Two pitchers, one right-handed and the other a southpaw, met at the diamond in South Memorial Park a decade ago. They went on to play hockey together with Vancouver Minor and after their second bantam season, hung up their skates to focus on baseball. It seems both made the right choice.
Over the next 10 days, Keenan Williams and Brad Smith will each vie for a spot on Canada’s national junior baseball team. They will wear the Maple Leaf at a 10-day camp in Orlando, FL, and play MLB affiliates from the Instructional League as Canada’s coaches whittle down the roster to 20 athletes in time for the World Cup qualifying tournament next summer. The camp is the first of four this year and is a try-out as much as it’s training to raise Canadian players to the world stage as collegiate and professional athletes.
“Each trip is ultimately an evaluation, but form a player’s perspective, we try to develop their progression and prepare them for the instructional camp but also for the next step in their career,” said national team head coach and Baseball Canada director Greg Hamilton.
Both Vancouver pitchers intend to put their potential on display.
“I’m going to show them what I usually do,” said Williams, a Grade 12 student at Britannia secondary with an 89 mile-per-hour fastball. “Regardless of who I’m going against, I don’t take any batters off, don’t take any innings off.”
Smith, who is in Grade 12 across town at Point Grey secondary, said he will work to stay composed and bring in wins. “Hopefully I perform well and show them that I can deal with the pressure of pitching against pro guys an college guys.”
Both pitchers come with their own arsenal, said Hamilton. Williams, six-foot and 172 pounds, also plays outfield but is marked for the mound and has a really quick arm.
As a left-handed hurler Smith, six-foot-one and 180 pounds, could be as valuable to a club as rain to a dry, Prairie summer. Mitchell praised his skills, especially the progress of his breaking ball. “He has a loose, easy arm and size to go with it. He has a lot of the attributes to be a successful pitcher,” said the coach.
Williams and Smith, both 17, play together on the North Shore Twins and this August won gold with Team B.C. at the Canada Summer Games in Sherbrooke. In Florida, they will be competing against one another for a limited number of spots on the pitching rotation but their friendship is built on 10 years of mutual respect and the kind of support you only find between teammates who help each other through a slump, ones that last months or just an inning.
The disappointment of a bad outing undid them both in Sherbrooke. Playing as the home team, they faced Quebec, the team with absolute home field advantage, and relinquished the lead in the final inning to lose by two runs. Smith struck out three batters but gave up six hits and five runs in three innings. Williams came in for one inning after B.C. went back up but he gave up three hits and three runs along with the lead.
“We were both not in the best mood because of how we performed,” said Williams. “That night we talked about how we could have done things differently, talked about how it’s just one game and that there are more games in the future that are going to be bigger. We just had to let it go.”
They debriefed with their influential coach, Brooks McNiven, a pitcher who was drafted in 2003 by the San Francisco Giants and who represented Canada at the 2008 Summer Olympics. McNiven has played a big role in Smith's development. He coached Team B.C. at the Canada Summer Games and previously put Smith in touch with sports psychologist, Saul Miller, to help him learn how to keep his cool in pressure-cooker situations.
The chance to play for Canada is a career highlight and doing so with a friend comes with its advantages, one even Baseball Canada’s Hamilton acknowledged.
“They’ll have comfort on the front end,” he said, noting they’ll also have 28 other recruits to bond with. “We work hard to make all the guys feel comfortable in our world, make new friends and meet now faces. We want them to get their feet underneath them, get comfortable in a different world, hanging on to that friendship but also branching out.”
Williams and Smith have the same idea.
“We’ve been playing together since we were seven and we both had our ups and down,
said Williams. “We’ve made it this far and I think it will be easier to help one another even though the competition is tough.”
“We’re way more supportive than competitive,” said Smith. “We’ve worked together for so many years. We both want to see each succeed.”
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