By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
It was a decade ago when Sean Jamieson first thought his baseball-playing days had come to an end.
He was leaving high school, with no further plans to stay on the diamond, unaware of the future that could – and would – be.
Now, 28 years old, Jamieson’s playing career has come to an end, officially filing his retirement paperwork last week, after two years of junior college, two years of Division I collegiate baseball, six pro seasons with the Oakland Athletics and Arizona Diamondbacks organizations, three tours with Team Canada’s senior national squad, one gold medal, and years of irreplaceable memories.
It seems like ancient history now, when the then-teenager left Holy Trinity Catholic High School in Simcoe, Ont., and the Canadian Thunderbirds program, ready to head to Western University in London to pursue a medical career. His classes had all been picked and he was a month from starting, when he got a call from Niagara County Community College.
The program had been recently taken over by Matt Clingersmith, a man who knew he could find talent north of the border after spending some of his collegiate playing days at Canisius College under Canadian head coach Mike McRae, with a number of Canuck teammates. The young shortstop from Simcoe was an early target of his.
Jamieson was unsure, but figured he had no chance of continuing to play anywhere else, because he had yet to fill into his frame, and by self proclamation was too small and too weak. After his first trip to the field, he wasn’t feeling any more secure in his decision.
“I went for a visit with one of my teammates at the time and I was super disappointed,” Jamieson said, from his home in Dallas, Tex. “It was a community college, and the field was one of the worst I’ve ever seen. It was very discouraging.”
Despite his early thoughts, Jamieson – with some encouragement from his father Brian – decided to take a chance and join the Trailblazers. Little did he know the squad’s nickname was an apt choice for what he and his teammates were about to do with the program.
“I remember the first day of practice,” he said. “When I got there, kids couldn’t even play catch. Our second baseman couldn’t throw 50 feet. They were the last team, they hadn’t won games in years, they were a Division III junior college, which was at the bottom, and I thought, I’m going to go home. I’m not in the right spot here.”
With reassurance from his dad, he stayed and that fall, Jamieson hit .418 and was named an all-Western New York Athletic Conference first-team selection. He had kept in touch with some friends and former teammates at home who were taking a victory lap in high school, sold them the idea that they would be able to play every day, and helped Clingersmith fill some vacant spots on the team as it headed into the regular season.
“They came out in the spring semester and we ended up winning a ton of games,” Jamieson said. “We were the scrappiest team there. Niagara had always been terrible and we ended up winning and getting to the finals as the junior college from our region. That was a big deal because the team had [only won three games in the two years before 2006].
“Then the next year we brought in a bunch more guys and we ended up going to the [National Junior College Athletic Association] World Series. That was the best year of my whole entire career probably. It was the most camaraderie we’d ever had, and we were just a bunch of young kids who only wanted to win.”
Under construction at Canisius College
The head coach from Canisius had been keeping an eye on what the Trailblazers and their star shortstop were doing. McRae had seen Jamieson play in high school, but knew he wasn’t quite ready to join the Golden Griffins roster until he got in some more playing time at a higher level.
Following the middle infielder’s freshman season at NCCC, McRae made him a conditional offer, and though it didn’t come to fruition that year, Jamieson was a welcome addition as a junior.
“He had a really good freshman year at NCCC, and he was going to come on board after his freshman year,” McRae said. “We were very up front about the whole thing and basically the plan was, we thought we were going to lose Kevin Mailloux to the draft and Sean would come. That didn’t happen because of Kevin’s injuries so basically that season with Sean was [pushed back].”
In retrospect, Jamieson couldn’t be more grateful for the chance to stay with the Trailblazers and headed to the NJCAA World Series in his second season, playing with his friends – including 13 Canadians on that year’s roster – and loving every minute. At the event, he was named MVP of the Division-III region tournament in the team’s first-ever berth. For the season, he was named the Division III Defensive Player of the Year.
Joining the Griffs just months later, Jamieson continued to make huge strides in his game, eventually leading him to become a 17th-round selection of the Athletics – and Canadian scout Matt Higginson – as a senior.
