The Case for New Hampshire's Canucks
Fisher Cats’ Canadians deal with failure, consistency, the minor league grind
By Scott Langdon
Canadian Baseball Network
ERIE, PA. _ The New Hampshire Fisher Cats sit atop the eastern division of the double A Eastern League thanks in part to key contributions from five Canadians.
The Fisher Cats, affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays, feature pitchers Jordan Romano (Markham, Ont.) and Andrew Case (Saint John, N.B.), outfielder Connor Panas (Toronto, Ont.) and 3B Vladimir Guerrero (Montreal, Que.) is currently on the disabled list for at least another two weeks with a knee injury. Plus looking after all mound matters that matter is pitching coach Vince Horsman (Halifax, NS).
The three players are embracing the grind of minor league pro ball, learning to cope with failure and to be consistent.
“Failure matters. This is their career. Sometimes players will put pressure on themselves when they’re struggling. Part of my job is to help remind them to have fun, to relax,” said Horsman, a veteran of 35 years of pro ball including five years as a pitcher in the big leagues. He broke in with the Blue Jays in 1991 when he was 24 years old.
Case, who signed with the Blue Jays in 2013 after throwing a no-hitter in the inaugural Tournament 12 at the Rogers Centre, pitched at the single A, double A and triple A levels in the Jays’ system in 2017. He recalls times when he has struggled with failure.
“In my first year, I can remember dealing with some adversity when I would give up four runs in a relief appearance and didn’t know if I wanted to go back out there,” he said during an interview in the Fisher Cats’ bullpen before a recent game with the Erie Seawolves, an affiliate of the Detroit Tigers.
“Failure matters at this level because you could be out of a job. Learning to overcome adversity, to stay true to yourself and just grab the ball and go after it is key. How you come back from some tough appearances is the most important thing,” he added. “I try to remember that I’m a grown man paid to play a kid’s game. Be happy.”
Panas, whose father Rich Panas reached the majors as a 22-year-old amateur umpire during the MLB Umpires Association strikes in 1978 and 1979, recalls getting off to a slow start with single A Dunedin last season.
“I started slow, but finished strong in the second half. I learned in college at Canisius that failure is different, more important, than when you were playing ball as a kid. But when you were a kid you were usually relaxed and just having fun. I try to bring that mentality to this level of baseball,” he explained.
“It’s good to keep in mind that this is a grind of one hundred and forty-two games. A short memory helps,” he added.
Horsman said learning to be consistent is another important developmental factor for players at the double A level.
“The skills at double A are similar to the big leagues. The big difference is consistency. Learning to be consistent is the tough part. Learning to master your skills starts from your first day in professional baseball,” he explained.
“The faster a player can develop consistency, the sooner he will move up the ladder. As a coach, I can help with drills, repetition and encouragement, but he has to develop that true sense of who he is as a player,” he added.
Appearances for the Buffalo Bisons, the Jays’ triple A affiliate in the International League, last season was a reminder to Case of the importance of consistency.
“In triple A you’re facing veteran hitters who are more patient and will jump on your mistakes. To be consistent, I focus on staying away from walks, getting that first hitter out and attacking the strike zone,” he said.
Panas admits he is still trying to find where he wants to be in his first season at the double A level.
“I’m still trying to find that level of consistency you need, trying to figure it out. That’s where someone like a mental performance coach, who we have with the Jays, is helpful. It’s good to have that tool,” he said.
“You might hear someone say they’re having trouble hitting the slider, for example. That’s a mental thing. Learning to deal with the mental aspects is a huge part of the game.”
During a recent game against Erie, there were four Canadian players on the two rosters. Jacob Robson, a Seawolves’ outfielder from Windsor, Ont., was the fourth. Robson is the 26-ranked prospect in the Tigers’ system according to MLB.com. Case and Panas admit they notice when other Canadians are playing and doing well.
“I usually know when we’re playing against other Canadians,” said Panas. “I faced Robson in spring training. It’s special to be a professional player from Canada and to be part of the Blue Jays,” Case said.
“For sure I know when other Canadians are playing. There are not that many of us as you move up in the minor leagues.”
Case and Panas realize that players jump from double A to MLB, bypassing triple A and that their goal is within reach.
Former Ontario Blue Jays RHP Jordan Romano (Markham, Ont.) is 8-2 with a 3.54 in 13 staarts this year. He has walked 30 and struck out 66 in 73 2/3 innings.
“We already had Gurriel promoted to the Jays this season,” Panas said. “So, sure, it helps to make it more realistic. This is my job now, but it is still my dream. If I get there, I think I could be the first (Toronto) player to play for his hometown team. Dalton Pompey is from Mississauga. Jordan (Romano) is from Markham.”
Case agreed saying: “It would be special, for sure, to play in the big leagues for the Blue Jays.”
Neither Case nor Panas played for the Canadian National Junior Team that is credited with sending so many players each year for scholarships in the U.S. or to professional baseball. But both players are aware that the next World Baseball Classic is slated for 2021 and would be honored to represent Canada.
“That would mean a lot,” said Case. “I subbed in for the national team against the Yankees in spring training last time. I retired Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner and Gary Sanchez on consecutive ground balls. I’m hoping that turned some heads.”
“I would love to represent my country in the WBC or in the 2020 Olympics if it’s possible,” said Panas. Baseball has been reinstated as an Olympic sport for the 2020 Games in Japan.
Whether he plays in the big leagues, the WBC, the Olympics, or all three, Panas’ amateur coaches from the High Park Little League, North York Baseball and the Toronto Mets will no doubt be proud of his accomplishments. So, too, would his high school basketball coach at Etobicoke Collegiate, none other than retired Blue Jays broadcaster, Jerry Howarth.
The same would be true for Case who played in the Saint John Baseball Association, coached primarily by his stepfather, Jade McDermott and Todd Hubka at the Prairie Baseball Academy Dawgs in Lethbridge, Alta.
For now, both players are focused on managing the grind of minor league ball - handling the 142-game schedule, enduring the long bus trips, playing 20-day stints without an off day, coping with failure and mastering the skills they need to continue climbing the professional baseball ladder – and, of course, helping the Fisher Cats win their first Eastern League championship since 2011.