Elliott: Dempster performs magic at Baseball Canada banquet

 RHP Ryan Dempster (Gibsons, BC) is coming out of retirement to pitch for Canada. He worked magic turning a pair of $20 bills into $3,300 at the Baseball Canada banquet. 

RHP Ryan Dempster (Gibsons, BC) is coming out of retirement to pitch for Canada. He worked magic turning a pair of $20 bills into $3,300 at the Baseball Canada banquet. 

By Bob Elliott
Canadian Baseball Network

That Ryan Dempster is a bit of a magician.

He magically turned a $20 bill into $3,300 Saturday night at the 15th annual Baseball Canada fundraiser at the Renaissance Toronto Downtown. How is this possible?

Well, Dempster established the fact early in the auction that this was not an ordinary $20 bill ... by the time the night was over every ballplayer in the ball room at the banquet would autograph the bill.

Dempster meant all three former MVP winners Larry Walker, Justin Morneau and Joey Votto, plus current major leaguers Russell Martin, John Axford, Michael Saunders, Dalton Pompey and Jim Henderson; minor leaguers Tyler O’Neill and Andrew Yerzy, along with retired players Paul Quantrill, Jeff Francis, Chris Reitsma and Pete Orr.

The magician managed to escalate the bidding up to $2,100 and at one point said: “Everyone in the room is going to sign this.”

Said Votto “I’m not signing. It is against the law to deface Canadian currency.”

Replied Dempster: “I have done this before. I am very, very familiar with the rules. You can sign anywhere -- as long as you don’t sign on the Queen’s face.”

Eventually hitting a wall again Dempster tossed in some added extras: “And I’m going to add an autographed jersey from Larry Walker and Justin Morneau.”

Votto then agreed to sign the bill.

Walker said: “If we’re going to do that ... don’t you think the winning bid should be $3,300?"  Both Morneau and Walker each wore No. 33.

One bidder, Dale Hooper, ‎chief brand officer at Rogers Communications, agreed and suggested the bidder on the other side of the room do the same -- as long as Walker and jerseys could be rounded up.

Mike Tevlin, who owns the Ontario Terriers and The Baseball Zone agreed to pay the $3,300.

Yep, a $6,600 return for Baseball Canada’s program on a pair of $20s.

All thanks to Dempster the enchanter.

And he will need to be like a sorceress come March and Marlins Park in Miami when Dempster takes the mound for Team Canada in the fourth annual World Baseball Classic.

* * *
Besides Magic Man Dempster, who auctioned off plane tickets to Chicago, games at Wrigley Field, a steak diner with him, a tour of the clubhouse and the scoreboard for $12,000, it was a fun, fundraising night.

MLB Baseball, represented by former Montreal Expos RHP Steve Rogers, of the Player’s Association, presented a cheque for $40,000; Jays president Mark Shapiro contributed $25,000 and Don Douglas of RBC chipped in $20,000.

Like every January, there were plenty of speeches and awards ...

* * *
Junior National Team MVP Award: C Andrew Yerzy (Toronto, Ont.).

He capped a three-year stint with the junior team when Yerzy was selected in the second round from the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Presenter Peter Orr, who will play second for Canada in the WBC after being hired as a scout by the Milwaukee Brewers, came to the stage with Hall of Famer Robbie Alomar.

It is always fun to re-visit Canadian gold medal wins. Under international tie breaking rules each team started the inning with men on first and second with none out. Canada trailed 7-5. Canada failed to bunt, bringing up Orr, who singled in a run and lefty David Huff on his own -- manager Jim Tracy didn’t call it -- told first baseman Casey Kotchman that they would try a back-door pick: Kotchman was to sneak in behind Orr. 

Except, Huff’s throw sailed wide into foul ground, Skyler Stromsmoe scored the tying run and Orr headed first to third. When right fielder Brian Bogusevic’s throw sailed over third, Orr picked himself up and headed for home. The throw from third beat him to the plate but the head-first slide dislodged the ball ... as Huff was signalling out.

MC Mike Wilner asked about his 270-foot dash around the bases to score the winning run in the bottom of the 10th as Canada rallied to edge Team USA in 2015.

“Well, it’s all about skill Mike,” deadpanned Orr, “I just didn’t want to get picked off.”

* * *
Stubby Clapp Award, presented by Mizuno Canada: RHP Dustin Molleken (Regina, Sask.).

