No Olympics, No Problem: Baseball Canada Excited for Guadalajara

Canada’s starting pitcher Chris Begg of Uxbridge, Ont. throws a pitch against Japan at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

With the XVI Pan American Games coming up this October, a unique group of teams will represent Canada in Guadalajara, Mexico. All summer long, we profile the nine sports in which Canada competes only at the Pan American Games.

For the first time in 11 years, Baseball Canada finds itself in a rather unfamiliar situation.

In 2004, they competed on the Olympic stage in Athens and in Beijing four years later.

But with the sport’s removal from the Olympic program beginning with next year’s Games in London, Team Canada has a new mission.

For the first time since playing host at Winnipeg 1999, Canada is headed for the Pan American Games. Now that budgetary concerns that prevented participation in both events have been eliminated, Baseball Canada is relishing the opportunity.

“We’re in a situation now where we can prioritize the Pan American Games,” said Greg Hamilton, Director of National Teams for Baseball Canada. “It’s very exciting for our players because they are all professionals. They play an awful lot of games in pretty good environments so for them a tournament, itself of more baseball isn’t tremendously unique – unless there’s something outside of it – and a multi-sport tournament makes it pretty special.”

The professionals that comprise the roster though, are not necessarily ones you might recognize. Unlike Hockey Canada, which has benefitted from the National Hockey League shutting down for two weeks to accommodate the Olympic tournament, the players who traditionally participate in most International baseball competitions are Minor League prospects of Major League teams. The players are scattered throughout the various ranks, from A to AAA, but, if they should be called up to the big club, they would become ineligible.

With preparations for the Pan Am Games ongoing, a challenging scenario therefore exists for management as they assemble their team. The squad that takes the field for the opening game this fall in Guadalajara might not look too much like the one that successfully qualified last year, making strategic planning vital.

“For us, (the key) is player access. It’s making sure we can get the best available talent and that we’re making the right decisions on who we add to our roster,” explained Hamilton. “It’s about having relationships with professional clubs and organizations and players themselves because you don’t necessarily have full control over that decision-making process.”

One noteworthy example is highly-touted Toronto Blue Jays’ third base prospect Brett Lawrie. Having played for the Pan Am-qualifying team, Lawrie will likely be unavailable for the Games in Mexico, as he is on the verge of being recalled from AAA Las Vegas to join the Blue Jays. As soon as that happens, Canada is out of luck.

Instead, they will target as many veterans as possible for the Pan Am lineup, as a third of the group that finished sixth in Beijing returned to play in the qualifying tournament this past October. The list includes pitchers Scott Diamond (Guelph, Ont.), Emerson Frostad (Calgary, Alta.), Steve Green (Greenfield Park, Que.), and Mike Johnson (Edmonton, Alta.), catcher Chris Robinson (Dorchester, Ont.), outfielders Adam Stern (London, Ont.) and Scott Thorman (Cambridge, Ont.) and first baseman Jimmy Van Ostrand (Richmond, B.C.). Hamilton feels that adding some or all of those names would give his club a significant boost.

“You want those seasoned minor-league pros. You have to have that as the core of your roster in an international competition,” said Hamilton. “They’ve been there, dealt with the pressure and play a huge role in your ability to be successful and bring in talented youth, and get (the youth) to understand what they need to bring to the table and not overdo or overplay things.”

The rest of the team will likely be made up of those younger individuals, many of which Canada has been scouting and extensively monitoring over the years. Since players tend to develop through the minor league system at different rates, Baseball Canada runs a national junior development program to keep tabs on each individual’s progress.

“We’ve got a pretty good feel of their character and skill-sets and talents when they are young,” said Hamilton. “It’s a continual scouting evaluation process but we’ve got a large familiarity with most of all the Canadian players. It’s a familiarity that has history around it, and it’s real helpful that way.”

Hamilton added that the players themselves also know each other very well, having played together for the Canadian national junior team and across the minor leagues.

The group plans to assemble in late September for an exhibition series against the United States, after which they will get a significant opportunity to iron out their game prior to the Pan Am tournament at the World Cup in Panama. After a fourth place finish at the Athens Olympic Games and a bronze medal in their last Pan Am Games appearance, the opportunity for success is there to be had.

“I think it’s a wide open tournament,” said Hamilton. “On a given night, we’ve shown that we can beat anybody in the world. It’s not an accident that we’ve knocked on the door.”