* Hunter (left) and Garner (right) Spoljaric pose for a photo prior to their Tournament 12 match last Wednesday night at the Rogers Centre. (Photos: Joe Pack). ….
By Joe Pack
A father throws his son the ball, the son throws it back.
As former Major League pitcher Paul Spoljaric enjoys the first few years of his retirement from baseball, his sons Garner and Hunter played in last week’s second annual Tournament 12 showcase at the Rogers Centre.
The boys were both part of the Futures Navy squad that eked out a win against the defending champions – Atlantic Grey – in their opener on Wednesday night, while Paul is also part of the event as a coach for the B.C. Orange team.
For Garner and Hunter, playing in the same park where their father once pitched brings back some memories.
After his MLB career, Paul played with the Intercounty Baseball League’s Toronto Maple Leafs between 2001 and 2007 and his family used to go watch him throw at Christie Pits.
“I remember going to the park behind (the diamond) and just playing on this little spinney-thing,” said Garner, from the third base line seats at the Rogers Centre. “I remember my dad pitching a lot of games there. I remember it very clearly, actually.”
Hunter’s memory of that time is similarly photographic.
“I remember sitting behind home plate on top of the big hill,” he said, before his team hit the field last Wednesday.
The family that attended many of those games includes Paul’s wife, Lisa, twin daughters, Landry and Logan, Garner and Hunter – aged 15 and 16 respectively – and younger brother Turner, who happens to be a bat boy for his brothers’ team this week.
The older boys both admitted to experiencing initial nervousness about playing in the tournament but have since calmed considerably. This is Hunter’s second year participating, while Garner is playing for the first time on the Rogers Centre turf. Both had the pleasure of hearing about their nominations from their father.
“I was very nervous the first day, like I was shaking,” said Garner. “I was stressing out about (batting practice) so much. I’m ready to go now.”
“I feel like I’m a little more relaxed this year because I know what to expect,” said Hunter. “I’m just going to go out there and throw strikes.”
Hunter is a full-time pitcher, while Garner plays both on the mound and in the infield. Asked what position he prefers, Garner gives a refreshing take given how often it’s said young athletes are specializing early in their careers.
“I don’t know, I don’t want to choose,” he said. “I’d like to do both for as long as I can. I honestly have no idea what (I want) to do at this moment.”
Garner defers to his coaches and welcomes their insight into where his strengths best lie.
“I’m definitely a guy with a lot of questions. I like to know what’s going on,” he said.
Meanwhile, Hunter seems more self-assured about where he’d like to play, and he acknowledges the obvious connection to his dad.
“I would assume, deep down, (my father) wanted me to be a pitcher, me being his first son and all,” he said. “When you’re pitching, you can control the game. It’s fun.”
“(My dad) says this is his favourite mound to pitch off of,” Garner said. “He says (it’s) like you’re closer (to home plate) so it feels like you’re almost throwing slower.
“When there’s a big crowd here and it’s a good game then there’s nothing like it. I love coming to watch games (here).”
Athletes sometimes talk about the different reference points around an arena or stadium that they must adjust to in each instance. While the two boys have much in common, their answers sometimes reveal how different at times they can be.
“I guess you’ve got to be familiar with what you’re doing, not necessarily change what you’re doing,” said Garner. “Turf is a lot faster for ground balls. There might be an atmosphere change in how you do you things differently.”
But Hunter sees it more practically.
“It’s sixty feet and six inches, the bases are 90 feet (apart). It’s all the same.”
The two brothers evidently have clashing tastes in music as well. They were both asked what walkout song they would choose if they had the chance.
“The funniest thing ever to do would be to come out to Frank Sinatra or something,” said Garner.
“No, I don’t (have a song in mind),” said Hunter. “Not one that would be suitable (for a family-friendly environment).”
There is one thing they do not differ on, and that is the glowing affection they have for their dad.
They also share memories of sifting through their grandfather’s VHS collection of Paul’s playing career. They say many a rainy day has been spent looking into the past.
“You’re watching your dad do something you love and it’s kind of cool (that) he got to do it too,” said Garner. “I think that’s pretty amazing.
“There’s a couple of him pitching in the World Baseball Classic,” said Hunter. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is really cool to see my dad pitch against … the world!’”
As Paul’s second son took to the field at Tournament 12 for his first time, his youngest son, Turner – between collecting bats off the turf – fielded ground balls from his father, just like his brothers before him.
The smile on Paul’s face as the lefty bounced the ball to his youngest son was radiant, all too happy to see his boys doing well.