Blue Jays' roster has distinctly Canadian feel in '15
Starting nine includes Martin, Pompey, Saunders
By Gregor Chisholm
TORONTO -- There has been a longstanding partnership between the Blue Jays and Baseball Canada, but never before have the two sides been intertwined quite like this.
When Opening Day arrives on April 6, the Blue Jays project to have three Canadian-born players in their everyday lineup. Russell Martin, Michael Saunders and Dalton Pompey not only have secure jobs, but they figure to be prominent pieces on a team with postseason aspirations.
The impact this will have on baseball north of the border is almost impossible to quantify. It's admittedly a feel-good story more than anything else, but there's a possibility for something deeper than that. At least that's what some people within the organization are hoping for.
"I think what happens is there's more talk about it, you get noticed more," said Martin, who signed a five-year deal with the Blue Jays earlier this offseason. "I think kids who are Blue Jays fans, I don't know if they're going to be fans of myself, but they're going to know who I am as opposed to when I played in Pittsburgh.
"Kids watch TV; if they see you on TV, they're going to recognize you. If they see you wearing the Blue Jays' uniform, and they notice that I'm Canadian, I think it can have a positive impact. Hopefully they'll like the way I play, the way I go out there."
There have been 19 Canadians to play for the Blue Jays since the club's inaugural season in 1977. The vast majority of those were fringe players who had sporadic roles and spent more time in the dugout than on the field.
That was supposed to change when Toronto traded for Brett Lawrie prior to the 2011 season. He was expected to become the club's first Canadian star, but injuries derailed his first three years. Lawrie wasn't able to live up to his original billing, and while there's still plenty of time for that to change, it won't be with the Blue Jays.
Lawrie might have been traded to Oakland, but the Canadian contingent in Toronto has never been stronger. Martin knows firsthand what kind of impact that can have on the next generation of athletes, because when he was growing up in Montreal, Larry Walker served as one of his main sources of inspiration. The goal is for Martin to have a similar role in Toronto.
"I was always a fan of [Walker]," Martin said. "I always thought he was a tremendous player -- gifted, had so many tools. So he could have been from anywhere, really, and I would have liked him, but I definitely knew he was Canadian, and I was proud of that. Hopefully I can have the same impact on kids."
Martin, Saunders and Pompey aren't the only Canadians in the mix, either. Pitchers Jeff Francis and Andrew Albers also signed Minor League deals this offseason, but in each case, the move wasn't made because of where they were born. The goal with every decision has been to make the team better irrespective of where each player might be from.
That's because winning obviously takes priority, and overall success will help grow the game more than someone's passport. The vast majority of Canadian ballplayers who emerged over the past 15 years grew up watching Toronto's World Series teams of 1992-93. Even in other sports, it was an American basketball player in Vince Carter who helped spawn a generation of Canadian athletes, which now includes Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett -- with plenty more on the way.
That's why the Canadian factor can be sometimes overstated. Role players aren't going to move the needle much at all, but major contributors on a winning team certainly will. If they happen to be from the area ... even better.
"It's the one marketplace in Canada, obviously, with the Blue Jays being the only Major League team," said Greg Hamilton, who is the director of Baseball Canada's national teams. "When you have Canadians on it who have grown up here, and they're not just Canadian players -- they're impact baseball players.
"They're not marginal players. They're impact guys, and I think that resonates across the country. It connects with the youth in the country, and it's the power of success and stardom which makes the dream realistic for kids who want to play baseball."
For now, it's all fun and games, with Saunders even joking that there's a "quota" of Canadians the Blue Jays have to reach. Whether this goes from a heartwarming story of players returning home to something a little more tangible won't be known for at least several months. The number in the win column ultimately will decide that.
"I feel like there's a good energy around it right now," Martin said. "But the important thing is going out there on the field and performing and winning some ballgames. Nobody wants to watch a team lose. And personally, for most of my career, I've played on winning teams -- and I don't plan on changing that, either."