By David Singh in Calgary | Photography by Colin Way
By David Singh in Calgary | Photography by Colin Way
How the mentorship of a former big-leaguer helped set Braves hurler Mike Soroka on course for MLB stardom

Now that he’s showered and fulfilled his post-game media obligations, Mike Soroka finally has some downtime to reflect on what just happened. Later, he’ll describe pitching in Game 3 of the 2019 National League Division Series as an “out-of-body experience.” But for now he’s just started processing, working through the excitement and emotion and beginning to run back the outing in his mind. He picks up his phone and dials a number in southern Alberta. He might be the first starting pitcher in MLB history to do so after a playoff game.

Game 3 was the first post-season start of Soroka’s career and the stakes were rather high: entering the day, the best-of-five set between his Atlanta Braves and the St. Louis Cardinals was tied 1–1. He opened with a three-up, three-down frame that set the tone for a dominant, seven inning, two-hit performance. The only blemish was a sacrifice fly that put St. Louis up 1–0 in the second. Soroka left the game still trailing, but the Braves scored three runs in the ninth off closer Carlos Martinez to ensure a 3–1 victory and take the series lead.

It’s a lot to absorb, but Soroka’s got help on the other end of the phone. “Wow, that was a real, real, real, playoff game,” he says. “Everything before that just feels fake. Doesn’t mean anything. Doesn’t match up.”

The 22-year-old is speaking to retired big-league pitcher Chris Reitsma, a guiding light since Soroka’s days of youth ball and throughout his professional career. After big moments, Reitsma, 42, is often the first person Soroka turns to, and it’s easy to understand why — the two share similar paths, perspectives and even musical taste. A pair of six-foot-five right-handers from Calgary who were both first-round picks, their relationship seems almost fated. It’s also played a crucial role in Soroka’s development, helping to shape him into one of the best young starters in baseball and someone with the potential to be one of the greatest pitchers this country has ever produced.

Last season, Soroka finished second in NL Rookie of the Year voting and became the youngest pitcher in Braves history to make the all-star team

Chris Reitsma recognized it was time for his swan song following spring training in 2008. After being cut by the Seattle Mariners, the right-hander was invited to pitch for Canada’s Olympic team at the Beijing Games. He was 30, and with the Mariners no longer interested in his services, he knew his injury-riddled pro career was all but over. The chance to represent his country was Reitsma’s way of riding off into the sunset. “It’s something I will always cherish, because I knew it was the end for me,” he says.

Word that Reitsma was joining the roster was met with excitement by the younger players on Team Canada. This was a guy who had pitched for the Reds, Braves and Mariners during his seven seasons in The Show. For the many in the clubhouse who could only dream of getting that far, he was a star dropped in their midst. Before long, though, Reitsma was just one of the fellas.

He was the first one to round up teammates and make sure they were spending time together, talking baseball or just hanging out away from the diamond. He was a natural organizer and teacher, but he wasn’t standing behind a lectern, recounting stories from his heyday. “Some guys who play in the big leagues, when they’re around a lot of guys who haven’t played there, all they like to do is tell big-league stories,” says T.J. Burton, a pitcher with that Canadian squad. “If anything, he liked to hear more of the minor-league stories. You just found out this was a very humble, down-to-earth guy from Calgary, who was very grateful for what the game had brought him.”

Burton was a reliever for the Indians’ double-A affiliate at the time and was instantly drawn to Reitsma. The two were hard-throwing right-handers with similar builds who had transitioned from starting staffs to the bullpen early on. “Chris was a great guy for me to talk to at the point in my career,” says Burton, who now works for the Blue Jays as program manager of amateur baseball. “He was a good guy to talk pitching with — really talking about how to attack hitters; mindset going into different situations. He always wanted to talk baseball and always wanted to help, more than anything.”

Despite the team’s chemistry, Canada went 2–5 in Beijing and failed to reach the podium. With his playing career officially over, Reitsma moved back to Calgary with his wife, Janelle, and their three daughters. It was where their roots lay — Janelle was born and raised in the city, while Reitsma, who was born in Minnesota, had lived there since he was 11. They settled back in full-time, into a house they owned in Glendale, a neighbourhood about five minutes’ drive from where Soroka grew up.

A pair of six-foot-five right-handers from Calgary who were both first-round picks, Soroka and Reitsma's relationship seems almost fated

Unsurprisingly given the Western Canadian setting, Soroka’s childhood was steeped in hockey, playing the game and watching it. He was obsessed with the Flames and netminder Miikka Kiprusoff, who backstopped the club to the Stanley Cup Final in 2004. Around that time, Soroka’s grandfather, John, gifted him goalie equipment, effectively sealing the boy’s position on the ice. “I was kind of like, ‘Ah, really? Goaltender?’” Soroka’s father, Gary, recalls with a hearty laugh. Gary had more than a passing knowledge of hockey from his time as a defenceman in the WHL and at the University of Calgary. “I laugh because I still think if he would have been a skater, he would probably have picked hockey and wouldn’t have played baseball,” says Gary. “I always credit my dad and Miikka Kiprusoff for getting him into goaltending — and his baseball career.”

When Soroka was nearing his teenage years, he grew bored of life in the crease. Games were tolerable, but practices were extremely tedious. Baseball, on the other hand, was different. Gary could barely get the car stopped before his son would jump out and run off to the field. The enthusiasm was a solid hint at where Soroka’s allegiances lay, but his dad wanted to be sure. “If you want to play at a high level of anything, you have to enjoy putting in the time at the rink or field,” Gary told his son one day, asking him to decide between the crease and the mound. The deliberations didn’t last long. “It was basically a no-brainer for him,” says Gary.

