* A defending NL batting champ, a bright future in the June draft, an ace in the making at Safeco Field and the Pan-Am Games coming to Ajax … yep Bobby Prentice, the late director of Canadian scouting for the Blue Jays, would have been proud.
By Andrew Hendriks
The upcoming season promises to be as big a year as ever for Canadian baseball.
For starters, June’s amateur draft features a strong class of promising Canadian prospects headlined by Orleans, Ont.’s, Demi Orimoloye and Mississauga’s Josh Naylor.
In addition to posting dominant overall numbers as a whole in 2014, Naylor turned heads following an impressive display of raw power during the Junior Home Run Derby last July, swatting a total of four homers en-route to a second place finish during Major League Baseball’s all-star festivities at Target Field.
A month following the draft, the 2015 Pan-Am games will get underway on Canadian soil – the greater Toronto area, to be exact – and as part of the festivities, Team Canada will look to defend a well deserved Gold Medal, secured by the 2011 squad during the tournaments last run in Guadalajara.
Shifting our focus to the big leagues, West Minster, BC’s Justin Morneau, 33, will be back in the spotlight as the first baseman is coming off a 2014 campaign that saw the four-time all-star hit .319 in 135 games with the Colorado Rockies, a cumulative season batting average good enough for top-spot in the National League, earning the Canadian slugger his first batting title in a professional career that spans 12 seasons in the Show.
In Seattle, Ladner, BC’s James Paxton looks to pick up right where he left off after posting a 6-4 record with a promising earned run average of 3.09 over 13 starts with the Mariners during an injury hampered 2014 campaign while over in Cincinnati, Etobicoke, perennial NL MVP candidate, Joey Votto looks to rebound after a strained quadriceps limited him to only 62 games in 2014.
Never has Canada been as relevant across the American pass time, and although there are many, perhaps the most compelling story line regarding Canadian baseball comes in the form of the 2015 Toronto Blue Jays, a club that for the first time in team history, will feature a lineup that includes three Canadian-born position players in Montreal’s, Russell Martin, Victoria BC’s Michael Saunders and Mississauga’s Ont.’s home-grown outfielder, Dalton Pompey.
It’s a fact, Canada’s team will be well represented on the Jays’ lineup card this upcoming season, creating a situation in which Toronto’s Bobby Prentice would have been awfully proud of given his life’s work in the game.
Hired by the Blue Jays in 1976, Prentice, a former minor league infielder in the Cleveland Indians organization (1948-56), served as the director of Canadian scouting and held that title until his retirement in 1990.
Highlighted by playing an integral role in the signing of both Toronto, Ont.’s Rob Ducey and Montreal, Que.’s Denis Boucher, Prentice experienced a fair share of success while with the Jays. That said, his job was never easy.
Perpetually in search of the next Canadian star, Prentice left no stone un-turned in his quest to brand the Blue Jays as a patriotic club. In addition to following nearly every lead made available to him, his persistence also meant dealing with a fair share of grief when Toronto was a fledgling ball club in the early years of it’s existence.
“I’ve been playing softball for the past 10 years” said Prentice in a 1980 Toronto Sun interview. In essence, a 21-year old softball player from Alberta though he could help the Jays. “I saw your team on T.V. and I can throw as good as they can.”
Understandably, the team wasn’t playing top-caliber baseball at the time. However, they were certainly playing better than the general public gave the credit for, and due to their overall lack of success in their formative years, Prentice had to shift through a lions share of interesting phone calls.
At one point, there was even a phone call from an inmate serving time in Kingston Penitentiary.
“He thought he was the next Ron LeFlore.” said Prentice, making reference to the former Jackson State prisoner who, after being granted a tryout in front of Billy Martin in July of 1973, was signed to a minor league deal with the Detroit Tigers, which, in turn, met the conditions regarding his parole.
LeFlore enjoyed a nine season career in the Majors, hitting .288 in 1,099 major-league contests between 1973 and 1984. He had never played organized baseball prior to his incarceration as a teenager.
Kingston’s slugger never made it out of cell block nine.
Back in the early 1980s, Prentice chalked Canada’s short supply of major leaguers up to a lack of quality coaching. Now, 30 years later, that’s no longer the case and it’s starting to show up at all levels of the game.
Coaches like Peterborough, Ont’s, Greg Hamilton, Vauxhall, Albetra’s Les McTavish, Georgetown, Ont.’s Scott Van De Valk of the Ontario Terriers, Dan Bleiwas of the Ontario Blue Jays, Doug Mathieson of the Langley Blaze, Denny Berni of the Etobicoke Rangers and Toronto’s Rich and Rob Butler, former Blue Jays outfielders who now run Home Run Baseball Academy in Ajax, Ont. in addition to overseeing the Ontario Prospects Baseball Club, play an integral role in the development of the American Game, north of the border, and, in large part, are accountable for the games growth across the country.
Prentice, who passed away in 1995, would have been proud of the state of Canadian baseball as it stands. and he would have been ecstatic with the fact that the Toronto Blue Jays are leading the charge both in the community (Jays Care Foundation) and on the field.
In addition to the three position players currently penned into Toronto’s opening day lineup for 2015, the Blue Jays also enlist the talents of Vancouver BCs, Jeff Francis and North Battleford, Sask.’s Andrew Albers, a pair of minor league hurlers with triple-A Buffalo, both of which come with extensive MLB experience.
Under Montreal-born general manager, Alex Anthopoulos, Canadian camaraderie has reached an all-time high within the Blue Jays organization, and club executives are hoping to tap into something special in 2015.
“Mike (Saunders) texted me saying how excited and happy he was for the opportunity to play up here.” said Pompey in a recent interview with the CBN. “To have him playing left field and Russell (Martin) behind the plate really speaks volumes for how far baseball in Canada has come.
“What the Blue Jays are doing, how the believe in Canadians and are putting them on the field. It’s only going to help the game going forward.”
Pompey certainly seems to be on to something and all this homegrown off- season action has led some to believe that there is another Canuck waiting in the wings.
With bullpen help still remaining a hot topic around Toronto, and right-handed reliever/Simcoe, Ont. native, John Axford still available on the free agent market, the Jay’s could address another area of need while staying true to their course this winter.
After all, not only has Axford saved a total of 116 games over the course of his six-year MLB career, he, like the Toronto Blue Jays, is a product of the Great White North.
And in 2015, the North appears to be a relevant theme.
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