Summer dreams: Canadians are lighting up the diamonds

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SUMMER DREAMS

In the spring of 1935, a 27-year-old fleet-footed Canadian nicknamed Twinkletoes started the major-league baseball season with high hopes – and huge shoes to fill. In right field for the New York Yankees, George Selkirk, from Huntsville, Ont., attracted immediate attention because he had taken over the position of the legendary George Herman (Babe) Ruth, who hit 714 home runs before retiring in the fall of 1935. Selkirk lasted nine years in the majors, hit 108 home runs and played in six World Series and two all-star games. Although he succeeded an eventual Hall of Famer, Selkirk was typical of the more than 150 Canadians who have played major-league baseball over the years. Most of them have been competent professionals. Few have been genuine superstars. But there are signs that Canadians are beginning to make a bigger impact on the sport. This season, seven Canadians, five of them full-time, have been playing in the major leagues, and about another 35 were honing their skills in the minor leagues.

The officials who manage Canada’s amateur baseball programs say that the increasing number of Canadians throughout the professional ranks reflects grassroots growth in the sport. William Martin, executive director of Ottawa-based Baseball Canada, said that an unprecedented 500,000 children aged 7 to 13 were playing organized baseball across Canada this year, up from 375,000 five years ago. He added that coaching, traditionally in short supply in Canada, is gradually being upgraded to meet the new interest in the sport. Despite those improvements, Canada’s major-leaguers say that amateur baseball remains underdeveloped in this country. Said 26-year-old B.C. resident Kevin Reimer, an outfielder with the Texas Rangers: “I thought I was good until I went to school in California. My roommate there played in three summer leagues. It’s a full-time sport for them.”

Even though they have faced extremely tough competition, a handful of Canadians have managed to rise through the minor leagues and survive in the majors. The most durable of the current group of Canadian major-leaguers is 34-year-old Terry Puhl from Melville, Sask. He has spent his entire 14-year career with the National League’s (NL) Houston Astros and has a respectable .280 career batting average. His .993 fielding percentage is an all-time record for NL outfielders. But because of a debilitating right shoulder injury, he has appeared in only 37 games this season and batted only 41 times.

Posted: With Puhl approaching the end of his playing days, attention is shifting to the younger Canadians in the majors. Kirk McCaskill, a 29-year-old native of Kapuskasing, Ont., who once tried out for the National Hockey League Winnipeg Jets, has been a starting pitcher for the California Angels for six seasons. As of Sept. 13, McCaskill’s 2.81 earned run average (runs allowed per nine innings) was among the top 10 American League (AL) West pitchers. The only other full-time Canadian pitcher in the majors is 25-year-old Victoria native Steve Wilson, who is in his second season with the NL Chicago Cubs. Playing on a team that had a 68-76 win-loss record and that was 15 1/2 games out of first place in the NL East, Wilson had posted a 4-8 win-loss record with an earned run average of 4.78.

Canada’s other two full-time major-leaguers this season are both outfielders. Reimer, who was called up on June 2 from the Triple A Oklahoma City ’89ers, was batting .272 for the Rangers, while Montreal Expos rookie Larry Walker, 23, from Maple Ridge, B.C., was hitting only .237. But Walker had hit 18 homers as of Sept. 14 and was just behind veteran first baseman Andres Galarraga and third baseman Tim Wallach for homers among Expo batters. Said Walker: “I’m not conscious of being Canadian. But if I come across another Canadian player, like McCaskill, I make a point of speaking to him.”

On Sept. 1, when major-league teams expand their rosters to 40 from 25 so they can call up players from the minor leagues, the Toronto Blue Jays summoned 25-year-old Cambridge, Ont., resident Rob Ducey from their Triple A team in Syracuse, N.Y. Ducey started seven games in left field in place of regular outfielder George Bell and promptly got nine hits in 27 at bats. Ducey also made several sparkling catches, which led some observers to conclude that he will be a strong candidate for a starting job with the Jays next season. Seattle, meanwhile, called up Mike Gardiner, a 24-year-old pitcher from Sarnia, Ont., who had been spectacular with the Mariners’ Double A Williamsport, Penn., team. He lost his major-league debut on Sept. 12, 9-3 to the Oakland A’s, giving up eight runs in 5 1/3 innings pitched.

