The Futures is now for Canadian baseball
Blue Jays host week-long Futures Showcase
How far has Canada come in developing its elite baseball players? Reaching all the way back to 1973, the list of current Canadians appearing on major-league baseball rosters was short, highlighted by Hall-of-Famer, Ferguson Jenkins (Cubs), reliever John Hiller (Tigers) and RH Reggie Cleveland (Cards). Beyond a handful of others in secondary roles and some like OF Terry Puhl and IF Dave McKay a few years away, the concept of Canadians being able to contribute at baseball’s highest levels was completely foreign to most GMs and scouts.
I choose ’73 as a starting point, because it happened to be my first year with the Montreal Expos. Since then, as a P.R. person, a columnist, back to P.R., now writing again and co-hosting a baseball podcast, I have witnessed the evolution of Canadians in America’s Pastime.
Fifty-one years ago, Claude Raymond, Quebec’s iconic reliever, who remains a hugely important ambassador for the game in his home province, had just retired, while others were toiling in the Expos system, like Chatham (ON) RH Bill Atkinson and Stratford (ON) native, RH Larry Landreth.
Canadians were not even eligible for the June draft. It took the success of Maple Ridge B.C.’s Hall-of-Fame OF Larry Walker to change all that and have Canadians included in the draft. Other teams insisted that the advantage of finding Canadians in Canada was too great for the Expos and Blue Jays, so let’s make them draft-eligible. The path to pro ball became clear.
Last week, while the current Jays were away, finishing up their final regular-season trip, with the Rogers Centre as the venue, the Blue Jays Baseball Academy hosted its ninth annual Canadian Futures Showcase (formerly known as Tournament-12).
Baseball in this country has been on a long journey, from the Canadian baseball wilderness of 1973 to this 2023 Showcase and 160 bright-eyed kids from nine provinces across Canada (Newfoundland had a player invited who couldn’t attend). Divide them into six teams, coached by Canadian, former pro players, who had volunteered to help out, throw all of that and a week of top-flight instruction and improvement and the future seems bright.
The ever-improving event reflects how far the sport has come in Canada. not just in identifying pro prospects, but, more importantly, in showcasing athletes for the various baseball programs in the U.S. at various four-year programs, and two-year colleges or even those that choose to stay home and hone their skills at Canadian universities.
In 2020-21, the pandemic forced cancellation of the Showcase, but in the nine actual showcases since 2013, nine players have already reached the majors, young men that had participated as raw teenagers at the event, with hopes of taking their skills to another level.
That list of Showcase graduates that have played in the majors includes 1B Josh Naylor, RH Mike Soroka, RH Matt Brash, C Bo Naylor, 2B Edouard Julien, RH Zach Pop, IF Abraham Toro, IF Charles Leblanc and RH Jordan Balazovic. More are certainly on the way.
Oakland A’s amateur scout and Oakville (ON) native, Matt Higginson, who played as a scholarship athlete at Division I Gardner-Webb, was scouting his ninth showcase.
“The Blue Jays do an incredible job of scouring the whole country,” Higginson said. “Basically, they’re doing the job of area scouts and bringing them all into one place, allowing everybody to come and see those players. It’s ideal for scouts and it gives kids from any program, anywhere in the country, the opportunity to shine.”
Higginson compared what the floor has become for young Canadian players today, to when he was looking to take the next step as an infielder 23 years ago. One of his teammates on his travel team, the Thunderbirds, was Joey Votto. He learned work ethic from watching but was still far behind his American teammates in the basic skills.
“We didn’t have anything like this when we were growing up,” Higginson recalled. “We were on our own. We were relying on our parents, basically. I didn’t learn how to play baseball until I got to college and that’s because we just didn’t have at that time the amount of teaching and experience that’s available to kids now which just prepares them so much better.”
Also in attendance at Rogers Centre, sitting quietly in a second row seat, taking notes and confirming his impressions from a group of players he mostly knew, was Baseball Canada’s executive director and coach of the Junior National Team, Greg Hamilton.
“It’s really important,” Hamilton said of the invitation-only event. “It motivates and inspires kids from coast to coast that it’s real and they have an opportunity. (For us), you take who you deem to be the top 30 to 34 kids in each (National team) camp and, ultimately, the Top 20 when you go to a world event. (This Showcase) is an expanded process where you want to give kids the opportunity for exposure and development.”
Every international competition at both the Junior and Senior level, opponents from other countries marvel at the closeness and the feeling of family reflected by the Canadians.
“We take immense pride in that,” Hamilton said. “I always say it’s like an extended family. People care. We don’t get to care a lot in our lives about something that everybody unites around and is passionate about. Players come through, go on and come back and give to the next generation, which is what you’re seeing here and which we’re fortunate enough to have with the national team program. It’s impactful and special.”
One side benefit now is in the past, many players that did not make the National team or didn’t know the exact route to finding next-level opportunities at colleges in the states, if they were two-sport athletes, would simply take the path of least resistance and head back to a focus on hockey. Baseball in this country has lost many great players that way.
“Hockey, the route to the next level is pretty clear,” said Showcase tournament director, former minor-league pitcher and Ottawa native, TJ Burton. “(They) have a chance to go to the OHL, maybe to play Junior A, or (they say) I can go to college whereas for baseball at that age of 13, it’s well, JNT is years down the road. Now they can look at it and say, wow, there was a couple of 14-year-olds in the Showcase last year, so it’s creating those sorts of cool events in our country to try and keep the best players, the best athletes playing baseball.”
Perhaps the way-coolest moment in the tournament came on Friday morning in a shining moment of horsehide serendipity. Young outfielder, William Polanco, a member of the Quebec contingent had flied out to centre field in his first at-bat and returned to the dugout with his head down, seeming upset. As he looked up, Jose Bautista was standing in street clothes in the dugout. Joey Bats was in town, visiting all dugouts, and was intent on meeting as many kids as possible. Polanco, a Dominican-Canadian, was playing right field for Team New Blue. He was nine years old for the bat-flip game, in the 2015 ALDS. The starstruck youngster worked his way over to Bats and spoke to him for a while, filled with encouragement and positive vibes.
Polanco, his next time up, smashed a high drive over the right field wall bounding on the deck of the Rogers Patio, for a home run. As he tried to cooly circle the bases, stumbling down the steps of the dugout with a huge smile, one of his Quebec teammates, ‘midst all the high fives, yelled out, “Tah-berr-nack!!”
To me that summed up the spirit and uniqueness of this distinctly Canadian event.