By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
TORONTO, Ont. – Each of the first three World Baseball Classic tournaments have been unique experiences for Justin Morneau, and he’s hoping that his fourth is memorable for a new reason.
“Making it out of the first round this time would be a little different,” the 14-year major league veteran and free agent first baseman said. “Obviously the victory in the first one against the US was probably the most special. The brawl against Mexico was memorable.
“It’s one of those things where you get into it more and if you’re in it longer, your team gets closer. At the beginning, it’s a little tough because you’re thrown together, you play a couple exhibition games, and you’re in a big tournament that means a lot. It’s hard to prepare for, hard to get ready and get into it, but once you put the uniform on, the adrenaline starts flowing.”
As tight-knit as teams can become with more time together, there’s little doubt that anyone suiting up in the red-and-white jersey would argue that the Canadians have anything but off-the-charts camaraderie from the beginning of every event.
“With the junior team the way it is now, through all the international tournaments and everything, the Canadian guys are pretty familiar with each other,” Morneau said. “Guys will come in, and you get a good feel for how close the guys are, and we’re pretty welcoming. If you’re willing to play for your country and to play for Canada, and you’re willing to put the work in and prepare and care as much as everybody else in the room, then you fit in pretty well. It’s a pretty easy group to get along with.”
Each WBC event has been a chance for the 35-year-old New Westminster, BC native to see firsthand some of the up-and-coming talent from north of the border, getting a glimpse of what the future of the Canadian game has to offer, as well as an opportunity to continue to share the things he’s learned since he was in their position.
Players getting their first shots at the senior team in Miami will include 23-year-old right-hander and Phillies prospect Nick Pivetta, 24-year-old third baseman and Pirates farmhand Eric Wood, 24-year-old outfielder-turned-flamethrower and Cardinals prospect Rowan Wick, 24-year-old Blue Jays outfielder Dalton Pompey, and 19-year-old Padres first base prospect Josh Naylor.
“You get to see that, and you get to hopefully pass on what we’ve learned and what it means to be a Canadian baseball player, and what it means to put the uniform on for Canada,” Morneau said. “Most of them have done it at some level, whether it’s the junior team or international tournaments, but you remember being in that position and being one of the young guys on the team and coming in and seeing guys that you looked up to and guys that you watched on TV.
“It’s a pretty cool thing, and when you’re in a room full of Canadian big leaguers and professional baseball players, it’s a pretty special feeling because there’s not that many of us. You see how close the group is and you get to be a part of that, and it’s a special event.”
No matter who’s on the team, how much experience or service time they have, the Canucks are usually on the same page from start to finish, from the pre-tournament, team-bonding road hockey game that Morneau has hosted on more than one occasion to the squad’s disassembly and departure.
“It comes from the top,” the 2006 American League MVP said. “You have certain philosophies, if you look at it within each major league organization or the countries or whatever it is, you have an identity that you like to have, the way you like to play.
“It’s pretty easy when you have a lot of the same people playing in the same events, and it filters down from the management and the coaches and everyone else. They set the expectations there for you and you know what’s expected of you when you put the uniform on; what you need to do.
“Everyone there is professional and they have a lot of pride and they want to do well for their country and for themselves. Nobody wants to embarrass themselves, so it’s kind of easy. If you’re there acting selfishly or not doing things the right way, you stick out and it becomes pretty obvious. Everyone falls in and wants to do their job and do the best they can.”
Morneau is one of just two Canadian players who have taken part in each of the four WBC tournaments, along with Pete Orr, currently a pro scout for the Brewers, who hasn’t played since Team Canada’s last senior event, when they took part in the inaugural Premier 12 in Taiwan in November 2015, and is likely suiting up for the last time competitively.
Despite always finding a way to play for his home and native land, Morneau understands the tough decision-making process that some players go through as they look ahead to the season.
“The biggest thing is maybe with pitchers starting their throwing programs sooner, or for hitters starting swinging a week sooner, knowing that you have to be in full game shape, opening day shape, at the start of spring training, which is a month earlier,” he said. “It’s a big difference, but it’s something you prepare for and it’s every four years.
“When I was younger it was one of those things where I didn’t really like [my routine] being interrupted, and you have a way you like to prepare for the season. Now that I’ve gotten older, I realize that a few days extra, a few days earlier, isn’t really that big a deal. A couple days in March can make a difference for the season, but it’s not going to affect my 600 at-bats and what I’m going to do. But it’s hard when you’re in the middle of it.
“The biggest one for me is the guys who are fighting for a job in spring training, who can’t leave because when you’re in camp, the manager and the coaching staff are worried about the guys who are there. They’re not really paying attention, they might look at the box score [of WBC games] but they have no idea what a guy’s swing looks like or how he ran the bases or whatever it is. It’s out of sight, out of mind.
“Then, if a guy’s got a chance to make a big league team or he’s going to be in Triple-A, for your career and financially, the difference it can make is huge, so you can’t really fault those guys who are in that position and then choose to stay and try and win a job.”
While Morneau and the rest of Team Canada look ahead to Miami in March, there were also some more far-sighted conversations during Baseball Canada’s National Teams Awards Banquet and Fundraiser on Saturday night, where the first baseman was celebrated with the organization’s 33 Canadian MVP’s Award.
Though he pointed out on multiple occasions that he would be 39 years old when baseball returns to the Olympic Games, and right now the WBC is the game’s biggest international stage, its inclusion is certainly something that Morneau would love to be a part of.
“One of the only regrets I really have – and it’s hard to say it’s a regret because it was sort of out of my hands – but where we qualified for the Olympics in ’03 and went over in ’04, I got called up a week before,” Morneau said. “The rosters had to be in and I didn’t get to go, and obviously I was in the big leagues and it was a great situation, but to walk in with all the other great summer athletes from your country and behind your flag and get to experience the whole Olympic atmosphere and be a part of that, it’s pretty special.
“And I didn’t get to do that. I was part of the team that actually qualified and I didn’t get to see it all the way through, and had a chance to win a medal and all that stuff and just fell short, so if that opportunity comes and I’m healthy enough, obviously I would love to do it. But that’s a long ways off.”