By Alexis Brudnicki Tournament 12 brought a range of emotions for Paul Spoljaric.
A coach of the squad who made the trip to Rogers Centre from BC, the six-year big leaguer was happy to have an opportunity to take part in the second-annual Toronto Blue Jays-hosted showcase and to help grow the game at the amateur level, but he also had to face off against two of his own sons in this year’s event, with Hunter and Garner Spoljaric suiting up for the Futures team.
“It’s been exciting, it’s been nerve-wracking, it’s been all of the above at one time,” Spoljaric said. “At the end of the day it’s just an incredible opportunity for the development of all of the kids, and not just my own. It’s such great exposure for kids who are looking to try to take that next step in the game. And you can’t ask for a better venue to play in.”
Hunter, the oldest of five Spoljaric children at 16, was playing in the tournament for the second time after making his debut on the big-league field last September. He made sure to soak in the entire experience on both occasions.
“I love this,” the 6-foot-2, 185-pound right-hander said. “Every minute, every second, it’s amazing … When I was invited last year I was totally in shock. I thought whoa, I get to pay in Rogers Centre and showcase myself. It was great. But I was so nervous, I was shaking.
“Then this year I was a little less nervous because I’ve been through it and I knew what to expect so it was easier to relax than it was last year.”
The September showcase was 15-year-old Garner’s first shot on the major-league stage, and while both of his sons took full advantage of the opportunity, Paul believes their differing paths to the event gave them unique perspectives.
“Hunter was very excited about the invite last year,” Paul said. “Hunter gets that this is just an incredible opportunity. Garner recognizes all of that but he had to earn getting here. He had to go to the tryouts, do all that, and he earned his spot.
“It’s just an incredible chance for them to excel and get great exposure other than being with [their regular-season team] the Great Lake Canadians with all the scouts and college scouts here. It’s just a great opportunity.”
After seeing his older brother playing in the inaugural Tournament 12, making it to the event this year was at the top of Garner’s list.
“I wanted to make it so bad,” the 5-foot-8, 150-pound righty and middle infielder said. “I didn’t know about the tryout until my dad told me. I was pretty upset that I didn’t get asked to go – well, not asked necessarily – but I felt like I disappointed myself that I didn’t get the chance to go because I wanted to be here so bad.
“So as soon as the tryout came I was so excited and counting down the days until it happened. It was definitely one of my biggest goals of the year to make it here so I was beyond excited when I did.”
Bringing the total number of Spoljarics on the field at the tournament to four, 11-year-old Turner divided his time as a bat boy between his father’s west coast squad and his brothers’ team, but when he had to choose between them he sided with his dad.
“It’s fun,” Turner said. “It’s a neat experience to be on the field … It would be pretty cool to play in [Tournament 12] and I hope I will someday. It would be pretty neat … It’s kind of cool hanging out with the players and the ex-players. I talk to a lot of them, and Lloyd Moseby the most. He’s really funny.”
The youngest of the Spoljaric men was right in on all of the event’s action, and got a close-up vantage point of what his father was going through as his team matched up against his own boys, with both Hunter and Garner pitching opposite the BC squad.
“My dad was really happy,” Turner said. “When Hunter and Gar were pitching, I saw him smiling and he seemed like he was really excited about it.”
* * * Paul’s recollection of that particular series of events is slightly different, after his two oldest children had less-than-ideal outings on the mound for their team.
“That was terrible,” he said. “That was absolutely terrible. That’s going to take some getting used to if I were ever going to be a coach anywhere and they were going to be players. There was no enjoyment for me at all. I did not like that.
“I wanted them to succeed and when they got out there and they didn’t do what they had anticipated to do, or what they had hoped to do, it was hard for me. I just wanted to go out and calm them down and talk to them, say, ‘Relax,’ or whatever the case may be. That was not fun at all.”
Hunter (right) found it strange to have his father on the other side of the field.
“It was weird actually,” he said. “Last year he was still coaching on the BC team but he was in the stands when I was pitching. It was really weird. I feel like he was more nervous than I was. He told me that he was so nervous last year that he could barely breathe.”
Garner shared a similar sentiment to that of his brother.
“That was different,” Garner said. “I’ve never had that before, I’ve never had him coach against me, only with me. I wanted to do better than I did because it would be something I could bring up later, but it was fun and I had a good time pitching.”
All of the Spoljaric boys seem comfortable on the big stage, sharing in learning moments with the older players, learning from major league alumni, and showcasing their skills at the same time. Paul believes it probably helps that they grew up with it.
“Being exposed to baseball and always being around it and always talking about it made it less of something for them to overcome and more easily attainable,” the father of five said. “They have the insight of some of the things that happen on and off the field, and know how to react in certain situations, how to be a better ballplayer, how to be a better person, and the things people look for in ballplayers.
