When Canadian pitcher Jason Birmingham fielded a comebacker and tossed it to first baseman Troy Croft for the final out to clinch the gold medal at the World Youth Baseball Championships in Brandon, Man., on August 4, 1991, their teammates rushed towards the mound to celebrate.
Ordinarily Todd Schell, a scrappy, swing-from-the-heels outfielder, would’ve led the charge, but he had sprained his MCL in his right knee diving for a ball earlier in the tournament and was sidelined for the finale.
“I was on crutches,” recalled Schell in a recent phone interview, “but I still made it to the mound for the celebration. That was something I’ll never forget.”
More than two decades have passed since that overachieving group of teens became Canada’s first – and so far only – junior squad to win an international competition, but Schell still gets asked about the experience.
“I think it’s something that I’ve come to appreciate more as I’ve gotten older and I’ve seen how tough it has been for other teams to do what we did,” said Schell, who turned 40 this year. “At the time we were just kids trying to stay focused on winning games.”
Schell’s evolution into one of Canada’s top junior baseball players was a relatively swift one. Born in Oakville, Ont., in 1973, he moved with his family to North Bay when he was two and didn’t play organized baseball until he was 10.
“When I was a kid, my dad pitched fastball and we were living up north, so I spent the majority of my time running around the ball diamonds and not officially playing,” said Schell. “In 1980, we moved from North Bay back down to Oakville and then I broke my parents’ hearts and decided that I wanted to play soccer because all of my friends were playing soccer.”
Schell, who was also an outstanding hockey defenceman, played soccer for two years before redirecting his attention to the diamond. Coached by his father, Chuck, and Dave Scarrow, a staple of the Oakville baseball scene, Schell developed into a standout shortstop and pitcher.
“I was never by the book technique-wise,” said Schell with a chuckle. “A lot of coach’s tried to change my swing, they said I swung too hard and that I should ease off a little bit, but it worked for me.”
At 14, he started receiving invitations to camps run by renowned Toronto-area talent evaluators Ron Cabot and Andy Lawrence and within three years, Schell was invited to try out for an Ontario squad. After being one of the last cuts from the provincial squad in 1990, he cracked the roster the following year.
“I think the first time that I actually played outfield was with Ontario,” he said. “When I went to the Ontario camp, I tried out as a shortstop and they took the small glove off of me and gave me the bigger glove [for the outfield]. ”
The Ontario team brass wanted Schell primarily for his bat and the stocky outfielder didn’t disappoint. His performance at the national tournament in Regina helped Ontario capture gold.
“We ended up winning gold at the nationals and I think we beat B.C., and at the end of the game, they brought out all of the players from all of the teams and they announced the players that were going to go on and try out for Team Canada,” recalled Schell. “Then they shuttled us [those invited to the Team Canada camp] back to the hotel and we grabbed our bags and we were gone again. Everything happened pretty quickly and then all of a sudden it seemed like I was in the middle of nowhere in Saskatchewan.”
And in many ways he was. The national team camp was in Kindersley, Sask., almost 400 km northwest of Regina, where Stubby Clapp once lamented that the mosquitoes “were as big as pterodactyls.” But Schell had little time to worry about bugs or his chances of making the team.
“I really went to the camp just thinking that I was going to do my best and see what happens,” said Schell.
Fortunately the hard-nosed Oakville native impressed manager John Haar and his staff and he made the team. After learning to play right field for the Ontario team, Schell was asked to man left field for Team Canada.
“We had no idea what to expect heading into the tournament,” recalled Schell. “We were kids from across Canada. We had never played competition like we were about to play. I mean, all of the kids on that team were the best from their respective areas, but we didn’t get to play against pitchers who were first-round draft picks.
“So going into the tournament, I think we were all a little bit naive about what was going to happen. I think we were a little intimidated to play the mighty American team and, of course, you heard stories about how good the Cubans were.”
As the team’s everyday left fielder, Schell was a key offensive and defensive contributor and was named to the tournament’s all-star team.
“We had contributions from everybody and I tried to be consistent game in and game out,” he said. “I don’t think I had a home run in the tournament, but I was just trying to hustle and to get on base and I ended up hitting just over .300.”
Former major league all-star Jason Dickson, who suited up alongside Schell on that 1991 Canadian team and again in college, remembers the stocky outfielder well.
“Todd got his swings in. He certainly wasn’t going to get cheated at the plate,” recalled Dickson. “He was always a threat at the plate and he had a pretty good arm from the outfield. He was a big part of our success. He was kind of a Matt Stairs-type player. He had that same type of short, stocky build.”
