To say it’s been an exciting week for Baseball Canada’s 2011 Senior National Team (SNT) would be an understatement.
Not only was their gold medal-winning Pan Am Games squad inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, but one of its members (Shawn Hill) was signed by the Toronto Blue Jays, while another (Kyle Lotzkar) was selected to play in the Sirius XM All-Star Futures Game.
Thanks largely to the efforts of national teams director Greg Hamilton and manager Ernie Whitt, who were on hand for the Pan Am champion SNT’s induction into the Canadian ball shrine in St. Marys, Ont., on Saturday, Baseball Canada’s teams have never been more successful.
Also representing the SNT at the ceremony were coach Tim Leiper, athletic therapist Dave Blatz, equipment manager Keith Sanford, business manager Bernie Soulliere, media relations coordinator Adam Morrissette and players Mike Johnson and Brock Kjeldgaard.
Unfortunately the ceremony took place in the middle of the baseball season and with team members toiling in various big league organizations and independent circuits, most were unable to make the trek to St. Marys.
“To a man, they wish they could be here,” said Hamilton prior to the ceremony. “You get texts, you get e-mails and you get phone calls from them and they all wish they could be here. And we wish they could be here too because at the end of the day that’s why we’re gold medal winners.”
Now 36 and retired from his professional pitching career, Johnson was also in touch with many of his SNT teammates by text or e-mail leading up to the ceremony.
“I told them I wish they could be here and I got some messages saying that they wished they could be here too,” said Johnson. “It makes me remember what we went through together last year at the Pan Am Games and the World Cup. I’m proud to be here today to represent the players on a team that’s arguably one of the best teams that Canada has produced at the senior level.”
Managed by Whitt, the Baseball Canada SNT secured their first-ever gold medal at the 2011 Pan Am Games, held in Guadalajara, Mexico. This triumph followed their second consecutive bronze medal at the World Cup, held in Panama City.
Canada is now ranked sixth in the world – its highest ranking ever – by the International Baseball Federation. With a record 26 Canucks having played in the majors in 2011, Canada is also peaking at the big league level, but Whitt only had three ex-big leaguers on his Pan Am roster in Johnson, Hill and Scott Richmond.
Canada opened the tournament with a 5-4 win over Puerto Rico and then lost to Cuba 9-5. After beating Venezuela 4-1, which qualified them for the medal round, the determined Canuck squad edged host Mexico 5-3 in the semi-finals and outlasted the undefeated U.S. squad 2-1 to win gold.
Among the standout players were Andrew Albers (North Battleford, Sask.) who chalked up a win and struck out 10 over nine innings in two games and Jimmy Van Ostrand (Richmond, B.C.), who led Canada offensively with nine hits in 19 at bats.
“So many times we were that close to winning (an international tournament),” said an emotional Whitt, who spoke on behalf of the team at Saturday’s induction ceremony. “So this past year was the greatest.”
Hamilton expressed similar sentiments prior to the ceremony.
“It’s just an incredible honour to be elected to the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, especially for the players, and especially for this particular group which is not guys who have made a lot of money from the game or have a lot of accolades from the game,” said Hamilton. “It’s just a wonderful honour and you smile for a lot of guys who have given their hearts to our program.”
While addressing the more than 1,000 people at the ceremony, Whitt recounted the joy he felt as he watched the players on the podium with the Canadian national anthem playing.
“I’m so proud of these kids it’s unbelievable,” said Whitt. “A lot of these kids will never make it to the big leagues, so this was their World Series.”
Johnson, who did pitch parts of five seasons in the big leagues, points to the team’s collective focus as a key to securing the Pan Am gold.
“I just think we bought in really early as to what we were playing for,” explained Johnson. “I don’t know what our expectations were, but we definitely went in there with the idea that we could compete … and everything just clicked in a short amount of time.”
While enjoying the induction festivities in St. Marys, Johnson was also thinking about Hill, his SNT teammate and good friend, who was signed by the Toronto Blue Jays earlier this week.
