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great white north

Making the Maple Leaf Matter

From star players to up-and-comers, the Blue Jays have reached new heights in Canadian content.

by Ian Harrison
May 25 2015, 2:15pm

Photo by Tony Dejak-The Associated Press

They used to be furtive friends across the field, sharing occasional handshakes and hellos. Now they're teammates in Toronto, sharing not just a clubhouse but a jersey with a maple leaf in the logo.

For the Canadian players on the lone big league team north of the border, the significance of this coming together of a common nationality isn't lost on them.

"Being Canadian on Canada's team makes me really proud, especially to be surrounded by a handful of guys in the clubhouse right now," outfielder Michael Saunders said in early May, days before he landed on the disabled list for a second time this season. At the time, Saunders occupied a locker mere metres away from the one belonging to pitcher and fellow British Columbian Jeff Francis, and about the same distance from the stall of Quebec-raised catcher Russell Martin.

"It's pretty special," Saunders said. "We've all talked about it at one point or another, how awesome this has been to wear a Blue Jays uniform because we all grew up big Blue Jays fans."

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The 2015 Blue Jays have featured more Canadian content than any roster in team history. Besides Francis, Martin and Saunders, outfielder Dalton Pompey, a rookie born and raised in suburban Toronto, made the team out of spring training after rising through three minor league levels last season. A fifth Canadian, relief pitcher Andrew Albers of Saskatchewan, spent one day with the team.

"We're starting to stack up a little bit," Martin joked.

Albers and Pompey came off the stack when they were demoted to Triple-A Buffalo on May 2. But even before Albers' brief stint, the Jays had already made Canada proud, pairing Francis with Martin as the first All-Canadian battery in team history during an April 19 game against Atlanta. Pompey was also in the lineup that day, the first time Toronto had fielded three native sons at the same time.

On April 25, the trio of Martin, Pompey and Saunders were all in the Jays' starting lineup against Tampa Bay, another Canadian baseball first.

Martin, unfortunately, has been the lone Canadian constant with this Jays team. Saunders has seen his season interrupted by nagging knee pain following a freak injury in spring training that led to surgery. As for Francis, he was designated for assignment at the end of a 1-6 road trip in mid-May, the latest victim of a seemingly ceaseless carousel of roster moves aimed at shoring up Toronto's shaky pitching staff.

Five Canadians is unheard of in Toronto, but such a concentration is not new in big league baseball. Led by future MVP Larry Walker, the 1993 Montreal Expos featured five Canadians, pairing catcher (and current Jays radio broadcaster) Joe Siddall with pitcher Denis Boucher to form the eighth All-Canadian battery in baseball history, and just the second since 1918. That Expos team also used Ontario pitcher Mike Gardiner in 24 games, and handed a mid-season cup of coffee to New Brunswick slugger Matt Stairs.

The 1999 Blue Jays boasted four Canadians (outfielder Rob Butler and pitchers Paul Quantrill, Steve Sinclair and Paul Spoljaric), as did the 2011 team (pitcher Scott Richmond, outfielder Adam Loewen and infielders Brett Lawrie and Mark Teahen, an American whose father is Canadian).

Before landing in Toronto, the only time Francis had taken the field with a fellow Canadian was the one game he pitched for Cincinnati last year, sharing the field with slugger Joey Votto. Still, he always sought out other Canadian players whenever they crossed paths.

"It's something we're all proud of," Francis said. "When there's a Canadian guy on another team across the field, you try to go out and say hello, regardless of whether you've met him before. There's not a lot of us around."

Saunders, who briefly played alongside Canadian pitcher (and unsigned Blue Jays draft pick) James Paxton in Seattle, said he often did the same thing as Francis.

"It's like a little fraternity," Saunders said. "Even if we don't know each other we feel like we do."

Even Toronto's executive offices are full of Canucks. And though they may not have the hoser-worthy names of Canadians Gord (Ash) and Doug (Melvin) of the Milwaukee Brewers, Jays president Paul Beeston, general manager Alex Anthopoulos and assistant GM Andrew Tinnish are proud sons of the Great White North.

In Martin, the Blue Jays have undoubtedly the highest-profile Canadian they've ever employed. And while his passport wasn't the sole motivation for his five-year, $82 million deal (the biggest free agent acquisition in Blue Jays history), it certainly played a part in the recruitment process.

Relaxing on an armchair in his office about an hour before a recent weekend home game, puffing away on the dying embers of a cigar, Beeston can't help but chuckle as he remembers the chance encounter that helped consolidate the club's Canadian sales pitch.

It was a Sunday morning in early November. Beeston and Anthopoulos were in Quebec for talks with Martin. After chatting over coffee at a cafe near Martin's home in Laval, the trio was on their way out the door when a woman heading in the opposite direction recognized the veteran catcher, imploring him to come home and sign with Toronto.

"You cannot beat what happened there," Beeston said, his voice rising. "We didn't set this up. It was real, it was genuine, and it was perfect! It could not have been better timed and it could not have been more sincere."

Beeston didn't understand the entire exchange, which happened in rapid-fire French, "but I knew it was good because they were both smiling."

"The realization to him was that he could have an impact on baseball in Canada," Beeston said. "That was kind of what we were selling him on, too."

Indeed, Anthopoulos had pursued Martin by telling him he could do for Canadian baseball what Steve Nash had done for basketball here by winning a pair of NBA MVP awards.

"Being a guy that kids can see and look up to across the country definitely got me thinking," Martin said. "It wasn't the sole reason (for signing), obviously, but I definitely thought it was pretty neat."

What Martin begins to build, the Blue Jays hope Pompey will be able to continue. Saunders said he first took notice of the young outfielder last September, while visiting Toronto with the Mariners, when Pompey drilled what Saunders called "the longest home run off Felix (Hernandez) I've ever seen."

"He's got potential to be a super talent," Saunders said. "He can do everything on the field. He's got an opportunity to be something really special, especially being a hometown guy." After being dealt to the Jays in December, Saunders made a point of calling Pompey for a get-to-know-you chat. Since then, Saunders says, "we've become pretty close."

Siddall, who's from Windsor, Ontario, finished his big league career just across the river in Detroit. He knows better than most how special it would be for Pompey to become a success in his home city.

"That's fantasy land," Siddall said. "It's one thing to play in the big leagues. But to thrive and do it in your own home, it would have to be a dream come true for him. And I think it would be for a lot of Canadians who are baseball lovers. That would be really cool, really neat. And the most important thing, for kids playing baseball, what an inspiration, what a motivating factor for them to dream big."