British Columbia: Baseball Hotbed
With Colorado Rockies’ pitcher Jeff Francis currently in the post-season spotlight, it got me to thinking of another stud Canadian Rockies (former) ballplayer – Larry Walker – and why all these new studs (Jason Bay, Adam Loewen, Rich Harden, Justin Morneau) are coming from beautiful British Columbia.
First off, let’s talk about the aforementioned Jeff Francis. To give you loyal MUD readers a sense of just how scarce it has been for Canadian pitchers participating in baseball’s post season, here is something for you to think about:
With the Rockies’ win in Game 1 against Arizona, Jeff Francis posted his second consecutive playoff victory of the current season as a starter for the Colorado Rockies.
It also made him the all-time leader in post season wins by a Canadian.
With his first playoff win last week against the Philadelphia Phillies, the 26-year-old southpaw pulled into a tie for all-time post-season wins by a Canadian with Toronto-born Ron Taylor (1969 Mets) and John Hiller (1972 Tigers), Victoria’s Rich Harden (2003 A’s) and Port Hope, Ontario’s Paul Quantrill (2004 Yankees).
With his four punch-outs against the Diamondbacks in Game 1 of the NLCS, Francis became the all time Canadian leader in post-season strikeouts with 12, trailed only by Ontario’s Kirk McCaskill (10), Moncton, New Brunswick’s Rheal Cormier (10), and Ron Taylor (9).
British Columbia is producing a bumper crop of baseball talent. Justin Morneau of New Westminster was the MVP in the American League last year. Jason Bay of Trail was the Rookie of the Year in the National League in 2004.
The Colorado Rockies’ ace was born in Vancouver and raised in suburban Delta.
To say that it’s opened a lot of eyes that hockey is not the only sport that Canadians can play is an understatement. A generation ago, the province currently referred to as “BC – Baseball Country” remained a backwater of the summer game. Even obviously skilled players such as Larry Walker, who could hit, catch, throw and run, missed being culled by an army of scouts.
Walker was eventually signed as a free agent by the Montreal Expos. The signing bonus was $1,500 (U.S.) – chump change in baseball’s high rolling world, especially by today’s standards.
The outfielder soon established himself as the greatest position player in Canadian history. That his athletic talent went unnoticed convinced baseball to include Canadians in the annual entry draft, according to Walt Burrows, the Canadian supervisor for the Major League Baseball Scouting Bureau.
“The thinking was: ‘How could we have missed this guy? You’d better get up there and cover the territory.’ “
Burrows, who is based in suburban Victoria, says Canadians were overlooked because it was assumed they would be, at best, raw talent in need of tutoring. Not so any more.
“They’re not filler players,” he said. “They’re impact players. They’re all-stars.”
That was not always the case.
The first athlete born in British Columbia to play in the major leagues was a miner’s son from the gold-rush town of Barkerville. Bert Sincock pitched one game (42/3 innings) in 1908 before being demoted. Forty-seven years passed before another B.C. player would get the chance. Bob Alexander of Vancouver lasted all of nine games, recording a 1-1 pitching record.
Left-hander Ted Bowsfield of Vernon was the first to enjoy a real career, spending seven seasons in the American League with four clubs. Dave McKay of Vancouver became the first full-time position player from the province, spending eight seasons in the majors, beginning in 1975.
Most others, including Burrows’ son, Cody, have stayed long enough for just a cup of coffee. They include right-handed pitchers Tom Harrison of Trail (one earned run in one inning pitched for the Kansas City Athletics in 1965) and Ken Crosby of New Denver (1-0 and no saves in 16 games with the Chicago Cubs).
The current crop of athletes from the province will enjoy more substantial careers, barring injury. Burrows gives credit to the B.C. Premier League, a circuit for the province’s top teenaged players, for nurturing talent.
The league was launched on a shoestring budget in 1995 by two amateur baseball coaches on Vancouver Island. Dave Wallace and Clyde Inouye wanted their high-school sons, Chris and Fraser, respectively, to continue playing baseball, which at that time would have meant moving to the Lower Mainland. A five-team league on the Island has expanded to 25 teams, including junior and college squads.
About 500 graduates of the league have gone on to post-secondary studies. Morneau, Francis and Harden honed their skills in this league.
Perhaps if a similar idea was adopted nation-wide then we would see more MLB players from Canada having more of an impact? Only time will tell.