Organization Talent Rankings: How They Line Up
SEE MORE: Organization Talent Rankings With Reports ($) As we continue our offseason prospect rankings, we line up the minor league talent in every organization from 1-30. Team 2015 2014 […]
Canada Hopes Olympic Success Spurs Grassroots
By Bob Elliott
TORONTO—To 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.”
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.
“We’re 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 America’s team because Baseball Canada’s Greg Hamilton, the organization’s 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 won’t. Twins first baseman Justin Morneau said at a Baseball Canada banquet in January he’d rather be in Athens than Minneapolis. The Twins called him up anyway in July, meaning he probably won’t 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.
“I’m well rested; those young guys will be tired,” Ducey joked. “When I was younger I couldn’t 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 isn’t going. We knew there’d be changes. I feel bad for guys who got us there (that) aren’t going.”
Players in the minors on July 31—one of the busiest days for trades and transactions—are 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. We’ve never had that before.”
Bob Elliott covers baseball for the Toronto Sun.
Canada preliminary roster