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Turning A New Leaf

With Adam Loewen and Jeff Francis providing a breakthrough, B.C. now stands for Baseball Country

By Alan Schwarz
May 28, 2002

cws
Adam Loewen, Jeff Francis
Photo: Richard Lam
SURREY, British Columbia–Don’t even think of parking here. No signs mention this, mind you, just the amused expressions of locals who know an out-of-towner when he creeps resignedly into the Whalley Little League parking lot. Some had to ditch their cars blocks away, up 133rd Street and beyond 106-A Avenue, and dodge traffic just to get here. League officials have even appealed to the mayor of Surrey to decree extra parking lanes for gamedays.

"Elections are coming. This could help you get some votes," they say.

"Good idea," he nods.

Just the gaggle of fans here today could score the guy a landslide. Spring Saturdays mean youth baseball, and in Surrey, it’s the biggest thing in town. Hundreds of fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers bask under the piercing sun and watch as many as six fields whir at once. There are no professional scouts in the crowd–most of the kids are barely teenagers, for heaven’s sake–but give them time. This is where Adam Loewen and Jeff Francis came from.

Loewen, a high school senior pitching for Whalley’s Premier League team, and Francis, an alumnus of the league’s North Delta squad and now a junior at the University of British Columbia, have grown up to the point where they are about to crash Major League Baseball’s draft as no foreigners ever have. Both are baseball’s rarest commodity, lefthanded pitchers. Both stand upwards of 6-foot-5, throw fastballs in the low 90s with control and appear headed for top 15 picks. And they grew up just five miles apart–not in sun-splashed Sarasota or San Diego, the draft’s more conventional hotbeds, but the crisp, rarified air of Vancouver suburbia.

Baseball is changing in British Columbia, with Loewen and Francis playing chicken and egg. Is the sport becoming more popular because these guys are creating such a stir? Or are they mere byproducts of the area’s newfound passion for the game? Either way, the Premier League has become a petri dish for Canadian baseball, with Loewen and Francis already grown and surely more to follow. One Seattle-based scout, used to driving south and east into Oregon and Washington to evaluate players, never imagined he’d be venturing north so often. "Looks like it’s going to be that way for a while," he said.

The joke is that all the scouts flying in have done as much for British Columbia’s tourist economy as its snow-capped mountains and scenic ferry rides. And for an area that produces some of the continent’s finest fruit, including blueberries the size of strawberries and strawberries the size of billiard balls, its main export could soon be lefthanders. Almost 150 years after baseball was brought to British Columbia by California gold rush prospectors, Adam Loewen and Jeff Francis have become gems worth even more.

Scouts paid the ultimate compliment to Loewen on May 12, when only a handful showed up to watch him pitch. No team picking beyond the draft’s single digits expects to have any chance at selecting him. His performance underscored why: Throwing upward of 92 mph, Loewen lost 2-1 only because of a pair of first-inning Whalley errors, but struck out 14, walked only one and threw an amazing 30 of 34 big-breaking curveballs for strikes. "I’m getting excited," one scout said.

A redwood of a kid at 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds, with freshly dyed blond hair, Loewen stood out on the ramshackle field as starkly as his pitching has for years. He starred on the local team that reached Williamsport and the Little League World Series in 1996. Two summers ago, pitching for Team Canada, he was the only pitcher to beat eventual-champion Korea at the World Junior Championship. Last year, he no-hit a group of Pirates prospects from the Dominican Republic, striking out 16. With Whalley in the Premier League (a Babe Ruth-affiliated circuit) he has been similarly dominant this spring, going 4-1, 0.36 and giving up just 10 hits and 14 walks with 71 strikeouts in 39 innings.

"He’s the easiest pitcher to catch on this team, because he hits his spots so well," says Whalley backstop Johnny Yiu, who also caught Loewen on Team Canada. "You can call anything, and he throws strikes." Flailing hitters get almost as frustrated as the Whalley infielders, specifically shortstop Jeffrey Paz: "Every time he’s pitching, I’m there wondering, ‘Am I even going to get a play?’ I get pretty bored."

Exactly 200 Canadian-born players have reached the major leagues after Orioles lefthander Erik Bedard made his debut this spring, but Loewen is the best 17-year-old the nation has ever seen. Ferguson Jenkins never threw like this while growing up in Chatham, Ontario. Marlins righthander Ryan Dempster, who is from Gibsons–10 miles north of Vancouver but inaccessible by road–never created this sort of stir. Loewen culminates a long climb for Canadian prospects: Five years after Whalley product Kevin Nicholson became the highest-drafted Canadian when the Padres took him 27th overall out of Stetson University–he now plays shortstop in the Rockies system–Loewen could go in the top six.