After defeating lesser lights like the Netherlands, Brazil and Italy, the Canadians faced the powerful Americans in the seventh game of the round-robin tournament. After falling behind 4-0, the team rallied for an unlikely 10-6 win.
“I think that game was an eye-opener for us and for other teams as well, because coming into the tournament, I don’t think anyone would’ve given us much of a chance,” said Schell. “Once we beat the U.S., we starting thinking if we could do that, then maybe we had a chance [to win the tournament]. I think then everyone started believing and confidence is contagious in a short tournament like that. And if you get everyone playing well and playing well together, great things can happen.”
And great things did, indeed, happen for the underdog Canadians. Three days after upsetting Team USA, the young Canucks downed Chinese Taipei 5-2 in front of 5,000 boisterous fans at Brandon’s Westbran Stadium to win gold.
For their efforts, the entire team was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 1992. Schell has since donated his medal and all-star ring from the tournament to the St. Marys, Ont.-based shrine.
“It was over 10 years ago now, but [former Hall president] Tom Valcke gave me a call and said they were gathering up some items to put up a display at the SkyDome and then ultimately take the stuff back to the Hall of Fame in St. Marys,” recalled Schell. “At that time, I was still living at home and I had a bunch of stuff that was in boxes. So I thought the medal would have a good home there, where everyone could see it and appreciate it.”
Just a few months after helping the national squad make history, Schell reported to Northeastern Oklahoma A&M College (NEO) in Miami, Okla. After a solid rookie campaign in the spring of 1992, he was joined by fellow national team members Todd Betts and Jason Dickson that fall.
Rooming with Betts and living next door to Dickson in the dormitory, Schell and his Canadian teammates led the school to a Junior College World Series appearance in the spring of 1993. The team ended up finishing third.
“We had a run to the Junior College World Series and Todd was really good in the middle of the lineup for us. He was one of our power guys,” recalled Dickson. “He was a really good friend in college and we really bonded that year. He was a funny guy. He had a dry sense of humor. He’s definitely one of the best teammates that I’ve ever had.”
Schell also has fond memories of that season with NEO.
“We were in the middle of nowhere in Oklahoma and most folks there didn’t know the first thing about Canada,” remembered Schell. “Then all of a sudden there are these Canadian ballplayers coming down and the people started thinking, ‘Wow, these guys can play.’ We opened a few eyes, and ever since NEO has recruited Canadian players.”
After two seasons with NEO, Schell transferred to Canisius College in Buffalo. In his first season there, the Canadian slugger rewrote the team’s record book, setting single-season marks for home runs (13), RBIs (45), slugging percentage (.754) and total bases (104). He was also a key reason the team went 17-1 in league play and captured its first Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) regular-season championship.
His single-season home run record stood for 15 years, despite the fact that Canisius now competes in about 20 more games a season than when Schell played there. He followed up his rookie campaign with nine more homers in his second season at Canisius. His performances in 1994 and 1995 earned him MAAC All-Conference Team honours in both seasons.
In the summer of 1994, Schell also began playing in the (Ontario) Intercounty Baseball League. With the Stratford Hillers that year, he belted 15 homers in just 30 games to top the league. He followed that up with 12 more round-trippers the next season to tie for the league lead.
But despite his power and collegiate success, the 5-foot-10 Schell was not drafted by a big league club, and after two years at Canisius, he returned to Canada to complete an economics degree at Western University in London, Ont.
“There were guys that were going on and playing [professional] independent ball, but that wasn’t for me,” he said. “At the time, I was happy playing in the Intercounty League and being close to home and I was focusing on my education and getting my schooling done and preparing for a career outside of baseball.”
Schell suited up for three more seasons in the Intercounty League – one more with Stratford and two with the Toronto Maple Leafs – between 1996 and 1999, while establishing a successful career in the financial services sector.
In 1999, Schell married his wife, Amy, and the couple now has two children Cal (soon to be 12) and Lauren (10). After residing in Burlington from 1999 to 2007, he moved to Elmira, Ont., for six years, before returning to Burlington this April.
He now works as a project manager at Manulife Financial in Oakville and returned to the diamond for the first time in more than a decade this summer when he decided to play in the Burlington Vintage Baseball League, a circuit for players 30 and older.
Even though he had a relatively late start in the sport, it’s clear that baseball is in Schell’s blood. And thanks to his all-star performance for his country’s gold medal-winning youth team more than two decades ago, he has etched himself a permanent spot in Canadian baseball history.
“Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate just how special it was to be part of that team,” he said. “And when people ask what it was like to be a part of it, I’m always proud to talk about it.”