* No matter where they were born, Ernie Whitt (right) and Tim Leiper are Canadian. The pair have served more time as Team Canada’s manager or on the coaching staff than most, and both have cherished their time wearing the red and white. (Photo: Alexis Brudnicki).
By Alexis Brudnicki
It doesn’t matter that they hail from Detroit, Mich., and Whittier, Calif., respectively. They’ve both spent a number of years north of the border and have represented the country more than most, as Team Canada’s manager and coach.
Whitt came on board first, opting in after 15 years in the major leagues, the majority of that time with the Toronto Blue Jays.
“Kevin Briand [now a professional crosschecker with Toronto] was the director at the time and he asked if I would be interested in managing [Team Canada],” the former catcher said. “I felt it was quite an honour and I said, ‘Sure let’s try it; let’s see.’ I guess they were looking for someone who had some roots in Toronto, who played in the big leagues for a while, and I thought it was a great opportunity and I haven’t looked back since…
“The fact that I played 12 years up in Toronto and I had been a part of Canadian baseball since the inception [of the Blue Jays franchise] in 1977 [made it easy to fit in with Team Canada]. Watching the kids and how they played with pride and passion and how they wanted to do whatever it took to win a ballgame was [special], and that carried over year after year since 1999.”
Leiper was added to the squad a few years later, after a routine phone call to a friend unexpectedly turned into an opportunity to fill a position.
“I made a phone call to Greg Hamilton [Baseball Canada’s director of national teams] on totally another issue,” Toronto’s first base coach said. “We were friends for four or five years prior to me ever joining the program and I offered it up. I said if I could help, let me know. He said he never asked because he didn’t think I was interested – I was – and also I didn’t think I could help because I didn’t think he wanted me. So it turned out to be great.
“That was in 2003 before we went to the Olympic qualifier down in Panama and it blossomed from there. We’ve had a lot of success. The program is the best thing I’ve ever done. The people are second to none and you build great friendships and long-lasting relationships with these guys because of it.”
The two national squad coaches share a unique bond formed throughout their years together with Team Canada. Whitt and Leiper reunited in the Arizona Fall League this month for a very brief time when the Phillies asked their catching coordinator to join their players with the Scottsdale Scorpions and the Blue Jays sent Leiper to Mesa to work with the Solar Sox.
“It’s always good,” Leiper said of seeing Whitt. “We’re really close. It’s funny, even when we roved in the minor leagues I would always look to see when we were playing the Phillies. We would try to set it up and whatever bad town we were in, at least we would go together. I stay in contact with him and we talk all the time. It always feels like home when Ernie’s around.”
Among a variety of topics touched on in Arizona, Whitt and Leiper talked a little bit about the upcoming Pan American Games, taking place in Toronto next year. Both were on the coaching staff of the gold-medal winning squad in Mexico at the last games almost exactly three years ago. Though Whitt should be at the helm for the upcoming event, Leiper is unlikely to take part because of his obligation to the Blue Jays.
“I tell Ernie – no pressure,” Leiper said. “No pressure, just defending champions and Cuba’s won every Pan Am Games since 1969. We’re the first team to win it since then, and then to be able to play at home is pretty special. There’s a little pressure with it and you’re going to be playing good countries who have got some depth.
“The one thing working against us a little bit is that we haven’t had a senior team tournament in three years so we’re kind of having to turn the team over. A lot of guys who were there with us in the Pan Am Games aren’t really playing anymore. It’s going to be interesting. It would have been nice to have a couple lead-up tournaments, but we always find a way.
“When we first turned over [the roster] after Athens, we thought, ‘oh my gosh, what’s next?’ And then it continues to get better and better, so there’s no reason why it can’t happen now too.”
Whitt knows there will be challenges when it comes to the selection process for the next senior team, but he is looking forward to getting to know a new crop of players and seeing how they work together with those who are more established.
