Canadian baseball prospects are finding that the grass isn’t always greener on the US/NCAA side.
For many high school-aged baseball players, the common belief is that the only place to get noticed by major-league scouts is by playing baseball at an American school. With a baseball-mad culture and the ability to provide athletic scholarships, American Universities & Colleges have always had a leg (or two) up on Canadian Universities. Although the NCAA and American prorgrams still offer the premier competitive college baseball experience, the OUA (Ontario University Athletics) is beginning to close the gap on the talent level while offering a far superior educational experience. I spoke with many current players and alumni from Canada’s premier baseball program at Brock University to get their perspective on playing in both the states as well as in Canada and the OUA.
The Brock baseball program began with a bang in 1995. In its inaugural season, the team finished second in country, losing in the CIBA National Championship final. Since then, the Badgers have captured two CIBA National titles in their 16 year history. In 1998, they defeated the UNB Varsity Reds and in 1999 defeated the University of Toronto Varsity Blues at home when the tournament was held in St. Catharines. In their three other appearances the Badgers lost in the championship game and one of those was hotly contested – in 2004 Queen’s was determined the winner due to inclement weather.
Because of the success the program has experienced, Brock has been able to attract elite-level ballplayers from far and wide.
The first players to join Brock from an American school were Jamie Trull and Doug Whiteside. Trull, a LHP/1B, describes the process of selecting an American school to play for:
The process was much different in the mid-1990s compared to today. There was no internet, no development teams, etc. I hand-wrote over 150 recruitment letters to a variety of schools, based on academics, the baseball program, and geography. From that point I was contacted from a variety of schools via mail or phone calls. The reason I chose a US school over a Canadian school was that at the time I wasn’t aware of University baseball in Canada and had a life-long dream of playing at college in the US.
At the time, the gap between the level of play between the NCAA and OUA was far greater than it is today. This is due to the fact that NCAA schools fully-fund their baseball programs while Brock and many OUA schools were/are club teams that had to raise their own money and secure corporate sponsorships. Trull echoes that sentiment:
The top OUA teams can definitely compete with colleges in the US and in some cases are better than a number of US programs. I think the biggest difference is the funding available to the programs and also the weather is a factor for some programs.
Whiteside, an outfielder, found there was a steep learning curve when moving from Ontario to a top Junior Collegiate program in the states:
The pace of play and the tempo of the game in California was something that I really had to adjust to when I began playing there. It is simply much more systematic and ultimately, faster. I was able to rise to the occasion and play very well in the early going but I struggled and doubted myself at times as well. With that being said, the teams that we had at Brock during the 1996 and 1997 years when I played could have competed against anyone. We proved that by beating decent Division 1 programs in New York State. The competition in Ontario was alright but we certainly had the most talent of any club in Ontario or perhaps the entire country at the time. When we came to play, there was no in Ontario who could touch us.
The reasons Trull and Whiteside returned to a Canadian school to finish their baseball careers were varied. Whiteside, in particular, believed that the direction of his college playing career in the US was uncertain. Both Trull and Whiteside became more focused on the academic portion of the student-athlete life and felt they would be best served returning to a Canadian school for a superior degree.
I returned to school in Canada because the US programs did not offer the academics that I had expected. I had opportunities to stay in the US but Brock gave me the opportunity to achieve my academic goals and also had a strong baseball program.
In my experience, the quality of education at Brock is much higher than any experience I had in the US. Brock University prepares students to succeed in post-graduate life by providing quality facilitators, a strong curriculum, and expects students to think outside the box which is an important asset to have once you are working in your specific field.
In the US, courses are strictly chosen around your baseball schedule. In some instances, that limits your choice of what courses to enroll in and therefore [academics] becomes secondary to baseball.
Obviously, priorities are different [in Canada] than in the US. I’m not saying that the priorities are wrong, but in Canada the programs produce more well-rounded individuals than a lot of schools in the US. In Canada, studies are the top priority with baseball being the second priority, which is the way it should be. Student athletes are better prepared for success after graduation, compared to the US programs that make baseball the top priority and academics a distant second.
After Brock won consecutive National Titles in 1998 & 1999, word began to spread about the quality of Brock’s baseball program and more players made the trek home to play for Brock. Much of the success can be credited to Brock’s Coach Jeff Lounsbury who has been with the team since its inception. His recruiting efforts combined with his reputation has attracted much interest from Canadian players at American schools. One of those players was third baseman Mat Barrett.
I chose Brock because I was still interested in playing high level baseball and Brock had a great reputation. After a visit with Coach Lo and a workout with the team both Coach and I decided it would be a good idea to attend and from that point on my plans were set.
Barrett’s story of being recruited by an American school serves as a warning to college students looking to play baseball in the US:
I went down and visited the school prior to signing my letter of intent. The school was brand new with gorgeous facilities in upstate New York. When I actually came down to move in I found out that housing for the players had been arranged off campus in the neighbouring town of Catskill, NY. If you don’t know, this is Mike Tyson’s home town. It was completely economically depressed and not somewhere I would want my kids to live. I was immediately warned which houses to avoid as they were crack houses and when asking a police officer for directions (the police station was at the end of my street) I had to speak to him through bullet proof glass and was asked what the hell I was doing out at night.
