By: Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
MIAMI, Fla. – The World Baseball Classic was Chris Leroux’s swan song.
Looking to bring an end to his career with Team Canada, the 32-year-old right-hander made his last appearance on a mound at Marlins Park against Team USA. Leroux threw a 16-pitch sixth inning with 12 strikes, struck out Christian Yelich, induced a fly out from Nolan Arenado, and got Eric Hosmer to ground out.
It was the Canadian squad’s final matchup of the tournament, and the last competitive outing in Leroux’s 11-year professional career, with parts of six years in the majors with the Florida Marlins, Pittsburgh Pirates and New York Yankees, a season in Japan, winters between the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, and collegiate ball before that.
“I talked with my agent and my family early in the off-season and I just felt that after playing for 13 years, it’s time,” Leroux said. “It’s time to move on and figure something out; do something with my life that doesn’t involve baseball. The World Baseball Classic is a good final chapter. It’s almost like it couldn’t have come at a better time. It was meant to be.”
Playing in the red-and-white jersey was always a bright spot for Leroux, giving the native of Mississauga, Ont., a perfect way to leave the game behind.
“It’s awesome,” he said. “It’s special to be on a team where you don’t care about what you do personally as long as your team wins the game. I mean, I’ve never played in the playoffs but I’m assuming it’s like that. And even then, you still want to do well for yourself. It’s almost like stats don’t matter at all here. If you go 0-for-30 but your team wins, who cares? That’s why I enjoy playing. I really enjoy truly, 100% caring about the outcome.”
The true north strong and free
Leroux got his start with the Canadian Junior National Team during his high school days at the 2002 World Juniors in Sherbrooke, Que. and competed in the 2007 World Cup, the 2009 and 2013 World Baseball Classic tournaments, and the inaugural Premier 12 in 2015, after winning a gold medal with the squad at the Pan Am Games at home in Toronto that same year.
The 6-foot-6, 225-pound hurler knew he was just about done with baseball, but wanted one last shot to represent his country on the highest international stage the game has to offer.
“It was actually really important for me to be on this team,” Leroux said. “I finished in Buffalo [with the Blue Jays Triple-A affiliate in August] and then I went to play winter ball, strictly to stay ready for this. I wasn’t sure what my role was going to be, because obviously I’m at the end of my career…but I wanted to be a part of it.
“It’s weird because I talked to Greg [Hamilton, Baseball Canada’s director of national teams] and said, ‘Hey this is going to be my last year,’ so I thought the cat was out of the bag and maybe he would think my heart’s not in it, so is he still going to choose me? But I let him know that I was in winter ball and my heart was definitely still in it.”
Leroux extended his playing career for months in order to prepare for the Classic, first venturing off to Venezuela and then being traded to the Dominican Winter League, training and throwing as though he were readying himself for another spring training. Those additional weeks of work ended up being for just one outing, one inning, and those 16 pitches, but it was worth it to him to have that last opportunity.
“I enjoy baseball, don’t get me wrong,” Leroux said. “I just don’t enjoy the lifestyle – the travelling, packing, living out of a suitcase, living in a hotel. I’m ready to start rooting myself somewhere. I’ve never really don’t that. But I enjoy baseball so much that I would spend two months in Venezuela and a month in Dominican just to get ready for the WBC.”
Before playing for Navegantes del Magallanes and Leones del Escogido this winter, and posting a 3.34 ERA over 14 games with 13 starts in 56 2/3 innings, walking eight and striking out 34 between them, Leroux’s affiliated career came to an end under less-than-desirable circumstances. He made a mistake, and hopes that it can be recognized as an outlier.
All it takes is one bad day
“The end of last year was a little bit of a sour spot in my whole career,” Leroux said. “I’ve always been the good clubhouse guy, the good friend, the respectful guy, and the end of it was almost like I stopped caring.
“That last game, I gave up 10 runs in an inning and two-thirds and the bullpen wasn’t going and I looked in [to the dugout] and [Bisons manager] Gary Allenson was looking at me and I gave him a, ‘What are you doing?’ [gesture]. Immediately, he came charging out to the mound, and we exchanged words on the mound and he took me out of the game.