The Pirates and Devil Rays, picking 1-2, have considered Loewen, who said he loves pitching in front of big crowds. No, confidence doesn’t seem to be an issue: "I really haven’t had a chance to throw my best this year, I think," says Loewen, whose first start came in 0-degree (Celsius) weather. "My arm hasn’t felt its strongest. It never hurts. I just don’t feel like it’s 100 percent yet. I feel I can do a lot better."

Francis will be selected soon after Loewen. He is even more polished, having honed his pinpoint control before gaining 9-10 mph on his fastball at UBC. While in the Premier League Francis stood 6-foot-2, 135 pounds–"a twig," one scout recalls–but he added two inches and 45 pounds before entering college, leading to the extra velocity that vaulted him well past prospect status and into the first round.

Francis earned NAIA all-America honors as a sophomore after going 12-3, 0.92 with 118 strikeouts and just 15 walks in 98 innings. He quickly proved it wasn’t just the competition: Last summer he was named the top pro prospect among dozens of more renowned NCAA Division I players in the Alaska League–he went 7-1, 1.20 with six shutouts–before throwing 14 shutout innings for the champion Anchorage Glacier Pilots at the National Baseball Congress World Series. He was named tournament MVP.

"I went up there without any expectations," Francis says of his Alaska experience. "That winter before I told my coach I wanted to go away and play somewhere . . . all of a sudden scouts are looking at me. It was definitely surprising. I kept going along and winning games. It was like, ‘Wow. I’m doing this. I really have a chance at doing this.’ "

Francis backed up last season with a 7-2, 1.93 record this spring, showing even better control. The only time he left scouts disappointed came during the NAIA Region I tournament, when more than a dozen schlepped to Caldwell, Idaho, only to watch him throw just 31 pitches in two innings. After the Thunderbirds jumped out to a 15-0 lead in the opening game, UBC coach Terry McKaig removed Francis after one inning and 14 pitches to save him for later in the tournament. He wound up closing the following day’s win and then was too tired to throw on the final day, when UBC lost twice to Albertson to end its season.

Through the grumbling, one scouting director, whose club picks in the top 10, said he wouldn’t hold the abbreviated look against Francis. "I don’t know how five innings would have been better," he said. "He showed a good fastball with tailing life, and threw his breaking ball for strikes. He threw 14 pitches the day I saw him. They were all quality pitches."

The scout said this while watching Loewen strike out yet another North Delta batter, this time with a downright unlawful curve. Three years ago, when Francis pitched for North Delta and went 39-1 his last two seasons, maybe one or two scouts would have bothered showing up. And now? With Francis and Loewen in town, some considered sharing Vancouver apartments to save money. The idea that two lefties from this area will go in the first round blows the minds of veteran talent evaluators.

"You’d never dream of something like this," says Royals senior adviser Art Stewart, now in his 50th year of scouting. "When I heard it from our scouts before they got out of the chutes that two first-rounders were from Canada–I didn’t even know they grew up five miles apart–it really surprised me. It shows how far baseball has come here. Fifty years ago, we never dreamed about Canada. We never gave it a thought."

Sure enough, some Canadians still don’t. This is still hockey country, where baseball is something kids might play between stints on the ice. The day Loewen pitched against North Delta, the local Vancouver Sun sports section had nary a word about it amid several pages of passionate NHL playoff coverage. Baseball might not even come second–the day before, the tabloid Vancouver Province included an ad for Tom’s Video: "STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF SPECIALS/XXX DVDs starting at $29.95 . . . "

You want obscene? To suggest baseball could trump hockey anywhere in Canada is akin to burning its maple-leafed flag. But it could be happening here in Vancouver, thanks to a youth program bursting with talent, making baseball even cooler than that ice.

They called it the Springdome. In 1977, when his Whalley Little League team had nowhere to take batting practice, Orest Springenatic took matters into his own hands: He built an 80-by-35-foot structure in his Surrey backyard. His players would take batting practice in it until 11 o’clock at night. Soon, every team in the league reserved different evenings so they could come and hit, too.

