Baseball

Former Blue Jays all-star Saunders puts retirement on hold for Olympic qualifier

Michael Saunders, who'll turn 33 this month, is among the 28 players representing Canada at Premier 12 in South Korea, an international event and Olympic qualifier featuring the top dozen-ranked baseball nations in the world.

Outfielder to represent Canada at tournament in South Korea next week

The Canadian men's baseball team will face Japan again on Friday to finish a two-game series in preparation for the upcoming WBSC Premier12, a tournament that serves as a qualifier for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. (Koji Watanabe/Getty Images)

Michael Saunders was convinced his playing days were over after he was released by the Colorado Rockies during spring training last March.

The former Blue Jays all-star had come to terms with his retirement and was looking forward to starting a new chapter of his career.

But a call from Greg Hamilton, Baseball Canada's director of national teams, lured him back for one last shot at on-field glory.

Saunders, who'll turn 33 this month, is among the 28 players representing Canada at Premier 12 in South Korea, an international event and Olympic qualifier featuring the top dozen-ranked baseball nations in the world.

CBCSports.ca will have a free live stream of the event, beginning on Saturday at 1:40 p.m. ET. Canada's first game of the tournament comes against Cuba on Tuesday at 10:40 p.m. ET.

"For me it's kind of that storybook ending," Saunders said in a phone interview from Japan, where Canada is holding a pre-tournament camp. "I started my career with a Canadian uniform and now it's fitting that I get to end it with a Canadian uniform."

Saunders, who played for Canada's junior team as a teenager, spent nine years in the big leagues, including parts of three injury-riddled seasons with the Blue Jays from 2015-17. The outfielder played 38 minor league games between the Orioles and White Sox in 2018, then signed with the Rockies the following year before being released midway through camp.

WATCH | Saunders matches Canadian records with 3 homers, 8 RBIs:

Michael Saunders ties record, leads Jays to blowout win

5 years ago
0:44
The Canadian tied the record for homers (3) and RBI (8) in a major league game by a Canadian in the Jays lopsided 13-2 win over Baltimore 0:44

His next step, after trying to help Canada qualify for the Olympics, will be managing the Danville Braves, Atlanta's rookie-level team in Danville, Va., next season.

That career move came about after Saunders spent time at the Braves instructional league last month, not only getting in his first reps at coaching, but also using that time to train for Premier 12.

"I ended up loving it, seeing the other side of the game and everything like that," the Victoria native said of his first taste of coaching. "And I took that opportunity to get in early and stay a bit late and get the work in, because coming out here [for Premier 12], I didn't want to just come for a vacation.

"We have a goal in mind and any time you put on a Canadian uniform you're representing something and you take a lot of pride in that. I didn't play this year but it doesn't mean that I don't think I can help the team on and off the field and get Canada to the Olympics."

Canada's roster bolstered by veteran core

Canada's manager Ernie Whitt, in his 20th year working with Baseball Canada, said the strength of his Premier 12 roster is in its veteran core, including Saunders.

"We look for guys like him to be consistent and even-keeled throughout the tournament and show our younger players this is how it's supposed to be done," Whitt said from Japan. "So we're counting on Michael and his leadership role, but he's kept himself in good shape and we're hoping he's able to come up with some big hits for us in this tournament."

Canada, ranked No. 10 in the world, will need to finish as the top team from the Americas region — which also includes the U.S. (No. 2), Mexico (No. 6), the Dominican Republic (No. 12), Venezuela (No. 9), and Cuba (No. 5) — to secure an Olympic berth. Another qualifier, featuring just teams from the Americas, will be played in March for a second spot in the six-team Olympic tournament in Tokyo next summer.

Canada opens Premier 12 against Cuba on Wednesday, then plays South Korea and Australia in round robin Thursday and Friday, respectively. The top two teams from the group advance to the tournament's Super Round in Japan.

Not shying away from challenge

Whitt, who coached Canada's Olympic team in 2004 in Athens, knows qualifying through Premier 12 won't be easy.

The Canadians started camp with a 6-5 exhibition victory over No. 1-ranked Japan on Thursday, a confidence boost for Whitt's team, before the Japanese levelled the series Friday with a 3-0 win.

"If they want to call us underdogs that's fine. I think our team knows what we're capable of doing," Whitt said. "Our team plays very aggressively, very hard until the end of the game, and we try to do the right things to win a ball game.

"The one thing we have with this team is unity — everyone's pulling for everyone, and everyone's pulling the rope in the same direction — and when you have that, usually good things happen."

Saunders is also confident in Canada's potential to upset.

"We're always that team that you can't take for granted," he said. "We can beat anyone on any given night."

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