After 13 seasons in the minors, Molleken made his major-league debut July 4 at Progressive Field in Cleveland. Taking over for Daniel Norris, he allowed a double to Jason Kipnis on a 1-1 pitch and a run-scoring fly ball to Francisco Lindor. Then he struck out Mike Napoli, walked Carlos Santana and popped up Jose  Ramirez.

There with Molleken was former teammate and close friend Jimmy Henderson (Calgary, Alta.) who is a free agent after pitching this season with the New York Mets.

“After my health and second shoulder surgery it was very satisfying to be on the mound opening day,” said Henderson who struck out Alex Gordon, got Sal Perez to fly out and fannned Omar Infante in a scoreless seventh taking over for Noah Syndergaard, as the Mets edged the Kansas City Royals 2-0.

At age 31 and a 15th round draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates from the Prairie Baseball Academy, Molleken pitched at the Rogers Centre July 10, working 2 2/3 scoreless in a 6-1 loss to the Blue Jays.

Wilner pointed out Molleken had retired Saunders (Victoria, BC) on a comebacker.

“It was an unbelievable feeling to get to pitch here and face those guys,” Molleken said. “ Actually I struck out Michael in spring training ... so he’s 0-for-2 against me.”

* * *
Alumni Award: OF Tyler O’Neill (Maple Ridge, BC).

O'Neill was presented the honor by the Junior National Team business manager Larry Pearson, along with OF Dalton Pompey (Mississauga, Ont.), who will play centre for Canada during tthe WBC. Pompey said he “marvelled” watching the 2009 WBC at the Rogers Centre and the 2013 series in Phoenix as Canada lost to Italy, beat Mexico and lost a late lead to Team USA.

Pompey caused a trend leading up to Christmas on Dec. 11, 2016 -- his birthday. Pompey was down town and saw a man sleeping on the side walk, covered in a blanket and covered in the falling snow outside a Tim Horton’s. He went inside bought a gift card and gave it to the homeless man, who stood up, hugged Pompey, thanked him and went inside to get warm and buy some food. (Now if that is not a Tim’s commercial in the waiting.)

“It made me feel good,” said Pompey, who went inside and did the same. Our Andrew Hendriks of the Canadian Baseball Network wrote about Pompey handing out cards as sort of a Pay It Forward. It was such a good story and a grand idea we did the same, handing out Tim’s gift cards in Toronto and Moncton over the holidays.

O’Neill captured Southern League MVP honours and was named Baseball America double-A player of the year.

O’Neill told the crowd jokingly that he was looking forward “to playing on a team for a little while that doesn’t have any accents.”

* * *

33 Canadian MVPs Award: Larry Walker (Maple Ridge, BC) and Justin Morneau (New Westminster, BC).

The two former honoured MVPs -- Walker in 1997 with the Colorado Rockies and Morneau in 2006 with the Minnesota Twins -- both had a tremendous impact on Canadian baseball and the National Teams program.

Presenter Jason Bay (Trail, BC) told Wilner at the moment he is a bad soccer and T-ball coach and he is as a former winner of the Heart and Hustle award, presented annually by Major League Baseball Players Alumni, “It’s basically, the same as an MVP.” |

The award is voted on by alumni and active Major Leaguers for an active player who demonstrates a passion for the game and best embodies the values, spirit and traditions of the game.

Bay explained it’s difficult to simulate that WBC environment, “to ramp up real quick is intoxicating.”

Walker, the most passionate of the Canadians and the most passionate speakers told the soldout room: “Our kids play differently, they play with more inspiration.”

Both Walker and Morneau are former goalie. Both wore No. 33. Morneau wore his because of Patrick Roy of the Montreal Canadiens. 

Morneau visited the Hockey Hall of Fame Saturday morn and sat at Roy’s locker. He had his picture taken under the No. 33 Roy nameplate and sent a text to Walker with the message “I found a No. 33 who could play.”

“Seriously Larry is a guy I always looked up to,” Morneau said, “You know when you went to Maple Ridge and you played on Larry Walker Field. Any team I was on I always tried to get No. 33. Even though we played hockey we knew the season started when we got to Florida or California.

“You want to get drafted, you put in the hard work, but for me to go to Colorado and win a batting title ...”

