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By Alexis Brudnicki
DUNEDIN, Fla. – It’s Canada Day in Dunedin.
Sunday marks the fourth matchup between the Canadian Junior National Team and the Toronto Blue Jays, and the first time that the big-league club will host the high schoolers, with the young squad from north of the border making the trip from St. Petersburg to Florida Auto Exchange Stadium for the occasion.
It is also the fourth such game for Dalton Pompey, entering the first annual matchup as a defensive replacement in 2011, less than a year after he was drafted by the Blue Jays and Jamie Lehman in the 16th round out of high school and off of the junior team.
The native of Mississauga, Ont., has enjoyed the game each year, looking forward to this one in particular for several months, ever since his younger brother Tristan first made Team Canada in October. This year will be different, and not only because he gets to play on the same diamond as his sibling for the first time, but because of the excitement that has built around the older Pompey since making his major-league debut in September last year, four years removed from the program.
“It’s cool because last year at this time, none of the guys wanted to talk to me,” Pompey said. “That’s just because I was in the minor leagues still. But it’s huge for them to see a person like me or Mike Saunders, or any Canadian who is doing what they want to do, and obviously that’s to play in the big leagues.
“For me, I know they’re going to ask me questions on everything. If I was in their position, I would ask questions to, to try to learn as quickly as I can so I don’t have to go through the adjustment periods that most kids would have to go through if I don’t have to.”
It would be hard to find a young player in the red-and-white jersey who wouldn’t jump at the chance to get some time or advice from Pompey now. His accomplishments have made Major League Baseball feel closer to home north of the border than ever before, with his continued connections to the national team and his meteoric rise through Toronto’s farm system to Rogers Centre last season.
The biggest piece of wisdom he tries to impart on Tristan, and hopes to pass along to his brother’s teammates, is to enjoy their time with Team Canada.
“That’s when baseball is still fun,” Pompey said. “Being in pro ball is tough [because] it’s your job now. Sometimes you’re going to like your job and sometimes you’re not going to like it, just because of the ups and downs that come with it. You’ve got to try to stay as level-headed as you can. Sometimes it’s tougher than others, but it’s just trying to learn that when you play with Team Canada.
“But when you play with Team Canada you’re really good so you don’t really know what failure is until you get there, and then you start to understand it the higher you go. Once you get to the big leagues, it’s all about performance and playing well and you’re just trying to keep your job. I try to tell Tristan all the time [to] enjoy these trips, enjoy staying in nice hotels and going around playing professional guys, because it doesn’t last forever.”
Every player on the junior national team will eventually see his time come to an end, moving onto the collegiate ranks, professional baseball, maybe eventually making his way onto the senior team, or in a number of other directions. But most of them will remember the experience for a long time.
“It’s fantastic,” Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin said. “I have some pretty good memories of being in Florida, being in Orlando, Kissimmee, and actually being at the Atlanta Braves facility [at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports], which was awesome. I’m 16, 17 years old at that time and there were a bunch of scouts and it’s good exposure, and it was great to be playing baseball in the winter time.
“I remember going from pretty cool weather to being outside playing ball in a matter of hours. So having that opportunity was great, and then playing against professionals and seeing how you compare. Obviously it costs a lot of money, and I didn’t grow up with a ton of money, so just having that opportunity was great.”
Saunders shares a similar sentiment from his time over a decade ago, cherishing the opportunity he was given from Greg Hamilton, Baseball Canada’s director of national teams.
“I was there for three years with Greg,” the Victoria, BC native said. “We would always go to the Disney complex, playing the Braves and some other teams. Looking back, it would be really cool to play against the Blue Jays.
“We all grew up as Canadians watching them, and Greg already talked to me about [the game] so I’m looking forward to coming out and saying hi to the guys, because I was there too. And Russ and all these other guys were there as well. Pompey just went through the program and he’s got a younger brother in the program, so they’re doing an incredible job with Baseball Canada.”
Pompey only made it on three trips with Team Canada before his professional journey with the Blue Jays began, but is grateful for his experience and excited for the future of baseball in Canada, with everything Hamilton and the program are now doing.
“They obviously always have great players who play in that program,” Pompey said. “But the amount of exposure that they’re getting – I know there are more scouts in Canada and Greg is putting on more trips and stuff like that, so it’s more opportunity for these kids to make the most of the opportunity they have to either play pro ball or go to school.
“He’s done nothing but a great job over there, and I love it every time we get a chance to play against them. me being there five years ago, no matter how long I play this game I still owe it to Greg and all the people at Baseball Canada for giving me that opportunity. And of course, giving me the opportunity to eventually get drafted and be where I am today.”