TORONTO - One by one the Canadians took their turns.
They stepped forward, bent at the waist, lowered their head and an official from the Mexican baseball federation placed the gold medal around their neck.
Mike Johnson, 36, who made his international debut in 2003, watched it unfold from the back of the line, standing alongside teammate Shawn Hill.
“I asked Shawn if I could be last to get a medal. He said yes,” said the Edmonton veteran. “We acknowledged the coaches and staff once we got our medals.
“We were so happy for Greg Hamilton (director of national teams) and (business manager) Bernie Soulliere when we won, all the time and effort they’ve given to the program, I couldn’t be happier for two individuals.”
Canada had edged Team USA 2-1 last week to win the gold medal at the Pan Am Games in Lagos de Moreno, Mexico.
It was Canada’s first gold at the senior level.
Canada’s only other gold came at the world juniors in 1991.
Beating Team USA ended the best month of Canadian baseball ever on the international stage.
Sure there was beating Team USA at the World Baseball Classic in Phoenix, yet this closing ceremony ended with O Canada being played and sung loudly, albeit off key, by 24 Canadians, led by manager Ernie Whitt, a team put together by Hamilton.
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Who are these minor leaguers who won a bronze at the World Cup and gold at the Pan Am Games?
They matched Canada’s previous output in the first 17 trips to the World Cup with a bronze at the 39th World Cup in Panama, Oct. 1-15. Two years ago they won bronze in Italy.
And then they defeated Team USA for Canada’s first ever gold in baseball at the Pan Ams, a first in a senior event.
What’s the make up of the average Canadian minor leaguer on the team?
Of the 11 pitchers 10 were drafted — North Vancouver’s Scott Richmond was signed as a free agent. The average guy was drafted in the 17th round (like Sarnia’s Nick Bucci), pitched in 135 games in the minors (as Richmond did) and has had five seasons in the minors (Chris Kissock of Fruitvale, B.C.)
Of the 14 position players 13 were drafted — second baseman Skyler Stromsmoe of Bow Island, Alta. signed as a free agent. The average guy was selected in the 16th round (like Michael Crouse of Port Moody, B.C., who the Jays drafted), played an average of six seasons and 469 games in the minors (like London’s Brock Kjeldgaard, who has played six years and 489 games.
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Most Canucks played at double-A or triple-A. Georgetown’s Hill didn’t throw a pitch this season.
Hill, who pitched for the Blue Jays in the fall of 2010, went to spring training with the Florida Marlins, injured his elbow and had surgery.
“I was trying to pitch in September but that slowed down,” said Hill. “Greg called about the World Cup. It was good timing, worked out perfectly.
“My elbow was barking the final two starts,” said Hill, who hopes to pitch next season.
He threw five innings for the win in the semifinal, 5-3 decision over host Mexico and worked five innings in the opener against Puerto Rico (10 innings, four runs allowed).
“If I have to play winter ball I will,” said Hill. “I have this black cloud over me because of injuries. My velocity is still there (88-91 mph), I’m a control guy with movement.”
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At the closing ceremonies ...
Manager Whitt thought of Winnipeg when Canada went 6-1 but finished third and failed to qualify for the Olympics, despite beating both Cuba and the United States, the two Olympic qualifiers in 1999.
Hill, like Johnson, thought of Athens in 2008. Hill had turned a 3-2 lead over to the bullpen in the semifinal game against Cuba. A win and Canada would meet Australia for gold. There was a clank, a few hits, a comeback and Kevin Nicholson’s pinch-hit bid for extra bases into a stiff breeze, the ball dying at the wall for the final out.
Richmond thought of the 2009 World Baseball Classic at the Rogers Centre. He was Canada’s best bullet. Canada had to win two games in pool play and was expected to lose to Team USA, beat Italy and Venezuela was a jump ball. They elected to save Canada’s best for Game 3 against Venezuela. Mike Johnson pitched well as Canada was edged 6-5 by Team USA before an electric crowd at the Rogers Centre. Then Canada was eliminated by Italy 7-2 and never got to face Venezuela.
Pitching coach Denis Boucher remembered the 2006 World Baseball Classic where Canada was supposed to beat South Africa, lose to Team USA and beat Mexico. Canada beat South Africa, upset Team USA, but lost to Mexico, failing to advance.
