* The damage at Los Cabos International Airport after Hurricane Odile struck Baja California state, Mexico stranding members of the Canadian Junior National Team. Tournament 12 photos by Alexxis Brudnicki. ….
By Alexis Brudnicki
From the top of the world to the end of the world.
At least that’s what it felt like for the Canadian Junior National Team as its players and staff went through the journey of a lifetime trying to get out of Mexico after Hurricane Odile left them stranded just after winning a bronze medal at the 18U Pan American championships.
“Really it was our group that we were concerned about because you could see the beginnings of society breaking down,” said Greg Hamilton, Baseball Canada’s director of national teams. “So you’ve got concern to make sure our group wasn’t panicking and we really were helpless for a while to come up with any kind of answers.”
Canada took on host Mexico in the tournament’s bronze-medal matchup Sunday afternoon coming out on top and looking forward to celebrating and returning home the next day. But that wasn’t even close to what happened next.
“The funny part was that we were aware the hurricane was supposed to start the day of the bronze-medal game,” right-hander Mike Soroka said. “So we went to the diamond thinking that we weren’t even going to get the game in … it was an up-and-down game and a team effort but then it started to rain a bit and we thought this is it, it’s going to start pouring. It was barely raining so we played the game out.
“Then the game after us for the gold medal between the States and Cuba got cancelled so we were thinking maybe we would fly out the next day, we’ll get out early and we’ll be good to go. Then we heard from Greg that there were no flights, the airport shut down, and there was nothing we could do about it.”
Outfielder JF Garon got the same message, but from the team’s business manager Larry Pearson, as the staff did their best to get word out to the entire team.
“We got back to the hotel and we were going to watch the gold-medal game because there were the closing ceremonies afterward and we were supposed to go there,” Garon said. “But Larry said the game was interrupted because the storm was starting. So we didn’t go … and then later that night Larry called and said, ‘We’re not flying tomorrow.’ At that point, we didn’t know what was going on. We knew there was a big storm but we didn’t have a lot of updates.”
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Then the conditions began to worsen.
“We lost power after the bronze-medal game around 10:30,” Garon said. “There was no air conditioning and we were boiling in the room. It was terrible. I couldn’t sleep and I didn’t sleep that night … The big thing after the first day without power was nobody had [phone] service. Nobody could call their families to say they were okay or anything.”
Added first baseman Josh Naylor: “We were all just kind of in shock. We all looked at each other and we kind of knew that we were going to be savages for the next few days.”
Hamilton was hoping it wouldn’t come to that.
“We were completely at the mercy of the Mexican political people and the military at the end of the day because we weren’t going anywhere if we didn’t get that type of help at that level,” he said. “You weren’t getting out of there unless somebody put in a word for you.
“My greatest concern was keeping everybody together and keeping everybody calm. It wasn’t easy because you didn’t have answers for people to try to keep them calm if they weren’t. If they asked us what we were doing, our answer was, ‘We have no idea what we’re doing.’”
At first, things didn’t seem so bad.
“For the first day and a bit in the hotel, it was a novelty for them,” Hamilton said. “They woke up and if you had never seen a hurricane, you saw it for the first time and what it looks like after. It’s not good to say it was cool but it’s certainly unique and different if you haven’t seen it. Everybody was curious and looking around to see what had blown around and all that sort of stuff. So the first day, Monday, was more of a curiosity.”
Naylor got a pretty decent look at some of the aftermath of the storm.
“The power shut off and we heard rain and looked outside and there were tree branches breaking off and everything was falling over, trees falling into pools,” the power-hitting infielder said. “We had no TV, we tried everything, the lights were off, and that was it…
“There were whole roads that were just water. Light poles were on the road and trees were everywhere. There was a lot of damage. You could see store windows broken and the logos on the stores were off of them.”
Added catcher Darren Shred: “When it hit it wasn’t really that bad. It didn’t look that bad, and then we noticed trees starting snapping. After the storm it was calm and then all of a sudden the power went out, everything went out and we had no cell phones and no connection to anything. We basically lost all ties to the world.”
Eventually the players managed to find ways to preoccupy themselves.
“Honestly we just sat in the room and stared at each other and had nothing to do,” Shred said, before expanding. “The first day we went out and went swimming and stuff like that but we were there for three days so after a while we sat there and did absolutely nothing.”
Naylor added: “We played cards, we sat outside in the sun, we played flip a lot … we just hung around. That’s really it. We would go to the gas station across the street and pick up snacks but if you didn’t have any money and just had a credit card you couldn’t buy anything because nothing worked.”
* * *
Then, if you can imagine, it got a little worse.
“When it got into Tuesday and people realized that the lights weren’t going to come on again and there was going to be no power and we didn’t know where we would eat and all that stuff, we got concerned that this might stretch out for a longer period of time,” Hamilton said. “Then we were thinking about how to get out of the country and that sort of stuff.
“It went really from a little bit of curiosity, excitement and novelty to concern.”
Outfielder Demi Orimoloye didn’t know what to think, but was certain his parents’ concern would be much worse than his own.
