By Bob Elliott
Canadian Baseball Network
The list of Canadians to play for the Kentucky Wildcats is impressive:
LHP Andrew Albers (North Battleford, Sask.), INF Chris Bisson (Orleans, Ont.), James Paxton (Ladner, BC), RP Zachary Pop (Brampton, Ont.), OF Tristan Pompey (Mississauga, Ont.) and ...
C Kole Cottam, who was born in Memphis, Tenn., but has dual citizenship since his father, Jeff, grew up in Burlington, Ont.
“It’s legal, I have all the papers to show I’m Canadian,” said Kole. “All my dad’s side of family still lives (in Burlington). My father filled out the paper work and it became official a couple of years ago.”
Kole was speaking from Lowell, Mass., after the Boston Red Sox selected him in the fourth round of the draft earlier this month. He was given a $375,000 signing bonus and is with the class-A Lowell Spinners.
His favourite memory of returning to Canada was seeing his first-ever Blue Jays game in 2003 on a trip to visit his grandparents.
“Kole is Canadian, he has a certificate of naturalization from an office in Montreal,” Jeff said over the phone before then pointing out jokingly that he and his son cheer for the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs ... another claim to Canadian status.
“Same with Kyle.” Younger son, Kyle Cottam, is on the Clemson University golf team as a freshman, which reached the NCAA nationals.
More than once the question has been asked how Cottam is Canadian? Well, if Kole says he is, if he has the paper work to prove it and if his father Jeff says he is, that is good enough for me.
Also under World Baseball Classic rules, which go back one generation to the parents’ country of birth, he is. Like Jameson Taillon, who pitched 3 2/3 scoreless for Canada against Team USA in the 2013 event at Phoenix.
* * *
In the late 1980s there was a enough talent hanging around Nelson Park to hoist a sail during the battle of Trafalgar.
After all, Burlington’s Nelson High School was named after the British admiral Horatio Nelson, who defeated Napoleon’s navy in 1805.
There were the likes of ...
RHP Jamie Evans who pitched for the Canadian Junior National Team, was drafted in the 14th round by the Houston Astros and pitched five seasons in the minors.
RHP Mike Bennett, who played for John Haar with the National Baseball Institute Blues in Vancouver and the Canadian senior national team in 1995.
OF Rob Tanaka of the Junior National Team, a member of NBI and most of all, part of The Asahi Legacy.
RHP Jeff Cheek, son of Hall of Fame broadcaster Tom Cheek, drafted in the 67th round by the Jays in 1989, and a pitcher for three seasons in the Toronto system.
LHP Mike Steed, who pitched at Northeast Oklahoma and Northeastern State University, then ran the Thunder Bay Border Cats of the Northwoods League for three years and is now pitching coach of the Ontario Blue Jays.
And ... not least are Jeff Cottam and brother Donnie Cottam.
Jeff went on to play four years for the Memphis Tigers.
And Jeff’s son, Kole Cottam carried on lessons his father learned at Nelson and other Burlington diamonds. Kole was the third Canadian drafted overall in the June draft of high schoolers and collegians. Kole hit 19 homers for the Kentucky Wildcats this spring and now the 130th pick overall signed with Boston.
Kole said the biggest reason for his increase in homers this spring was “sticking with my approach and trying to walk a little bit more.” Once day Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston was asked if 1B Fred McGriff changed his stance from game to game. “Game to game?” Gaston laughed, “How about pitch to pitch.”
* * *
How does one get from Horatio Nelson Park all the way to Memphis to having his son star at Cliff Hagan Stadium in Lexington, Ky., home of the Wildcats?
Jeff did not take the routine path.
Unless your normal path to get to the ball diamond passes through handball courts.
“I started playing handball at Tecumseh middle school for coach Brian Goto,” Jeff said. That led to tournament play and playing an opponent from Montreal, who was attending Memphis State. The Montreal player/recruiter Sean Massey suggested Jeff Kottam to his coach, Charlie Mazzone.