“Having that insight from me and from the people they have in their lives, my friends who are baseball players and coaches, it doesn’t make the big leagues so far away for them.”
The majors may not be as distant a dream for the Spoljarics as it is for other young hopefuls, but Paul tries to keep it all in perspective for his sons.
“All of them want to be Major League Baseball players but at the end of the day it’s about what are the steps you have to take to get to your goal,” he said.
“Defining those goals and making them easily digestible so each step is the right step and you don’t get sidetracked and derailed – and if you do get derailed you’re never more than a step off – that’s the advice I would give to anybody’s kid.
“There is a point A and a point B, but there are a lot of sub-points between them, and the more sub-points that you have that are easily attainable, the easier it is to get to your next step.”
* * *
Hunter and Garner are already on the right track, and they share immediate goals as well as the ultimate dream of playing in the major leagues. For now, both are hoping to continue to progress with the Great Lake Canadians, keep getting chances at showcases, and then hopefully suit up for Team Canada, just like their dad did.
“It would mean to the world to me to be able to say that I’ve played on a Team Canada and did exactly what my dad did,” Hunter said. “It would be pretty amazing. My dad told me that it’s one of the best experiences you’ll ever have in your life. He says you’ll enjoy every minute of it.”
Garner added: “I’d like to play any level of pro ball. I feel like that’s an accomplishment. Obviously playing in the major leagues would be something unbelievable, but if I could make pro ball that would be pretty special … Team Canada too, that would definitely be a dream come true. That’s amazing and my dad loved representing Canada. It’s kind of cooler saying my dad was in the Olympics sometimes over MLB.”
Paul looks forward to what the future holds for all of his children, and will be happy to see his boys play, no matter where they end up.
“At the end of the day, playing baseball is where they want to be,” he said. “Whether that level is junior college or a Division-III college or Division-I or if they’re good enough to go into pro ball and that chance comes around, they have to be able to not only accept the challenge but be able to compete at that level.
“And to not bite off more than they can chew and struggle and fall behind, because at the end of the day that’s going to get you sitting on the bench. If you’re not out there taking reps and playing, you’re not succeeding.”
Both Hunter and Garner have been excited about what they’ve accomplished so far in their young baseball careers, with Tournament 12 being the highlight.
“It’s definitely been amazing,” Garner said. “I’ll never forget this for sure. This has been something to remember. I struggled and I was definitely nervous the first game, and at the pro day I did not exactly do well, but yeah the whole thing has been great … seeing all my dad’s old teammates [has been best] and then just playing here has been amazing and the competition has been great.”
Added Hunter: “I do feel like [a big leaguer] out here. All the time I dream about it … My dad 100% got me into baseball. I didn’t really realize what it meant [that he was in the majors] when I was growing up but as I got older I realized that my dad was a professional baseball player and I realized how privileged that was. Back then I don’t think I really realized how cool it was.”
* * *
Turner’s dream is the same, and he added, “I hope I could be a baseball player one day.”
As far as Spoljarics go, there is some belief among the family that Paul and Lisa’s youngest son could actually be the best player of them all.
“I’m convinced that Turner will be the best one because he’s learned,” Paul said. “Not only that, but because he competes. He’s got a demeanour about him that he doesn’t like to lose, and when you’re out there playing with your bigger brothers – Hunter’s twice his size and Gar is about one-and-a-half times his size – and he’s playing at that level and they don’t let up on him.
“When they’re playing wiffle ball in the backyard, they’re throwing hard and they’re trying to strike him out. And Turner doesn’t like losing. Turner has great drive, and I think with any big brother-little brother relationship they will always be a little bit better. They’re always going to be ahead of that curve because they’re not having to face it for the first time, they’ve already gone through it with their bigger brothers.”
Hunter agrees, and added, “Oh yeah, no doubt. I can see it. I can see Turner being the best out of all three of us.”
The three Spoljaric brothers are hoping that they might have a chance to all play together as well, perhaps at Hunter’s last Tournament 12 appearance in two years.
“I’ve done the math and it would have to be one year as soon as Turner turns 13 that we might still be able to do this,” the eldest Spoljaric child said. “I think it’s one year if I remember it right. And I would take one for the team and play [for the Futures squad].”
Added Garner: “That would be cool. That would be even crazier than Hunter and me playing on the same team. And Turner, I do not let him win in anything so that would be even more competition.”
With all four Spoljaric men already in attendance and participating in some capacity at the second-annual Tournament 12, it took some new nicknames to keep everybody in order, with Papa Spolly leading the way, Big Spolly and Little Spolly the pitchers for the Futures team, and Mini Spolly taking care of the teams’ equipment.
No matter what they were called, the event was an exciting time for the baseball family. “It’s crazy,” Garner said. “It’s awesome though. It’s Spoljarics everywhere, it’s like a zoo.”
-- Follow Alexis Brudnicki on Twitter @baseballexis