By Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
TORONTO – In the last five years, Baseball Canada collected its first two gold medals in senior national team history – at the Pan Am Games in Mexico and on home soil in Ajax, Ontario – to follow a bronze in the last-ever World Cup competition, and most recently a disappointing run at the inaugural Premier 12, eliminated by a single loss after five consecutive victories to start the tournament.
There’s no better time to play for Team Canada than right now, and while the World Baseball Classic squad will feature a number of different players than the guys on the aforementioned teams, with the inclusion of the country’s major league talent, the Canucks have no shortage of national experience as they bring out the best for their biggest international event.
“A lot of the events are during the season so major league teams don’t let their guys go,” said 14-year big league veteran Justin Morneau, heading into his fourth WBC. “This is one of the rare occasions where you actually have most of the available major league talent playing for their country, and that’s why there’s so much hype and why it ends up being so big.”
“WBC is the highest stage,” said Jamie Romak, a utility player who signed with the Padres organization this winter. “You have the best players in the world. But I wouldn’t want to say anything to take away from the other tournaments because playing for your country is a different feeling. When we won gold in the Pan Ams the first time [in 2011], that gold-medal game was the most nerve-wracking game I’ve ever been in. So I expect more of the same with the WBC, it’s just a higher level of competition.”
Added free agent righthander Jim Henderson, who spent last season with the Mets: “It’s just intensified, with the amount of talent, stadiums, and you’re playing against the best players in the world.
“I don’t think it necessarily means more for Team Canada, because we’ve at least got to get through the first round to see some success there, but in international tournaments it doesn’t matter if it’s WBC, World Cup, Pan Ams, they’re always very interesting, challenging, exciting games where you’re hanging off every pitch, every at-bat. It’s probably the closest I could experience to a major league playoff atmosphere, which makes it really exciting, so that could be why it’s a little bit more intense.”
Tigers righty Dustin Molleken, who made his major-league debut in 2016 spoke about the appeal of the WBC.
“You face higher-end guys, and all the best guys in the big leagues,” Molleken said. “You have your veteran players who have been in the show for the last eight to 15 years, and they’re fun to be around, especially with the other guys, the grinders. Being a Classic guy, you get to be with all of them and see what they bring every day.”
The Canadian team features a number of so-called “grinders,” guys who have represented their country multiple times while they climbed their way up the minor league ladder, or bounced back and forth between the big leagues and the bushes, occasionally reinvigorating their love for the game with their Canuck teammates, or continuing to find opportunities to play just to stay ready for the next international event.
“My goal is to play in the WBC, yes, because it’s the highest level of baseball, but I don’t see it as more important than the other tournaments,” said outfielder Rene Tosoni, who played last season in the Atlantic League after spending the majority of his 10 pro years with the Twins. “Maybe because you’re going to have all the major leaguers involved with it, but every tournament is important. I just try to play every year. I want to play with Team Canada every opportunity I get.”
Romak made his major league debut in his 12th professional season, with a number of Team Canada tours along the way, and some missed Canadian opportunities as he looked for his shot at the show. Similarly, Molleken debuted last season, in his 13th year as a pro. Henderson got his first shot at the big leagues after 10 minor league seasons. Tosoni last played in the majors in 2011.
The allegiance to playing for Canada extends beyond the guys who have spent years on the field to those who have been off the field for a few as well. After bringing righty Scott Richmond and catcher Chris Robinson out of retirement for the Pan Am Games two summers ago, the squad from north of the border will see Ryan Dempster and Eric Gagne return to the mound in Miami, as well as having current Brewers pro scout Pete Orr man the infield.
“The WBC is different, just in the way that Major League Baseball is involved,” Orr said. “Anytime something that large is on that scale, it’s going to be bigger. The fact that major league players are involved in it is different … But at the same time, you’re representing your country, so every time you represent your country you still have that rush and that desire to play well.”
One of just two Canadian players to participate in all four WBC events, along with first baseman and free agent Morneau, Orr isn’t quite ready to close the door on playing just yet, but he will say there’s a strong chance that this will be his last opportunity to compete.
“I would assume so,” the 37-year-old said. “I think so, because the last time I played in a real game, in Taiwan [at Premier 12], I didn’t know if I was going to play again. It will be nice to know that this is the end, but at the same time – it’s different for different athletes – but I’ve never believed in, for someone who’s had my type of career, you don’t know when it’s over or not. If someone would have given me a job last year I probably would have played. That was just a situation where it didn’t work out. So who knows, but I would assume this is it.”
With the camaraderie built through the family that is Team Canada, it is highly unlikely that any of the players would give a hard no to future possibilities. And of course, extending beyond the WBC there was some discussion at Baseball Canada’s National Teams Awards Banquet and Fundraiser on Saturday night – with the whole band back together – about the inclusion of baseball to the next Olympic Games, which no one is ready to rule out.
“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, 35, 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.”