ST. PETERSBURG — First thing Brett Lawrie saw when he got off the bus at Al Lang Field Friday morning, was a sea of nervous teenagers, all wearing the red maple leaf on their crisp white uniforms, getting ready for batting practice.
It felt a little like going home.
“When I walked in here just now and saw all the guys out there stretching as a team, it brought back memories,” said the B.C. native and Blue Jays hopeful.
“Some of my best memories are with Team Canada.”
It was ‘Canada Day’ in St. Pete’s, by decree of the mayor and the pre-game vibe fit the occasion of the first meeting between Canada’s national junior team and the Blue Jays.
After their own batting practice, the juniors went back on the field and mingled with the Jays players, shagging fly balls and rubbing shoulders with the professionals.
“That was great,” said Aaron Hill, who made the trip but decided not to play to protect a quad muscle that has been bothering him. “To have them come back on the field and work with us, ask questions, just to talk baseball with them was fun.
“When I was 14, I went to Australia with a team of 18 year-olds so I know exactly how some of these kids feel. I spent that whole trip in awe.”
Lawrie was 15 when he came to Florida with the junior team for extended spring training, playing games against minor-leaguers.
“That was my first taste of professional baseball,” he said.
Now Lawrie is competing for a job with the Blue Jays and he credits being in the national team culture for his rapid advancement.
“It was a big learning thing,” he said. “I’d been used to playing mostly with guys my age, but then, when I got on the national team, I was 15, playing with 18-year-olds and playing against professionals.
“It was a big jump for me. I did a good job of keeping my ears open because I had a lot to learn as a young guy. I was nervous, didn’t know what to do. I was a little fish in a big sea but I was able to learn so much and I can’t thank Baseball Canada enough for that.”
There were scouts from a variety of major-league teams on hand Friday, including Pat Gillick of the Phillies, and that’s another benefit the national program gives its players: Exposure.
“It gives you an opportunity to be seen by the right people,” Lawrie said. “In Canada, by itself, it’s tough when you just play club baseball. The international game gives you a chance to get yourself out there and get seen in the United States, play against extended spring training teams, with scouting directors and roving scouts watch you play.”
Lawrie played in a world junior championship, a World Baseball Classic and in the Olympics, treasured memories all. Now he’s trying to make some new memories by jumping from double A to the bigs with the Jays
“I’m excited that I’m here,” he said. “Toronto is a great fit for me. This is my first big league camp and it’s going just the way I hoped it would. I’m working hard, going about my business, keeping my ears open, playing my game, playing hard and not giving anybody a reason to say ‘You’re not trying.’
“I’m coming off the field every day, knowing I gave it my all. I’m showing people what I’ve got, giving myself the best opportunity for people to see me.”
The other day, in a game against Tampa, Lawrie had a couple of at-bats against David Price, one of the top lefthanders in the American League. Even though he didn’t get any hits, manager John Farrell thought enough of his plate awareness and determination to mention it later in his press briefing.
“If it was my first year, I’d get nervous,” Lawrie said. “But as time goes on you learn how to handle things better. You learn how to work an at-bat. You’re not so worried that it’s David Price out there. It’s just me versus him and we’re both baseball players. Game on.”
Somewhere among the young Canadians who played Friday there is, no doubt, another “little fish in a big sea,” with Lawrie-sized dreams. Keep your ears open, kid. Could happen.