Walker won the batting title with the 1998 Rockies hitting .363, repeated the next year batting .379 and won his third title in 2001 hitting .350. Morneau won his title in 2014 hitting .319. Four batting titles combined by two left-handed BC boyos in a 17-year span.

“We hope we have more fun in Florida than our annual street hockey game,” said Morneau.

* * * 

Fourth annual Canadian Futures Award, presented by the Toronto Chapter of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America: Adam Hall (London, Ont.) of the Great Lake Canadians.  

Presenting the honor were RHP Mike Soroka (Calgary, Alta.), Team Canada pitching coach Chris Reitsma (Calgary, Alta.), John Lott of The Athletic and Shi Davidi of Sportsnet. Reitsma had known the Soroka family since the Atlanta Braves farm hand was 13. 

And a couple of reasons for Soroka going 28th over-all as a first-round pick to the Atlanta Braves was A) having Reitsma as his pitching coach and B) pitching for the Canadian Junior National Team against first and second year pros. It made it so much easier for scouts to evaluate. Soroka guessed he had 70 innings against pro hitters by draft day.

Hall was busy in 2016 playing with the Junior National Team and also participated in the Under Armour All-America at Wrigley Field and the Perfect Game All-America Game at Petco park in San Diego. And Hall had a ton of at-bats facing pro pitching on trips to Lake Buena Vista, Fla. and ESPN, St. Petersburg and the Dominican Republic.

Hall said he saw how fortunate he was after seeing poverty in the Dominican. The middle infielder is projected to be the top Canadian drafted come June. 

* * *
Special Recognition Award, presented by the MLBPA for his long standing contributions to the National Teams program: Ryan Dempster (Gibsons, BC).

Steve Rogers, former Montreal Expos ace, and Jays C Russell Martin (Montreal, Que.) were on stage to present the honour. Rogers recalled playing with Billy Atkinson (Chatham, Ont.), 1976-79 and Larry Landreth (Stratford, Ont.) in 1976-77. Rogers said the “35 years of growth source of pure talent” is impressive in his adopted second home.

Rogers said he was hopeful Tim Raines would be elected to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown to join C Gary Carter and OF Andre Dawson as the three HOFers he thought he played with in Montreal. Raines was elected last week in his 10th and final year on the ballot.

Growing up Martin was an Expo fan and he went to the park with his father, also named Russell, to see Raines speed around the Olympic Stadium bases. This WBC Martin was asked to play shortstop. Sean Jamieson (Simcoe, Ont.) who played short on the gold medal winning Pan Am team in 2015 and spent last season at triple-A Reno, had surgery on his labrum and was not healthy to play. 

“Where ever they put me in the lineup, I’m going to have a smile on my face from the first inning until the ninth or if we go into extra innings,” Martin told the crowd. “I’m going to go out there and have fun and play as hard as I can, and people are going to love me, people are going to hate me. I’m going to be the same guy, going out there, doing what I love and trying as hard as I can.”

Wilner asked Team Canada manager Ernie Whitt seated in the crowd where he planned to play Martin?

“Wherever he wants,” Whitt answered.

The Los Angeles Dodgers selected drafted Russell Martin in the 17th round as an infielder in 2002 from Chipola College. A year later, they moved him behind the plate. His pro experience at short consisted of one game with the Rookie-Class Gulf Coast Dodgers.
During batting practice with the New York Yankees he took ground balls alongside Derek Jeter.

Dempster, possibly the most active alumni when it comes to raising funds for the Baseball Canada program, told the crowd jokingly “Hey if Russ is going to play short, I thought I could pitch.”

Going into Game 6 of the 2013 World Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, Dempster approached manager John Farrell and told him even if the Red Sox were up 10-1 late in the game he "did not have to get me into the game"  He had pitched in the Series ... working the ninth inning of Game 1.

He had a 1-2-3 ninth retiring Allan Craig on a fly ball, popping up Yadier Molina and striking out Matt Adams. 

“Oh ... and Matt Holliday hit a home run which landed in December,” Dempster said. “We get in the shower and Jonny Gomes said ‘You know if you didn’t give up any runs, no one would have known you’d pitched.'"

Dempster threw to a catcher for the first time since 2013 on a camping trip in Three Springs, Calif., near Sequoia National Park. He was with fellow Chicago Cubs special assistant Ted Lilly and bullpen catcher Corey Miller. Dempster threw a 60-pitch side and waited for the pain to set in the next day. 

