My weekly observations and notes about some Canadian baseball stories:
· Congratulations to all of Baseball Canada’s 2017 National Team Award winners. The following awards were handed out on Saturday night:
Stubby Clapp Award – Andrew Albers (North Battleford, Sask.)
Special Recognition Award – Landon Leach (Pickering, Ont.)
Junior National Team MVP – Noah Naylor (Mississauga, Ont.)
Canadian Futures Award – Denzel Clarke (Pickering, Ont.)
Special Achievement Award – Mike Soroka (Calgary, Alta.)
Larry J. Pearson Alumni Award – Josh Naylor (Mississauga, Ont.)
· The 32-year-old Albers, who posted a 5-1 record and a 3.51 ERA in nine games with the Seattle Mariners in 2017, signed a one-year deal with the Orix Buffaloes of Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) on December 18. At the press conference prior to Saturday’s banquet, the veteran left-hander told me he’s leaving for Japan in 10 days to be ready for spring training which starts on February 1. Albers says his decision to go to Japan was a business one. “Seattle still retained my rights. They hadn’t taken me off the 40-man, so it was tough to walk away from that,” shared Albers. “I think I made a good impression [with the Mariners] last year. I felt like I was in a good situation. I enjoyed the staff. I enjoyed the team. I really liked the guys in the locker room over there. I had a lot of fun there. Unfortunately, you get to the business side of things and you have some contracts where some guys are out of options and you’re not and those are the guys you’re going to be competing for a spot with, and you can go to spring training and really have a good spring, but [with options] you could start the year in triple-A and never get that opportunity [to pitch in the big leagues], so that was kind of the driving force behind the decision for me. Again, it was a tough one for me to make but at the same time, sometimes you’ve got to take your heart out of it and make a smart decision. And I feel like passing up this opportunity in Japan was something that I would’ve regretted in the future.”
· Albers was also thrilled to be presented with Baseball Canada’s Stubby Clapp Award on Saturday. The inspiring Clapp is a Windsor, Ont., native who was selected in the 36th round by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1996 and against long odds rose through the club’s ranks to make his major league debut in 2001. Clapp also suited up for the national team countless times and coached Albers on the Canadian squads that captured gold at the 2011 and 2015 Pan Am Games. “To be able to win an award named after him is a tremendous honour,” said Albers at the pre-banquet press conference. “He was the ultimate grinder. He was a guy that was successful for a long time and he made the most of his ability and he really set a good example for the rest of us.”
· One of the players that Albers planned to reconnect with at the banquet was Vancouver native Scott Mathieson, who has pitched six seasons for the Yomiuri Giants in Japan. In November, Mathieson re-upped for two more seasons with the Giants. Despite still being able to hit the high-90s with his fastball and being one of the NPB’s most reliable relievers, the 33-year-old national team alum told me prior to the banquet that the 2018 and 2019 campaigns will be his final professional seasons. “It’s going to be eight years [in Japan] when it is all said and done and that will be it for me,” said Mathieson.“Then I’ll come home. My goal is to pitch for Canada on the 2020 Olympic team in [Tokyo] Japan. . . If I could pitch there that would be icing on the cake for me.”
· Mathieson has pitched against Japanese phenom, Shohei Ohtani, who signed with the Los Angeles Angels on December 9 and is being hailed as the Japanese Babe Ruth. In 2018, Ohtani, amid much hype, will attempt to be a starting pitcher and DH for the Angels. “I pitched against him a few times,” said Mathieson. “He was in the other league, but he’s a special talent and I’m excited to see him over here. I hate how much hype there is about him because he’s still young. I think everyone is expecting him to step up and be a Clayton Kershaw and a Bryce Harper at the same time. There’s going to be an adjustment period for him. And I hope that he’s given the time and he gets to make those adjustments. But he has ton of talent. I mean he hits 450-foot home runs and he throws 102 mph and his fastball is probably his secondary pitch. His slider and his splitter are better than his fastball.”
· Canadian Junior National Team founder, trailblazing executive and scout and 2016 Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Wayne Norton, who passed away last Saturday at the age of 75 after a battle with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), was remembered at the banquet. Norton, Roy Halladay and legendary Etobicoke Rangers coach Whitey Breitner were honoured with a moment of silence at the beginning of the banquet. In one of the most touching interviews at the banquet, an emotional Tyler O’Neill (Maple Ridge, B.C.), who was drafted and signed by Norton and the Seattle Mariners in 2013 and is now a top prospect in the St. Louis Cardinals organization, shared what Norton meant to him. “I’ve known him since I was 15 or 16,” said the now 22-year-old slugger. “He’s never been anything other than supportive. He always wanted me to succeed.”
· By my count, there were five individual Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductees at the banquet: Ernie Whitt, Bob Elliott (Kingston, Ont.), Bernie Soulliere (Windsor, Ont.), Roberto Alomar and Paul Quantrill (Port Hope, Ont.). Also present were 10 members of one of or both of the 2011 and 2015 Pan Am gold medal winning teams that have been inducted: Albers, Jeff Francis (North Delta, B.C.), Jim Henderson (Calgary, Alta.), Mike Johnson (Edmonton, Alta.), Chris Leroux (Montreal, Que.), Dustin Molleken (Regina, Sask.), O’Neill, Pete Orr (Newmarket, Ont.), Scott Richmond (Vancouver, B.C.) and Rene Tosoni (Port Coquitlam, B.C.). Two coaches from those teams, Greg Hamilton and Tim Leiper, were also on hand.
· At the pre-banquet press conference, I asked Vancouver native Scott Richmond about this great photo of him (above) with Canadian baseball legend Fergie Jenkins that he posted on Twitter in December on Jenkins’ 75th Birthday. Richmond said it was taken on July 1, 2009 when Jenkins was asked to throw out the first pitch on Canada Day and he got the assignment to catch it, “He threw the first pitch out and we usually sign the ball for them, but I was lucky enough to get his signature for me,” recalled Richmond. “It was really great. It was really nice to meet him and I got a great picture. I was Canadian so they sent me out there [to catch the pitch]. I was really fortunate to be chosen. That’s a great memory for me.”
· This week’s trivia question: Richmond pitched for the Blue Jays on Canada Day in 2012. Who are the only other two Canadians that have pitched for the Blue Jays in a major league game on Canada Day? Please provide your answer in the “Comments” section below. The first person to provide the correct answer will win a photo autographed by Canadian Baseball Hall of Famer Ron Taylor.
· The answer to last week’s trivia question (Eric Gagne recorded 30 or more saves in three major league seasons. There have been three other Canadian pitchers that have notched 30 or more saves in a season. Can you name two of them?) was any two of Ryan Dempster, John Hiller or John Axford.