It’s no secret that athletes often speak in clichés. But when members of Canada’s national baseball team talk about how close the team is, and how fond they are of each other, you can tell they are serious.
Canada’s best ball players get together only every three or four years. The players love the experience and the time together, though there has yet to be an on-field breakthrough at the World Baseball Classic. Canada again missed out on the second round of the tournament following a heartbreaking 9-4 loss to the United States in Phoenix on Sunday.
On paper, this was supposed to be one of the best teams Canada has assembled for the event. But the loss of major-league caliber players like Brett Lawrie, Russell Martin, Jesse Crain and Scott Diamond became too much of a hurdle to overcome. Still, the Canadian team, in its gritty Canadian way, battled to the end and come within five outs of upsetting the mighty American team on its home turf. The 2013 Canadian will be remembered for that near upset – and its headline-grabbing brawl with Mexico on Saturday.
The players love the event and often speak of how they grew up together and love the opportunity to get together again. But how much of the core of the 2013 team will remain intact in four years is unclear.
Another WBC is already scheduled for 2017. And considering Canada’s aging core of stars, it’s worth looking ahead to contemplate which players might be a major part of that team. Five members of the 2013 squad were part of the team in 2006 for the first WBC. Second baseman Pete Orr and first baseman Justin Morneau are the only players to compete in all three tournaments.
“It always seems like it’s too short when you get together with this team. It’s such a great group of guys, if we played together for a whole season it would be a lot of fun,” Morneau said following Canada’s loss to the U.S.. “If I’m healthy and there’s the opportunity, and they want me, I’m always honoured to play. Hopefully that’s the case in the future.”
Morneau is one of Canada’s biggest stars, and a former American League most valuable player. But by the time 2017 rolls around, he will be 35 and presumably on the back-nine of his career. Orr, a less established big leaguer but the other Captain Canada, will be 37. Canada’s biggest star, first baseman Joey Votto, will be 33 in 2017. He perhaps may still be in his prime, but injuries are already slowing down the 2010 NL MVP and by ’17 he will be in the fifth year of a $225 million contract with the Cincinnati Reds. It will be interesting to see how his major-league team feels about sending a player making $22 million a year to the WBC.
Other lynchpins of Canada’s 2013 lineup like Adam Loewen, Cale Iorg and Chris Robinson will be into their 30s by 2017. Robinson, Canada’s new Stubby Clapp, is still trying to make his big-league breakthrough.
There are, however, young players ready to make a bigger impact. Canada’s brightest start in Phoenix was 26-year-old outfielder Michael Saunders. The Victoria native who plays for the Seattle Mariners served notice that his breakout 2012 campaign was no fluke. In a pool that featured stars like Votto, Ryan Braun and Adrian Gonzalez, Saunders was named Pool D MVP. He went 8-for-11 in three games, with three doubles, a home run, and seven runs-batted-in.
Brett Lawrie, 23, was supposed to be a major player until an oblique injury sidelined him from the tournament. He is just beginning his major-league career and is thought to be a star in the making.
The youngster to make the biggest impression was 21-year-old pitcher Jameson Taillon. The second overall pick from the 2010 draft started against the intimidating United States team and was solid for four innings.
“He learned what he’s got and he threw the ball great and gave us a chance to win,” Morneau said. There is, however, the issue of Taillon’s nationality. He was born in Florida and raised in Texas, but was eligible to play for Canada because both his parents are Canadian.
So is he a Canadian player for the long haul?
“I haven’t even thought about it,” Taillon said. “Team Canada taking a chance on me, giving me a jersey to play for, that was huge. I don’t think I’ll ever forget that.
“Since the first day I got here [I felt Canadian]. They played a street hockey game at Morneau’s house. They took me in right away, great guys. Guys I’ll keep in touch with forever. I felt a big part of it the whole time.”
Canada’s 2013 squad had an obvious chemistry. Would that be lost if there are major changes in 2017?
“I’m not necessarily a believer in chemistry on a baseball team,” Votto said, analytically. “I believe in talent and execution. I think that’s how you win games.
“But in a tournament like this, where it’s so short and there’s only a few ballgames that matter, chemistry, I think, really does play an important part because there are so many momentum swings. If you’re playing for your team and for guys you know, and grew up with, I think no matter what you’re up against, you still think you have a chance.”
The Canadian team continues to strive at junior national events and smaller world competitions like the Pan Am Games and baseball World Cup. That success has yet to translate to the biggest world stage, the WBC. Regardless, of who is on the team, or what level they play at, Morneau is confident of a turnaround.
“Hopefully one of these times we just break through at one of these tournaments and go on a run,” Morneau said. “It wasn’t meant to be this time but we gave it everything we had. Hopefully next chance we get we’ll take that next step.”