Accomplished: Baseball historians consider that 1941 was a benchmark for Canadians in the major leagues. Bruce Prentice, president of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in Toronto, said that in that year, eight Canadians were playing in the AL alone, including Yankee outfielder Selkirk. Cleveland Indians outfielder Jeff Heath was the most accomplished of the Canadians that year. A Thunder Bay, Ont., native, Heath compiled a .340 batting average, drove in 123 runs and hit 24 homers. Heath’s hitting that season earned him a spot on the AL All-Stars team alongside two of baseball’s greatest outfielders ever – the Yankees’ Joe DiMaggio and the Boston Red Sox’s Ted Williams.

According to Prentice, major-league teams regarded Canada as an important source of talent from the 1920s through to the mid-1940s and regularly scouted Canadian junior and senior leagues for recruits. But the shattering of modern-day professional baseball’s color barrier in 1946, when Jackie Robinson joined the Montreal Royals, opened up two new pools of talent for major-league teams. They suddenly had access to players from the black leagues of the United States and the Caribbean countries. As a result, according to baseball historians, the amount of scouting and the number of players coming out of Canada both dropped sharply.

Suffered: Prentice added that in the post-Second World War era, baseball in Canada also suffered because the hockey season became progressively longer. As communities across the country built indoor arenas with artificial ice surfaces, hockey could be played from September to April, which cut into both the start and the finish of the baseball season. But over the past decade, Canadians have rediscovered their passion for America’s national pastime. Baseball Canada’s Martin said that there has been “a dramatic rise” in the number of children playing baseball. He added, “We attribute that to the Expos’ and Blue Jays’ increasing the exposure of the game.”

Along with increased exposure and participation, Canadians are developing a new, more sophisticated approach to the game, added Martin. Over the past 10 years, more than 32,000 coaches from across the country have taken instructional courses offered by Baseball Canada. Martin said that his association also operates a high-performance training centre in Vancouver called the National Baseball Institute (NBI), and will be responsible for running the Academy of Baseball Canada, due to open officially on Sept. 27 in Montreal.

Launched in 1986 with the backing of the Blue Jays, Labatt’s, Petro-Canada and Baseball B.C., the NBI provides financial support for 25 ball players annually while they attend university or community college. From early September until mid-October, the players work on hitting, pitching and other basic skills for four hours a day, five days a week, and play a 25-games schedule against U.S. college teams. From November to January, they train indoors, and between February and May they play a 65- to 70-games schedule, again against American college teams. To date, seven players from the NBI have entered the American minor leagues, including 22-year-old pitcher Denis Boucher, a Montreal native who is now regarded as a top prospect in the Blue Jays organization.

Overshadows: Despite the advancements in amateur baseball in this country, Canadian major-league players maintain that hockey still overshadows the American game. The Expos’ Walker, who says that he initially dreamed of playing in the National Hockey League, recalls that he played about 15 baseball games each summer when he was growing up, but American youngsters, particularly in the southern states, play almost year-round. Said Walker: “Ball playing in Canada isn’t really serious. It’s nothing compared to the States.”

Chatham, Ont., native Ferguson Jenkins, who pitched in the majors from 1965 to 1983 and was perhaps the greatest baseball player ever to come out of Canada, said that the sport should be played more in the schools in this country. Jenkins, who now lives on a farm in Oklahoma and will play this winter in Arizona in a senior league, said that teenage players in Canada should be playing 100 games a year if they hope to compete successfully against American and Latin players. Added Jenkins: “Then you’d see more Canadians in the minor and the big leagues.” But given Canadians’ passion for hockey, and their country’s long winter seasons, baseball will almost certainly remain the great American pastime.

PHOTO : Ducey (left); Puhl: new training facilities and better coaching have improved Canadians’ chances

PHOTO : `Twinkletoes’: an impressive slugger, but not the Babe

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