The reward came the following season, when Springenatic and his co-coach, Chuck Bailey, led Whalley to Williamsport. Those two together transformed Little League in Surrey from distraction to passion. They had always loved baseball first while growing up in the prairies of Saskatchewan. Bailey, from the tiny town of Calder–"Population of 110 in a radius of nine miles," he boasts–remembers playing hockey on frozen lakes and rivers, but it was baseball that grabbed his heart.

When he moved to Surrey in 1964, he found a Little League disorganized at best. "The population was small," recalls Bailey, now 69. "Only 94 kids belonged in Whalley’s boundaries in them days." But the area began to boom. The population of greater Vancouver almost doubled in the next 25 years, not just with Canadians but also immigrants from China, East India, the Ukraine and the Philippines. Adam Loewen’s Whalley club has this history written all over it: His catcher is Chinese, his shortstop Filipino and his coach, Dennis Springenatic, is Orest’s son.

Dennis and his older brother Ted, a Whalley assistant coach, played on many of the Whalley clubs that won slews of Canadian championships in all age groups in the 1960s and ’70s. (Dennis pitched on the 1978 team that finished fifth in Williamsport, losing only to perpetual powerhouse Taiwan.) The Whalley program they work for now has changed even more since their father’s death in 1995. It includes more than 600 kids from ages 8-18, and the 16-18 club–in the Premier League division–has become a centerpiece team in Canada’s centerpiece circuit. Veteran international scout Bill Clark of the Padres says the Premier League has become one of the top five amateur leagues in the world.

Until recently, teams from in and outside Vancouver had to drive hours upon hours for games against clubs in Washington and elsewhere. Dempster, who played for the North Shore Twins, had to take a 40-minute ferry ride to Vancouver and then a 30-minute drive just to get to practice three times a week. He’d often play doubleheaders in Everett, Wash., on Saturday and Bellingham on Sunday. "I was missing 75 classes a semester, but I’d get my homework in the morning and do it on the ferry," said Dempster, a third-round pick of the Rangers in 1995. "My teachers knew."

But that spring, the coach of the Parksville Royals, Clyde Inouye, decided to pool five teams on Vancouver Island into one league and play mostly against each other near home. The league grew quickly by attracting the likes of Whalley, North Delta, Coquitlam and other suburban neighborhoods to band together. The 12 clubs now play up to 80 games from April through July, with coaches from solid backgrounds: Springenatic played college ball for NAIA powerhouse Lewis-Clark State (Idaho), while others played at Oregon State and Washington State. Former Astros pitcher Gordie Pladson, a New Westminster native, coaches the Abbotsford Cardinals.

It took almost 80 years for Pladson to become the eighth British Columbian to play in the modern major leagues, in 1979, but 11 have joined him in the last 22 years alone. Dempster and the Rangers’ Jeff Zimmerman have made all-star teams. The Rockies’ Larry Walker has won three batting titles and been named National League MVP. While far more populous Ontario has developed a majority of major league Canadians, British Columbia–and the Vancouver area in particular–is maturing almost as quickly as Walker did.

The area’s best player ever wasn’t exactly a top prospect when he signed with the Expos just before his 16th birthday back in 1984. His dream of being an NHL goaltender dashed when he was cut from the Junior A Regina Pats, Walker grudgingly joined the Coquitlam Reds baseball team and had never seen a slider before. One scout remembers that Walker’s good friend, future hockey star Cam Neely, was considered a better prospect not just in hockey but in baseball as well. "Canada has come a long way," Walker said. "There are more baseball schools, more camps to go to, more instruction."

And more scouts came to watch. Where pro attention once came only in the form of occasional newspaper ads for open tryouts, the Premier League has had 53 players get drafted in the past five years. "In 1994, I don’t think I came up here more than once," says one Seattle-based scout, who made the trip this year at least a dozen times. All the excitement has meant its share of growing pains for the Premier League, Springenatic admitted: "The league is having a tough time adjusting to the Little League philosophy to have as many kids playing as possible, everyone equal. Now it’s competitive, where the top kids want to play with each other all the time, get scholarships, get professional contracts. Now their goals are much higher. It’s become hockey."

(Sure enough, an hour after Springenatic says that, a man walks into the restaurant where the coach is dining and tells him that his son, an up-and-coming ballplayer from Edmonton, wants to join the Whalley club. As for eligibility, he says, well, his grandfather lives nearby. Ah, nothing like a good recruiting scandal to know you’ve hit the big time.)

