By: Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
DUNEDIN, Fla. – Eric Gagne’s return to Team Canada and his attempt at making a comeback to the professional game has brought a mixed reaction from the crowd, often with a negative connotation attached to the former Cy Young Award winner’s name.
But the 41-year-old right-hander cares not for what other people think, as he tries to move forward as a player, mentor, and success story in the Canadian baseball community.
“I don’t really look at it,” Gagne said, after the Canadian national squad’s first practice ahead of the World Baseball Classic. “I know it’s there. I mean, people have their opinions and you’ve got to respect that. That’s normal, and what’s been said has been said, and what’s been done has been done, and I can’t change it. What I can do, is I can go out there and have some positive influence on people, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
In an attempt to keep enjoying the game since the years he has been away from the field, and to share that positive influence, Gagne often welcomes other Canadian players – many early in their college and professional careers – to his home in Arizona throughout their off-seasons.
“It started probably five or six years ago, but when [Phillies farmhand] Jesen Therrien came over three years ago and he worked out with me, then everybody started calling and wanting to come there, and now I need a bigger backyard,” Gagne said. “But it’s been fun. He started it, and I tried to help him a little bit, but then everybody heard about it so now they’re all trying to come.
“I’ll help with anything. I mean, it’s pitching mostly right now, but we’ve got cages coming up so we’re going to have some hitters. We’re trying to create a community, with Canadian guys working out together. We had Adam Loewen with us, we had Russell [Martin] used to work out with me before, and it all started with me and Russell Martin, when he first came to my house.”
Therrien, a right-hander who hails from the same place as the three-time all-star, was born just one year before Gagne was made a 30th round draft pick of the Chicago White Sox in 1994. The young hurler grew up watching the reliever dominate, and couldn’t have been more excited or eager to say yes when Gagne extended the invitation.
“Three years ago, he came and gave me a call and he said, ‘Hey, do you want to come work out with me?’ And I said, ‘Hell yeah.’ How can I say no to that?” Therrien said. “That’s the way it started. I used to go to Expos games, and when he was pitching against the Expos with the Dodgers, I was cheering for him because he’s from the same area in Montreal that I am. So now that I’ve played with him, he went from coaching me and now he’s my teammate. It’s weird, and it’s really fun.
“I’ve learned a lot from him. Not just mechanically, but about the game and the mental side of it. Gagne used to be one of the best closers in the game, so just to see how he works and what his mental part of the game is, he helps me as a mentor. He’s helped me be more consistent, and just to give my best every day.”
From his backyard in Arizona, Gagne works to help better both the young players and himself throughout the process, moving forward from a major league career tainted by talk of performance-enhancing drug use.
“It’s in the past,” he said. “It’s the same thing that’s been written about before, and it’s repeating now. It’s basically parrot journalism. It’s going to be written, and I don’t want to run away from it. It is what it is. I’ve made mistakes and I’m not going to change it. I can’t change it.
“What I can do, is I can only try to stay positive and try to get the kids to know the mistakes that I made so hopefully they don’t make them...[I’m] forward with them and tell them, if there’s anything, just come talk to me. There’s no such thing as shortcuts. Shortcuts have shortened up my career, so that’s probably why I’m here trying to play.”
Therrien hasn’t had much to learn from Gagne’s mistakes, “because I’ve always been a guy who works really hard,” he said. The 6-foot-2 200-pound Phillies minor leaguer believes that it’s why the two get along so well, continuing to say, “I think that’s why he likes how I work and why he likes to work with me.”
Gagne was extremely excited and proud to see Therrien added to Canada’s WBC roster just before the squad met in Florida, with the young flamethrower taking the roster spot in the bullpen left vacant by John Axford, who had to opt out due to personal and professional reasons.
“I was hoping Therrien would be on the team,” Gagne said. “You don’t want to have injuries or [people leaving the team] like this, but he deserves it. He’s worked really hard. He was in Double-A last year, and he’s worked his butt off for the last three years, so he deserves to be here…
“He is a really, really hard worker. But at first when he came over, he had a hard time with the fastball, locating his fastball, but now he’s throwing the ball really well. He’s matured a lot. He knows that baseball is not that easy, but it’s also not that complicated, so you’ve got to find a happy medium with it, and that’s what I’m trying to do. That’s why I like the one-on-one [time]. You can really teach them and take it to the next level, and that’s what I’m really trying to do.”
Added Therrien: “I thought I might have an opportunity to come with the team. I was working out with Gagne during the off-season for two months, because my goal and where my head is at right now is to be in the big leagues this year, and now that I have the opportunity to wear the Team Canada jersey, it’s unbelievable.”
After posting a 2.21 ERA in 27 games and 36 2/3 innings with Class-A Advanced Clearwater, with 22 walks and 52 strikeouts, Therrien was promoted to Double-A Reading for his last 11 appearances of the season last year. There, he put up a 3.71 mark over 17 innings, walking five and fanning 22 batters.
“It’s gratifying for me,” Gagne said. “It’s fun to see the [players he works with] compete and do well, and it’s almost like being a father, you feel proud of your kids. You go out there, you teach them a little bit, and they take it out and succeed with it. So for me it’s a lot of fun and it’s just pride. You get really proud of – I call them my kids but – your players, and it’s fun.”
Enjoying his time as a mentor, Gagne has also utilized the talent of the players he houses to help him get ready for the Classic, and perhaps to make an attempt at a job for the rest of spring training.
“It’s nine months in the making,” the former closer said of his WBC preparation. “I’ve been working out really hard. I’ve been throwing with the kids who come to my house, and I’m feeling good. My body feels great, so hopefully I can go out there and compete and help the team…
“The kids keep me young. We always compete. That’s the fun part about it. You’re trying to compete against each other, you’re [comparing] who works out the hardest, so we have fun, keep it light, and there’s a lot of competition between all of us.”