Joining Barrett was pitcher Mark Nicholson of the NCAA Division 1 Niagara University Purple Eagles. Nicholson has the distinction of being the third player to throw a no-hitter in Brock history. On the level of competition in the OUA, Nicholson says:
The OUA is definitely a step down from Division 1, but I was genuinely surprised at the level of ball in the OUA. I encourage competitive players to give Brock and other OUA schools consideration. It really depends on the person, what their goals are, and what they hope to accomplish while at University. If the player has MLB aspirations, the US is probably where to go. If the player would like to enjoy the game a bit more, and focus on school, the OUA might be a better fit. It certainly was for me.
Along with Nicholson came 6’5″ right-handed pitcher Jamaal Joseph from Campbell University. Possessing a 93mph fastball, Joseph became the first OUA player to sign with a major league team (the Florida Marlins) proving that it is possible to get noticed by pro scouts while playing Canadian baseball. He played in 14 games for the Marlins’ Gulf Coast League affiliate in 2004.
With the team’s continued success came funding from Brock itself, making Brock Badger baseball a full-fledged varsity sport. With additional resources, Couch Lounsbury’s time has been freed up from fundraising efforts and directed towards baseball-related activities. This has helped strengthen the program even further and as a result has attracted more elite-level ballplayers. Says coach Jeff Lounsbury:
“We have always had talent, but I have seen [the program] grow at the university level with funding. We were always treated very well by the athletic department, and we were always respected for what we did on and off the field, but funding was a huge benefit since we were close to burning out and that saved us.”
Two time team MVP Steve Coates, another American-school product, chose Brock when it came time to transfer to a 4-year program after his 2 years at a JUCO.:
“Brock gave me the best opportunity to play for a great program and receive a quality education. I think there are a lot of players who attend schools in the U.S. and then return to Canada having realized the same thing.
Coach Lounsbury has built one of the finest baseball programs in the country. His success is a direct result of hard work and dedication. He demands the best from his players both on and off the field, and not only turns out great baseball players but great people as well. It was an honour to play for Jeff Lounsbury.”
Today, the Brock Badgers are the reigning OUA champions. Key contributors Kurtis Robinson, Jason Champ and Shaun Valeriote were all recruited from American schools to “come home” and play for Brock. Robinson and Champ, both right-handed pitchers, were integral in helping Brock to win the OUA playoffs. They both have noticed that while American programs offer higher-calibre competition, the OUA is no slouch.
Badgers strikeout leader Kurtis Robinson, a transfer from Muscatine Community College, dominated batters in his first season leading the Badgers in strikeouts (52), innings pitched (47.2), earned run average among starters (1.70), and sharing a tie for the team lead in wins (5). Overall, Robinson finished with a 5-1 record, while also recording one save. He says he wasn’t sure what to expect when he began play in the OUA:
“Coming to the OUA after two years at a D-1 school, I expected it to be a little bit less competitive. I was wrong, and my first regular season start gave me a wake up call. My first start was against McMaster, and I think I gave up three runs in the first inning alone. I realized that I needed to keep working at getting better, and I worked on my changeup and I don’t think I really started to pitch well until I found that pitch.
I would say [Division 1] schools in the states and OUA are both extremely competitive. I found that in America the competition is more consistent, whereas in the OUA I find there are a lot of ups and downs in competition. There are a lot of transfer players in OUA just like me, so in one sense, the competition is the same. OUA deserves a lot more respect than it gets. Competition in Ontario alone is getting better and better every year with programs such as the Oakville Royals and the Ontario Blue Jays, who send their players off to American schools every year.”
In the OUA Championship game it was Jason Champ who led the Badgers to their first OUA title since 2004, on his way to earn game MVP honors. In the Championship game Champ threw seven innings allowing just one run, six hits and striking out one. On the season Champ went 5-1, throwing 44.1 innings with 36 strikeouts and a 3.25 ERA. Jason is a product of the Intercounty Baseball League, a league responsible for producing prospect Marcus Knecht of the Toronto Blue Jays and Milwaukee Brewers closer John Axford. Champ agrees with Robinson’s assessment of the level of competition of the OUA:
There is definitely a difference in the level of competition between college ball in the states and the OUA. In the states there are players that are getting drafted every year from the guys you’re playing against. Baseball down there is an everyday thing. If you don’t have a double header that day you will have practice. We would practice year round; if necessary we would practice in the gym at the school.
Another factor boosting the level of competitiveness was aluminum bats. That alone makes hitters even harder to get out. I say all this about the high level of competition in the states, but I can’t bash the OUA. A lot of the players are guys like me who have come back to Canada to get an education. So the skill level is still high but our season is just over a month and clearly not as long as in the States. So I would have to say that college ball in the states is much better than the OUA, but the OUA is no laughing stock either.
