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Canada Hopes Olympic Success Spurs Grassroots

By Bob Elliott
July 30, 2004

TORONTOTo most, Canada is the Great White North, home of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, comedians Mike Myers, Jim Carrey, John Candy, and of course hockey.

Come the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Canada hopes to be better known for baseball too.

Cuba was expected to advance at the Olympic qualifier last fall, and the Cubans did. Team USA was supposed to do the same but was edged 2-1 in the quarterfinal by Mexico, eliminating the defending gold-medal winner. Canada then beat Mexico 11-1 to qualify for the Olympics in baseball for the first time.

While its major league franchises in Montreal and Toronto have been in decline, Canada has made strides in recent years in the sport. In 1995, 55 Canadians played in the minors. In 2003, that number had swelled to 114 in the minors and 92 in independent leagues. The year before, lefthanders Adam Loewen (fourth overall) and Jeff Francis (ninth) became the highest-picked Canadians in draft history.

The number of Canadians in the minors has dipped to 104 in the minors this year in large part because of the visa situation (BA, Aug. 2-15). The visa snafu has not affected Canadians playing college ball in the U.S., however, with 637 playing this spring, a significant increase from five years ago (438 in 1999). The greater numbers have made Canada more competitively internationally.

In 1999 at the Pan American Games in Winnipeg, Canada just missed an Olympic berth, losing to Cuba in the semifinals. This time, Canada did it.

When you represent your country, you feel like the whole country is part of your team, said infielder Peter Orr, who plays at Triple-A Richmond in the Braves organization. We played liked a family when we won in Panama. We are all very proud Canadians.

Reach Down

That was in November, when Canada took another step forward. Qualifying for the Olympics was a boost for the sport, and a solid showing in Athens should boost baseball even more.

I hope success in Athens means a lot to the grassroots; this is a shot in the arm for baseball in Canada, said corner infielder Todd Betts, who left the Yankees Triple-A Columbus affiliate early to prepare for the Olympics. It is different playing for the maple leaf than in the minors. This should pump up baseball in Canada.

Were regarded as such a hockey country, but we can also play baseball. Growing up everyone wants to make the majors or hit a home run in the World Series, but this is going to be pretty special.

Going into the competition, Canada was considered a favorite to win the bronze behind Japan and Cuba. In a one-game sudden death format, though, anything can happen.

Canada is North Americas team because Baseball Canadas Greg Hamilton, the organizations national team director, has received excellent cooperation from Major League Baseball teams. Just two clubs declined to allow their players to compete in the Olympics: the Angels (righthander Steve Green) and Cardinals (catcher Cody McKay).

One who wanted badly to compete now probably wont. Twins first baseman Justin Morneau said at a Baseball Canada banquet in January hed rather be in Athens than Minneapolis. The Twins called him up anyway in July, meaning he probably wont play for Canada.

The Canadian baseball community faced a problem all spring: It wanted to see Francis and Morneau do well, but the better they performed, the less likely it was for either to wear Canadian colors in Athens.

Historic Players For Historic Team

At the other end of the spectrum were such veterans as lefthander Paul Spoljaric and outfielder Rob Ducey, former big leaguers who had trained to play in the Olympics. Both were expected to play. Ducey had surgery on both knees so he could play for the qualifying team and has gone on hiatus from being a coach at Double-A Harrisburg in the Expos organization for the Olympics.

Im well rested; those young guys will be tired, Ducey joked. When I was younger I couldnt keep my weight back. Now my bat speed is so slow, I stay back naturally.

My only regret is our whole team from (the qualifier in) Panama isnt going. We knew thered be changes. I feel bad for guys who got us there (that) arent going.

Players in the minors on July 31one of the busiest days for trades and transactionsare eligible for the Olympics. The final Olympic roster, allowing for injuries, was to be set Aug. 5.

If we could win a gold medal, I would hope it would kick start the game and give it a boost, Hamilton said. People are phoning our office asking to buy Team Canada jerseys. Weve never had that before.

Bob Elliott covers baseball for the Toronto Sun.


Canada preliminary roster

Pitchers (10)

Class

Organization

B-T

Ht.

Wt.

Begg, Chris

AAA

Giants

R-R

6-3

195

Cyr, Eric

AAA

Angels

R-L

6-4

200

Devey, Phil

AA

Dodgers

L-L

6-0

170

Dickson, Jason

AAA

Royals

L-R

6-0

190

Hill, Shawn

AA

Expos

R-R

6-2

180

Johnson, Mike

AAA

Expos

L-R

6-2

180

Kusiewicz, Mike

A

Brewers

R-L

6-2

185

Mears, Chris

AAA

Tigers

R-R

6-4

190

Myette, Aaron

AAA

Reds

R-R

6-4

210

Ogiltree, John

AA

Blue Jays

R-R

6-6

220

Spoljaric, Paul

None

R-L

6-3

205

Catchers (2)

Class

Organization

LaForest, Pete

AAA

Devil Rays

L-R

6-2

200

Stewart, Andy

Ind.

Winnipeg (Northern)

R-R

5-11

205

Infielders (7)

Class

Organization

Betts, Todd

AAA

Yankees

L-R

6-0

185

Clapp, Stubby

AAA

Blue Jays

L-R

5-8

170

Klassen, Danny

AAA

Tigers

R-R

6-0

190

Nicholson, Kevin

AA

Pirates

B-R

5-10

190

Orr, Peter

AAA

Braves

L-R

6-1

170

Pond, Simon

AAA

Blue Jays

L-R

6-1

190

Outfielders (5)

Class

Organization

Ducey, Rob

AA

Expos (Coach)

L-R

6-2

180

Guiel, Jeff

AAA

Blue Jays

L-R

6-1

200

Radmanovich, Ryan

Ind.

Somerset (Atlantic)

L-R

6-2

200

Stern, Adam

AA

Braves

L-R

5-11

180

Ware, Jeremy

AAA

Expos

R-R

6-0

200

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