Winnipeg in 1998, Athens in 2004, Phoenix in 2006 and Toronto in 2009.
They are not erased from the memory banks, just covered over by a gold medal.
“Over the years we stood on the podium listening to Cuban or USA anthems,” Whitt said, “Our guys stood and sung so proudly (in Mexico). They won with hard work and perseverance. I preach passion and pride of wearing the Canadian uniform. You win gold against countries that are supposed to be superior ... what a feeling.”
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Crouse remembered the Mexican crowd chanting “Can-a-da, Can-a-da” for the entire championship game.
Richmond predicted shortstop Jonathan Malo of Joliette, Que., who earned all-tournament honours at the World Cup would play shortstop in the next WBC.
On the podium, Andrew Albers of North Battleford, Sask., who pitched 6 2/3 for the win, recalls standing next to Regina’s Dustin Molleken on the podium talking about how sweet a win this was for the country, how nice it was to beat the USA and how far a couple of kids from Saskatchewan had come.
London outfielder Brock Kjeldgaard remembers singing the Canadian anthem “with the USA to our right, Cuba to our left.”
Richmond threw the last pitch past fellow ex-Oklahoma State University Cowboy, Jordy Mercer, as catcher Cole Armstrong “fist pumped and we rushed toward each other.”
London’s Jamie Romak stood between Chris Robinson and Kjeldgaard and Chris Robinson, recalling “it was an incredibly proud moment for Canada but also the three of us, all being from London. I was speechless, holding back tears.” And he thought of his papa who passed away recently.
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Canada went 4-1 in Mexico to win Pan Am gold, and was 8-3 to win bronze at the 39th World Cup in Panama — a 12-4 won-loss record overall, compared to Team USA’s 10-6 mark. That’s two medals, one gold, one bronze, one wonderful month.
“We had a chance to win gold in Panama, too,” said Richmond.
Canada was the only team to beat The Netherlands, eventual winners of the World Cup.
But what does it all mean?
“Medals like this allow people throughout our country and the world to see Canada as a baseball power,” said catcher Robinson of Dorchester, Ont. “Gone are the days we used to go into tournaments hoping to beat top countries. Now we expect to win. This team has made a statement how we should be respected internationally.
“We should get the respect and support Canada’s other successful sports programs receive.”
CANADA’S GOLD MEDAL WINNING ROSTER
Including current team
LHP Andrew Albers, North Battleford, Sask. double-A New Britain (Twins); RHP Nick Bucci Sarnia, Ont. Class-A Brevard Courty (Brewers); LHP Mark Hardy, Campbell River, B.C. Fort Wayne (Padres); RP Jim Henderson, Calgary, Alta. triple-A Nashville (Brewers); RHP Shawn Hill, Georgetown, Ont; RP Jay Johnson, Sussex Corner, N.B. Class-A Lakewood (Phillies); RHP Mike Johnson, Edmonton; RP Chris Kissock, Fruitvale, B.C. double-A Reading (Phillies); RHP Kyle Lotzkar, Delta, B.C. Class-A Dayton (Reds); RP Dustin Molleken, Regina, double-A Tulsa (Rockies); RHP Scott Richmond, North Vancouver, B.C. triple-A Las Vegas (Jays).
C Cole Armstrong, Surrey, B.C. triple-A Salt Lake (Angels); INF Chris Bisson, Orleans, Ont. Class-A Fort Wayne (Padres); 3B Shawn Bowman, Port Moody, B.C. triple-A Gwinnett (Braves); OF Michael Crouse Port Moody, B.C. Class-A Lansing (Jays), INF Emerson Frostad, Calgary, triple-A Oklahoma (Astros); OF Brock Kjeldgaard, London, Ont. double-A Hunstville (Brewers); OF Marcus Knecht, North York, Ont. Class-A Lansing (Jays); SS Jonathan Malo, Joliette, Que. double-A Binghamton (Mets); C Chris Robinson, Dorchester, Ont. triple-A Iowa (Cubs); INF Jamie Romak, London, Ont. double-A Northwest Arkansas (Royals); OF Tim Smith, Toronto, Northwest Arkansas; 2B Skyler Stromsmoe, Bow Island, Alta. double-A Richmond (Giants); 1B Jimmy van Ostrand, Richmond, B.C. double-A Corpus Chrisi (Astros).