By: Alexis Brudnicki
Canadian Baseball Network
The World Baseball Classic gave Michael Crouse a sense of purpose.
After seven seasons in the Toronto Blue Jays organization, a serious pectoral injury that sidelined him for a year, and a season of independent baseball in the Atlantic League, the hardest part about free agency for the 26-year-old outfielder has been finding ways to stay motivated.
“It’s just not knowing,” Crouse said. “You never know. You’re constantly training to stay ready, but I’m training for spring training and I don’t have a spring training job. It’s weird. Then I got the call for Team Canada, so now I’m actually training for something. In the Atlantic League, we don’t start until late April. So the toughest part is staying locked in with your training and to keep yourself ready in case someone calls.”
When Michael Saunders signed a contract with the Philadelphia Phillies and had to opt out of his commitment to Team Canada for the WBC, Greg Hamilton – Baseball Canada’s director of national teams – gave Crouse something to work toward.
“He called me and said, ‘Welcome back to Team Canada,’ and I was pumped,” said Crouse, whose last trip with the national team in 2011 included a bronze medal at the World Cup in Panama, followed by winning the program’s first gold medal at the Pan Am Games in Mexico. “I knew there was a shot, because I heard Saunders might not be playing. I kept messaging Greg and saying that I was ready and I had a good year, and I was running well. I definitely felt like I could give something to Team Canada.
“I love Team Canada. It’s a different style of baseball. We have 28 guys fighting for one thing. You’re playing for your country and it’s cool that way. Every game is a playoff game.”
After a couple of years of relative obscurity for Crouse, the Classic also provides an opportunity to showcase his skills, and in front of a much wider audience than he’s had since being non-tendered by the Blue Jays and then completely tearing his pec the following spring.
“It allows you to be back in front of scouts, and for them to be able to see my body and taking [batting practice] and playing on the field, shagging, even if I don’t get in for a game, which I obviously hope I do and can contribute to Team Canada,” the 6-foot-4, 215-pound outfielder said. “It allows me to be in front of those people again.
“You won’t get all those guys in the Atlantic League, and for as may emails as you can send out to teams, and as many videos and your stat lines, it’s just not the same as physically being there in front of people. I’m a lot leaner than I was when I played in Double-A, 22 pounds lighter just from running track. I’m definitely faster and lighter.”
Crouse certainly put his speed on display last year, with a double-digit league-lead and almost doubling his career total with 61 stolen bases in 125 games, to go with a .287/.352/.430 slash line, 10 homers, 25 doubles and five triples. After spending his first 20 games with the Lancaster Barnstormers, the right-handed hitter finished the season with the New Britain Bees, the entire time hoping he would have a chance to get back to affiliated ball.
“That’s the mindset for a lot of the players, everybody actually,” Crouse said. “You just hope to ball out and get out real quick. From what I saw for position players, they got picked up if they were hitting at a .360 clip, or there was one guy who had 10 homers after the first month, and pitchers were picked up really quick. For myself, with no Triple-A or big league time, I knew it was going to be tough and I knew I was going to be there for the whole year, or at least a good portion of the year.”
The native of Port Moody, BC, spent his time in the Atlantic League embracing the independence offered to him, and learning a lot about himself along the way without the coaching and development mindset that he had with the Blue Jays.
“Indy ball had a lot more freedom compared to affiliated ball,” Crouse said. “There are certain coaches in affiliated ball who are awesome and who will put in the work and get you better, and that’s awesome. But in indy ball, you get a chance to be the player you really are.
“You show up to the field when you want to show up, and take as many swings off the tee that you want to take, and if you’re feeling like you don’t want to work out that day in the gym, you don’t have to go because there’s no one breathing down your neck. Your job is to show up and be ready. I’ve heard from a lot of guys in indy ball that they started to understand their swing a little bit better; they started to understand what their body can do, because they could do it on their own.”
Crouse discovered what kind of player he is, though he might not go back and do it exactly the same way if he had the chance.
“I started to understand my body a little bit better,” he said. “In the weight room, I don’t have to do as much [lifting] but maybe I need to run a little bit more. For the last half of the season we actually didn’t have a hitting coach or a trainer, so I learned a lot.
“For half of the year, I didn’t have a hitting coach, but you get together with guys and you just talk about baseball. There’s not one right way to hit. Maybe that one hitting coach had a wrong philosophy the whole time, and you were trying to follow it. Now you guys are sharing ideas and videotaping each other.
“As far as the trainer goes, you weren’t depending on anybody to get you ready for a game. You have to do the necessary things to get ready on your own, so it was interesting. It was a learning experience for sure. I don’t suggest not having a trainer. It was hard. But it makes you really understand what your body needs to get ready for a game.”
Throughout the months he was sidelined, and the months he’s since spent outside of the affiliated baseball bubble he spent the first seven years of his professional career in, Crouse watched a lot of his former teammates and friends move up to the big leagues, make various Team Canada rosters, and continue their progression. While a lot of those times were discouraging, it has also been a driving force that has kept him going.
“Of course it’s disappointing,” he said. “Because that’s where I see myself, with those guys on the field, with my friends who are getting called up. I’m so happy for them, obviously because if they get called up and they’re doing well up there, then I know that I could be up there with them. I know I have the talent to be up there with those guys, [but I’m] not bitter. When you have an injury like this, a setback, if you’re bitter it makes it worse for your comeback and gets in the way of that goal you have in mind.”
For now, that goal is helping Team Canada move beyond pool play at the Classic for the very first time, and Crouse couldn’t be happier to be a part of it.
“I’m so pumped for the WBC, so stoked,” he said. “I can’t wait to compete, see the players and the venues, and how they put this thing on. I’m excited for how this thing goes down.”