What dreams may come
Scott Richmond anxious to pitch for Canada at the World Baseball Classic
His childhood dream of pitching in the major leagues was realized last July 30, when he toed the rubber at Toronto's Rogers Centre in the finale of a three-game series against visiting Tampa Bay.
Richmond also dreamed of leading the Canadian men's baseball team at the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics. He would have been the No. 1 starter, but the Blue Jays summoned him from triple-A Syracuse three days before Canada finalized its roster.
Now, the 29-year-old Vancouver native is thinking World Baseball Classic, a 16-country tournament pitting the game's top players against each other. He's dreaming of pitching the opening game at Rogers Centre against the rival United States.
"I've always wanted to play against the best in the world, and this is my opportunity to do it," Richmond told CBCSports.ca by phone this week after being named to Canada's provisional 45-man roster. "I always set my sights high so I have something to reach for."
Richmond recalled the 2006 WBC game versus the Americans when left-hander Adam Loewen tossed 3 2/3 scoreless innings to lead Canada to an 8-6 upset at Chase Field in Phoenix, Ariz.
"Canada beating the U.S. … I just wanted to be there," said Richmond, who at the time was a relief pitcher for the Edmonton Cracker Cats of the independent Northern League. "Just seeing all that excitement just motivates me more to accomplish my goals and dreams and so far, so good."
Richmond couldn't think of a better scenario than facing the likes of reigning American League MVP Dustin Pedroia, top rookie Evan Longoria and the rest of the U.S. squad in Canada's opening game on March 7.
"I'd love to go out there and shut down the U.S. and give us a really good start and a chance to win," he said. "[Loewen] did a great job, and things like that are what build Canada's reputation for being one of the top countries in the world for baseball."
Team Canada manager Ernie Whitt told CBCSports.ca that Richmond's name is at the top of the pitching depth chart with the absence of established major leaguers Rich Harden, Jeff Francis, Erik Bedard and Shawn Hill because of injuries.
Top pitchers unavailable
Chicago Cubs right-hander Ryan Dempster declined an invitation due to his responsibility to the team after signing a four-year contract worth $52 million US in November, sources suggested to the Canadian Press.
Whitt has never seen Richmond pitch live, since the right-hander's debut with the Blue Jays came after Whitt was fired as the team's first-base coach last June, along with manager John Gibbons.
"He looks like he's got great composure," said Whitt of Richmond, who will report to Canada's training camp March 1 at Dunedin, Fla., following two weeks of spring training with Toronto at the same facility.
"The feedback I'm getting is that his mound presence is very good. He doesn't get too high or too low. We have a lot of injury problems with our pitching staff, so there's no question he's a priority to us."
Richmond ended the 2008 campaign with the Blue Jays, blanking the hometown Baltimore Orioles over six innings in a rain-shortened 3-0 win on Sept. 26 for his first major league victory.
He allowed only four hits and threw 52 of his 79 pitches for strikes, something Whitt is looking for in an ace hurler.
"It was a little disappointing to have [that outing] end [early], because I wanted to see how far I could have gone," said Richmond, who has spent much of the winter refining his changeup and locating his two-seam fastball down and away from left-handed hitters. "My first start on the road, things just kind of clicked."
Richmond had a 1-3 record and 4.00 earned-run average in five starts with Toronto, but walked only two batters in 27 innings. In eight starts for Syracuse, he went 1-3 with a 3.56 ERA.
"I still feel like I haven't peaked," said Richmond, who will be vying for one of two openings in the Blue Jays' starting rotation. "That's how I've felt for a few years, and that's why I [hired] a personal trainer this off-season. I wanted to step it up a notch to elevate my game."
A Canadian pitching staff consisting of those with a mix of Olympic and minor league experience, along with limited service time in the majors, could be a positive at the WBC.
"It might be to our benefit that none of these players from the opposing teams have ever seen any of our pitchers," said Whitt. "Other teams may look great on paper, but until you go out and play the game, you never know what's going to happen."
'We're going to have our challenges'
Two of Canada's projected starters, Chris Begg and Mike Johnson, have competed at the Olympics but are unknown at the major league level. Lefty Eric Cyr had a stint with the Las Vegas 51s — the Blue Jays' new triple-A affiliate — last season while Seattle Mariners prospect Phillippe Aumont hasn't pitched above single-A.
"It's going to be a great opportunity, not only for Scott, but some of the other younger pitchers. They're going to have an opportunity to perform on the big stage facing a lot of quality major league hitters," Whitt said. "We're going to have our challenges [pitching-wise], but we'll deal with it."
Richmond will be in Toronto this weekend at the annual Baseball Canada national team banquet and fundraiser, where he will receive the Stubby Clapp Award, named after the veteran Team Canada infielder. The award is given to someone who represents determination, perseverance and leadership.
In 2001, Richmond moved to the United States and played for two different colleges before settling with the Oklahoma State Cowboys.
But he ran into visa problems and wasn't allowed to work, forcing Richmond back to Canada and the Northern League, where he toiled for three seasons before signing a minor-league contract with the Blue Jays last year.
"Getting to the big leagues was the hardest part," Richmond told CBCSports.ca last August.
Having the chance to pitch in the WBC would be his Olympics.
"I just love wearing the Team Canada uniform," Richmond said. "Every time we put that uniform on, we can beat anybody in the world. We've had such great games against the top players in the world, and we've held our own.
"Being on the mound is the most comfortable spot for me, even though sometimes it can get a little nerve-wracking. I enjoy that adrenalin rush and excitement that being a pitcher brings, and that's what drives me to become the best."
Being a big dreamer doesn't hurt, either.