“Memphis State was really a handball powerhouse then, they had won four national championships in a row and then we won four straight,” Jeff said. The Tigers top rivals were Texas, Texas A&M, Southwest Missouri State and Lake Forest in Chicago.
Jeff won singles three straight years and teamed with Rob Pearse, also of Burlington, to win two national championships in doubles.
After his freshman year, Jeff told the handball coach he’d like to try out for baseball as a walk-on his sophomore year.
Jeff made the team, switched to a baseball scholarship and both coaches agreed he’d take a week off during the season to make the handball championships. Those final three years he “played a lot more baseball, than handball.”
In the summer, Jeff played eight games for the 1991 Hamilton Cardinals of the Intercounty League, along with the legendary Dean Dicenzo. Jeff batted .259 with two doubles and three RBIs.
In 1989, Jeff’s first year, he was a third baseman, yet the Tigers also had a freshman third baseman Brad Seitzer, who could play a little, brother of Kevin Seitzer. So Jeff headed to right and “it wasn’t pretty.”
The next year Jeff played first, caught and set the Memphis doubles record for four in one game. In 1991-92 he split time catching, playing first and DHing before he hurt his shoulder
Jeff met Kori, a starter on the Memphis women’s hoops team, and the two wed. Jeff is now a pilot for Delta Airlines mostly MD-88s. Since he has seniority, Jeff does layover flights and for the past four springs has spent Tuesday night in Lexington or Sundays in Greenville SC (near Clemson) -- to see Kentucky play; or any place that there is an NCAA golf tourney.
Mom Kori is an OB-GYN (obstetrician-gynecologist), who works at Knoxville’s Parkwest Hospital.
And in those early years the Cottams saw a lot of the inside of hospitals. Now, a 6-foot-3, 230-pounder, Kole was born premature at four pounds, eight ounces. He spent 17 days in intensive care. Doctors noticed a congenital melanocytic nevus – also known as a mole or birthmark – around his right eye.
Kole had eight surgeries by the time he was two and 13 by grade 8 -- which is why he wears No. 13.
Jeff coached Kole until he was 13-14 in Knoxville. And then Kole was recruited to play for the Atlanta-based Georgia Roadrunners, coached by Michael Barrett, the former Montreal Expos and Toronto Blue Jays catcher.
Roadrunners grads include OF Jahmai Jones, of Roswell, Ga., a second-round pick of the California Angels and is now at class-A Inland Empire; 3B Trey Cabbage of Blaine, Tenn., who went fourth to the Minnesota Twins in 2015 and is at class-A Cedar Rapids this year and four more from that team were selected this June.
On a recent trip home to Burlington father and son headed to the local YMCA for a game of handball. And for a while Kole was doing OK. Then, “it was like he clicked a switch and he took over the game.”
* * *
If the sun is out and it is hot enough -- a rarity in southern Ontario -- sometimes at a ball diamond you can spot a blue and white UK umbrella around the Central Ontario Baseball Associations parks.
That’s how I met grandma Gloria Cottam watching her grandson Keaton Cottam, also a catcher, play for the Burlington Bulls a few years ago.
Question: “So, whose son goes to Kentucky?”
Answer: “It’s my grandson.”
Keaton was playing ball for his father, coach Donnie, also known as Danny a few years ago. Now, they are with the Milton Mets. Big brother Harrison Keaton skates for the London Knights.
Yr Memphis G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI AVG OBP SLG OPS
1992 51 179 35 55 8 1 1 30 .307 .389 .380 .769
1991 47 154 20 52 12 0 0 34 .338 .416 .416 .832
1990 51 162 25 52 6 0 2 28 .321 .372 .395 .767
1989 36 89 10 27 3 0 0 15 .303 .370 .337 .707
Yr Kentucky G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI AVG OBP SLG OPS
2016 40 90 11 25 6 0 1 15 .278 .337 .378 .715
2017 55 188 34 60 12 1 7 44 .319 .380 .505 .885
2018 56 219 54 77 12 0 19 51 .352 .438 .667 1.105