“I ended up going to Canisius my junior year and that was a great experience,” he said. “It was better baseball and I got to play under McRae. He’s a great teacher. And then senior year I ended up going to Oakland.”
Though McRae was not working with a completely blank canvas upon Jamieson’s arrival at the Demske Sports Complex, there was plenty of work to be done. Together, they began with baby steps on the diamond, finishing with a leap into the professional realm of baseball.
“What really helped Sean was he got to play every day at a little bit more competitive environment,” McRae said. “He definitely had the work ethic that enabled him to really grow.
“When he arrived with us, he was extremely raw. His first month was a huge struggle. He didn’t know how to take a proper angle to a ball, he was afraid to run. For a guy who can run, he was so tentative; he wouldn’t go.
“Obviously he had the skill set. His second year with us, in the fall we had to put in a mandatory steal rule for him, just to force him. I’m not making that up. He had one at-bat, so by the end of the next at-bat, he had to have stolen or attempted to steal second base. And the end of the next at-bat, he had to have attempted to steal third base, just to force him … but by the end, he was a man. He was a guy.”
“He brought a lot to our team. Obviously he anchored the middle of the infield, which is huge. There are a lot of responsibilities in our system that we put on our shortstop. After the first fall, it was nice to feel confident that not only do we have a guy who is going to handle all of the intangible sides of being up the middle, but physically he was an extremely good fielder and had tremendous athleticism. Let’s be honest, for a northwest middle infielder, he can move, and Sean played that position his entire life in pro ball, which is a credit to his athleticism.”
Added Jamieson: “It was quite a journey considering I was on the phone with my dad the first day at Niagara saying, ‘I’ve got to come home, I can’t do this.’ He said, ‘Just stay for a little bit. We’ll talk about it in a couple weeks,’ and it was all history from there. Everything just flew by, and now I’ve played seven years of pro ball. It’s so weird. It’s definitely weird not having baseball in my life anymore.”
Sometimes good things fall apart so better things can come together
The decision to retire wasn’t an easy one for Jamieson, who was essentially forced out after 584 pro games because of two surgeries. The first was a micro fracture procedure performed on his left knee during the best days of his pro career, sidelining him for 11 months, and the second an off-season shoulder surgery during the winter that just passed, taking him off the field once and for all.
“It was my knee surgery that changed my career,” Jamieson said. “In 2014, I was in Mobile in double-A and I was hitting .311 and it was the middle of June so I was having an amazing year, playing every day at shortstop, I was an all-star that year.
“We were playing in Montgomery and there was a Florida Georgia Line concert on the field the night before, and all the cowboy boots just destroyed the infield, so the grounds crew filled the holes with beach sand. I ended up going out in the seventh and warming up, took my first throw and my left foot fell into one of those holes and tore the cartilage in my knee. I was having the best year and my knee just started swelling, I couldn’t even see my knee anymore. I ended up playing on it for about three weeks, until I had to crawl to bed. I couldn’t walk at all.
“So I had to get micro fracture surgery, which put me out for 11 months. Then when I got back I was already behind the eight ball. Players had moved up and caught up with me, and I had to become a super utility guy. I still played every day but I got out of the groove I was in before then, and battled the last couple years. Last year, I was a super utility guy in Reno, and that was the thing that put me behind the eight ball. The shoulder was just the cherry on top.”
Still changing radio stations whenever Florida Georgia Line comes on, Jamieson’s second surgery was an injury that originated the year before he hurt his knee. After getting his first taste of the national team in 2012, joining the World Baseball Classic qualifier roster in Regensburg, Germany, in 2013, he ran over a catcher at home plate and dislocated his shoulder. He found ways to compete for years – in large part, with the goal of wearing the national team jersey again as much as possible – before the end was inevitable.
“I had the knee surgery in ’14,” Jamieson said. “Then in ’15 [with Team Canada] we had the Pan Am Games, and then [Premier 12 in] Taiwan, and after that, I wasn’t always feeling very good on my knee, and my shoulder was always bothering me. It’s been nagging me for years, but I knew we had the [World Baseball Classic] coming up this year and I wanted to keep on playing so that I could play in the WBC because that was honestly where I had the most fun playing baseball, with Team Canada.