“There’s going to be a different face on it, no question,” Canada’s manager said. “But I’ve seen a lot of the players play in the minor leagues and we just haven’t had them as a group. So I’m going to try to get a mix of some veteran players along with a lot of the younger ones and hopefully the veterans can guide them along the way, along with myself and the coaching staff…
“To me, probably the biggest challenge there’s going to be is trying to recognize some of the players that I haven’t had on my teams before and recognizing what they are capable of doing. I have always tried to put the players in a position where they’re going to be successful and to me that’s going to be a challenge because I won’t have seen a lot of them.”
Both Whitt and Leiper have seen a lot of players come through the program, and each has so many favourite memories that they struggle to pick just one highlight.
“The one that – there are a couple – there are more than a couple,” Whitt said. “There have been so many of them, but winning the bronze in 1999 my first year with Team Canada; we were not even labelled to be close or in the running at all, but we won bronze in the Pan Am Games in 1999.
“[Then] going to the Olympics – qualifying in 2003 in Panama and going to the Olympics in ’04. And then the one that probably stands out the most is winning the gold medal in Mexico and beating Team USA.”
With additional prodding, Leiper named some of the best offensive performances he’s seen over his time with the national team.
“Jimmy Van Ostrand, every tournament he was ever in, he’s just been great,” Leiper said. “He’s carried us through a lot.
“[Jamie] Romak in the qualifier to get to the Pan Am Games where we won the gold medal – we didn’t play really well, but Jamie was a guy who stepped up and really picked us up in that tournament. Then obviously to go back to VO, him getting the big hit in the Pan Am Games that won us the gold medal, that was gigantic.
“Adam Stern’s game against the US [in the 2006 World Baseball Classic] was unbelievable. He had the inside-the-park home run and two or three or four hits, and he made a huge catch in centre field and that was one of the best days we’ve ever had.
“And [Joey] Votto’s day in the World Baseball Classic [in 2009] – him coming home, and knowing what it meant for him to come home and play in Toronto. It was probably the first time he ever played there, and then to have the kind of day he had against the US was really a cool, special day.”
Leiper also chose a few of the most memorable standout pitching performances he had seen.
“Adam Loewen in the game against the US as a rookie [at the World Baseball Classic],” he said. “Ernie’s trip to the mound and he came in and the next pitch Loewen got the double play – that was big.
“Chris Begg’s last game he pitched against Cuba in Italy. I think we were probably in Rome and I remember it being emotional because the guy had been with the program ever since I had been there and I knew it was the last game he was ever going to pitch. He went out and he really pitched well against a team that was really good. That was impressive to see and I was happy for him. We were all happy for him.
“[Scott] Richmond throwing those last two innings in Mexico [at the Pan Am Games] out of nowhere. He did not have the best tournament, he did not have a good World Cup, he didn’t have a good tournament going into that point and those two innings he just dominated. Every pitch was unbelievable, it was better, it had a purpose. That was awesome; impressive.
“Shawn Hill’s game in the semi-final game of the Olympics was also impressive, with a torn elbow and knowing he had that and he knew it. He gave it absolutely everything he had. He pitched and he left us with a chance to win the game. That was awesome.
“And every game [Andrew] Albers ever pitched. He was the best. We didn’t know anything about him and every game came down to him. He pitched in huge situations. He’s got gigantic guts and he always seems to get it done. His start with Richmond following him up, that was impressive.”
Added Whitt: “There are so many. Every one of them to me were stars in their own right – they were stars. They were players who gave to themselves and gave to their country and they played with pride and passion for their country and they gave it everything they had.
“There were a lot of times when we probably didn’t have the talent that other teams had but we did it. The biggest thing is the respect we gained from our peers. They knew when they [played] Canada, they had their hands full.”
The hope is that Team Canada can continue the success it found at the last Games to defend its title as the reigning championship team at the Pan Am event next year, though the sentiment has now changed from being a consistent underdog.
“That’s a good feel,” Whitt said. “That means we won before. I mean, it’s a great feel but if you look at it overall and look at the teams that are in there, probably five of the six or seven of the eight are ranked higher than we are and we’re the defending champs.
“And that’s okay – it goes back to the teams we play have respect for us as a team and the way that we play. All you can do is go out and play hard for the 27 outs and hopefully we come out on top.”
– Follow Alexis Brudnicki on Twitter @baseballexis