Sunday, August 29, 2004

Canada loves its baseball
East Nepean Little Leaguers proving country is about more than just hockey

By Mark Rogoff

No pucks, no skates, no problem.

Canada is most obviously known for its hockey. But don’t tell that to the East Nepean Little League All-Stars from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Most of these cool cats from Canada’s capital are all baseball, all the time.

America’s neighbor to the north does have the Montreal Canadians, the Ottawa Senators and the Toronto Maple Leafs, all teams worthy of the lead sports story during the nightly news, especially come playoff time in April and May. The Canadian Hockey Association (CHA), which governs all amateur hockey in the country, says 4.5 million Canadians are involved in hockey as coaches, players, officials, administrators or direct volunteers (this does not include spectators, parents and occasional volunteers). CHA also says it has 232,370 players registered in the province of Ontario, while 27,581 are registered in the Ottawa District alone.

But again, don’t tell these East Nepean Little Leaguers. The numbers are meaningless. While some enjoy hockey, they all have a place in their heart for baseball.

“I do watch hockey, but I can’t really play it because I can’t skate,” said outfielder Shane Harper-Thompson. “Baseball is the best sport I’ve ever played and the only sport I’ve ever played.”

“I play hockey,” admitted infielder Niko Van Essen. “Both (baseball and hockey) I really like. For hockey, when I step onto the ice it just feels so cool. When I step onto the field, it feels really good. When I catch the ball, it feels good. When I shoot the puck, it feels good. I find that they’re both fun sports.

“I would actually choose baseball because you can’t get injured (as easily). You can’t get slapshots in your face.”

Sure, their experiences over the past few months have enhanced that love for the game, but some of these ballplayers play all year round and have an undeniable passion for the pastime.

“It’s my life,” said outfielder Kyle Craig. “I love baseball. It’s fun to play. Canada is about baseball.”

Head coach Michel Crepin said six of the 12 kids on his All-Star squad play hockey in the winter, and the other six are full-time baseball players. He was quick to point out, however, that hockey is not the only sport in competition with baseball.

“I think baseball is competing with more sports in summer time than it ever has,” he said. “And I don’t think you have to be in Canada to see that. Baseball, period, is competing with soccer. It’s competing with lacrosse. It’s competing with individual sports like golf and tennis, more than it ever has, certainly more than it did 15 years ago.”

Crepin works part time for Grounders, an indoor baseball training facility for young ballplayers that comes in handy, particularly during the winters. Crepin teaches with Tim Leiper, who manages the Baltimore Orioles’ Triple-A Ottawa affiliate, and Mike Kusiewicz, a left-handed hurler who pitched for Team Canada at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

The three instructors have a program that they’ve instilled, which basically comes down to the fundamentals of infield, hitting and pitching. Kusiewicz handles the pitching instruction, Leiper oversees the hitting and Crepin handles the infield.

“It’s a really, really good program where we get down to fundamentals, but we concentrate an awful lot on making it fun for the kids,” Crepin said. “So we concentrate on fundamentals, but we’ve dug deep to find competitive drills that they have fun with.”

And fun is definitely the name of the game nowadays, especially since baseball took a hit in 1994 when Major League Baseball’s players went on strike. In Canada specifically, baseball really had a tough time following the work stoppage because of the mediocre play of the Toronto Blue Jays and Montreal Expos.

The Blue Jays finished the strike-shortened 1994 season with a 55-60 record and a third-place finish in the American League East, just one year after Joe Carter won the hearts of millions by hitting his walk-off homer in Game Six of the 1993 World Series. It was the second of two straight World Series championships for the Jays, who drew 4,057,947 fans to the Skydome that year.

As for the Expos, they were 74-40 and in first place of the National League East when the strike began. Montreal was poised to win a division title for the first time since the franchise’s inception in 1969.

“Baseball has fallen off in Canada since about 1994,” Crepin said. “(The strike) really hurt baseball. It hurt baseball in Canada. The league that I’m affiliated with, and have been for 14 years, had about 750 ballplayers just within our league. Now it’s about 450, and we’ve been able to maintain that since about 1998. We’ve leveled out at 450, but we’re really hopeful that this experience is going to raise the profile of baseball in Ottawa, as well as Ontario.”

The Nepean All-Stars have become a national story in Canada, partially because they hail from the country’s capital. Crepin said his squad has been front-page news for the past 10 days, getting more space than any political story and the Olympics.

No Ottawa team had ever made it to South Williamsport prior to this year.

“We’re hoping that at least in a very, very superficial way that it spreads beyond our borders,” Crepin said. “But of course, we want to take advantage of all of the press that’s come to us, and use this as a vehicle to raise the profile of baseball in our area, to make it a stronger baseball area.”

As for the kids’ experiences during their endless summer that ended at the Little League World Series, they’re priceless.

The team stopped at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. on their way down the Susquehanna River. On Friday, the club took a bus ride to Harrisburg, Pa. to watch Montreal’s Double-A affiliate take on the Akron Aeros at Commerce Bank Park. The kids were introduced on the field in a special pre-game ceremony. They also got to meet with some of the players, including Rob Ducey and Shawn Hill, both having just returned from playing for Team Canada in Athens.

“There was this whole magic thing going on between Team Canada [the pros] and Team Canada [the Little Leaguers],” Crepin said. “The kids didn’t get to watch the game because there we just lines, throngs of kids with pens getting them to sign baseballs and stuff.”

On their own playing fields at Howard J. Lamade Stadium and Volunteer Stadium, the Canadians went 1-2 in pool play, beating a team from Poland and falling to Panama and Taiwan, Chinese Taipei.

Crepin is happy with how his boys competed, and believes they could have done better if the coaches and players had an opportunity to see the teams beforehand and not go in against them blind.

“I’m very, very proud of the kids because every game that we played here, we didn’t leave anything on the field,” Crepin said. “And off the field, it’s been absolutely awesome. The people here in Williamsport really know how to make the kids feel like stars. And they are stars. And it is all about the kids when you get here. We’ve been extremely pleased. Expectations which were very, very high have been exceeded since we arrived.”

“It was best experience of my life,” said Harper-Thompson, who wants to be a stuntman when he grows up (he’s already broken a thumb, a wrist, a pinky finger, and he’s knocked out four teeth while shattering six). “I’m never going to forget this.”

Neither will Canada.

“Little League Canada is strong, even though it has plateaued in the last few years,” Crepin said. “It’s always going to have its place. It’s always a competition. It’s a job to maintain it. I really feel that at least in our immediate area, we’re going to see numbers rise as much as 10 or 15 percent next year based on the profile that this team has received.

“I see baseball in Canada always playing a part in our summer sports. And I don’t see it falling off, it’s just we have to be diligent to make sure that we make it interesting to kids. Hockey being such a fast-paced sport, baseball is often viewed as long, drawn out and boring, whereas for those of us who know the game know that it’s anything but. Your nerves hang on every pitch if you understand the game.”

It seems the Nepean All-Stars get it, believing baseball is alive and well as well.

“I’d tell them we’re just another America,” Van Essen said of people who believe Canada is only about hockey. “We like both.

© 2004 Little League Baseball Incorporated