Baseball

DIAMONDS AND DREAMS

Happiness is a bat, a ball and a chance to play for pay,

MICHAEL SNIDER May 26 2003
Baseball

DIAMONDS AND DREAMS

Happiness is a bat, a ball and a chance to play for pay,

MICHAEL SNIDER May 26 2003

DIAMONDS AND DREAMS

Baseball

Happiness is a bat, a ball and a chance to play for pay,

MICHAEL SNIDER

The first-ever Canadian Baseball League games are being played this week in London, Ont., Saskatoon, Trois-Rivières, Que., and Calgary. Maclean’s reporter Michael Snider, 32, signed up for league tryouts, and filed this report:

I’VE BEEN HUMMING Bruce Springsteen’s Glory Days all morning and the tune is still in my head as I walk through the clubhouse tunnel toward the field. I had a friend was

The pressure’s on as Snider takes his cuts in the cage, trying to impress the scouts

a big baseball player/Back in high school/He could throw that speed ball by you/Make you look like a fool, boy. My brand new metal spikes grate across the concrete floor, and as I climb the dugout steps onto the field, a cool spring breeze brushes my face and the sunshine is so bright I have to dip the brim

of my cap to shade my eyes. Out on the freshly cut grass of London’s venerable Labatt Park, more than 160 players are limbering up, getting ready for tryouts to fill the last roster spots in the new eight-team Canadian Baseball League. I drop my bag on the mountain of others, smack my fist into my worn catcher’s mitt and jog to an empty piece of grass to begin stretching.

God, I love this game. I read somewhere

that the word “paradise” comes from the Persian expression for “field of green.” The diamond has always been my paradise. From February until October, and sometimes beyond, I think of baseball more often than just about anything else—catching, throwing, making plays and smashing the cover off the ball. I’ve played the game competitively almost every summer since I was seven, and Fd even had a taste of the pros. Call it a nibble: I spent two summers as a bullpen catcher for the Ottawa Lynx when they were still the Montreal Expos’ Triple A farm club. It wasn’t glorious work. I’d warm up the starting pitcher before the game, then sit in the pen until the relievers were needed.

Still, knowing you’re good enough to be there but not good enough to be there always nagged me. So when the CBL put out the call inviting players to try out for the league, I signed up, and like so many others on a late-April day, I have come to the park with something to prove. Sure, I’m here as a reporter ostensibly to write a story about the tryout, but I still entertain the prospect—call it a dream—that at the end of the camp I might be asked to play for real. I at least want to give it my best shot, in part because of another refrain from that Springsteen song. Glory days/well they’ll pass you by/glory days/in the wink ofayoung girl’s eye/glory days/glory days.

The CBL is the brainchild of Tony Riviera, a brash New Yorker who scouted for the Cleveland Indians before heading north with a dream of his own. It’s taken Riviera four years to get to this week’s opening day, from convincing Ferguson Jenkins, Canada’s greatest pitcher ever and our only Hall of Famer, to be league commissioner, and building a business model that’s attracted investors such as former Microsoft exec Charlton Lui and Jeff Mallett, former president of Yahoo! His plan is to build an independent league in Canada similar to ones in Japan, Taiwan and Mexico, with a Canadian content rule to develop homegrown talent. Payrolls are limited to a monthly maximum of $60,000 per club, and that’s Canadian dollars. And since the league owns the teams, there are no bidding wars for top players. There are teams in Kelowna, B.C., Victoria, Calgary and Saskatoon in the western division, and Niagara, London, Trois-Rivières and Montreal in the east.

And 162 guys at this tryout want to be part of it. The camp attracts players from

Japan, Latin America and the U.S. The bulk, though, are Canadian boys like Alex Cerda, a 23-year-old catcher who drove west from Mississauga, Ont. Some, like O’neil Brown, a stocky pitcher from Toronto who threw in Double A, even have some pro experience. But to a man we’re anxious, wondering how good we are compared to the next guy. A few have come in groups and chatter loudly about women and late-night drinking feats. Mostly, though, the first thing asked is: “So, where’d you play?” It’s a loaded questionbaseball’s competitive, and we’re trying to figure out where we fit into the hierarchy. One fellow from Kitchener, Ont., tells me he led the Intercounty Baseball League in hitting last year. Another talks about his unblemished pitching record in college. Some guys

look like they’ve been here before. They’re the quiet ones who stretch alone or hang back, knowing they’ll have plenty of time to warm up when their time comes.

As it does. At 9 a.m. sharp, Riviera, his director of baseball operations John Haar, and Tom Valcke, a former scout and head of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame, line us up along the third base line and tell us how the “beauty contest,” as Valcke calls it, will be run. Others are there too, including Willie Wilson, a former all-star outfielder with the Kansas City Royals who’s managing the London Monarchs. Valcke, a hulking man with drill-sergeant demeanour, tells us well each be getting a number. “Don’t forget it,” he says. He splits the squad into positions, sending the pitchers and catchers with Riviera to the bullpen, and the infielders and outfielders onto the grass for time trials.

