Like a plant with a vigorous desire to thrive, the sport of baseball turns up in a wide variety of places.
Eastern Europe, Polynesia, Africa and the Orient – these are just a few of the unlikely regions where baseball has emerged from its American and British roots. Much less far-flung in the baseball conversation is the brand you can find in Canada, a source of MLB talent for generations , and home of the beloved Toronto Blue Jays, winners of two World Series.
But the next-door-neighbor status of Canada hasn’t been enough to strip away the mystery of how ballplayers come of age there. Preconceptions about the weather (chronically unpleasant) and other athletic interests (hockey, hockey and hockey) make it hard to understand just how committed and compelled Canadian baseball players are to succeed.
Results on the field provide a certain type of evidence, and one outfit showing muscle in that respect is the Fieldhouse Pirates, based in Burlington, Ontario. Founded in 2009, the Pirates immediately drew talent from the 15u-18u ranks, and with an eye to the future the club is now beginning to groom younger athletes and follow the logic of strong USA organizations to increase the odds of building a better ballplayer.
The patient yet passionate desire of Ontario native Matt Baird to give back to the youth of the country sparked the Fieldhouse Pirates, from the early days of backyard lessons to today, where instruction and progress is served by a sprawling 40,000-square-foot indoor/turf facility.
“Coaching is something I have a passion for, and it’s built into the club we have today,” said Baird, who played professionally and then scouted for the Philadelphia Phillies before tinkering with the idea of founding a club. “Some of us were realizing the baseball acumen in Canada; there are good athletes here, with a lot obviously taken to hockey. I wanted to give back and change the impressions of Canadians in baseball … that stigma that everyone just plays hockey, because I got that when I played baseball.
“We are losing athletes to other sports, and I wanted to put some Canadian guys through school and into pro ball.”
In the conversation between scouts, coaches, colleges and the pro ranks, Canadian baseball players are typically thought of as unpolished. Getting onto a quality 15u-18u lineup was the only game plan if an athlete wanted more of a career, and he still needed to project as a talent who would thrive with more attention.
Baird was open to the idea of making Canadian players less of a dice roll, and serious traction on that front came from Tony Busseri, who drove the launch of the 10u through 14u program last year.
“I wanted to start an elite training program for the younger levels. It’s a new marketplace, and people are now realizing that baseball should be treated differently than hockey, where you have some families paying between $8,000-$20,000 annually for training,” said Busseri, who coordinates the youth program and is head coach of the 11u squad. “Baseball is too often treated as a pastime, where if you’re good enough to play, you’ll figure it out, get trained for a couple years and someone else will take you. We’re treating it more seriously, with the proper respect a really good baseball player deserves.
“It’s been very unstructured, historically. We’ve been pioneers on that front – pushing the envelope that baseball is not a pastime sport. We have some fantastic athletes here in Canada, and why aren’t we treating them with the respect they deserve if they have a passion for baseball? I know we’re on the right path; teams have a lot of compliments about us, we’re getting their respect. That tells me we’re not off base. We’re starting to see other academies in Canada follow us, starting with younger players, building bigger facilities.”
While Canadian weather is certainly manageable (Ontario has a climate very similar to the American Midwest), there’s no denying that more baseball gets played in Florida than Toronto. When the Pirates made the plunge and purchased their new facility, it injected a kind of confidence into the surrounding community, where you could totally trust that the Pirates had the means and muscle to groom baseball players.
“I had a smaller place, maybe 10,000 square feet, and the fact fields here are few and far between, I was kind of jumping around all the time, with nowhere I could call home,” Baird said. “We’ve made a big impact in our area, moving into this facility and starting the club. It took two months to turn the facility into shape; it was an old warehouse, and today people walk into it and can’t imagine what it used to be like.”
Kind of like the set from an old “Mad Max” movie – abandoned vehicles, assorted vermin, aggressive raccoons, and so forth. Today, it’s a professional setting by any measure with every fundamental need of a baseball player met by the complex, like MLB-detailed clay pitching mounds, batting cages, throwing lanes, video analysis and speed training all part of the package.
And just as older players love the facility for all its high-level touches, the Pirates think their new market of younger players will also be inspired by the setting.
“We fundamentally believe that having a longer window to develop a high-end athlete gives us a better chance to create a stronger baseball player,” Busseri said. “The knock against Canadian kids historically is that they are raw talents, with 2-3 years of baseball. The vision is to get them 7-8 years, so they’re ready for college experience. When you’re training athletes, you don’t play to win. You play them to develop; develop them well and they’ll be productive on the field.
“We will be highly competitive; all the other stuff, dealing with stressful situations, is just part of growing up and getting ready. Do we want to win? Sure. The development aspect is to help players grow to where the skills show up naturally. Kids want to compete, we’re not afraid of that. We want them to learn from their mistakes and become better players. Let’s focus on development and support them through competition and help them through the emotions of winning and losing.”
The backbone of the youth program is a 26-week skill development sequence that runs from early October through early April. Players are asked to pitch and try to settle on a core position, although that can change over time if necessary. From 13u and younger, Fieldhouse Pirates teams play in spring and summer leagues in and around Buffalo, NY, while the older teams play in the seven-team Canadian Premier Baseball League.
“In the (CPBL), from those seven teams, we just had 16 drafted from that league,” Baird said. “Players from Canada are adjusting to college baseball. We’ve had first-round picks from the league, D-I players – this is all a credit to the baseball guys coming back to this region.”
One of those blossoming talents and success stories is Travis Wacker, who grew up in Ontario and displayed a superior mix of skills and work ethic to earn a roster spot at a stellar JUCO, Grayson College, north of Dallas. From there, he signed to play catcher at Oklahoma State, where he hit .381 in his first seven games (all starts) with the Cowboys.
“I took lessons from Matt since age 12; when I was 15, I played for the 18u team. It was a good experience, just when I knew it was time to commit to baseball full-time,” said Wacker, who was born in suburban Dallas. “Development is the focus; they want to win, but developing players and creating the environment you’ll have to meet when you go to college is big. They helped me out with a lot of that. They’re in there every day, and they help you push and be prepared for the next level.
“If you put those (Canadian) kids up there and had them outside all the time, against kids here, they would match up head-to-head fine, hands down. But with (training) inside so much, you really have to put the extra steps in and work harder than everybody else. People south are outside all the time. People perceive kids from Canada might not be as good, but Fieldhouse preaches that they’ll just work harder and we’ll be mentally tougher than a lot of those teams – we always competed well.”
Youth teams from the Pirates will be expanding their USA-based schedule going forward, ears and eyes open to soak in the most useful data possible from playing established clubs. That feedback will be used to help two other frontier intentions of the Pirates – a girls softball program called the Raiders, as well as the Buccaneer baseball feeder program, which will play a lighter schedule.
“People are not interested in our flag, but what we do on the field. Canada produces great talent (such as current Blue Jays Russell Martin and Michael Saunders), and the baseball dream is not without reward,” added Busseri. “It’s viable. Only the rare make it, true, but there are opportunities with schools and colleges. There’s a model that works, and we’ll draw from the best techniques from great USA programs and build it in this marketplace.”