“I was expecting to not be able to raise my hand above my head,” he recalls. “My arm felt great, so I kept playing catch here and there before ramping it up.”

He is on a regimented throwing program and before landing in Toronto faced college hitters for the first time in an indoor facility.

Dempster “passed on the opportunity” to pitch for Canada in previous WBCs, so he was looking forward to wearing Canada across his chest. Wilner asked Dempster how he had fared against some of Canada’s best in the crowd.

He mentioned Walker taking him deep, when the former MVP was with the Colorado Rockies in 1999 with a three-run homer in the first inning of a Rockies 8-7 win over the Florida Marlins on June 20. And two years later in Miami Walker hit a solo shot in a 7-2 win against the Marlins. Overall, Walker hit .357 (5-for-14) with two homers, four RBIs and a 1.312 OPS.

Dempster said Morneau hit about “43 miles of homers” but actually he only allowed one: a solo shot when Morneau was with the Twins and Dempster pitched the Texas Rangers to a 9-3 win over Minnesota Aug. 25, 2012 in Arlington. Lifetime Morneau hit .500 (6-for-12) with a homer and two RBIs.

As a September call-up in 2007, Votto hit a three-run homer in the fourth inning off Dempster on the final day of the season facing the Cubs for an 8-4 Cincinnati victory. And on May 10, 2010, Votto hit a three-run homer against Dempster for a 5-3 Reds win. Votto hit .267 (8-for-30) with two doubles, a triple, two homers and six RBIs with a .989 OPS.    

* * *
Special Achievement Award presented by MLBPA: Michael Saunders (Victoria, BC).

Saunders hit three homers in a 13-2 win over the Orioles at Camden Yards June 17, last season. He took a 2-2 pitch from Mike Wright deep to left centre with two men on base: slammed a three-run homer to deep left centre off Ubaldo Jimenez in the fourth and in the sixth hit a line drive to deep right to make it close out the scoring. Saunders celebrated his scout Wayne Norton (Port Moody, BC) being inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. 

Saunders received 17.7 million votes to be elected to the all-star game in San Diego dominating his four rivals in the fan vote for the final roster spot. In comparison, Brandon Belt won the National League vote with 10.4 million ballots. 

“Throwing on a Jays jersey was a dream come true, you feel a great sense of pride,” Saunders said. “This is the team I want to play for.”

The Philadelphia Phillies oubid the Jays with a $9 million US one-year offer to land him a few days later.

* * *
Baseball Canada Wall of Excellence, presented by RBC Wealth Management: Paul Quantrill (Port Hope, Ont.).

Former teammate and 1996 Cy Young Award winner Pat Hentgen was the main presenter and explained that Quantrill was not “a very good coyote hunter,” but he was “a strike thrower and a good teammate” which helped create a long-time friendship  between the two families. 

“This is proof that if you last long enough you can get an award,” Quantrill said. “I always gave my best and loved working with the Baseball Canada program and the relationships I forged. I can’t remember three games after all these years but what I do remember are all the friendships with people in the game and in this room.”

Peter Hoy (Cardinal, Ont.) and Quantrill came up through the Red Sox system together. Quantrill made his debut July 20, 1992 at Kansas City. Taking over for Boston starter Danny Darwin with the scored tied 3-3 in the sixth Curtis Wilkerson reached on an error but was thrown out stealing by Tony Pena, fanned David Howard and retired Brian McRae on a fly ball.

Next inning he struck out Greg Jefferies and George Brett before getting Chris Gwynn to line out. And in the eighth, Wally Joyner singled, Jim Eisenreich popped up, Brent Mayne singled and Kevin McReynolds flew out. Greg Harris took over to get final out. So his 2 2/3 scoreless innings debut resulted in his firist win.

Quantrill then went on to pitch 841 games -- most by any Canadian and 40th in baseball history (five behind Doug Jones and two ahead of Javier Lopez). He went 68-78 with a 3.83 ERA in 14 seasons with 21 saves. He pitched 1,255 2/3 innings.

* * *
While Quantrill received the great honour, Dempster stole the show.

Ontario Terriers coach Greg O’Halloran (Mississauga, Ont.), the former Florida Marlins, had already sent Dempster a text which reads that he is ready to exchange four $20 bills for $3,300 each. 

Dempster will need all of that magic come March.