By Rob Ficiur
The 2017 World Baseball Classic is the fourth of this best on best baseball tournament. Japan won the first two tournaments (2006 and 2009) and the Dominican Republic won in 2013. Just because you use the word classic in the tournament name does not mean the final product is a classic. Many of the best professional ball players chose to keep going with their major league training camps, meaning we don’t have a true best on best tournament.
In the first three tournaments Canada has three wins and five losses. Going into the 2017 tournament fans hoped that this could be the first year the Canadians would get past the first round. As bad luck would have it, Canada ended up in the same pool as the defending champs from the Dominican Republic and the star laden American team. At the time of this writing Canada had lost its first two games by a combined score of 13-3. Despite the dismal results, there are several interesting stories about the players who have gone out of their way to play for Canada this year.
1. Freddie Freeman – is the closest thing Team Canada has to a current baseball star. The 27-year-old finished sixth in Most Valuable Player voting last year when he hit .302 for the Atlanta Braves.
Freeman was excited to play for Canada for personal reasons. Freeman was born in California to Canadian parents. When Freddie was ten his mother died of cancer. He spoke to reporters that playing for Canada in the World Baseball Classic was a way for him to help remember his mother. In a tournament where star players have good reasons to not play, Freddie found a way to play and show respect at the same time.
2. Russel Martin – was scheduled to be Canada’s short stop at the tournament. The Blue Jays veteran catcher would have been as asset to the offensively challenged Canadian team. However, insurance regulations prohibited Martin from being in the tournament. Over the off season Martin had minor knee surgery. This surgery made him ineligible for insurance to play in The World Baseball Classic. Martin wondered at the irony of it. If he had not had the surgery, he could have played with his injured knee. Now his knee feels fine, but he can’t play. Russel did participate as an assistant coach. But Canada needed his bat.
3. Eric Gagne – is one of three retired Major League players who played for Canada in the World Baseball Classic. The forty-one-year-old last pitched in Major League baseball in 2008. Last fall he pitched two innings in a charity event. Days later when his arm still felt fine, he wondered if a comeback was possible.
Saturday Gagne threw 2 1/3 scoreless innings for Canada. The 2003 Cy Young award winner showed the same pitching stuff that made him a three-time all-star. His two plus innings was the most he threw in one game since 2003. Though Gagne has not been to a Major League training camp since 2010, there is hope that a good showing in this tournament might catch the interest of a team. Last year the Blue Jays picked up 39-year-old Jason Grilli. At the time Grilli looked to be a faded (or fading) star. A new city and a new challenge revitalized Grilli. The WBC might give Gagne another chance.
4. Ryan Dempster played sixteen years of Major League baseball from 1998-2013. When Gagne decided to give the WBC a try, he invited his pal Dempster to pitch again. Dempster said that the Dominican Republic team he pitched against in Canada’s opener was more talented than World Series opponents he faced as a Boston Red Sox. Dempseter’s comeback was not an initial success. He gave up four runs in two innings against the Jose Bautista’s Dominicans. Team Canada still trusted in him – and will be sending him out as starter in a must win game #3.
5. Pete Orr is officially a pro scout for the Milwaukee Brewers. The eight-year veteran has not played since 2013. It is easy for fans to be cynical about these retired players trying to make a comeback. Sports caster Cliff Floyd applauded these men for trying. The work required to be ready to play in this tournament is more difficult than the average fan can imagine.
6. Dalton Pompey – was the starting center fielder for the 2015 Toronto Blue Jays. After a rough opening month, Pompey spent most of 2015 and all of 2016 in the minors. Instead of being the fifth outfielder challenging for four spots on the Blue Jays, Pompey came to the WBC as Canada’s leadoff hitter and center fielder. In Game #1 he got the team’s first RBI – and then stole third base. Later he made a great center field catch. In Game #2 his head first slide into second gave Canada a runner in scoring position. Sadly, for Dalton, concussion protocol required him to leave that game. Dalton had a chance to show he can compete at a higher level of play. Blue Jays fans hope to see his speed on the base paths soon.
Unless Canada performs a miracle upset against the USA they will once again miss the playoff round. They did upset the USA in the 2009 tournament. The young up and coming stars have had a chance to show their talent. It is not a failure if they can take it to the next level in the upcoming season.