The stars of Team Canada have put on a show so far at the World Baseball Classic in Phoenix, Ariz.
Justin Morneau and Joey Votto are living up to the MVP name, Michael Saunders has yet to disappoint, and among others, John Axford and Chris Leroux have been taking care of business.
But none of the big leaguers would have had a chance to compete for their country at the third WBC if it weren’t for the team of minor league players that Canada had to send to the qualifier in Regensburg to take care of Great Britain, Czech Republic and host Germany.
"Just to know that there are players like that, that will do that and know that there’s a very good possibility that they’re not going to be playing on the team they qualified, and they had a huge part of," Axford said. "I think it just shows the love and the passion that people have for their country and for Baseball Canada."
After losing in two straight games to the U.S. and Italy in the 2009 Classic, the Canadians were forced to qualify for this one. The tournament took place in September and restricted major league players from taking part. Knowing the big leaguers would be available in March if they qualified, many players in Germany knew where that might leave them.
'Just to know that there are players like that, that will do that and know that there’s a very good possibility that they’re not going to be playing on the team they qualified, and they had a huge part of. I think it just shows the love and the passion that people have for their country and for Baseball Canada.' —Canada's John Axford on qualifying team
"It’s awesome to be a part of Team Canada at any level, whether I’m on the field or in the stands," Cole Armstrong said. "It’s a matter of pride that we all grew up playing together. There are a lot of different names and stuff on this team [than the qualifying team] but at the same time a lot of those guys that have been to the big leagues, we played with in high school and grew up with. So any opportunity I can take to get out and see the boys play, I’m definitely going to take advantage of it."
Armstrong is one of the players who didn’t make the transfer from the team in Regensburg to the team in Phoenix, but spent all of his time between the two waiting for his chance to support Team Canada from the sidelines.
"Obviously at first there was a little bit of, I don’t know what the word would be, but we weren’t all sure who was going to be on that team, the one had we qualified," the 29-year-old said. "But just the collective character of the group, in all honesty we had so much pride for the things that we accomplished on an international stage prior to that, that we just wanted to go out there and lay the hammer down on anybody we played.
"We felt like that was part of our job as far as representing our country, that whether or not we were on the next team, it didn’t matter. We were out there to do a job and that’s what we tried to do."
Canadian skipper Ernie Whitt had some understandable nerves going into the qualifying tournament, feeling the pressure of being a favourite for the first time. But he was confident in his players, and so grateful for their accomplishments that he wanted to bring as many as possible with him to Arizona.
"I knew the team that we were taking over there and I knew that we had a good team," Whitt said. "These guys had played for me for a number of years and years past. I knew what they were capable of doing. We tried to bring as many of those guys with us on this, as a reward. Not a lot of them are starting for us here but yet they’re going to be a part of the team."
Jimmy VanOstrand is one of the fortunate few who are making their first WBC appearance, after a standout performance at the qualifier. Through three games in Regensburg, he had four home runs, a double, 10 RBI and an astounding 2.138 OPS, but he still didn’t know where he would be when March rolled around.
"When we were all over there we knew that we were playing to qualify for this tournament; for whoever was going to be on that team," VanOstrand said. "And everyone took a lot of pride in that and wanted to do that to help whoever the roster was going to be.
"So it was definitely two separate events. Everyone knew that with all the MLB guys being eligible for this, it was going to be a different roster, but I think everyone that went over there had a great time and enjoyed ourselves and we wanted to win. There was no doubt about it. We needed this team to be in the tournament."
Starting catcher Chris Robinson wasn’t thinking too much about the Classic during his time in Germany, even though it was incredibly likely that the No. 1 spot behind the dish would go to Russell Martin. He was just happy to be in the Team Canada environment once again.
"We say it all the time — it’s such a close group of guys that I think everyone kind of understands their role within the team and the organization and everything," Robinson said. "So I think a lot of the guys went over there knowing that they probably wouldn’t have a chance. And I think there are some guys on this team, myself included, that definitely weren’t assured, or definitely didn’t think for sure that we’d be here.
"But again, you get together with the group of guys and it’s like another opportunity…you don’t really think about what’s on the line. It’s another opportunity to play with the guys. The longer you’re around the game, the tougher it is maybe at the higher levels of the minor leagues…to really feel that team atmosphere. So when you get together here, it’s refreshing."
Philadelphia Phillies prospect Tyson Gillies also notched a starting spot in the WBC lineup after competing in the qualifying round. But the native of Vancouver spent a lot of time wondering what his role might be.
"Absolutely," he said. "That was another big thing that we talked about as players. We had to look past that thing. Obviously all of us wanted to come out here and represent at the World Baseball Classic but we knew that we had to win; do a job and win for these guys. And just to be able to come out here, some of us from the Germany squad and have a chance to represent this; we’re walking on cloud nine right now."