By: Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
MIAMI, Fla. – Jamie Romak remembers every tournament with Team Canada that he had to turn down.
The first time it happened, the utility player had just signed with the Atlanta Braves after they selected him in the fourth round of the 2003 draft out of high school. The Canadian Junior National Team had an event in Curacao and the Braves did not allow Romak’s absence. Three years later, Atlanta denied him the chance to wear the red and white in Cuba, opting to keep their prospect in the South Atlantic League.
In 2012, the utility player had to opt out of representing his country at the World Baseball Classic qualifier in Regensburg, Germany because of his approaching wedding. Romak had to turn down the Pan Am Games in Toronto and the inaugural Premier 12 in Taiwan in 2015, both because of other impending opportunities to move forward in his career.
“Greg [Hamilton, Baseball Canada’s director of national teams] always says it,” he said. “That this has to work on both sides. You have to be able to mesh the international stuff with your own career, and then further to that, your personal life too.”
Several players had to opt out of playing in this year’s World Baseball Classic, for a variety of reasons. But even in the midst of a battle for a spot on the San Diego Padres roster after signing with the organization during the off-season, Romak wanted to make sure he took this chance to represent his country on the highest international stage.
“I had it made up in my mind, wherever I was going this year, that I was going to do this,” the 31-year-old said. “I started talking to Greg about this when I signed to go to Japan [at the end of 2015], and said obviously how interested I would be to do this one.
“It was a no-brainer. And thankfully, talking to the Padres guys, they were one of those teams that were all about it. We had seven guys leave camp and guys were talking about it a lot, it was a big deal to them. So they were fine with me leaving, and I just hope that when I get back there’s some extended opportunity to show them what I can do.”
The tournament was less than ideal for Canada, exiting without a win and not advancing out of the first round for the fourth consecutive Classic. It meant a lot to the players who participated and marked the end of several Canadian careers, for guys who worked out to prepare for months just to answer the call of duty for their country’s national team over a few days.
“It’s amazing,” Romak said. “It’s not shocking when you’ve known these guys for a long time, what sort of guys they are, but it’s an amazing commitment to their country and to Baseball Canada.
“And further to that, what they’ve been able to do, as far as jumping into this level of play and be pros, take professional at-bats and make the plays in the field, it’s incredible. It’s amazing to me. I don’t know if I’d be able to do that. So we’re so fortunate to have them, they’re a huge part of the team.”
With the early departure from the WBC on Sunday, Romak was back at spring training in Arizona with San Diego on Monday morning. After spending an inconsistent last season with the Yokohama Bay Stars in the Japanese Central League, the 6-foot-2, 200-pound slugger is excited to return to his home side of the world using the fight he found in Japan to work his way into the Padres lineup.
“It’s amazing being back,” Romak said. “It was really different. It was a lot of things I expected, like the workload and the different style of baseball I expected. My expectations were just more along the lines of what winter ball was like, where you’re the hired gun, paid to perform, and if you don’t you get sent home. It was a little bit more like I was in rookie ball, as far as teaching and the way they wanted you to go about performing. It didn’t really mesh so well.
“But I’m really proud of the fact that I went up and down four times last year but that was largely because I never put my head down when they sent me down. I went and performed and forced my way back up. At that point, they had committed to some other guys and there wasn’t any opportunity, but every time I went back down I just stuck at it and ended up doing really well down there.
“It wasn’t by any sense a lost year. I would have definitely liked to continue, but being back here the opportunity to be a bench guy in the National League is something that fits the mould of what I can do physically and also mentally.”
Continuing to get better every year as he heads into his 15th season of professional baseball, Romak is thankful for the way things have changed since he started and how the sport has grown at home, helping to keep him competitive.
From the days he would drive to hit in Guelph, run at a local track, and throw at Western University, he’s moved into spending his off-season days at Centrefield Sports right at home in London, where everything he needs is available to him in one spot. With that same advantage now offered to the next generation of players, he is extremely excited for what the future holds.
“These guys have an enormous opportunity,” Romak said. “We did the best we could at the time, but it’s like this next generation has everything they need to be successful and at least compete at the same level as people in the south. On our end, as older players or guys who are now out of the game, we have an enormous opportunity and a platform to help those guys along, with our experiences.”
Working with a number of younger players, sharing his time with young pros who return home in the winter, helping out with the Great Lake Canadians program, and playing with several Team Canada rookies at the WBC in Miami, Romak has seen firsthand how much baseball north of the border is growing and getting better, and can’t wait to see what is in store for the guys who have an increased opportunity and the support behind them.
“The next generation of guys who are coming up, because of the exposure to better coaches, and the junior team is only expanding their competition, these guys play the game better,” he said. “It’s still an aggressive mentality, and it’s definitely a win-at-all-costs attitude, but I’m watching the way that guys are taking their at-bats in the last four or five days that we’ve been here [in Miami] and it’s more professional to me. Guys have learned to play the game the right way. So it’s pretty exciting for the future of Canadian baseball.”