Shaun Valeriote, the Badgers’ shortstop, received countless honours for his play throughout the season. Valeriote was named the OUA’s Top Hitter as well as an OUA All-Star, OUA Playoff MVP, and Brock Athlete of the week twice. Shaun’s incredible season was highlighted by a .519 batting average, which is the highest batting average ever recorded in a single season by a Badger, joining Andrew Tinnish as the only Badgers to ever bat .500 or better (Tinnish batted .500 in 1998). Valeriote also now holds the top spot in steals in a single season, tying former Badger speedster Steve Coates, with 24 stolen bases (Coates had achieved the feat in 2006). Rounding out Valeriote’s incredible season was a stat line that boasted 55 hits, 39 runs, 10 doubles, 4 homeruns and 33 runs batted in.
Valeriote, a product of Miami University, noticed that the difference between baseball in the OUA compared to baseball in the states is depth. “On average, teams in the OUA each have 5 or 6 guys that continually perform and produce for their schools whereas in the states the talent is a lot more consistent throughout each team’s roster.”
Valeriote parlayed his impressive season into a work out with the Toronto Blue Jays.
I was given the opportunity by Brock Baseball alumni and current jays scouting director Andrew Tinnish. I had met Andrew briefly on a few occasions and was able to get into contact with him to set up a workout. I went to the Rogers Centre and took batting practice in front of Tinnish and the Blue Jays’ Canadian area scout. Andrew told me what he liked about my swing and what i needed to work on and cemented in my brain the work ethic and passion I need to put forth if I want an opportunity to pursue baseball beyond Brock.
Valeriote’s story as well as the story of Jamaal Joseph prove that scouts are starting to sit up and take notice of the talent in OUA baseball. To the skeptics, Coach Lounsbury has this to say:
“Watch a game. But also check the rosters on some of these programs. You’re going to all of a sudden say, ‘Whoa, I didn’t know he was here. Whoa, I didn’t know he was here. That kid can play.’”
That being said, Lounsbury still fears for the future of OUA baseball.
“I don’t worry about Brock as much as I worry about the fate of University baseball at the Canadian University level. We will continue to work hard at improving the quality of baseball and the quality of program for the athlete, regardless of what outside sources have to do with it.
I fear for the program if I am not fighting for it, and I fear for OUA baseball even after all these years. It’s still not where it should be and we seem to always be fighting for our rightful place in University sports. That motivates me.”
One of the most underrated aspects of returning home to Canada is the quality of a degree from a Canadian school is much superior to that of an American school. As previously mentioned by Jamie Trull, players have noticed a deep chasm in the level of academics across the border compared to at home in Canada. Steve Coates reiterates this:
I don’t think it is comparable. In all honesty I went from Academic All-Region in the U.S. in 2002/2003 to academic probation at Brock in 2003/2004. It was kind of a shock to actually having to try at school.
Former players Mark Nicholson, Scott Vallier and Doug Whiteside all credit their Brock degree for leading them to where they are now in their careers. Brock’s stellar business program helped Nicholson get a great job with Interac in Toronto. Whiteside feels his degree at Brock paved the way for him to be a Health & Physical education teacher – a career he loves. Scott Vallier believes both his time as a Brock baseball player as well as having achieved his degree helped him land his position as an OPP officer by showing he could work at a goal and accomplish it. And let’s not forget, Blue Jays’ Scouting Director Andrew Tinnish’s Brock degree got his foot in the door with the Toronto Blue Jays. Speaking of Tinnish, he believes that a wave of baseball prospects that call Ontario home is on the horizon.
“In the 2012 draft, there are four 16-year-olds in Ontario right now who are already throwing 90 to 93 miles per hour. Those names will pop up and there’s a good core of guys in Ontario.”
Tinnish said there’s no need for a player to move to improve his chances of being drafted.
“Being involved in local baseball and playing in some of these elite travel leagues, those leagues do get scouted. If your kid is throwing 90 or 93, someone is going to find out
While Brock and OUA schools in general are becoming a more attractive option for the college player, there is cause for even more enthusiasm as rumours persist that Brock may leave the OUA and join the NCAA baseball circuit. This move would surely provide more exposure to Canadian baseball players while ensuring they receive top-quality education. For those players applying to schools and weighing offers, Steve Coates sums up his experience at Brock:
I could not be happier with my decision to come to Brock. Although I enjoyed my time in the states and still have many friends there the education is received at Brock is invaluable. Plus, Brock baseball is a family and I am in touch with and remain friends with many of my former teammates. I highly recommend Brock University and the baseball program to any young ball player.
Many thanks to the Brock Press, Brock Badgers Baseball, Coach Jeff Lounsbury, The CIS blog, current & former players Mat Barrett, Jamie Trull, Scott Vallier, Mark Nicholson, Doug Whiteside, Steve Coates, Kurtis Robinson, Jason Champ and Shaun Valeriote for agreeing to participate in this post.