“The whole pro ball thing, I was just grinding along. I wanted to stay around so I could play for the WBC. I played last year in [triple-A] Reno and I was coming off the bench a lot, facing 98 [mile-an-hour fastballs], trying to hit home runs, late in the game, and I wasn’t warm most of the time. The shoulder ended up getting way worse. I couldn’t even lift my arm. I finished the season on the disabled list and went home and thought okay, rest this thing up, get better, in a month start working out for Team Canada.
“I couldn’t even sleep at night. It was constantly throbbing. I knew there was no way I could even play for that team because my shoulder was so bad, so I had to get [the surgery] done. They told me it was the labrum and I stretched all the tendons out in my shoulder, so I knew that would probably be it for me. I had to get labrum surgery, out for another nine months, that was it.”
True patriot love
After manning the middle infield for Team Canada in the three tournaments prior to the WBC, there was a spot waiting for him on the Classic squad that would take on the Dominican Republic, Colombia and eventual-champion Team USA in Miami, Fla.
“He anchored the middle of the infield, at a position we’re not really deep in, obviously the shortstop position,” said Greg Hamilton, Baseball Canada’s director of national teams.
“And his makeup and character were tremendous. He fit in seamlessly. He came in – to a certain degree – mid-cycle, and then right into the Pan Am Games and those sorts of events, which are not easy.
“The torch got passed a little bit from Jonathan Malo to him, and he did a tremendous job. He was outstanding, and a huge reason why we were able to repeat a Pan Am gold medal, and a tremendous character in the clubhouse, and a calming presence on the field. Sean did a great job at shortstop for us.
“I know he really wanted to play in the WBC, and there was a spot there for him. We talked about it, and to a certain degree he was trying to hang on to do that and experience that, and he would have been a part of that roster. Unfortunately, the arm just got to a point where he couldn’t manage the pain anymore and he had to deal with it.
“But he’s moving on and he’s still young. It was a tough loss for us, certainly a difficult player to replace, middle-of-the-diamond guy who has a lot of experience at the upper end of the game, and a real seasoned minor leaguer, in addition to what he brings in the middle of the diamond at the shortstop position, he’s a great character guy and a super teammate, a real unselfish player who really fit in well to our clubhouse. We’re really going to miss him.”
Even though the decision was made for him, it wasn’t easy for Jamieson to come to the conclusion that it would be time for him to retire from the game and move forward into his second career. After coming “three-quarters” of the way to the final decision a couple months ago, he made it official not long after.
“I knew it was happening when I knew I had to get surgery,” Jamieson said. “I knew that was my last chance. If I could have got away with it without surgery, I’d still be playing. But getting the labrum done this late in my career, I knew then. That was tough to handle. That was definitely tough to handle. I knew that I would miss the game, and I would miss everything about it.
“But through my rehab, I knew what was coming, so it was an up-and-coming decision that I knew I would have to make. Finally I sat down and just said, 'I’m done,' maybe a month-and-a-half ago. I’m getting married [on November 18 to fiancée Hilary Barwick], I want to go back to school and get my career going, and I’m not going to be playing through pain much longer.”
When January rolled around, Jamieson first started to feel a difference, and by the time the regular season began, he felt a void he’d never experienced.
“I rehabbed here in Dallas and didn’t rehab at the [Diamondbacks] facility, so I didn’t see the guys getting ready and playing catch and hitting [batting practice], so that helped me not think about it as much,” he said. “But I still knew. Like, oh it’s January, usually I would be going pretty hard in the cage now, and February, I’d be out there in a spring training game. I don’t miss spring training, that’s for sure. But when the players broke for the season I was definitely jealous.”
One of the most difficult things to do was to catch the WBC games from home, Jamieson watching his Canadian teammates compete without being able to offer anything to the squad he will cherish forever.
“It was really hard to watch the WBC,” he said. “I really wish I was there more than anything, and that I could have helped out, but I wouldn’t have been able to help the team. It was bad timing for getting surgery and bad luck.”
