By Kevin Glew
Cooperstowners in Canada
My weekly observations and notes about some Canadian baseball stories:
– If you’re looking for the Canadian who had the best full season in the professional ranks this year, look no further than London, Ont., native Jamie Romak. While his major league counterparts were playing an abbreviated 60-game schedule, this right-handed hitting slugger competed in 139 contests for the SK Wyverns of the Korean Baseball Organization where he was an offensive force. Romak batted .282 with 32 home runs and 91 RBIs, while rapping out 32 doubles and walking 91 times. He also had 85 runs, a .399 on-base percentage, .546 slugging percentage and an .945 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS). This is his fourth outstanding season in Korea. Prior to his tenure in Korea, Romak played parts of 13 seasons in the affiliated minor league ranks after being drafted in the fourth round by the Atlanta Braves in 2003. He had major league stints with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2014 and the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2015. He has already been re-signed to a $1.15-million contract by the SK Wyverns for the 2020 season.
– In case you missed it, Langley Blaze and Junior National Team graduate Tyler O’Neill (Maple Ridge, B.C.) won the National League Gold Glove Award for left fielders on Tuesday. With this, he became the first Canadian outfielder to win a Gold Glove Award since Maple Ridge, B.C., native Larry Walker accomplished the feat with the Colorado Rockies in 2002, and just the fourth Canadian overall to secure a Gold Glove, joining Walker (a seven-time winner), Montreal native Russell Martin (2007) and Etobicoke, Ont., native Joey Votto (2011). O’Neill had been up against Shogo Akiyama, from the Cincinnati Reds, and David Peralta, from the Arizona Diamondbacks, for the honour. After playing parts of two seasons with the Cardinals in 2018 and 2019, O’Neill took over as the club’s starting left fielder this season. The 25-year-old Canuck had nine Defensive Runs Saved in 2020, which is four more than any other left fielder in the National League. He also fielded all 89 defensive chances he had at his position flawlessly, finishing with a 1.000 fielding percentage, and his range factor per nine innings improved to 2.33 from 1.26 in 2019. O’Neill’s Gold Glove Award comes on the heels of him being named the winner of the Fielding Bible Award for major league left fielders by Baseball Info Solutions (BIS) the previous week.
–After an injury-shortened season, Canadian left-hander James Paxton is a free agent. I noted last week that his agent Scott Boras is spreading the word that Paxton will be completely healthy by the start of the 2021 season. The Canuck southpaw, who underwent back surgery in February, made just five starts for the New York Yankees this year, going 1-1 with a 6.64 ERA, before he was sidelined with a flexor strain in his throwing arm. Baseball America recently highlighted Paxton as the fourth-best “Upside” free agent in a recent article by Kyle Glaser and J.J. Cooper. They write that Paxton “still has some of the best pure stuff from the left side in MLB.” MLB Trade Rumours predicts that Paxton will sign a one-year, $10-million contract with the Chicago White Sox. The 32-year-old Paxton has pitched in parts of eight major league seasons and had a career-best 15 wins with the Yankees in 2019.
– It was 16 years ago today that Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Jason Bay (Trail, B.C.) became the first – and still only – Canadian to win the National League Rookie of the Year award. After making his big league debut with the San Diego Padres in 2003, Bay was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates. He assumed starting left field duties for the club on May 7, 2004 and never looked back, hitting .282 and belting 26 home runs in 120 games in that rookie season. The closest another Canuck has come to winning the National League’s top rookie award was last season when Atlanta Braves right-hander Mike Soroka (Calgary, Alta.) finished second to New York Mets slugger Pete Alonso in the voting.
– What does it take for Blue Jays reliever Jordan Romano (Markham, Ont.) to get a solo baseball card in a Topps set? He was featured on the 2020 Topps Heritage “Rookie Stars” card above with fellow Blue Jays right-hander T.J. Zeuch. But even though he was dominant out of the Blue Jays’ pen this season, posting a 1.23 ERA and striking out 21 batters in 14 2/3 innings, he was bypassed for the 2020 Topps Update set. The annual Topps Update set generally features traded players and standout rookies from the most recent season. So it’s a little baffling as to why Romano is not included, yet, as @kevinantunes pointed out to me on Twitter, it does include a card of Andy Burns, who was in the Blue Jays’ organization in 2020 but never played a game with them.
