* RHP Mike Soroka (Calgary, Alta.), who pitches for Jim Lawson and the Calgary PBF Redbirds, was impressive with the Canadian Junior National Team on their fall trip to ESPN’s Wide World of Sports in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Photo: Alexis Brudnicki). ….
Letters of Intent
By Alexis Brudnicki
ORLANDO, Fla. – The Canadian Junior National Team program has done a lot for Mike Soroka.
The 17-year-old right hander from Calgary, Alta., is not only a better player because of his time with Team Canada but he’s also more prepared for what his future holds.
“Every time you have a good outing that’s awesome, but then you really realize the opportunity this gives you to succeed after baseball,” Soroka said. “You’re playing against pro guys. There’s no other program in the world that lets you do that. It’s awesome. Then playing in a world event or even in the Pan American qualifier is like no other, even if it is at the junior level.
“There are things that go on – in Mexico people brought in trumpets and drums and some guy with a loudspeaker up in the stands is yelling at you – you can’t really prepare for that any other way than having lived it. That was probably the best.”
One of the country’s top arms heading into next year’s selection process, Soroka begun to realize that while in Orlando with the team to face fall instructional league competition, he had started his final tour with the junior squad, his last trip of eligibility falling at next summer’s world championships in Koshien, Japan.
“I was just looking back on the last year and how it went so fast,” the young hurler said. “This trip last year was a lot different. I felt a lot more like it was a big step up and now it’s almost kind of a step down, not competition-wise but just the way it is. But it went by so fast and this year I’m going to try and slow it down a little more.”
Soroka’s first travel experience with Team Canada happened a year ago, when he was added to the roster as a 16-year-old. A lot has changed in a year.
“You didn’t realize as many things,” the righty said. “You didn’t realize who your competition is here. When you first come here and it’s the first time you’re seeing guys who run like that, a ridiculous time down the first-base line, guys who have crazy speed and crazy bat speed and power, it’s an eye opener…
“Last year you would look at a guy and see how hard he’s throwing and you don’t realize why he’s here, as opposed to either the big leagues or somewhere else in the minor league system. You see where guys are in their minor league career and that was helpful this year.”
Soroka didn’t just have his eyes opened as he looked across the diamond either. The 6-foot-4, 195-pound pitcher learned a lot from watching his own teammates, many of them graduating from the program and moving on to either the collegiate or professional ranks of baseball.
“It was awesome, first of all, to be able to spend time around them with the draft and all that went on,” he said. “I learned a lot of things that I wouldn’t know otherwise and actually I want to tell a lot of the guys here. There are lots of things that go on that you don’t know about or are not supposed to know about so that was big.
“Then it’s just hearing what it’s like. They’re all missing the program a lot … guys have texted me to say, ‘Enjoy this year because it goes quick and things are different out in the real world now,’ even in college where you’re still on a team and you’re still getting lots of stuff paid for. It’s a lot different but getting to talk to Gareth [Morgan] and Kurt Horne [drafted by the Seattle Mariners and New York Mets, respectively] about how minor league baseball works, it’s good.”
Some of the interactions that went on during the selection process surprised Soroka.
“The behind-the-scenes stuff,” he said. “The stuff that clubs did before the draft that I never really knew about. I had assumed that you walk into the draft kind of blind as to where you’re going, having an idea of going like fifth to 10th [round] but you weren’t sure. Now I know that there are lots of things that are planned … deals that are made that I did not know about could happen.
Having learned from his friends and former teammates, Soroka has set his expectations for the upcoming draft accordingly.
“People are going to tell you what they want,” the Calgarian said. “You might hear an area scout tell you where you’re going in the draft, but they might not know. They might; they might not.
“You’re going to know if a deal is made – that’s what I learned – if a deal is made you’re going to know and you accept, but [there could be] problems with how much money a guy wants or the negotiations that happen; it will depend.
“I’ve seen guys drop because they weren’t ready to sign for that kind of money. They would rather go for three years of college and that’s why they dropped or fell right out of the draft.”