A handful of gold is a heart of iron
Among his years in college and between the Diamondbacks and Athletics organizations, Jamieson’s career is highlighted by his appearances with the national team, and he couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunities he was given to wear the red-and-white jersey on three occasions.
“Going to Germany to qualify for the WBC in ’12 was the first time,” he said. “They made it easy. When I came in, in ’12, they made it seem like I had already been there and was going to be there forever. I was just getting my feet wet. I didn’t play, but it was just being there. Then the Pan Ams in ’15, and that ended up really well. In Taiwan, I definitely wish things would have gone better in Taiwan but it’s the best time you’re ever going to play baseball is when you’re playing for Team Canada. I’ve never seen a group of guys so close.
“The country brings us all together, those colours, and the traditions we have behind it, singing O Canada on the bus, and little things like that. In the minor leagues, there are a lot of individual guys not caring about the team and just playing for themselves. It brings you back to when you were a kid playing the game when you’re with Team Canada. Those are my favourite moments, 100 per cent. Everything else was just for a season, it was work.”
Seeing the difference between the squad he was with and the others he competed against in international competition, Jamieson believes that the Canadian team is special because of its coaches, the type of players, the ability to welcome new members seamlessly, and the background everyone shares.
“We kept the same group close for years,” he said. “It wasn’t like Team USA where they’re cycling guys in and out all the time, cycling coaching staffs and stuff like that. We kept the same coaching staff, the same players, the same group of guys, and we’ve got some crazy Canadians. Some of those guys are one-in-a-million guys.
“It’s that Canadian pride that makes you a little bit different, and when we all get together it’s just something special. We’re all scruffy, scrappy players, and we already had a tough route to get there because we’re Canadian. I wish I would have been able to stick around and play forever with that team, but the body just can’t do it.”
Part of the squad that won gold at the 2015 Pan Am tournament on home soil in Ajax, Ont., Jamieson was inducted – along with his teammates and coaching staff – into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame on Saturday, an honour his parents Brian and Sylvia attended in St. Marys even though he couldn’t, and one he is extremely proud of.
“That team, I couldn’t believe the things we did,” Jamieson said. “The baseball we played with that team. I don’t know if a team in Canadian history ever meshed as well as that team did. Plus, we won a gold medal on our own home turf, which is totally awesome. It’s amazing that we’ve been inducted as a team, and get to go down in history together.”
Don’t close the book, just turn the page
Moving into the next phase of his life, Jamieson will be attending Physician’s Assistant school in Fort Worth, Texas for the next two years beginning in July, while his soon-to-be wife Hilary continues her work in medical sales for migraine treatment until they can return to Jamieson’s home and native land down the road. With his eye on the medical profession since those days at Holy Trinity, the shortstop majored in biology in college, and worked on his application during his playing days. He was one of just 70 students accepted out of a field of 2,400 applicants to the prestigious program.
“Throughout the years I kept my application up, volunteering and getting my showing hours, so I was always ready,” Jamieson said. “I knew there was a 99 per cent chance, because it’s a reality that most people don’t make it to the big leagues and make millions of dollars, so I always felt like I was being smart about using my time wisely and building a good resume in case that day did come.”
After seeing his early growth firsthand, and watching Jamieson from afar during his pro playing days, McRae knows he will be successful in whatever he does, and is excited for what the future holds for his former pupil.
“Sean is gifted in the classroom,” McRae said. “So at some point, he had to – for lack of better words – utilize his other assets … He’s a terrific person and he’s going to be upbeat and always going to find positives in things. That’s him, and that’s one of the things I love about him.”
With his national team success cemented in the Hall of Fame, and Jamieson’s time with Team Canada cut short, the program will look to find more players just like him, and will remember him as fondly as he looks back on his moments with it.
“He’s a guy we will really miss,” Hamilton said. “The day-to-day in minor-league baseball is not easy. He’s an intelligent guy, and he’s got great character and great makeup, and he’ll transition well into – as we call it sometimes – the real world. He’ll do well with that, and he’s a big part of our program. You never know, maybe we can get him involved in some coaching and things like that, once he gets settled in and moving forward, but we are really going to miss him.”