By Tom Haudricourt
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
MILWAUKEE – Before being cut from the Milwaukee Brewers’ spring training camp, Dustin Houle made a big impression on manager Craig Counsell and his staff.
“He’s had a great camp, an unexpected, really good camp,” Counsell said the day the 23-year-old catcher was reassigned to the minors. “The kind of camp where everybody on the big-league staff will follow Dustin Houle this year, and how he’s doing.”
It took some perseverance by Houle merely to be in position to make a positive impression in spring camp. Since being taken in the eighth round of the 2011 draft from the Langley Blaze out of Brookswood Secondary School, the native of Penticton, BC has dealt with one significant injury after another.
Houle hadn’t played a game in the minors before breaking the hamate bone in his left hand. He underwent surgery and sat out the entire 2011 season after the draft. After a year of rookie ball and a split season in 2013 between rookie ball and Class-A Wisconsin, Houle was struck down by two more injuries.
He suffered a herniated disc during an off-season weight lifting session and recovered in time for spring training in ’2014, only to take a foul tip off his right thumb, breaking it. That healed but Houle then blew out his right elbow, necessitating Tommy John surgery that forced him to sit out the entire year.
Next came a torn hamstring but Houle finally returned to health and made it to Class-A Brevard County by the end of the 2015 season. Last year, he returned to Brevard before a late promotion to Double-A Biloxi, where he has been assigned for 2017.
“It’s been a grind,” Houle said of his injury-riddled past. “It kind of makes you who you are.”
When given the chance to participate in his first major-league spring camp, Houle did not waste the opportunity. He accumulated 12 at-bats in Cactus League exhibition play and collected six hits, including a home run. Yes, it was a small sample size but Houle’s 1.600 OPS was something to smile about.
“It’s unbelievable,” said Houle, a .231 hitter with five homers and 80 RBIs in 237 minor-league games. “It’s the most fun I’ve had playing ball. It’s kind of a reward for all the time I put in.”
The offensive showing was nice for a player with a reputation as more of a defensive catcher. He left the Brewers’ camp with the satisfaction of knowing he put himself on the organizational radar screen.
“It’s always nice to hear those things about yourself, but at the end of the day it’s about putting it together, day in and day out, through the grind of the season,” Houle said.
Counsell had these parting words on Houle: “He’s been hurt a ton, unfortunately, and he’s got less than 1,000 minor-league at-bats as a high school kid from Canada. So, he hasn’t played much baseball.
“He’s very young experience-wise. If he can stay health, who knows?”
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Brewers scout Marty Lehn signed Houle for a $150,000 US bonus.
That’s the same amount Toronto Blue Jays scout Jamie Lehman gave OF Dalton Pompey (Mississauga, Ont.) a 2010 16th rounder from the Oakville Royals; as well as what the Cleveland Indians gave RHP Robbie Vael (Surrey, BC) Eastern Utah, second round, 1997; the Houston Astros gave LHP Evan Grills (Whitby, Ont.) Ontario Blue Jays, 10th round, 201; the Cincinnati Reds gave RHP Vaughn Covington (Vancouver, BC) Vancouver Cannons 11th round 2011; Los Angeles Dodgers handed out the same to 3B Jeff Hunt (Cambridge, Ont.), Intercounty Terriers, 15 round; the Jays gave OF Mike Crouse (Port Moody, BC) North Shore Twins, 16th, 2008 and the Texas Rangers gave RHP Steve McKinnon (Duncan, BC) Nanaimo Pirates, 32nd round 2010.
Houle if a native Canadian from the Penticton Indian Band. Suffice to say he made an impression on Blaze coach Doug Mathieson. He arrived in Langley when he was in grade 10, stayed at the house on the property where the Blaze indoor facility is.
“He hit four hours a day, his work ethic is off the charts,” Mathieson said. “He’s in my top five of all players that I have coached. I call him my second son. I will know him as long as I live.”
Mathieson’s first son, right-hander Scott Mathieson was a 17th round pick of the Philadelphia Phillies in the 2002 draft. He made his debut June 17, 2006 pitching six innings and allowing four runs in a 7-2 Phillies loss to the Tampa Bay Rays.
After two Tommy John surgeries, Mathieson signed with the Yomiuri Giants and headed to the Far East in 2012 and pitched for Canada at the World Baseball Classic in Miami this spring.
“Dustin was one of our the hardest working kids ever,” said Doug Mathieson, “he went to stay and train with Scott a bit in Florida. He loved being at big league camp this spring and hopefully it spurs him on.”
Brewers catching instructor Charlie Green deserves a lot of credit for Houle’s improvement.
“He’s is a dirt bag type player,” says Houle’s former coach. “He’s a player who will deserve a call up and appreciate it when it happens.”