By Bob Elliott
Canadian Baseball Network
DUNEDIN, Fla. _ The Blue Jays and Team Canada drew 3,222 paying customers on Tuesday afternoon.
Yet, there were more people watching than those in the pews at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium.
For example, Freddie Freeman was sure his mother was watching as he wore a uniform which read ‘Canada’ for the first time.
And no doubt Donald Sinclair, who passed away, earlier this month at age 91, was watching from on high too.
Freeman, the Atlanta Braves first baseman, signed autographed balls tossed over the high fence from a stairway near the third base clubhouse “One more Freddie,” or “Sign in the sweet spot Freddie” or “Just one more Mr. Freeman.” Some wore Braves jerseys with Freeman on the back. Some wore Jays caps.
In typical Canadian fashion, Freeman was accommodating, even apologizing when a fan missed a pen he had tossed back.
Later as Baseball Canada’s Adam Morissette steered the group away from the fence, the Fountain Valley, Calif. native explained his life-long goal of playing for Canada.
“I know she’s watching, I know she has a front-row seat in a lounge chair watching every game,” Freeman told reporters. “Right after the Canadian anthem finished I looked up to the sky.”
Freeman knocked in a run as Canada beat Canada’s Team 7-1 in an exhibition game to ready for the Thursday opener of the WBC in the Miami pool at Marlins Park.
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GRANDPA’S WATCHING: Morneau could be forgiven for his thoughts being a million miles away ... not 60 feet, six inches from the pitcher.
His grandfather Donald Sinclair passed earlier this month at age 91, in Victoria, BC.
“My mom (Audra) is coming to Miami,” Morneau said. “Mom hopes the trip and the games will be good for her to attend, maybe a bit of a distraction (after losing her father).”
Grandpa Donald and Morneau spent time together in November when Morneau’s uncle Brent Sinclair passed.
“My grandfather was a pretty special guy,” Morneau said. “Pretty impressive. He had two grandchildren play in the majors.”
Morneau and I spoke outside the Canada clubhouse -- off limits to reporters like all the other WBC clubhouses. Now, if you were to enter the clubhouse down the left field line -- the old Jays clubhouse where George Bell staged his DH sit down strike, where Tony Fernandez called down the wrath of the Lord upon Pat Gillick and Gor Ash and where double-A infielder told Lance Hornby he was “tired of being treated like a piece of meat.” And if you turned right and went five, maybe six lockers along the east wall ... that is where you would have found Steve Sinclair in the spring of 1998. Sinclair and Morneau are cousins.
Two cousins. Their spring address less than 15 feet and 29 years apart. A lefty reliever Sinclair pitched 24 games for the 1988 Jays and the next year started with the Jays before being dealt with Tom Davey to the Seattle Mariners for David Segui.
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ROOTS: Rosemary McDonald Freeman was born in Toronto and was adopted her second day on earth by Irene and Bud McDonald who became a Peterborough police officer and after serving in WWII. The family moved to Oshawa in 1957 when McDonald was hired by GM and was transferred to Windsor. Rosemary met her future husband Fred Freeman and they moved to California.
Then Freddie came along, one of three sons. Freeman’s mother, Rosemary, lost her battle with cancer in 2000 at the unfair age of 47 when Freddie, now 27, was 10. Rosemary’s family burial plot is in Omemee.
The new Canuck first baseman says every day he lives, he lives for his mother. His mom. The woman who caught his bullpens. Even though mom would catch his tosses and his brothers with the glove on her left hand. Mom would take the ball out of her glove, remove the mitt and then throw the ball back.
Who was the boss when he hopped into cars after games, mom or pop? Freeman said his father knew the game, but mom carried out instructions making sure he was a left-handed hitter. When Fred couldn’t make his son’s first T-ball tryout, he told his wife to make sure that the coach didn’t try to change young Freddie from a left-handed hitter to a right-handed hitter.
At the first practice, sure enough as his father had predicted, the meddlesome coach tried to turn Freeman around, make him a right-handed hitter.
“My mom came out on the field and said,‘My husband told me to take him off the field if you tried to turn him around,’” Freeman said. “So, she grabbed me by my shirt and we walked off.”
