Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame’s 2019 class reflects on wearing the maple leaf

Canada pitcher Ryan Dempster throws against the United States. (Alan Diaz/AP)

By the spring of 2009, Jason Bay had played enough Grapefruit League baseball to have a pretty good sense of what crowds typically sound like in spring training: quiet enough to hear the guy selling beer or the bus backing up behind the stadium.

The atmosphere at Rogers Centre on March 7, 2009 forced Bay to reconsider those assumptions. When Canada hosted the U.S. in the World Baseball Classic that day, fans showed up in full force.

“It was way too early in the year to have 50,000 people screaming,” Bay said. “To have that kind of atmosphere in the middle of spring training was pretty special and something I’ll never forget.”

Bay shared those memories on a media conference call Tuesday after he was officially announced as a member of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame’s 2019 class along with pitcher Ryan Dempster, coach Rob Thomson and executive Gord Ash. Like Dempster and Thomson, Bay counts his international playing experience among his career highlights.

“It’s almost like playoff baseball,” the Trail, B.C. native said. “The regular season has a game every day and it’s a grind to get out there and battle. All of a sudden you get to the playoffs and it’s, ‘You have to win,’ it’s not, ‘Oh, there’s another game tomorrow.’ Playing for your country basically on any level has that feel.”

Canada’s victory over the U.S. in the 2006 WBC holds special significance for Bay, who hit 222 home runs over the course of 11 MLB seasons while earning three all-star selections.

Like Bay, Dempster looks back fondly at his time representing Canada internationally. The Gibsons, B.C. native played for the Canadian Junior National Team in 1993 and 1994 then returned to international competition at the 2017 WBC. Looking back, those opportunities have special importance for him.

“I’m very proud of being Canadian,” said Dempster, a two-time all-star who posted a 4.35 ERA over the course of 16 big-league seasons. “When I saw players older than me playing, knowing they were from Canada gave me hope and inspiration. To think that I could do it, too, that’s a big part of what I wanted to do.

“I’m just extremely proud of the type of people we are as Canadians and the type of country that we are,” he continued. “To be able to represent Canada was a huge honour for me.”

Though Thomson’s best known as a coach, he broke into the game as a player, representing Canada at the 1984 Olympics one year before the Tigers drafted him in the 32nd round.

“Playing in front of 52,000 people at Dodger Stadium was an eye-opener,” the Sarnia, Ont. native said. “It was a great experience.”

After Thomson’s playing career ended, he transitioned into coaching, most notably with the Yankees from 1990-2017. Now the Phillies’ bench coach, Thomson will join Bay, Dempster and Ash in St. Marys, Ont. for induction day on June 15.

“My Canadian pride will be shining at its brightest as I get inducted on the same day with three fellow Canadians who have achieved so many fantastic things in our great sport,” he said.

For Ash, the honour follows a lifetime in baseball that began as an employee in the Blue Jays’ ticket office in 1977. The Toronto native worked his way up over the years, and was assistant general manager during the 1992-93 World Series championships before spending seven years as Blue Jays GM. More than 40 years after securing that first job with the Blue Jays, he’s headed to St. Marys.

“I was just happy to have a job in baseball,” recalled Ash, now the vice president of baseball projects for the Milwaukee Brewers. “Baseball had always been my sport of choice as a young person. I enjoyed the history, the strategy, all aspects of the game. To get involved in some small way was a significant achievement for me at the time and clearly was not thinking about the opportunity to get an honour like I have today.”

The Blue Jays teams that Ash helped run inspired both Bay and Dempster as they grew up on the other side of Canada. Dempster remembers Joe Carter’s World Series-winning home run “like it was yesterday,” while Bay’s first ever appearance at the stadium he still thinks of as SkyDome held special importance for him.

“You go from stadium to stadium and you’re just another visiting player,” Bay said. “Then you get to Toronto and it’s a completely different feel. I’ll never forget. I’d never been there, but I looked up and I didn’t realize that they put the maple leaf beside the names of Canadian players on the scoreboard and I thought that was pretty cool.”

Of course Bay wasn’t the only one looking up at the maple leaf on the scoreboard. As he and Dempster succeeded at the highest level, the next generation of Canadian fans and players took note, too.

“That’s when you start to realize you’re starting to get old,” Dempster said. “It’s extremely humbling. You realize that people are always watching you, especially younger kids. When you show up to the ballpark, that’s who you’re playing for.”

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