olympicbaseball March 6th, 2008
After exhibition games with Australia, Canada’s national baseball team head to Taiwan, and hope to get a chance to regain a berth in the Summer Olympics.
Four years ago, Canada fell frustratingly short of a medal in the Athens Games, so the flight out from Down Under represented a new beginning.
“It looks good for us,” said outfielder Jimmy Van Ostrand of Richmond, B.C., as the Canadians headed to the final Olympic qualifying tournament for this summer’s Olympic Games in Beijing. “It’s a tough tournament and there is going to be a lot of tough competition there but we definitely have a good team to give ourselves a chance. It’s going to be lots of fun.”
Van Ostrand and the rest of the Canadian roster felt upbeat and confident after going 3-1-1 in a tune-up series against the Australians that began Feb. 27. They were able shake off a winter in which most of the players were away from baseball.
Canada must now claim one of three open Olympic spots. The week-long tournament, starting tomorrow, will see Canada in a stiff competition to come out ahead of baseball-strong countries Australia, Germany, South Korea, Mexico, South Africa, Spain, and the host Taiwan.
The Canadians will field a very young team featuring up-and-coming prospects like Mike Saunders of Victoria, VanOstrand of Richmond, B.C., Matt Rogelstad of New Westminster, B.C., and Nick Weglarz of Stevensville, Ont.
“We have all the tools here to get it done. We just need to stick to our game and we’ll get the results that we want,” said Canadian manager Terry Puhl.
Canada’s experience will likely be a factor this week, with Windsor’s Stubby Clapp, Adam Stern of Port Stanley, Ont., Calgary’s Ryan Radmanovich, Jeremy Ware of Guelph, Ont.and Mike Kusiewicz of Ottawa all returning from the 2004 team that dropped an 8-5 decision in the late innings to Cuba in a game that would have sent them to the gold medal match.
The Canadians – behind starter Shawn Hill, pitching with a torn ligament in his right elbow – carried a 3-2 lead into the eighth inning before the Cubans rallied for six runs. Canada rallied for two runs in the ninth, but with two out and two runners on base, Kevin Nicholson’s apparent home run was snagged at the wall by leaping Cuban left fielder Frederich Cepeda and preserve Cuba’s 8-5 win.
For veteran like Clapp, the thought of that agonizing finish still makes him feel “sick to my stomach … it brings tears to my eyes every time I see it on the replay.” “When we didn’t medal in 2004 I felt cheated, because we had a team to do it, circumstances just didn’t allow it,” Clapp told the Canadian Press. “At that time after being so heartbroken, it was really hard to go back to baseball again.”
The Canadian baseball folk hero retired from professional play last season, and only the national team’s pursuit of a berth at the Olympics this summer keeps him on the field now. He’s put his job as a hitting coach in the Houston Astros organization on hold in the hope that the last of his trademark pre-game back flips comes in Beijing, while taking the field for the gold-medal game.
If they didn’t make it, one of the more colorful players to ever suit up for the national team will likely have played his final game wearing the Maple Leaf.
“Unfortunately, that’s the truth,” Clapp said in a recent interview. “I’ve thought about it and what it does is motivate me more to succeed in this tournament because I want to play in August. I’d rather that be my last hurrah than a qualifying tournament. It’s a special deal and we have to take advantage of it.”
“(Winning a medal) is probably about as important as anything’s been to me, especially for this program.”
The kids will be counted on to do the heavy lifting, with veterans like Clapp guiding them along.
“The toughest part is them being able to trust themselves and that’s something that will be relayed from the veteran guys,” said Clapp. “They’re at a point in their careers where they’ve got to be able to do that and if they can’t it’s going to be tough to succeed. The pressure only gets worse. It never stops, you just have to learn to deal with it.”
Clapp is the ideal player to show them the way.
He first came to national prominence in 1999, when his bloop fly ball in the 11th inning brought home the winning run in a walkoff 7-6 victory over the United States at the Pan American Games in Winnipeg. In subsequent years he played a key role in most major Canadian baseball highlights, including qualifying for the 2004 Olympics and the stunning 8-6 win over the U.S. at the World Baseball Classic in 2006.
One of his most memorable moments came after Canada clinched its berth for the Athens Games, when the team gathered on the bus and sang O Canada together over and over.
“That sends goosebumps down my skin just thinking about that moment. It was just unbelievable, the camaraderie between the guys and the coaches,” Clapp recalled. “The Pan Am Games sticks out, the game against the U.S. was huge. The game against the U.S. at the World Baseball Classic, there were some things in that game that were just phenomenal. There have been so many games that have meant so much.”
There’s been plenty of heartbreak, too.
Aside from the loss to Cuba in 2004, there was missing out on the 2000 Olympics after a 3-2 semifinal loss to Cuba at the ’99 Pan Ams and elimination from the World Baseball Classic on run differential despite tying the U.S. and Mexico with 2-1 first-round records. “International baseball is different, we talk about cutthroat baseball and we’ll relay that to the young guys,” said Clapp. “Let them know every pitch counts, every run counts.”