By Chicco Nacion
Canadian Baseball Network
Ben Onyshko could never stay away from baseball. Growing up in Winnipeg, Man., he also played soccer but he’d often leave matches early — excited to get to the diamond for his baseball games that usually followed afterwards.
Mother nature had no luck either.
In the winter time, Onyshko used to get up at 7 a.m., put on his snowsuit, and throw off the mound he and his dad made in their backyard.
The six-foot-two lefty says he just couldn’t help himself.
“I started out playing baseball throughout the winter just to get some extra practice with it,” Onyshko recalls. “I think that’s where I developed a love for it and I found a good friend group over winter baseball at Rookies Batting Cages.”
Drafted in the 24th round (718th overall) by the Seattle Mariners in last month’s MLB draft, Onyshko will continue playing the game he fell for as a young kid.
His mother, Karen LeVasseur, noticed when Onyshko was just seven that he had a real obsession with baseball. Whether it’d be in the basement of their home or an indoor facility within town, he’d find anywhere to throw.
Onyshko’s birthday was fittingly always around the MLB post-season and themed to his beloved Boston Red Sox.
The 21-year-old traces his fondest memories of the sport back home — where Onyshko learned and honed his game.
“Even as he’s moved around, his heart is in Manitoba. When he talks about his love of baseball, he’ll refer to playing in the kicked up fields in the backstreets of Winnipeg,” LeVasseur says. “He still loves Manitoba, it’s in his blood. He has so many coaches there that he credits for where he is today.”
It was during an outing for the Winnipeg South Chiefs AAA baseball team in Regina, Sask., that both Onyshko and his family realized that perhaps he was more than a kid blessed with a good arm.
Onyshko got a surprise start against the Okotoks Dawgs who were heralded by many as one of the top teams in the country. At that point, he didn’t consider himself as a star let alone receive the call in the biggest game of their season.
A teenaged Onyshko proceeded to strike out 17 batters over six innings pitched and it dawned on him afterwards what he was capable of when he puts his mind to it.
“It’s not like that was a single defining moment. But before that, I obviously had aspirations of playing professionally but I don’t think I really ever thought that might be the case,” Onyshko says. “A lot of people go to college (to play baseball), so I’ll probably do that. After that, I started thinking about some of the possibilities down the road with it.”
Onyshko’s performance caught the eye of Les McTavish, the head coach and director for the Vauxhall Academy of Baseball in Alberta, whom Onyshko would join in the 10th grade and help win three consecutive provincial championships from 2010-2012.
McTavish knew immediately that Onyshko was gifted with ability and talent but it was the intangibles that he brought to the table that made him such a seamless fit in their program.
Baseball is just one thing at Vauxhall, where they’ve had the motto, ‘Better person, better player,’ since its inception.
McTavish and his staff do their best to instill habits — such as removing their hats within restaurants and holding doors for others — and have their teams interact with the youth and elderly in the community to make each player more well-rounded away from the diamond.
“His work ethic off the field, in the weight room, and in the classroom really impressed us as a program up and above his baseball abilities. He kept getting better as he went forward,” McTavish says. “We provide a vehicle. It’s up to the players to drive it, maintain it, and help keep it in order.”
Onyshko admired the late Roy Halladay for just that and the way he went about his business. His strength coach at Vauxhall always talked about Halladay’s preparation for games and showed him old videos of the former Blue Jays ace.
“I don’t know if there’s anybody in baseball that’s ever worked as hard as Roy Halladay and that’s how Ben was,” McTavish says. “Ben put everything he could into (baseball), there was nothing by chance.”
During his three years at Vauxhall, the former junior national team member developed from a thrower to a true pitcher. While Onyshko always had a good breaking ball, he had command issues and was often forcing the ball as he tried to light up the radar gun.
It was a humbling experience for Onyshko to see hitters square up a once unhittable mid-90’s fastball but one that helped him understand how important adjustments are to pitching success.
“I would just try to overpower people … I had to find other ways to get outs — using my breaking balls, learning more about a changeup and how to throw it more goes a long way,” Onyshko says. “I went from someone who threw a lot of fastballs and mixed in some curveballs to someone who can go fastball, curveball, slider, (or) changeup.”
Originally drafted in 2014, Onyshko passed on the majors to attend Stetson University where he’d pitch four collegiate seasons with the Hatters, including a program-best run to the NCAA Super Regionals this past year, just one step short of the College World Series.
Jumping from high school to the big leagues was never in the plan as it was important for Onyshko to complete his major in Biology allowed him to grow as a person through the friendships made off the field.
From a baseball perspective, it also seems to be paying off as Onyshko is already seeing some advantages that college draft picks have over high school draftees and international prospects during his brief time with the Arizona League Mariners.
Stetson gave Onyshko an opportunity to refine his skillset through pitching in different roles and situations to which he believes can’t be replicated going straight into the minor league system.
“You see a lot of high school and international prospects here in professional baseball and they have a lot of tools – they can throw really hard, run really fast, (or) hit the ball really far – but they’re not quite at the point where they (can) put it into a game – it’s not necessarily polished,” Onyshko says. “In college, that’s what they teach you. It’s how to win baseball games rather than how to show off all your tools in a showcase-fashion.”