By: Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
TAMPA, Fla. – All it took was a random text.
Kevin Chapman and Jamie Romak hadn’t shared a locker room since 2011, when they were both playing for the Double-A Northwest Arkansas Naturals in the Kansas City Royals organization, but a text message in November got the ball rolling for the hard-throwing left-hander to join the Canadian squad for this year’s World Baseball Classic.
Their season together in the Texas League finished just before Romak, a native of London, Ont., went off to Panama and nabbed a bronze medal at the World Cup, and continued to Mexico and helped Team Canada to a gold medal for the first time in program history at the Pan Am Games, but at some point Chapman made mention that his father was born in Scarborough, Ont., and he had longstanding Canadian ties.
“I played with Jamie Romak coming up with the Royals, and I knew he had been on this team previously,” Chapman said. “So I got in touch with him more recently, and asked if he thought they’d be interested in having me as part of the team, because I was interested in playing in this international tournament, to represent my dad and his side of the family….
“It’s something I’ve never done before. I’ve never played in an international tournament before and I’ve heard guys talk about how much fun they’ve had and how it’s a different experience than affiliated ball. I wanted to experience that and this is the best way of doing it.”
If Chapman is asked where he’s from, the answer is always going to be Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he was born and raised, but the 29-year-old was looking for a shot to play on the world stage, and the Canadian squad is excited to have him in the bullpen.
“Kevin and I played together with the Royals and he mentioned that his dad is from Toronto,” Romak said. “This was a while ago, in 2011. And then I got a random text last year and he said, ‘I want to play for Canada.’ I said, ‘Okay, well this is the guy to contact, and I gave him Greg’s information. I gave Greg [Hamilton, Baseball Canada’s director of national teams] a head’s up and said, ‘I’ve got a left-hander who throws in the mid-90s with a really good slider who’s pitched in the big leagues and had some success, so he might be a good fit for us.’
“There aren’t a lot of countries in the world that have the luxury of turning down mid-90s from the left-hand side, and he’s a competitor. He’s good. He’s going to fit in really well with the group, so I thought it was a good fit. So now I’m not just playing, I’m recruiting for the team.”
Once the introduction was made, work had to be done on Hamilton’s part to make sure that Chapman would be a good addition for the team, both on and off the field. It was important for him to understand Chapman’s incentive to play before welcoming the southpaw with open arms.
“It actually started with Jamie and the familiarity with him, and then you crosscheck it and get to know the player, what our options are, whether the player fits or doesn’t fit, in terms of what we have,” Hamilton said. “Kevin’s dad was born in Toronto, and he was very interested in doing it.
“And as you talked to him, you got to know that it wasn’t just that he thought, ‘Maybe I can’t play for somebody else so I’ll go try to play for you guys, and I don’t really care about you guys but I’ll play for you,’ because that becomes important.”
Without the extensive background the director of national teams usually has on his Canadian players, he used his wide-ranging network to help him make the final decision, which of course was helped by the experience and talent level that Chapman adds to Canada’s relief corps.
“In his case, it’s a left-handed bullpen arm that has current major-league experience,” Hamilton said. “We’re not deep enough to overlook that, obviously, if he’s pitching at the big-league level, coming out of the bullpen at the major-league level. You make some phone calls, you talk to people who are very familiar with him, which I did, and in the Astros organization with people who have had real good looks in the present, but to add that level of arm with that level of experience, we’re going to do that.”
Motivated by his connections to the country north of the border, and the chance to really contribute to the team on the international stage, Chapman felt that he was received well immediately by Hamilton, making it easier for him to transition into the Canadian clubhouse when he finally joined the team.
“He was welcoming right away,” Chapman said of Greg’s call. “I don’t think he judged me too much. If he did, I don’t know about it so I may have to pick his brain about that a little bit, but everybody I’ve met in this organization from Team Canada has been great and they’ve made it as easy as possible.”
“The guys here are awesome. They’re friendly and it seems like they like to have a good time, so it’s a good combination….They opened up quickly, and we went out to a nice dinner [at Bern’s Steakhouse] on Monday night with 14 of the guys. [Veteran major leaguers Justin] Morneau and [Ryan] Dempster and [Eric] Gagne took us out, so that was nice.”
On the big-league stage, Chapman has made 58 appearances over the last four seasons with the Houston Astros, fanning 48 batters. He was traded by the Royals after his second minor-league season, and the 6-foot-3, 230-pound lefty has spent five years with the Astros since then.
“I really loved it over there in Kansas City,” he said. “It’s a great organization. I was only with them for about a year-and-a-half, so I was getting comfortable and getting familiar with everybody at the time and then I got traded over to the Astros.
“I didn’t know much about them, besides they were rebuilding, they had a new GM, and in every organization usually you know at least one or two guys but with the Astros it was weird, I didn’t know anybody. It was all completely new, so it was a little bit of a transition, but other than that it was a good opportunity for me.”
Chapman’s professional journey began after a collegiate career at the University of Florida. Originally selected in the 42nd round of the 2009 draft out of Westminster Academy, the left-hander opted to join the Gators out of high school. While there, he had multiple surgeries on his throwing arm – and was taken in the 50th round of the draft during his recovery, opting not to sign – before eventually returning to form and becoming a fourth-round pick of Kansas City.
“I had two surgeries in college, so the year I got drafted in the 50th round, I threw maybe three or four innings in the season,” Chapman said. “I had two elbow surgeries, first I had Tommy John, and then I was rehabbing from that and I got about halfway done with the rehab and my bone popped off, where they configure the new ligament.
“So they had to go in again, and that’s why it’s such a big scar because they cut it open twice. So I pretty much sat out for two years…I got back to my normal velocity and stuff I had prior to surgery, so that helped, and I started throwing hard again. So being a hard-throwing lefty I guess took me from the 50th to the fourth.”
With just a few days under his belt as a member of the Canadian squad, Chapman has done as much as he can to get to the know his teammates and for them to learn about him. With tournament play set to begin Thursday night, the hope is that the fun he’s already had just continues through the weekend.
“I’ve been telling him, ‘Just be yourself, everyone’s really welcoming, and enjoy yourself, that’s the biggest thing,’” Romak said. “Ernie [Whitt, Canada’s manager] talks about it all the time, just have fun and enjoy the process of being with Team Canada.
“Once he gets settled, he could be a really reliable guy for us out of the bullpen, but also a guy who fits in well with the clubhouse, keeps things loose, and an overall good guy.”