I’m No. 206, and a catcher. Catching is the toughest day-to-day position in baseball. Defensively, catchers participate in every play and, because they have a full view of the park, they often serve as on-field commanders. They have to be on their toes mentally, knowing the strengths and weaknesses of each hitter, who’s on base and whether they’re a stealing threat, and what is or isn’t working for the pitcher. Catching’s also tough when 40-odd pitchers vying for a handful of roster spots are trying to throw hard enough to knock down a house.

That’s why catching Todd Etler is a dream. The 29-year-old right-hander from Covington, Ky., is a quiet guy, polite and friendly, with a three-inch scar on the inside of his elbow from surgery to repair a torn ligament. He grew up just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, cheering for the Reds and, like any kid, dreaming of one day playing for them. The Reds drafted him in 1992 and he made it to Triple A before blowing out his arm. Now he’s working on a comeback. The moment Etler goes into his windup I can see he knows what he’s doing. His delivery is fluid, compact and stays the same no matter what kind of pitch he throws. And his stuff—wow. If you’ve never heard a 90-milean-hour fastball, you’re missing something. It rips the air like a zipper before hitting the mitt, ssssshhh-stnack!

While the bullpen session continues, the infielders and outfielders begin to hit. Throwing batting practice is Haar, Canada’s Mr. Baseball. A former major-leaguer, Haar has been developing Canadian talent for three

decades and ran the National Baseball Institute in Vancouver for 13 years as well as coaching several Canadian national teams in international competitions. At 59, he looks healthier than a teenager and pitches to 110 hitters—more than 1,300 pitches— a feat that would put just about anyone else in an arm sling.

After hitting come the first cuts. I’m worried—I wasn’t great in batting practice. While we wait, I mix with Etler and a few others who have played in the minors. We talk about players we’ve known and tell a few stories about, well, about the glory days. It dawns on me that these guys are the ones with the most to lose. They’re trying to hold on to their dreams and getting cut means they may have to face the end. But they’ll have company: three-quarters of the 162 guys are sent packing. I hold my breath when Valcke gets to the catchers. “206,” he calls. I’m staying.

The rest of the afternoon is spent playing a mock game. There are about 40 of us left, including a dozen or so pitchers who each throw half an inning. It’s not long before it’s my turn to hit. I step into the batter’s box, chopping the red dirt with my cleats and digging a little trench. The pitcher is a Dominican wearing an Expos cap. His fastball has some zip to it but he has trouble finding the strike zone. He throws four straight

balls but because the CBL scouts want to see us hit, I stay in the batter’s box. He starts with a curve ball that breaks over the plate for a strike. Two more fastballs miss high. Guessing the next pitch will be a curve—the only pitch he’s thrown for a strike—I swing, drilling a one-hopper through the gap between shortstop and third base. The left fielder bobbles the ball and I race into second with a single and an extra base on the error. I’ve got my hit, and don’t care what happens for the rest of the day.

Just being able to play—that’s always been the main thing, for me and for just about everyone who ties up their spikes and pulls the brim of their cap down tight before facing that pitcher with the nasty slider or that hitter with thunder in his bat. The vast majority of guys at this tryout know they’re going to leave thirsty, but they’re grateful for the chance, however small. Todd Etler came to the park that day wanting to play, to sign a contract with a fledgling league in Canada in the hopes he’d then get noticed and be back in the bigs before it’s too late. Tony Riviera, dragging equipment bags from his rented SUV, had the biggest dream of alito start a league and share his love of the game with fans and players alike.

I’m in the on-deck circle, waiting for another at-bat, when the scrimmage finally

ends. Shadows from the stadium walls have almost covered the field when Valcke reads off 15 numbers, and there’s no mention of 206. No matter. I’ve gotten more out of this day than most. And as the 15 fortunate ones gather in a semicircle around Riviera and Haar-Etler among them-I hoist my equipment bag over my shoulder and climb up into the stands. By the stadium exit where I am to meet my wife, I turn for one last look at paradise. My wife sees the look in my eyes and smiles, because she knows how much fun I’ve had. I smile back, content with the knowledge I’m still good enough to dream.

On the way out to the car, I read the scouting card Valcke has filled out. It ranks my potential at 38, two points shy of being considered a worthwhile prospect. Fifty points qualifies as major-league-average tools. He liked the way I handled the pitchers, and has pointed out deficiencies in my hitting. He calls me a “journeyman Crash Davis-type player” after the character Kevin Costner plays in the movie Bull Durham, about a catcher who won’t give up the game he loves. But it’s the last few lines that I like the most. “Would be a stabilizer to CBL team, anchor for young pitching staff. His passion leads me to believe he’d sign for a cup of coffee.” ! Don’t they know it. Hül