TORONTO – During the early days of the women’s national team program, Andre Lachance used to ask tryout-camp attendees about their favourite baseball players. Typically, they’d bring up Derek Jeter, David Ortiz or whoever the most popular Toronto Blue Jays were at the time, but over the past two decades the answers started to change.
“Now, when we do those camps, they say Ashley Stephenson, Kate Psota and Nicole Luchanksi,” says Lachance. “That’s pretty powerful in the sense that they have someone they can look up to and aspire to be like. If that’s a legacy that we could have left, I’m really pleased with that.”
Lachance leaves behind that and a whole lot more after 19 years at the helm of the national women’s team, a run that ended last Friday with his departure to serve as Cirque du Soleil’s director, human performance services.
Reluctant in 2003 to move from his role as Baseball Canada’s manager of baseball operations when approached by then director general Jim Baba to coach the women – “Are you kidding? I’m not sure I want that,” was his initial reaction – the native of Gatineau, Que., helped develop a program that’s currently third in the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) rankings.
It’s been a slow build since that initial launch ahead of the inaugural World Cup of Women’s Baseball, hosted by Edmonton in 2004, but the passion and dedication of the country’s female players immediately made him an advocate for women’s baseball around the world.
“Coaching the women’s team made me a better coach, a better person, a better dad and gave me a better understanding of the reality for women’s sports. I became an ally,” Lachance says. “There’s no way I that would go back and make another decision. I don’t regret any moment spent with those fantastic athletes. But when we started back in 2003, we had nothing other than a city, Edmonton, that put a bid together to host a World Cup.”
The growth in women’s baseball since those early days is substantial.
“They’ve created a structure and they’ve hired a women’s baseball director. They’ve put a lot of emphasis to grow with this discipline, and it’s part of their strategic plan as well, and you see the result.”
The initial scramble to start a program sent Lachance on a cross-country tour in search of players at tryout camps. There had been women’s teams beforehand competing at various events, but the 2004 World Cup was the first global tournament sanctioned by the International Baseball Federation, as the WBSC was known then.
Canada ended up winning bronze at the Edmonton event – which was reduced to five teams when Bulgaria, the Dominican Republic and India were forced to withdraw due to financial issues – and the next year visited Cuba for a series that helped launch the women’s program there.
As global participation grew, the Canadians continued to be at the forefront, claiming two silver and three bronze medals at subsequent editions of the World Cup that have featured up to 12 countries. The pandemic postponed the 2020 event and it didn’t happen in 2021, but there are plans for an expanded version in 2024 following qualifiers regionally this summer and globally next year.
Another important milestone came in 2015, when women’s baseball was part of a multi-sport competition for the first time during the Toronto-hosted Pan American Games. The Canadians won silver there.
“Being recognized as equals to men in a multi-sport Games was outstanding,” says Lachance. “Seeing the faces of those athletes when they were receiving their official clothing from the Olympic Committee, Ashley and Kate being geared up and everything, I still have that image in my mind. That was that was quite something.”
In between those moments, however, has been the struggle to help support and develop badly under-resourced female players and programs.
Domestically, Canada has gone from having a handful of girls playing in boys’ leagues to girls playing on boys’ teams to the formation of all-girl leagues, sometimes through the sheer will of parents. Lachance points to Quebec as an example with roughly 150 teams in female leagues.
“It’s fantastic,” he says. “They’ve created a structure and they’ve hired a women’s baseball director. They’ve put a lot of emphasis to grow with this discipline, and it’s part of their strategic plan as well, and you see the result.”
Canada’s women’s baseball team acknowledges fans after receiving their silver medals at the Pan American Games in Ajax, Ont. on Sunday July 26, 2015. (Fred Thornhill/CP)
Still, top players often need to play with boys to find suitable competition and “sometimes being the only girl on a boys team is challenging, being judged by boys, boys not welcoming you to that type of environment,” says Lachance. “We still see it in some capacity in some places in the country.”
And while the women’s national team is fortunate relative to other countries in terms of funding, “there are still ways to get closer to parity with our men’s program,” he adds.
One way those issues manifest is through infrequent national team gatherings.
In World Cup years, the squad is drawn from national championships and the players may hold a camp together before jetting off to the competition. On off years, there may be a series against the Americans at USA Baseball headquarters in Cary, N.C., or a visit from top-ranked Japan, but the schedule for elite-level training and games is very limited.
“There isn’t a lot of opportunity other than playing for your country,” says Lachance. “Playing at the world championships every two or three years is awesome, but there is nothing else after. They can’t go to college. They can’t go professional.
“So I don’t think they get enough credit for all the hard work they put in to represent Canada on the international stage. And to me, that’s something we need to talk about more because those are great athletes that unfortunately we don’t see enough, especially on TV and in our media. But the impact that they’re having on young girls is important.”
To that end Lachance won’t be disappearing from women’s baseball entirely.
He’ll remain a technical commissioner with the WBSC and a commission chair with COPABE, the regional governing body. He may coach locally or with another national team, the way he did with France in 2019, too, although his heart will forever be with the Canadian program he helped build.
Canada’s starting pitcher Sara Groenewegen throws against Cuba in the third inning of women’s baseball match at the Pan American Games in Ajax, Ont., on Tuesday, July 20, 2015. (Fred Thornhill/CP)
While cleaning out of his office recently, he stumbled upon old game tapes from 2006 and marvelled at how much the calibre of play has grown.
“It’s night and day,” Lachance says. “The defence is highly improved. I remember at the beginning if we could find a pitcher that could throw 70 miles an hour, we were just so excited. Now, throwing 70 doesn’t guarantee you’re going to make the team. That portion of the game, pitching and defence, has greatly improved over time and having a good, solid baseball program – not only softball athletes trying to come and play baseball – improves hitting as well.”
The last time he saw the Japanese team, for instance, they had four pitchers touching the mid-80s. Canada now has five pitchers in the high 70s or low 80s, including Jaida Lee, a 16-year-old from St. John’s who’ll play for Newfoundland and Labrador at the Canada Summer Games this August.
“That’s the type of athlete we’re looking forward to seeing how they perform at the next level,” says Lachance.
That will be the domain of former big-leaguer Aaron Myette of New Westminster, B.C., who took over as manager of the women’s team at the end of 2018, when Lachance transitioned to general manager.
Now he’s fully letting go of a program he was at first reluctant to lead, rewarded by two decades of players graduating through the system.
“They start almost as babies and you look at how they grew and all the successes they’re having on and off the field,” says Lachance. “To me that tells me we’ve done something pretty good.”