“I was thinking, how am I going to get home?” Orimoloye said. “I have school, and I couldn’t call my parents, and I was wondering what they were thinking too. I think they were pretty worried. They kind of knew what was going on so they weren’t too worried but they were wondering when we were going to be able to leave.”
Naylor’s inability to get in touch with his family caused some stress for him as well.
“I couldn’t get a hold of anyone in my family so that kind of [upset] me a little bit because they didn’t know what was going on,” Naylor said. “So they were worried and I’m worried, but I knew we were going to get out of it eventually.”
Jenice Naylor, Josh’s mother, was more uncomfortable on the other end, at home in Mississauga.
“It was really stressful not being able to connect with him and find out exactly what was going on,” she said. “It was terrifying because you don’t know anything. You just have to rely on the news and media to find out what’s going on there … I was worried about the well-being of Josh and the team and everyone, getting back to Canada, their safety, if they were eating properly, and sleeping.”
Eating properly wasn’t really an option.
“The first day the power went out we didn’t really get any food until late because we had to get moved and we were prepared to be evacuated,” Shred said. “We didn’t know what was going on and we didn’t really think about food, we just thought about where we were going. We had water from the morning up until about six o’clock and then we went to Walmart and everyone bought bread and peanut butter.”
Added Garon: “The day after we ran out of power, the hotel supplied us with some food that we had been getting every day during the tournament. After that, we didn’t get anything. We didn’t have breakfast on the second day and for dinner we had a couple cookies and stuff like that. Then we got out of the hotel and I bought bagels with peanut butter … basically we had 1 1/2 days without full meals so we were pretty hungry, and we had to find good water too.”
The loss of communication to the rest of the world seemed to be the most shocking part of the ordeal.
“I don’t think we’ve ever had as much chaos,” Hamilton said, well into his second decade with Baseball Canada. “We’ve had chaos and we’ve had weather-related problems before … but the difference here was everybody was all in and you’re in a completely foreign country.
“I’ve never been anywhere where you literally had no way to communicate and there was nowhere to go for communication … The Mexican people couldn’t communicate and nobody could talk to anyone unless it was face to face. I’ve never been in that type of environment where you realize that you’re totally helpless until somebody helps you.”
The helpless feeling was widespread among the Canadians.
“We had no connection to the world whatsoever,” Shred said. “It wasn’t like one person couldn’t get a connection, the whole city had no connection. We went three hours down the road and there was still no connection. We went to the military base, nothing. They had one satellite phone and Greg was using it to call people to get us a plane, so we had no way of talking to anyone.”
There were also some conflicting messages coming through to the players about what might happen, and how and when.
“We had no clue,” Shred said. “It was mixed information from everyone because we were leaving with Team USA, so Team USA would tell us one thing and someone else would tell us another thing. At one point we thought we were leaving at four o’clock and then we ended up leaving at eight o’clock and then it was just a lot of waiting and getting your hopes up and then crashing.”
Back at home, many parents knew of the original travel plans for the team but then had no idea what might happen as they lost contact.
“My dad knew the original plan was to fly out Wednesday on a commercial airline,” Soroka said. “But the airport shut down because a new hurricane was coming Thursday. We still got out [Wednesday] obviously but so many different things happened. At one time we were planning to go Tuesday night and we were at the air base in La Paz. We were sitting on the bus and they said the plane would be there in six hours.
“It was about 10 o’clock so we went to a juvenile detention centre and hung out there. We had power there, we played volleyball for a bit, and hung out and charged our phones. We went back at five in the morning for a flight at six and then at six they said there was no plane. So we were waiting in the bus all morning and all afternoon. It was crazy.”
* * *
One of the craziest details might have been one the young pitcher just tossed into the middle of his detailing of his travels, of when the team stayed in jail for a night. Garon’s description was similar.
“We left the hotel on the second day and went to the military base,” Garon said. “We went in the evening and they told us to come back in three to six hours because we were getting a plane. We came back at six in the morning and spent the night in some type of sport institution in Mexico. Somebody actually told me it was a juvenile jail, so it was pretty dirty and very gross.
“I couldn’t sleep. But we had water and food. So we spent the night there and went to the military base at six. We were supposed to have a plane and everybody was happy because we were supposed to fly out, but there was no plane. We ended up getting a plane at 12 … we just waited on the bus for like five hours.”
Naylor was more specific about the detention centre.
“We went down to the naval base and they said they didn’t have a flight so we went back to the juvenile place and it was kind of sketchy,” Naylor said. “There was blood on the beds and stuff and it was kind of weird. I didn’t really sleep. I stayed up until we got there.”
Added Orimoloye: “That was gross. We left the rooms and sat on the chairs outside because there was blood on the beds. It was dark when we go there so I didn’t see the barbed wire [at first] and I just thought it was a preschool or something. Then I saw the pool had barbed wire around it.”