– According to Baseball America’s minor league transactions list, the Baltimore Orioles have released left-hander Rob Zastryzny (Edmonton, Alta.). The Canuck lefty spent much of the season at the O’s alternate training site, but did not see any big league action. A second-round pick of the Chicago Cubs in 2013, Zastryzny split 2019 between the Los Angeles Dodgers’ double-A and triple-A affiliates, posting a combined 5.58 ERA in 23 appearances – including 19 starts. Prior to that, the 28-year-old southpaw recorded a 4.41 ERA in 18 relief appearances in parts of three seasons with the Cubs from 2016 to 2018, earning a World Series ring with the club in 2016. In all, in parts of seven minor league campaigns, the Canadian southpaw has registered a 4.78 ERA in 146 appearances. He also toed the rubber for Canada at the WSBC Premier12 tournament last November. Zastryzny was born in Edmonton, Alta., but he attended Calallen High School in Corpus Christi, Tex. and later pitched at the University of Missouri Columbia.
– Bill Pennington’s excellent 2019 book, Chumps to Champs: How the Worst Teams in the Yankees History Led to the ’90s Dynasty, includes a great story about Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Doug Melvin (Chatham, Ont.) and Yankees great Bernie Williams. While Melvin was serving as the Yankees scouting director in 1985, he was living in Connecticut. Roberto Rivera, one of Melvin’s scouts, had spotted and raved about a promising 16-year-old outfielder at a regional tournament in Puerto Rico named Bernie Williams. Unfortunately for the Yankees and Melvin, a few other major league teams also had their sights on Williams. The rules stipulated that Williams could not be signed by a major league club until he was 17, so Melvin and Rivera concocted a plan to bring Williams up to Connecticut and hide him until he turned 17. So in the summer of 1985, Pennington writes, the Yankees “whisked” the soon-to-be 17-year-old Williams to a small baseball camp in Connecticut not far from Melvin’s home. In fact it was so close that Williams sometimes ate meals at Melvin’s home. The other major league club’s scouts were left baffled. They couldn’t figure out where the budding prospect had gone. Just before Williams turned 17, the Yankees flew him back to Puerto Rico and then signed him on the day he turned 17. The rest, as they say, is history. Williams played 16 seasons with the Yankees and finished his career with four World Series rings, five All-Star selections, four Gold Gloves, a batting title and 2,336 hits.
– One of my favourite interviews was with longtime Chicago White Sox coach Joe Nossek back in 2013. He turns 80 today. Happy Birthday to him! He had a six-year big league career, and also suited up for the triple-A Vancouver Mounties in 1968. The affable Ohio native ranked his performance in a game with the Mounties on September 7, 1968 at Capilano Stadium as one of the most memorable of his career. “Mickey Vernon was our manager in Vancouver and I talked him into letting me pitch the second-last game of the season,” recalled Nossek, then a fleet-footed, 27-year-old centre fielder who hadn’t pitched since high school. “It was a doubleheader that day, so it was only seven innings, but I ended up pitching a complete game and we won 5-1. I remember I struck out two guys in the first inning and then I couldn’t lift my arm when I went out for the second inning. But I did make it through the game, but I got a whole new appreciation for pitchers and what it takes for them to get in shape.” It should be noted that the Hawaii Islanders, Nossek’s opponent that day, were in second place in the Pacific Coast League’s West Division. The Mounties, on the other hand, were destined for a last-place finish. That contest was one of the few bright spots for Nossek and his Mounties teammates on the field that season. Despite having six players – Tony La Russa, Steve Boros, Dave Duncan, Marcel Lachemann, Rene Lachemann and Nossek himself – that would go on to enjoy successful big league managerial and coaching careers, the team limped to a 58-88 record. “We had a smart team, but we sure didn’t play very well,” said Nossek. “I guess it’s like they say, ‘If you can’t play it, coach it.” In all, Nossek spent 43 seasons in professional baseball as a player, manager and coach.
– It still hurts to type this, but it was three years ago yesterday that Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame inductee Roy Halladay died in a plane crash at the age of 40. Just six months prior to his death, he delivered a hilarious and self-deprecating speech at his Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame induction ceremony in St. Marys, Ont. This is why when I think of Halladay I always smile. You can watch the speech by clicking on the link below.
– This week’s trivia question: Two former Montreal Expos managers won the National League Rookie of the Year award to begin their playing careers. Can you name one of them? Please provide your answer in the “Comments” section below. Please note: I’m going to hold off awarding prizes until after the COVID-19 pandemic. Hope you understand.
– The answer to last week’s trivia question (Who is the last player born in Canada to win a National League Gold Glove Award?) was Joey Votto (Etobicoke, Ont.) who won the National League Gold Glove Award for first baseman with the Cincinnati Reds in 2011.