Recruiting can be surprisingly simple for UBC’s program, though it returned only in 1998 after more than 30 years in hibernation. (Even the program that disbanded in 1968 was no more than a club team.) McKaig has helped build his team not just on the strength of the Premier League around the Vancouver campus, but also by attracting players from across Canada. The Thunderbirds, having joined the NAIA’s Region I three years ago, are the only Canadian college team to compete in a United States-based classification. They even play in a pro facility–Nat Bailey Stadium, the home of the short-season (and formerly Triple-A) Vancouver Canadians.

"I like to consider it as Canada’s unofficial national program–we have the ability to recruit from across the country, rather than U.S. programs that usually stay closer to their area," said McKaig, whose club was ranked as high as No. 6 in the NAIA this season. Getting players still has its hurdles, though. A puny budget allows McKaig only one recruiting trip a year, which he spends to attend the Canada Cup high school tournament in July; he estimated he sees only half of his players before they arrive on campus. And players shoveling snow and weeding the Nat Bailey infield doesn’t exactly scream Big Time.

Hundreds of British Columbia products played college ball in the United States this season, at schools ranging from UNLV to Southeast Louisiana to Taft (Calif.) Junior College. But that could be changing soon, thanks in large part to the buzz Francis has created. A hometown kid stayed home and still reached the first round.

"With the success we’ve had already, Jeff Francis only ups the ante," McKaig said. "We keep building on the run. Now the university is talking about building us a stadium on campus. It’s kind of blindsided me."

Francis blindsides people with his intellect. He chose UBC out of high school mainly for its physics program. His older brother Chris just graduated from Ottawa’s Carleton University with a degree in aerospace engineering; his father Mike, who works at a railway switching yard, reads Stephen Hawking and quantum physics books for fun. While juggling all the attention from scouts this semester, Francis found time to take biophysics, thermodynamics and mathematical methods.

"I’ll never forget it," one local baseball official says. "I’m at Nat Bailey one day during practice, the team is out there taking fungoes and stuff, and he’s studying on top of the dugout. He’s cross-legged and got a damn physics book in his hands. But that’s Francis."

Wiry and reserved, the only reason Francis got the nickname Boomer was because former NHL star Boom-Boom Geoffrion was his grandfather’s favorite athlete. But Francis never played hockey. Just didn’t like it. Baseball was more of a thinking sport, one where he could apply his fondness for scientific exactitude. "My control has always been my strength as a pitcher," he said. "I’ve always been able to spot the ball really well. It was just a matter of the velocity coming."

That was never a problem for Loewen. He has always thrown hard, always been immense–his nickname is simply Big–and as a pre-teen was considered one of B.C.’s most promising hockey players. He very well might have pursued the NHL had the prestigious Premier League not made baseball so attractive.

"I’m sure," says Loewen, who instead pitched and hit his Kennedy-Surrey Little League Rockies to Williamsport. "This area is certainly hockey-minded. But it’s totally changing." And to opponents who don’t take Canadian baseball seriously, Loewen delivers a message: "When we went down to the States they’d be chirping, saying Canadians can’t play baseball. And we’d beat them. Or throw one at their face."

While Francis could blend into a physics think-tank, Loewen could be cast in "Canadian Pie." He dyed his hair blond just for the heck of it. He lumbers around in gargantuan cargo shorts that could fit an entire Ichiro in each leg. And let’s just say he’s about as concerned with details as your average high school senior.

"Adam should be a natural blond," Whalley pitcher Mike Radanovic said with a mischievous grin. "For baseball intelligence, he’s up there. School intelligence, he’s there. Outside of baseball, real-life intelligence, he’s missing a few areas.

"He gets lost all the time. He’s horrible with directions. And times–you can tell him what time a game’s at, and you can ask him about a minute later and he won’t know. Any game that’s important, any time we have to be somewhere, I pick him up."

Loewen’s development, though, is right on time. Going in the top six will probably land him a bonus of at least $3 million and let him pay for a real chauffeur. He’ll leave his teammates behind, though many of them will continue playing baseball in college.

More than ever want to stay closer to home. Radanovic wants to play at UBC. So does Johnny Yiu. They play with Loewen now, but have Jeff Francis in mind. "Lots of scouts down south know about UBC now," Yiu said. "It can produce players."

So can all of Vancouver, as the baseball world learned this spring. No one is expecting another Loewen-and-Francis class anytime soon. But if Whalley scores those extra parking spots down 133rd Street, they’d better save a few for the scouts.

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