From Shred: “That was interesting. It was one room, four beds and they were bunk beds. The bunk beds were pretty beat up and no one really slept on them. They actually ended up bringing us yoga mats to put on top because no one would sleep in the beds…
“Originally we walked in and we were excited because we thought beds and air conditioning, but it didn’t really work that well and then we looked at the beds and it was just another disappointment. It was basically like, what else is new? It couldn’t get any worse, and then it did.”
The worst part of the trip varied from player to player.
“The heat was probably the worst part because the air conditioning stopped working so it was just hot all day long,” Orimoloye said. “The last two days all we ate was bread and peanut butter.”
Naylor added: “The worst part was probably not having electricity. We just couldn’t do anything really. We couldn’t watch TV, we just sat in bed and stared at the wall and had nothing to do at all. It was pretty bad. I’m glad I’m here today.”
Garon said that the worst part was being with power, before re-thinking and adding “No, I would say it was having no updates because we didn’t know what was going on. We were waiting on the bus and all the coaches were outside talking to the military and we didn’t know when we were going to get out of Mexico.”
Not to mention there were some thoughts that the team might be stranded for even longer.
“We were worried when we found out there was a second hurricane coming,” Shred said. “Originally we thought we were going to get out and it might just be a while or whatever but we found out the second hurricane was coming and someone said that if we didn’t get out in the next day we were going to be stuck there for weeks.”
Eventually, some assistance did come, though it took some time before the team could finally leave the country and start the journey back home.
“Ultimately in terms of the actual deliverance of help it was the Mexican military,” Hamilton said. “But it was the governor of Mexico and political figures who intervened to say that we’ve got to get people out of the country and in particular, we’ve got to get these teams home. Then they sort of put the order to the military to execute that.
“Then it became a war of attrition because you were sitting out there waiting to see where you were in the queue and how quickly you could get out because they’re also flying relief missions with the planes that they were using to fly us to Tijuana. They were taking supplies up to Los Cabos and different places around the country and they would come back and fill it up with people and it would be your turn to go.”
The first thing Garon texted his mother Deane was an excited, “I’m alive,” before giving his parents the details of his return.
“Before we got on the plane I had service so I tried to call my mom but she couldn’t hear anything because of the plane,” the outfielder said. “She got the part where I was saying I was okay and that I was coming home … My mom was happy to hear from me but my dad knew I was going to get out of it so he wasn’t nervous.”
“I was nervous,” JF’s dad Jean-Pierre Garon said. “I watched the game between Team USA and Cuba for the gold medal and they were saying the Cubans didn’t want to go on the field because it was lightning and it quit halfway through.
“After that, I didn’t know what was going on. I was supposed to be here [in Toronto] Monday morning but [JF] had left me a message saying, ‘We’re not flying until Tuesday.’ I was surprised and after that I didn’t have any news, so that made me very nervous.”
The elder Garon drove six hours through the night on Wednesday to make the trip from Terrebonne, Que. on time to meet his son at the airport and bring him to his 8 am Tournament 12 game at Rogers Centre on Thursday morning, both of them sleep-deprived.
Naylor also made it to the first game of the day but didn’t get a chance to see his mother until after he was done playing.
“I was watching him at bat and was thinking, thank goodness he’s here with us,” Jenice Naylor said. “I couldn’t wait to give him a hug and talk to him again. That was nice. It felt like forever since I’ve seen him.”
Shred’s parents Larry and Tia picked him up at Pearson before bringing him to his afternoon game at Tournament 12.
“They were jumping up and down and hugging me and stuff like that,” the backstop said. “They were really happy. They couldn’t stop smiling they were just so glad to see me. I was equally as happy. I was just happy to be on Canadian soil, having my own data plan, my own phone, knowing I was going to my own house. It’s a huge relief.”
Larry Shred added: “Originally he was supposed to be home on Monday and then we found out they weren’t going to make that flight and he wasn’t going to get out. Then they told us he might not get out until this weekend coming up and even that might be a little iffy. That upset us, but … we got to pick him up at the airport this morning and it was good to see him. It’s a long time away, a lot longer than we thought, and this is a bit of an important week for him and for us, and we want him here.”
* * *
Lost in the madness of the team’s adventure of out Mexico a little bit was the fact that they won the bronze just before the chaos started and qualified for the world junior championships next summer in Japan.
“We were all excited, ecstatic that we won, and then all of a sudden we found out we were stranded and the hurricane is hitting,” Shred said. “At first it wasn’t that bad and no one really cared. Then we stayed another day and another day and people were getting irritated and starting to get antsy and fed up with other people and it got heated a couple times.”
The mood completely changed from one moment to the next and baseball became irrelevant.
“It got really hard,” Hamilton said. “Things that in our world we assume or take for granted were no longer available to you. Even eating, where we were going to get good, nothing is open, nobody can have a shower, there’s no water, you can’t brush your teeth, there was nothing.
“Talking on your cell phone, texting, email, nothing, it was all completely down. That became all-encompassing for everybody. It turned into when are the lights coming back on, when are we flying out … the baseball component of it disappeared and it was survival mode more than anything else.”
– Follow Alexis Brudnicki on Twitter @baseballexis