Letters of Intent
By Alexis Brudnicki
Tim Smith is chasing a dream.
After two years away from affiliated baseball, the 28-year-old Canadian outfielder is spending this off-season down under with the Perth Heat of the Australian Baseball League, hoping to get back to where he was.
“This winter I would love a chance to put my name back on the radar for Team Canada possibilities and affiliated chances,” Smith said. “You just never know. There are so many Cinderella stories, you truly have to believe.
“I have the mentality that I’m going to play until they rip the jersey off my back. I experienced that never quit cliché feeling as of late and I’m kind of on the pursuit of happiness at the same time.”
With parts of eight minor league seasons under his belt, Smith spent time in the independent American Association with the Winnipeg Goldeyes during the most recent season and in the Can-Am League last year with the Quebec Capitales, getting into 56 games between the two.
His last affiliated season was in 2012 as a member of the Atlanta Braves organization, where the Torontonian spent time with both Lynchburg in the Carolina League and Double-A Mississippi in the Southern League and hit .288/.372/.386 with three home runs, 10 doubles, a triple, 28 RBI and 32 runs in 70 games.
“My first thoughts were that if I’m going to come back and play for real again, I’m going to go about it the right way,” Smith said. “I’m fully on board to eat clean and devote myself to fitness while I’m here. I have a little voice in the back of my head that’s telling me there’s still a chance. As things progressed quickly on the possibilities of coming over, I got eager. It feels like a fresh start, and I needed it.”
Smith will be joined in the Australian circuit by at least two other Canucks and national team members for the winter season. Maxx Tissenbaum is one of a group of Tampa Bay Rays prospects in Brisbane, suiting up for the Bandits, and fellow catcher Kellin Deglan is looking to make a statement with the Melbourne Aces.
“At the end of July, the Rays gave us all a questionnaire to try and gauge our interest in playing winter ball,” Tissenbaum said. “I said that I had some interest but I wasn’t 100 per cent sure, and I ended up having a meeting with my manager, Jared Sandberg, in which he told a few of us about his winter ball experiences.
“All along I’ve sort of kept the same outlook on it – it’s a great opportunity to get reps as a catcher and to polish things up defensively, but it’s obviously so long and so far from home, family and friends, and [Toronto Maple] Leafs-wise.”
Beyond his quest to help his new team claim its first Claxton Shield victory, Deglan, a former first-round selection of the Texas Rangers, is hoping to build on a year he split between the Hickory Crawdads roster in the South Atlantic League and the Myrtle Beach Pelicans lineup in the Carolina League.
“I set a career high in home runs and RBI this year, had a strong season, and I caught well throughout the year,” the 22-year-old said. “Really, for me going forward, pitch selection is going to be big. I want to go over there, be more disciplined, put together good at-bats, and come away feeling good, and come in ready to compete for a spot in spring training.”
Between the two levels he played at during the regular season overseas, the former Canadian Junior National Team member started to show the power Texas drafted him for out of high school, with 16 home runs, 24 doubles and two triples in 101 games to go along with 68 RBI and 49 runs scored.
The 6-foot-2, 195-pound backstop continues to gain praise around various baseball circles for his defensive prowess and will also be an asset for the Aces behind the dish.
“My primary focus going over there is to get better in all aspects of my game,” Deglan said. “Mainly hitting-wise, I want to keep building on my season over here and just try to be more disciplined at the plate, because the more strikes I swing at and the more balls I take, the better off I’m going to be.”
“I feel a lot better mentally than I did at the beginning of the season, and physically I feel great. I am very excited to see what happens down in Australia and I know it will be an experience I will never forget.”
Tissenbaum is looking forward to continuing to develop his game behind the plate, as a player who came into catching later on.
“The goal for me is to clean up my game defensively, mainly my blocking and throwing,” the 23-year-old Toronto native said. “I had a meeting with our catching coordinator, Paul Hoover, the other day and we sort of drew up a schedule for how I’ll be able to get all my drill work in while staying fresh enough to play three to four times a week.”
While the Rays’ organization has built a relationship with the Bandits over the last couple of seasons, Smith ended up in Perth this year after a former teammate connected the dots for him, though it took a while for him to convince Smith to make the trip.
“When I was with the Braves, I got tight with an Aussie, Matt Kennelly,” Smith said. “He’s a legend over here, he’s from Perth and has played on this squad for several years and has three other brothers on the team. He’s the man. He threw the idea out a couple years ago and it just wasn’t ideal for me at the time.
“I’ve basically been away from the game the past couple years and have the itch and burn to play again. I was in a bit of a life drought and needed to shake things up. I decided a little adventure couldn’t hurt. I really got the itch to play baseball as of late and I’m trying my best to get back to where I was. He dropped a word to the manager and two days later I was committed. It all happened so fast and I feel like a kid on Christmas Eve. I was really missing the game.”
Deglan had somewhat of a connection to Melbourne, having run into Aces new skipper Tommy Thompson during the manager’s time with the Winston-Salem Dash in the Carolina League. Thompson was convincing, and the native of Langley, B.C. made his decision after their interaction.
“When I was in Myrtle Beach, we were playing against Winston-Salem and their manager Tommy Thompson came up to me and told me he wanted me to play for him in Australia,” Deglan said. “I thought about it for a few days and decided I wanted to go over there and play for him…I ran it by the Rangers and they were in full support of me going.”
Melbourne’s newest power-hitting lefty catcher has some newfound familiarity with the league, after talking to Toronto Blue Jays farmhand and fellow Canadian Michael Crouse, who spent last season with the Canberra Cavalry and solidified the idea that Deglan was making a great off-season decision in heading to Australia.
“I talked to Mike Crouse about it a little bit and he said he had a great time over there,” Deglan said. “He said it was awesome, and a beautiful country, and to have a great time.”
The Blue Jays will send a trio of players to Canberra for the season, with prospects L.B. Dantzler and Christian Lopes joining the Cavalry for the first time and catcher Jack Murphy returning for his third off-season as the team’s reigning MVP.
Tissenbaum spoke to the players Tampa Bay had previously sent to Australia to play and heard great things about their experiences.
“We had three guys from our team this year who went last winter and they said similar things,” he said. “It’s a good league to play in and to learn in, it’s incredibly cool to see Australia and do some crazy stuff like cage-dive with sharks, but a long time away from home.”
After being down under for just a couple of days, Smith has already found confirmation for all of the things he heard and believes he made the right choice.
“Everyone I’ve spoken with has said nothing but good things,” he said. “I was sold pretty quickly through my peers and it’s always been a spot I felt like was a must-visit. I’m really grateful for the paths this game brings people. I never thought I’d be playing ball in Australia for a living. Just standing on the beach yesterday was an eye opener for me. I felt a sense of happiness that I belonged and I’ve been searching for that smile for some time now.”
– Follow Alexis Brudnicki on Twitter @baseballexis