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COLUMNISTS

Tue, August 17, 2004

Whitt feels like a kid again


The uniform just happens to look right on the 52-year-old kid from Michigan.

The bright red top. The white pants. The Canada printed across his chest.

Ernie Whitt doesn't happen to be Canadian: He just plays one here in Athens at the Olympic Games, at a place he never thought he would be, with a country he never thought he would represent.

"This is far better than any major league game I've ever played in my life," Whitt, a longtime Blue Jay, said with a perpetual smile on his face. "You see the passion and the pride these kids have, the way they carry themselves on and off the field, I feel very fortunate to be a part of this. Very fortunate."

The feeling, it turns out, is mutual when you listen to his players.

"I'm like a kid here," Whitt said. "I'm only 52 and I don't know how to describe what this means to me. Life is short and you have to enjoy it. How many people have a chance of going and participating in an Olympics?"

He has been to the American League championships and the all-star game and once hit three home runs in a game and he spent a long and successful lifetime in the big leagues and all of that seems different now. More individual. Less important. Less significant.

IMPRESSIVE RECORD

This is Whitt's third time managing a Canadian team in an international competition and his record is impressive. Against all odds, he guided a Canadian team to a bronze medal in the 1999 Pan Am Games in Winnipeg and against even greater odds he managed the Canadian team that qualified for the Olympics in Panama.

Now comes the immense challenge of an Olympic medal, he hopes gold. And before that, in a paper-thin Olympics for Canada, an opportunity for this baseball team to be the team of the Games: The team we fall in love with.

There is something uplifting and convincing about this baseball team of castoffs and prospects and leftovers -- a team that defeated Italy 9-3 yesterday to improve its record to 2-0 -- that makes it different, special even. There is a relaxed closeness about this undefeated team, a calmness that begins with Whitt, who like another American before him, the late Jack Donohue, seems just perfect for Canadian sensibilities.

"The guys on this team just love each other," said Rob Ducey, the oldest ball player in the Olympics at 39.

You used to hear the same thing about Donohue's Canadian basketball team. He didn't build teams as much as he built friendships.

"There's really no other way to say it," Ducey said. "I've been around a long time and I've never seen anything like it before.

"It starts with Ernie and just filters down. It's doesn't feel like a major league team at all. There are no secret agendas, no personal agendas."

Ducey promised his teammates that if they qualified for the Olympics -- the United States did not -- he would get a Canadian baseball tattoo on his right arm. After they qualified, he kept his word and then outfielder Jeremy Ware followed suit. Once Stubby Clapp got one, well everybody got in line.

"Everybody had to ask their wives and girlfriends if it was all right to get one," backup catcher Andy Stewart said. "Now basically we all have 'em."

Stewart, like Ducey, came out of retirement to play in the Olympics, knowing he had to take advantage of the opportunity when asked.

"This is the best I've ever experienced as an athlete," he said. "This is better than getting to the big leagues, better than my first hit. Better than the Pan Am Games."

And it's only just beginning. The first games, the easy wins. Canada should beat the Netherlands early this morning to start the round-robin at 3-0. Then it becomes a matter of positioning itself right and avoiding playing Cuba in the semi-finals.

"Our ultimate goal is to win a gold medal, that's the goal," Whitt said. "That's all."


Does Canada's low-medal haul in Athens bother you?
Yes, it depresses me
No, it's just sports
I'm disappointed, but not worried
We'll get 'em in Turin
Don't care

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