a transition of sorts with players, but there are going to be a couple guys who have been through it. The team is going to lean on some leadership from certain guys and they’ll figure it out. Most of those guys went through the junior program so they know what it’s like to play for Canada. It’s a little bit of a different level now but we’ve got good Canadian kids…and we’re going to be just fine.”

Many of the members of the upcoming roster – yet to be determined – will likely be new faces looking to make their marks on the senior scene, and to defend the top spot in the tournament that will be held right on home soil, all baseball games being played in Ajax, Ont.

“It’s more exciting than anything,” Bowman said. “They’re defending a gold medal. How many times can Canada say that they’ve actually gone into a tournament being the defending champions? It’s pretty cool and it’s going to be exciting to watch.”

This year is actually the only time that the country can enter an event with the its title in the rearview, the gold-medal vctory being the first time the senior national team had achieved such hardware on the international stage. Prior to Canada’s win, Cuba had taken gold for the previous 10 tournaments, holding the top spot for four decades.

It took a special team to do it.

“We came together really well and it was easy,” Bowman said. “As soon as our first workout, we knew each other. We were all very familiar, we all had the same mindset, we knew what we were trying to do.

“We all play for the name on the front, not the name on the back, and we all understand that. You play in the minor leagues and it becomes monotonous at times as an individual. But there, it’s team and team only. If you’re 0-for-5 with four strikeouts but we get a [win] that’s all that matters. We all understood that.”

Though the formula seems simple, and the answer even a little bit predictable, that really was what it took for the team to find success.

“It was the group of guys and their selflessness and they wanted to play so hard for their country and for each other,” said Team Canada mainstay Jimmy Van Ostrand, currently the volunteer assistant coach at Boston College. “That was really it. It wasn’t about the name on the back, it was about the team on the front. It’s cliché, but that team embodied it, and that’s what it was all about.”

Van Ostrand was one of the veteran contributors on that team who everyone else looked forward to seeing at the plate when it mattered most. The native of Richmond, BC most notably drove in two runs in the final game, Canada eventually winning by a score of 2-1. From an offensive standpoint, there’s not a player from that squad who doesn’t put him at the top of their list when recalling the biggest bats of the event.

On the flip side, Andrew Albers is always the first man mentioned from that pitching staff. Taking the mound for what became the most important matchup of the trip, the then-25-year-old Team Canada rookie – currently in the rotation for the Triple-A Buffalo Bisons – kept his team in the gold-medal game against Team USA for 6 2/3 innings before the North Battleford, Sask., native handed the ball over to Scott Richmond for the final seven outs.

“Pitching-wise, we don’t win that ball game if Andrew Albers doesn’t give us what he did,” Bowman said. “Scott Richmond came in the back end. He kind of struggled a little bit early in the tournament and then he came in and he friggen shoved, which was awesome.

Jimmy Van Ostrand has been an offensive horse for us for years, and he showed it. Without him, he don’t win the ball game, [his] two RBIs. It was the overall contributions for the team, but those guys stand out.”

Added Robinson: “Jimmy obviously always came to play in those tournaments. Jimmy was kind of Mr. International Baseball for a while there for us, so he was great. Albers was great. He was awesome; he pitched really well. Shawn Hill pitched a really good game in the semi-final.

“Those were the guys who carried us a little bit. But – and it’s kind of cliché to say – it was probably the biggest team effort we’ve ever had on that team. Everybody played their role, everyone did really well at accepting what their role was, and that was why we were so successful … In terms of an experience, it’s right up there with one of the best I’ve ever had in the game.”

No amount of clichés can take away from what that moment was like for the players who experienced it.

“The highlight of that whole trip was singing the national anthem with those guys up there on stage,” Van Ostrand said. “Every single time we got together with that team it was just so special. That was a unique circumstance with the World Cup and then the Pan Ams right after that; we had about a full month together. Just the selflessness and the team we had was unbelievable. It was so special and so fun.

“We legitimately thought we were going to win – it was just a matter of figured out how it was going to happen. Luckily for me, I was one of the guys who got to partake in that fun, but it was all of us. It was every single guy on that roster. It was kind of a team of destiny, the way it worked out. You felt something good was going to happen and it kept on happening. All of a sudden we had won all our games and didn’t have anybody else left to play. It was a lot of fun and something I’ll always treasure.”

Added Albers: “It is still the most fun night I have ever had playing baseball. And to do it with that group of guys made it that much more special. We became very close in a very short period of time, and I met a lot of special guys on that team. We had a lot of fun together, we played together, we played for each other, and when things like that happen and you come together in such a short period of time it’s a special feeling. It was a lot of fun to be a part of.”

With a lot of turnover anticipated for the national team as it heads into the 2015 Pan/Parapan American Games in July, the new squad will have to come together quickly in order to try to duplicate the success that the previous group of players found.

But every tournament is a fresh start, and it should be noted that the team from north of the border who ventured to Panama and then Mexico was incredibly unique.

“One of the biggest pieces with that group is that they understood the sense of urgency that you have to apply to international baseball,” Hamilton said. “You have to play like it’s the seventh game of a playoff series every time you’re out that.

“That group of players, in addition to having the relevant experience, with that came the understanding that you have to win every single game. If you don’t, there’s not another three games in that series. You’re going home.”

Even though Bowman, Robinson and Van Ostrand – among others – won’t be suiting up to play for Team Canada any longer, because of the experience they had, they will continue to support the program and look forward to seeing what the next generation of players will do.

“We all had a good time playing with each other and doing everything, but all of us will be Team Canada baseball fans for as long as we’re around,” Van Ostrand said. “That’s the way it has been for all the guys who came before us, sending well wishes to us, and that’s the way it’s going to be long after we’re done and this generation is done and the one after.

“It’s what makes the program so special. That all goes back to Hamilton. It will be fun to watch these guys get after it this year, in Toronto too, in front of the home crowd, so that will be pretty neat. I will definitely be cheering them on.”