“I was happy to hear that he had signed with the Jays, but I was more happy to hear that he’s finally healthy. I mean he’s been battling some health issues,” said Johnson. “It’s never been a question about his stuff or his ability to pitch in the big leagues, but his longevity and how long he can pitch for. He’s pitching pain-free and I’m really happy to see that he signed and I’m not going to be surprised when he gets called up to the big leagues because ultimately that’s where he should be pitching.”
Hamilton was also excited for Hill and for Lotzkar, a 22-year-old right-hander from Delta, B.C., who’s pitching for the Reds’ Double-A team in Pensacola this season, who was selected to play in the Sirius XM All-Star Futures Game.
“Kyle is a special talent. He’s got a wonderful arm and he had an injury early in his career that set him back a bit, but if he remains healthy there’s limitless potential there,” said Hamilton.
But while Lotzkar may go on to a long and successful big league career, it will be difficult for him to match the camaraderie on the underdog SNT squad that won Pan Am gold and on Saturday became just the fourth team inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame. The other three teams enshrined are the 1838 Beachville and Zorra Township squads believed to have played in the first documented baseball game, Canada’s National Youth Team that won gold at the World Youth Baseball Championship in Brandon, Man., in 1991 and the Vancouver Asahi.
“There are obviously some incredibly talented players and some incredibly special baseball people in the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame,” said Hamilton. “I think it’s appropriate for us to go in as a group because I think that’s what the program is all about. To go in as a team is a rich honour and is something that we’re very proud of.”
2011 Baseball Canada Senior National Team – Gold Medal, Pan Am Games (their position, hometown and where they are playing in 2012)
Andrew Albers, LHP, North Battleford, Sask., Double-A Minnesota Twins, New Britain
Cole Armstrong, C, Surrey, B.C., Triple-A Miami Marlins, New Orleans
Chris Bisson, 2B, Orleans, Ont., Class-A San Diego Padres, Lake Elsinore
Shawn Bowman, 3B, Coquitlam, B.C., Double-A Miami Marlins, Jacksonville
Nick Bucci, RHP, Sarnia, Ont., Milwaukee Brewers organization, injured
Michael Crouse, OF, Port Moody, B.C., Class-A Toronto Blue Jays, Dunedin
Emerson Frostad, 1B, Calgary, Alta., Independent Atlantic League, Lancaster
Mark Hardy, LHP, Campbell River, B.C., Double-A, San Diego Padres, San Antonio
Jimmy Henderson, RHP, Calgary, Alta., Triple-A, Milwaukee Brewers, Nashville
Shawn Hill, RHP, Georgetown, Ont., Triple-A, Toronto Blue Jays, Las Vegas
Jay Johnson, LHP, Sussex Corners, N.B., Class-A, Philadelphia Phillies, Clearwater
Mike Johnson, RHP, Edmonton, Alta., retired
Chris Kissock, RHP, Fruitvale, B.C., Class-A, Philadelphia Phillies, Clearwater
Brock Kjeldgaard, OF, London, Ont., Double-A Milwaukee Brewers, Huntsville
Marcus Knecht, OF, Toronto, Ont., Class-A Toronto Blue Jays, Dunedin
Kyle Lotzkar, RHP, Tsawwassen, B.C., Double-A Cincinnati Reds, Pensacola
Jonathan Malo, SS, Laval, Que., Independent Can-Am League, Quebec
Dustin Molleken, RHP, Regina, Sask., Triple-A Colorado Rockies, Colorado Springs
Scott Richmond, RHP, North Vancouver, B.C., Triple-A Toronto Blue Jays, Las Vegas
Chris Robinson, C, Dorchester, Ont., Triple-A Baltimore Orioles, Norfolk
Jamie Romak, OF, London, Ont., Double-A St. Louis, Springfield
Tim Smith, OF, Toronto, Ont., Double-A Atlanta Braves, Mississippi
Skyler Stromsmoe, 2B, Etzikom, Alta, Triple-A San Francisco Giants, Fresno
Jimmy Van Ostrand, 1B, Richmond, B.C, Double-A Washington Nationals, Harrisburg