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Stubby stumps for Canada

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CLEARWATER, Fla. – This being the hockey trading deadline, no TV cameras awaited Team Canada, the baseball edition, when players emerged from the visitor's dugout at Bright House Field to stretch Thursday morning.

One sport venerates heroes with nicknames like The Rocket, Boom-Boom, The Flying Frenchman, and The Great One.

The other still reserves its greatest affection for a 36-year-old undersized infielder known as Stubby.

"He's the heart and soul,'' said Minnesota first baseman Justin Morneau, the 2007 American League MVP who ranks as Canada's best player but is not yet its most beloved. "He's what Canadian baseball players are all about. He's a big part of this team. He brings fire and energy.''

Richard "Stubby" Clapp no longer plays baseball for a living. He is the hitting coach for the Greenville (S.C.) Astros, a rookie league farm team in the Houston organization. A 36th-round draft choice for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1996, Clapp played in a grand total of 23 big league games, accumulating 25 at-bats for the Cardinals.

But go beyond the big league baseball card, and the native of Windsor, Ont., has made an impact everywhere else he played, and not just because he perfected the back flip most famously performed by Cardinals Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith.

Clapp played for the 1991 Canadian junior national team, still the only Canadian nine to win a gold medal. He was on Canada's 1994 World Baseball Cup team, and in 1999 had the game-winning hit in an extra-inning upset victory over the USA in the Pan-Am Games.

Clapp's voice was among those warbling " 'O Canada" on the team bus when a Canadian team qualified for the Athens Olympics, the first Canadian team to qualify for Olympic medal competition, and he was in Beijing last summer after the Astros reversed themselves and decided to let him play.

A second baseman, Clapp spent nine seasons in the minor leagues, playing 911 games for farm clubs of the Cardinals, Braves and Blue Jays. He played four years for the Memphis Redbirds, where he was so popular he became known as The Mayor of Memphis. The Redbirds retired his jersey.

And he's bound to get a rousing reception Saturday at Toronto's Rogers Centre when Canada plays a first-round game against the U.S.

"I love the kid, honest to God,'' said Ernie Whitt, the former big-league catcher who is the manager of Team Canada. "I've been involved in international baseball since 1999 with Team Canada, and he's been part of it.

"He's the nucleus of this whole team, whether he plays or not. His professionalism, and he always had this thing where people told him he never was going to make it. He's always been scrappy, the kind of guy who will do whatever it takes to win.''

At 36, Clapp acknowledges this will be a last hurrah as a player, one in which he is likely to be a reserve for a Canadian team trying to duplicate its stunning 8-6 upset of Team USA in the inaugural World Baseball Classic, which for one shining moment pushed shinny off the front pages in Canada.

"I remember things just started snowballing, snowballing, snowballing,'' said Clapp, who tripled into the right-field corner off Dontrelle Willis and scored on Mark Teixeira's error to give Canada a first-inning lead that would eventually grow to 8-0.

"When (Jason) Varitek hit that grand-slam (cutting the lead to 8-4), I would be lying if I didn't tell you I had a lump in my throat. But we held on.''

Morneau was on that team. "It was huge,'' he said of that win. "Hopefully, it can happen again in Canada, where a few more Canadian fans will see it.

Baseball north of the border has progressed to the point where Canada, with Morneau, Jason Bay, Joey Votto and Russell Martin, could have been a contender had it been able to run out its full complement of homegrown pitching. But Jeff Francis and Erik Bedard are hurt, Rich Harden bowed out because of injury concerns, and Ryan Dempster, despite Morneau's constant entreaties, decided to remain with the Cubs, who this winter signed him to a long-term contract.

That leaves Whitt with a bunch of minor-league kids and right-hander Mike Johnson, a 33-year-old mushballer who has pitched in Japan, Taiwan, Korea and two independent leagues after flaming out (7-14, 6.85 ERA) in the majors with the Expos and Orioles.

Johnson was knocked around in relief here in a 9-2 loss to the Phillies on Thursday, giving up a three-run double to Raul Ibanez and an RBI single by Ryan Howard.

"We had guys, if they were healthy, could match up against anybody,'' Whitt said. "It's not that our guys here don't have quality, they just don't have the experience. We don't know how they'll respond on a big stage. Johnson is our guy with the most experience.

"Hopefully, with 40,000 people in the stands, we'll have that extra adrenaline, hold the other team down, and hope our offense takes over.''

The large partisan crowd expected Saturday should be a boost.

"We can't worry about who's not here,'' Morneau said. "Everyone who was asked who was healthy came, with just an exception or two. Guys get asked to play for Canada, they usually don’t turn that down.''

Especially Clapp, whose nickname has been passed down in his family through five generations.

"This is it for me,'' he said. "I'm done.''

He would love to go out a winner, but just being able to play one more time with Canada across his chest will be enough of a thrill.