By Danny Gallagher
Canadian Baseball Network
JUPITER, Fla. -- It was March 11 and St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Matheny called highly prized slugging prospect Tyler O'Neill into his office for a chit-chat.
The main reason Matheny wanted to see the Canadian outfielder from Maple Ridge, B.C. was to tell him that he had been optioned to triple-A Memphis but there was another scenario that needed to be addressed.
"The specifics of what went on in that room I can't comment on,'' O'Neill told me in a media-interview area augmented by bright, steel, Cardinal-red awnings and bench chairs.
But reading stories written by Cardinals' beat writers suggest that Matheny and O'Neill addressed the issue of O'Neill's weight-training.
O'Neill had picked up two similar injuries this spring: once in late February, the second shortly before he was optioned. He strained his left oblique muscle and then strained his right hamstring.
Because his body is wound tight and hard from lifting weights, did the oblique and hamstring pull easily?
O'Neill said the hamstring problem was the result of a "freak injury'' running to first base.
"I've never been injured. Two injuries in a row have knocked me down,'' O'Neill said.
Matheny was actually sympathetic toward O'Neill rather than wanting to be critical of him for pumping weight.
"He's fought his whole life to dispel the theory that he's too muscle-bound. But you have to live with what people think and right now, this is what St. Louis thinks,'' Matheny said in an interview with reporters as he read off names of players being optioned to the minors. "I don't know if that's fair. We have guys with zero muscle mass who get the same old stuff.''
O'Neill has been lifting weights for years and has often attracted the attention of teammates into the weight room. His father Terry was voted Mr. Canada in 1975 as the nation's top body builder and introduced his son to weights. Earlier in spring training, O'Neill had addressed the issue of lifting weights with some reporters.
"I'm not going to body build,'' he said. "I'm not trying to have a toned-up body. I'm trying to get stronger so I can play baseball. Getting in the gym and having a better body than everybody was something I really wanted to strive for at any early age.''
As for the general notion of being sent down to triple-A, "I totally understood,'' O'Neill said in an interview. "Not being able to play didn't help my case to make the team.''
At the time he was sent down, O'Neill was less than impressive, going 3-for-12.
"I'm going to go to Memphis and work hard,'' O'Neill said. "Everyone wants to play in the majors. I will go down there and show them what I can do and do damage. If they need a defensive replacement to win a ball game, I'm ready.''
How O'Neill ended up in the Cardinals' organization was stunning. Why would the Mariners give up on such a stud prospect? Sure, the Mariners got pitcher Marco Gonzales in exchange last July but it appears the Cardinals were the winners. The Mariners paid a hefty price to acquire Gonzales at the non-waiver July 31 trade deadline.
O'Neill's dream was to be drafted by either the Mariners or the Blue Jays, Seattle being located almost straight south of Maple Ridge and Toronto holding Canada's lone spot as a major-league franchise.
"A lot of people from B.C. want to play for Seattle or Toronto,'' O'Neill reiterated.
O'Neill smiled when he was asked about why the Mariners would want to trade him but he wasn't about to criticize Seattle GM Jerry DiPoto, who swung the trade. O'Neill didn't get his trade call from DiPoto. Rather, it was director of player development Andy McKay.
"I didn't expect it,'' O'Neill said of the trade. "I had flown back from Albuquerque and there was a message from Andy. We got talking and he said I had been moved.''
And O'Neill just left it at that. His dream of playing for his local team, the Mariners, was dashed but he wasn't going to get dragged down about it. The graduate of Maple Ridge's Garibaldi Secondary School has seen successful wherever he has done. He won Pan Am gold with Team Canada in 2015 and for three consecutive years, he has been the voted in polls as the winner of the Randy Echhlin award, as Canadian Baseball Network's top offensive player. In 2017 he shared the award with Montreal-born Blue Jays' phenom Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
When O'Neill reaches the majors, what kind of numbers does he hope to attain?
"I can't project myself. I'm not going to give you any numbers,'' he said.
O'Neill ripped 31 homers and drove in 95 runs last season in triple-A but he would love to cut down on those 151 strikeouts and improve that .246 average.
When it comes to role models, the Nos. 1 and 2 would be his parents and then after that, it's No. 33, who is the pride of Maple Ridge, just like O'Neill. Larry Walker, we're talking about here.
"I've met Larry a couple of times, the second time at the Pan-Am Games in 2015,'' O'Neill said. "He's a good dude, personable with a great sense of humour. He could play, hit, field. He's a great statistical person to look up to, if that's a good way to put it.''