How would you like to have that on your coaching resume?
_ Tried to convert Freddie Freeman, Atlanta Braves first baseman into a right-handed hitter. Not a good day.
“I like telling these stories repeating the memories I have of her makes her live on,” he added later. “It’s nice being able to talk about her.”
As someone who lost his father when I was 19 and his mother six months later, I know the feeling, from what dark place Freeman is coming from. Talking eases the pain.
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FLASHBACK: Before the game, Freeman stood in front of the third base dugout playing catch with Morneau.
“I got one for you,” an old guy said, pointing toward the visitor’s dugout.
A few years ago Bobby Cox sat there ready to manage a Braves-Blue Jays game. Larry Millson, winner of this year’s Jack Graney award, presented by the Canadian Hall of Fame in St. Marys and I sat beside him, but we couldn’t hear what he was saying.
“Jason Heyward and you were making a racket in the batting cage and denting the Jays office in right field, I don’t remember the year, but one guy was 19 and the other was 20?”
“Well, we’re both the same age, a month apart,” Freeman said, “it was probably 2010 (both were 19, Heyward turned 20 in August, Freeman in September).
“I was saying the day before it was the first time I had been to the Dunedin complex since 2007 in the Gulf Coast League.”
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SINGING LOUD, PROUD: Freeman, who can tell a story -- not too long, not too short, not too complicated and not too many big words -- told of when he was in his teen years. His father took him to see the Blue Jays play the Angels in Anaheim.
He didn’t stand for the Canadian anthem.
And as they say, maybe in military houses, thus endeth the evening.
“My dad took me right on out of the stadium,” Freeman said. “Makes me who I am today.”
So there he was standing at attention and singing ‘O Canada.’ Morneau stood beside him. Freeman “sang every word, Morneau gave me a pat on the back.”
Not one to get nervous before a game, including post-season play, this game was different and he expects the opener against the Dominican Republic to be at another level as well.
“I don’t know what my emotions will be, I really don’t. My dad is going to be in the stands … I’ve always wanted to honour my mom every day I live.”
Freeman is starting to “feel more Canadian” but he says “players are letting me know that I’m not, because I wasn’t born in Canada.” He says the main culprits are Larry Walker and Justin Morneau.
“I’m playing for Canada, I’m all about Canada at this tournament,” the transplant says. “It’s going to be special. I’m going to sing loud and proud.”
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NEGATORY: First base coach Larry Walker says it was not him teasing Freeman.
Morneau smiled and said he was not teasing Freeman about not being born in Canada.
“Monday night in the clubhouse we asked ‘Who wants to go see the hockey game (New York Rangers at Tampa Bay Lightening?’ Everyone raised their hand ... except Freddie. We understood. His family is still in the Orlando era. He had to get home. We’re teasing him because he’s the new guy. But we’re glad he’s here.”
We’re not sure what the crowd will be Thursday night at Marlins Park in Miami.
Yet, we know of at least two people who will be watching down from on high.
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NOT CLOSE TO SIGNING: Morneau and his wife were in Paris when news broke from the Minnesota Twins fan fast that Minnesota was close to bringing back Morneau, their former American League MVP.
“My wife’s blew up with people asking ‘are you in final contract negotiations with the Twins?” said Morneau with a laugh. “We were in final negotiations ... to buy another bottle of wine.”
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THE GOOD: CF Dalton Pompey (Mississauga, Ont.) made a diving catch in left centre robbing Jake Elmore of a base hit, had two singles, walked, stole a base and reached on an error, scoring the game’s first run ... SS Jonathan Malo make a fine bare-handed play on a ground ball off the bat of Justin Smoak, and 1B Freddie Freeman came off the bag for the tag ... Morneau and Malo each had two-run singles. Joshh Naylor, Jamie Romak and Rene Tosoni each doubled ... Andrew Albers worked two scoreless innings for the win, while Eric Gagne, Kevin Chapman, Jimmy Henderson and Ryan Kellogg also had scoreless outings ... The Jays scored off Scott Mathieson, who walked the first two hitters, and did not allow a hit ... Canada allowed two hits facing a lineup of Kevin Pillar, Melvin Upton, Troy Tulowitzki, Kendry Morales, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Justin Smoak, Darwin Barney, Eziquel Carrera and minor leaguer Gregorio Petit ... 2B Peter Orr and Daniel Pinero and Naylor turned a 4-6-3 double play ...
