MIAMI – Typically Ernie Whitt speaks in measured tones, finding good in the bad, steering well clear of anything controversial. That steady hand is one of the reasons he’s managed the Canadian national team at the World Baseball Classic all four times and at 15 international tournaments since 1999.
So when he vents publicly at Canada’s big-leaguers who turned down roster spots, the way he did after an 8-0 whopping from the United States on Sunday night that capped a miserable 0-3 run in Pool C, it’s worth listening. Like some of the players who did show up, he was frustrated, perhaps as frustrated as he’s ever been with the Maple Leaf on his jersey.
"I guess the bottom line is I hate going to a gun-fight with a knife, you know?" he said afterwards. "I love all of these players, but when you look at our roster compared to the other rosters, it’s just a huge challenge, a huge challenge for us. I just wish that those players would buy into it and do it.
"That’s their choice, but it’s our job to try and convince them to come."
Certainly this was the thinnest team Canada has fielded at the Classic and it showed, getting outscored by a cumulative total of 21-3 while managing only 15 hits – a mere two for extra-bases – and four walks in the three games.
Four years from now, things should be much different as the youngsters on this national team should be far more advanced by then, and in better position to compete against powerhouses like the Dominican Republic (3-0) and United States (2-1), who both advanced to the second round, and even an on-the-rise country like Colombia (1-2).
Dalton Pompey, Tyler O’Neill, Eric Wood, Nick Pivetta, Ryan Kellogg and Rowan Wick each acquitted themselves well, while Josh Naylor, Jesen Therrien, Shane Dawson and Daniel Pinero gained experience that should be invaluable down the road.
Add in up-and-comers not on the team like Kellin Deglan, Mike Soroka, Cal Quantrill, Andrew Yerzy and the 2017-draft-eligible Adam Hall, and there’s the potential for a core that can do some things.
Still, though, they’ll all have to show up.
This time, difference-makers like Joey Votto, Russell Martin (who came as a coach when he couldn’t play because of insurance issues), Michael Saunders, Brett Lawrie, James Paxton, Jameson Taillon and John Axford were either injured, declined for personal or professional reasons or were pressured by their clubs not to go.
In combination with an aging core of national team stalwarts like Justin Morneau, Pete Orr, Rene Tosoni, Jonathan Malo, Scott Mathieson, Chris Leroux and Scott Richmond that were either approaching the end of their careers, or right at it, the Canadians simply didn’t have enough weapons to matchup in this transitional period.
"I 100 per cent agree," Orr, who took a pause from his job as a scout with the Milwaukee Brewers to play for Canada one last time, said when told of Whitt’s comments. "Nothing against everyone that came out here and did it, but yeah, you look at the other countries … it’s hard for me to say it because I don’t want to call people out, but Ernie’s right. For us to take the next step, it is what has to happen. The guys in there, that’s not for us to think about, we just play and did what we could do, try to be as professional as we could doing it. We stuck together all the way through. It was just a bad week."
Major League Baseball officials took note of Canada’s thinned out roster and were disappointed that some players were discouraged by their teams from taking part. That, however, is a tournament-wide issue that dates back to the Classic’s inception in 2006 and must be addressed with big-league clubs.
"I think that (the players) just have to buy into it," said Whitt. "I don’t know what else you can say or do to them. If they watch the games and they see the excitement and the fans getting into it, and the way that all the players are playing for other countries, I’m dumbfounded in a sense that I don’t understand.
"But you also have to get the general managers and the ownership to buy into it and encourage their players to go. I understand their point, they have a vested interest in some of these players with a lot of money. But if they’re going to get this to go, I think they’re going to have to go all out to encourage their players to go and play for their countries."
That’s why those that did suit up for Canada deserve props, since they entered this Classic like gladiators into the lion pit with steaks strapped to their backs. Now, based on the current format, the national team will need to re-qualify for the next one, like it did after getting bounced by Italy in 2009.
"I can’t thank those guys enough for giving up their time and coming and trying to help out and play for their country," said Whitt. "There’s so much pride that you can’t say enough about it."
Giving Ryan Dempster, who hadn’t thrown a pitch of consequence since helping the Boston Red Sox win the 2013 World Series, starts in two of the three games underlined the disparity in talent the team faced.
Baseball Canada hoped he could use smarts and guile to stickhandle through a few innings against both the Dominicans and Americans, who could run out arm after arm of guys with plus stuff.
"They came to me and obviously I’m going to say yes, I was super thrilled with the idea of doing that," said Dempster. "I felt like I could give us at least two or three innings. It just didn’t work out that way."
Dempster surrendered four runs in two innings against the Dominicans but the United States was all over him from the get-go Sunday. He managed only one out and needed some clever relief work from Andrew Albers to keep the damage to only three runs.
Albers got the paddle in the second inning when Nolan Arenado ripped a three-run homer and Buster Posey added an RBI single before Richmond came in and settled things down with two scoreless frames.
"Just trying to stop it where it was at and give us a chance," said Richmond.
The Americans didn’t score again until Buster Posey’s solo shot off Jim Henderson in the seventh made it 8-0, but after the second, players on both sides were simply getting their spring work in.
Meanwhile, American starter Danny Duffy wasn’t playing, striking out the side in the first and seven over his four innings of two-hit work. Mychal Givens, Tyler Clippard, Jake McGee and Nate Jones locked things down, as the Canadians struck out 15 times in total.
Can’t win like that.
The Canadians have now failed to advance to the second round in each of the four World Baseball Classics so far. Their best chance to move on came in 2006, when they finished tied with the U.S. and Mexico at 2-1 but were eliminated in a tiebreaker. In 2009 in Toronto, they lost both their games, to the Americans and to Italy, to get bounced in stunning fashion while in 2013, the United States rallied in the eighth inning to beat Canada in a thrilling winner-moves-on game.
Dempster passed on each of those tournaments, something he might not have done had he known then what he knows now.
"It is absolutely an amazing experience," said Dempster. "You can’t go back and change things, life takes paths however they go, but I’d maybe give the advice to players now being through it how incredible it is and what an experience it is to go out there and be a part of it all."
That is in spite of a performance in which the Canadians held the lead for only one full inning and were never in position to win a game. The country’s talent pool is much better than the results of a team diluted between those on their way out, those on their way in and those who didn’t show up at all.
"Especially to compete against two of those three teams – and Colombia played incredible baseball – in order for us to beat rosters like that, you have to be flawless," said Dempster. "From pitching to defence to hitting and everything, you get overmatched. It’s not a knock on anyone in that locker-room, it’s definitely not a lack of effort or preparation, the guys in there have humongous hearts and played the game the right way. But the talent level wasn’t quite what the Dominican and what the U.S. have."
This time, it wasn’t even close.