Looking forward to June, the idea of potentially playing in college is also something that elicits a lot of excitement from the young pitcher.
“Big time,” Soroka said. “That’s something else. We got to see what it was like in Mexico [at the junior qualifier] with the stands full and Cuba was pretty full too. We got to see what that was like and that’s what it would be like at a big Div-I college.
“There are going to be lots of people in the stands and the energy is going to be there, so you got a taste of that. It wasn’t the same because you’re representing your country obviously, not just a university, but it’s somewhat comparable.”
With so much ahead of him in the next year alone, the most highly-anticipated event for Soroka is his last shot as a junior member of Team Canada.
“Japan for sure,” he said. “The draft obviously is huge but whatever happens in the draft happens. I’ll do my best come springtime to make that as good as possible and then depending on what happens there, either decide to sign there or go to college. It will all be new and awesome stuff but Japan is going to be the experience of a lifetime that I’ll never be able to give away.”
International baseball has been a huge part of the learning curve for Soroka, and even though he was well prepared for everything he faced on his trips to the Dominican Republic, Cuba and Mexico since May, he didn’t completely understand the preparation until he was in the middle of it.
“The junior program has helped an unbelievably crazy amount,” he said. “You realize a lot of things that Greg [Hamilton, head coach] talks about here and how true it is. Last year at this time there were the long talks and you absorb some of it but you didn’t understand part of it. You knew what he was talking about but you had nothing to compare it to.
“You find out what he’s really saying when you get to international baseball. Everything goes, and he tells you you’re going to see some crazy things over there, even in Mexico. The skill level is here obviously, there are great arms and great bats but it’s just the energy level, and you can’t understand that without having lived it. That’s what I realized there, and not only that but learning about the draft, about colleges, and what life will be like after high school.”
With so many new players joining the Team Canada roster for the upcoming season, Soroka has naturally become one of the leaders in the clubhouse and on the field and is happy to share what he’s learned.
“I feel like I should take a leadership role to be able to help them along a little bit like some guys did last year for me,” he said. “Being able to tell them what it’s like and just to take it step by step and not go too fast.
“A big part of what happened last year was you would see guys with their chins held really high or too low and you’ve got to stay even keel, really humble. You’ve got to realize that you’ve got to play with confidence but stay humble for the most part because baseball is a game of ups and downs.
“There are never any guys who hit amazing all the time or pitch amazing all the time. It happens – you get hit around or you don’t have a great day – and you’ve got to understand that.”
Finding success when competing against the high-calibre competition the junior team matches up against will always be one of the best parts of the experience for Soroka, but the way the program has broadened his horizons is right up there as well.
“It’s awesome to succeed and you can’t really describe it,” he said. “You’ve got to understand even if you’re playing against Cuba or something in an exhibition game, some crazy stuff happens.
“They play the game a little differently. There might be stuff you’ve never seen before, things you thought were only funny videos on You tube and it actually happens. You’ve got to realize that and stay even and understand that even if a guy hits a home run off of you and gives you a big bat flip, that’s the way they play. You can’t get too down about that and you’ve got to dig deep and keep going at guys.”
Jeff Duda joined the junior team for the first time as a coach in Orlando, and though he is familiar with Soroka, being from the same province and having seen him numerous times before, he was impressed at what he saw in Florida.
“I’ve had the chance to see him pitch quite a bit being out in Alberta,” Duda said. “He’s been every bit of what we expected … [and] he’s right on par. He’s going to be the guy going forward and he definitely has some good pitches that he can throw to both sides of the plate, so he’s going to be effective.”
Heading into the off-season, Soroka is looking forward to building up for the big year ahead.
“Obviously get in the weight room again,” he said. “Get going and not just try and put on more weight but get a lot stronger in the sense that I know what I need to do come springtime to give myself the best opportunity to succeed, in the draft and in the coming year. I really have a goal of being a big part of this team, going to Japan and being there.”
– Follow Alexis Brudnicki on Twitter @baseballexis