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THE BAD: Henderson and Mathieson each walked two hitters.
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LINEUP: In what you see is what you probably will get ... manager Ernie Whitt went with five left-handed hitters and a lineup of: CF Dalton Pompey, DH Justin Morneau, LF Tyler O’Neill, 1B Freddie Freeman, 3B Jamie Romak, C George Kottaras, 2B Peter Orr, RF Rene Tosoni and SS Jonathan Malo ... Pompey is a switch hitter, while O’Neill, Romak and Malo are right-handed. Whitt’s options are right-handed hitting OF Michael Crouse and left-handed hitting Josh Naylor as a bat off the bench.
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ROCKY, ROCKY: Before the game began Troy Tulowitzki came out of the dugout to hug Larry Walker (Maple Ridge, BC) Canada’s first base coach. The two are a pair of the best ever to play for the Rockies.
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FLASHBACK: Eight years ago at the Dunedin complex a few people were discussing Roy Halladay’s decision not to pitch in the WBC which was being staged at the Rogers Centre.
Halladay had plenty of good reasons. But he was asked “What if this game USA-Canada in Toronto is the best atmosphere, the biggest crowd you get the chance to pitch in all season and you miss it?”
Halladay shrugged. Team USA hung on to beat Canada 5-4 in a what USA closer JJ Putz called a playoff atmosphere before 42,314 with the tying run on second and the bottom of the ninth and one out. Putz retired Justin Morneau and Jason Bay to end it.
Votto was 4-for-5 with a homer and two RBIs, while Martin had a pair of hits and a homer.
It was acclaimed by many as the best baseball crowd ever in the building since it was March and every sandlot coach was there, since it was too cold to work out outside.
The Jays played two games at home that drew larger than the WBC crowd: an opening day 12-5 win over the Detroit Tigers with Justin Verlander and a May 12 5-1 win over the New York Yankees and A.J. Burnett.
Toronto was up 9-1 after four innings against Verlander as Travis Snider and Adam Lind each homered, one of four knocks Lind had. The Yankees game saw the Jays score two in the eighth to break open a 3-1 lead.
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50 SHADES: Canada debuted new Majestic uniforms, which looked like they were either fresh from sliding practice on a soggy day or Arizona Diamondbacks hand-me-downs. They wore uniforms with red sleeves and grey tops and bottoms.
“They look like a softball uniform,” said one player.
“Is this 50 shades of grey?” asked another.
“Naw, more like 2nd Time sports,” added someone in the seats.
Cuba wore grey pants in its loss to Japan, so we’re guessing all road teams were wear the same drab grey uniforms.
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SHADOW OF ITSELF: From a veteran of international stage: “Did you see the Japan-Cuba game?” he asked. “It’s just a shame. Cuba is a shadow of what it used to be. It’s a tree that has had all the fruit picked off it. And there are very few blooms.”
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ALL BLUE JAYS: Manager Ernie Whitt deployed his all-Ontario Blue Jays INF to finish the game: Daniel Pinero (Mississauga, Ont.) at short, Eric Wood (Pickering, Ont.) at 3B, Pete Orr (Newmarket, Ont.) at 2B and Josh Naylor (Mississauga, Ont.). They were 3-for-9 combined. Most impressive was Naylor driving a Connor Greene pitch to left centre and legging out a hustling double. Wood singled in a run and Orr singled.
The Ontario Blue Jays duo of George Kottaras (Markham, Ont.) and Mike Reeves (Peterborough, Ont.) split catching duties. Kottaras hit singled.
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NEAR MISS: Tom Young, the fine young engineer of the Jays broadcast on The Fan, threw out the first pitch to celebrate his 10th year working Jays games and his 41st year in the business. Young got his start in Smiths Falls and threw a Smiths Falls strike.