“I didn’t want to go out like that, but that’s the way it happened. I apologized to the Jays and I apologized to everyone who was involved, and that’s that. One bad moment in my career.”
After being traded by the Phillies to the Blue Jays out of spring training, Leroux spent all of last year with the Bisons in Buffalo. Just two starts removed from his best of the entire season, when he threw 6 2/3 scoreless innings against Rochester, he was matching up against his old team, the Lehigh Valley IronPigs, Philadelphia’s affiliate.
The righty had already thrown upwards of 60 more innings than he did the previous year, and was approaching the point of hurling 40 more innings than he had ever thrown in any season in his entire career, though he won’t say his arm was tired, or make excuses for his actions. Leroux had just one probable start remaining for the Bisons.
On the last Saturday night of August, he started the first inning with two quick groundouts. He hit the third batter, then allowed him to move after errantly throwing the ball away. A double followed, scoring one, and then a walk before another double scored two more. Leroux allowed a single, then another single, and finally a three-run home run before recording the final out of the frame.
The Bisons were behind by a touchdown before they even had a chance to bat, and the right-hander couldn’t get out of the game quick enough.
In the second, Leroux opened the frame by walking the first batter. He then induced a fly out before allowing a single, a run-scoring double, and another single, also plating an IronPig. The sixth batter of the inning popped up to second base for the second out, and Leroux turned to the dugout and indicated that he should no longer be on the mound.
Buffalo’s bullpen was short that night. Bo Schultz had just been called up to the Blue Jays roster, another reliever was on Toronto’s watch list and they needed him to be available, Danny Barnes had thrown more than two innings the night before, and they needed Leroux to eat innings.
He wasn’t the man for the job that Saturday night, and by the time the evening ended, Leroux was a man without a job, released by the organization after the outing.
“I guess you can call it giving up, but it was like the straw that broke the camel’s back,” he said. “I hate to be negative about it, but I’ve played for so long and you can say I’m jaded, and we had a really old team and everybody at that point was kind of sour … but I think it was a culmination of 13 years of crap. That’s how it ended. It was just a bad point in my career … I knew at that moment that this is enough, I can’t do this anymore.”
Immediately following his departure from the field, the Canadian pitcher laid out a list of apologies he wanted to issue, and the next morning he returned to the clubhouse to do exactly that, along with exchanging a more rational set of words with Allenson in his office after the dust had settled.
“I knew right when I got home,” Leroux said. “I was going to call Gary and talk to him but I figured it would be easier going into the clubhouse to talk to him. We had a talk about everything, locked in his office. That’s when we discussed what was going on and what I was going to do…
“I was a little upset, but I was more upset with myself. The way I treated him, he played 10 years in the big leagues and we’re sort of in a fraternity, and disrespecting another fraternity brother is sort of a no-no. So to this day, do I still regret doing what I did? Yeah, of course. But it just happened.”
Every end is a new beginning
With his baseball career in the rear view, Leroux is looking forward to pursuing avenues outside of the sport, and especially being able to celebrate his first Canada Day at home in over a decade.
So, what will he do now?
“Live my life,” Leroux said. “This is what I’ve been waiting for the last 13 years, so I don’t know. I haven’t spent a summer in Toronto since I was 18. Well maybe, not what I was waiting for, but looking forward to.
“I do love baseball. I love it. I love being on the mound, I love working out, I love the camaraderie in the locker room. But do I hate getting on a bus and travelling eight hours? Do I hate getting on a plane? I mean, it would be different if I was in the big leagues all the time but when I’m up, down, up, down, it wears on you. I’m sure any guy would say that.
“A lot of baseball players are scared of the, ‘What now?’ and I’m not scared of that. A lot of players don’t know what to do. I’m going to figure it out. I’m not a stupid guy. I might be nervous, but everybody’s nervous of the unknown. I’m definitely not going to do anything in baseball. I told Greg I would help out with Baseball Canada if he ever needed me, but if he doesn’t need me then I don’t think baseball is in the cards for me. Team Canada or bust.”