Baseball was Soroka’s passion, but it also ended up providing a refuge when his mother, Sally, died in 2010 from melanoma. Soroka was just 12. He had a pair of stepsisters, Stephanie and Shannon, but they were in their 20s. “Baseball was my getaway,” Soroka says. “My ability to go there after school and have fun and compete and just forget about problems that life hit me with. You grow up thinking nothing bad is ever going to happen to you and [when] it does, [it] puts things in perspective for you and you don’t take certain things for granted anymore. It puts you in a different headspace than any other 12-year-old.”

Looking back, Soroka says he now realizes that the way his father handled things was “superhuman.” Gary, now a single parent, took two months of unpaid leave each summer from his job as an accountant at the Canada Revenue Agency to travel with his son wherever his burgeoning baseball career required. From Gary’s point of view, however, Soroka shouldered his share of the load, too. “I also needed him to mature probably a little quicker than he needed to, or than most kids do, so that we could kind of get along and make it through that,” says Gary. “It was a few tough years and sports was big for both of us.”

Reitsma says he gravitated to Soroka, drawn by the kid's ability and maturity, when the 11-year-old pitcher turned up for a clinic

Their first encounter wasn’t dramatic, by any means. An 11-year-old Soroka showed up to the Master’s Academy and College gymnasium, where Reitsma was running a pitching clinic that introduced youth to arm health and maintenance. Gary had told Soroka something to the effect of, “Listen to that guy. He’s a former big-leaguer who knows what he’s talking about.” Soroka paid attention and, soon after, began pitching for an elite baseball program run by the Calgary Redbirds. Reitsma happened to be helping out Redbirds founder Jim Lawson, showing up every Wednesday to watch pitchers run through their bullpen sessions. Soroka made sure he came ready to impress those days.

During those bullpens, Reitsma saw a kid who stood out because of his height and maturity. Soroka had an obvious passion for the game and, although his mechanics needed some work, he had arm speed, control and balance. “As a coach, you look at those things and you say, ‘Hey, this kid’s got something,” says Reitsma. “Then when you start talking to him, you realize he was special, mentally and physically. I did gravitate toward him.”

Looking back, Reitsma can also see what the sport meant to Soroka in the wake of his mother’s passing. “I think baseball … was such an important thing for him to grab onto and hold onto and work toward,” says Reitsma. “He was hungry to dig his teeth into something and maybe it’s because of that.”

When Soroka was 16, he got a shot with Canada’s Junior National Team thanks to Reitsma, the squad’s pitching coach. Sure, it was unusual to put a 16-year-old on a team that would typically face 18- to 22-year-olds, but head coach Greg Hamilton respected Reitsma’s ability to evaluate talent. Reitsma believed Soroka was emotionally ready and could command the strike zone and generate movement on his pitches — and he was proven right.

Wearing the Maple Leaf for the first time, Soroka travelled to Florida for exhibitions against minor-league pros and to Mexico for the U-18 Pan Am Championships. There were also tours of Cuba and the Dominican, the latter of which stands out to Hamilton when he thinks back on his time guiding the young right-hander. The temperature was scorching, the schedule was tough and players were a long way from the comforts of home, yet Soroka handled the challenge well. “Nobody is the same guy every day, because it’s just impossible,” Hamilton says. “But Mike’s very consistent. He’s very mature. He handles people and situations very well. Life doesn’t speed up on him. Athletics don’t speed up on him. He has an ability to stay in that middle ground.”

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The dugout conversations between Soroka and Reitsma were also formative because of their complexity. Soroka would sit next to the pitching coach between innings and pepper him with questions. They discussed pitch sequencing, bat angles and reading hitters’ balance. “Michael was always one step ahead of the game,” Reitsma remembers. “I would talk to him about the game a little differently than I would talk to other kids who weren’t quite ready for that.”

As Soroka neared MLB draft eligibility, it was clear he had a firm grasp of the mental side of the sport. As his father likes to say, “he was given the playbook six years before most guys [and] he knew how to use it.” When Soroka passed through T12, a showcase held in Toronto that gathers the best amateur baseball players born in Canada, Reitsma’s influence was obvious to Burton, who helps run the tournament. “There was definitely a knowledge of what he was doing as a pitcher and how to pitch that you didn’t [typically] see,” says Burton. “When you really break it down, you know why. Because he had been working with Chris Reitsma for years at that point. He acts like Chris does, just at a very young age … with a sense of professionalism. The way you get that way is you learn it from somebody else, and Mike would have learned it from Chris.”

The Braves selected Soroka in the first round of the 2015 draft (28th overall) and three years later, he was set to make his major-league debut in New York against Noah Syndergaard and the Mets. He called Reitsma the day before to share the news and ask him to fly down to watch the game at Citi Field. Reitsma answered his phone as he was strolling through a grocery store in Calgary. None of the other shoppers noticed his reaction, he thinks. “I started actually choking up,” says Reitsma. “I’m in the frozen food section and I’m like, ‘Aw man, this is unbelievable.’ I was so excited I was in tears.”

Soroka pulls DJ duty when working out, mixing Metallica and Motley Crue with a dash of the ever-divisive Nickelback

Soroka is literally bouncing as he arrives at the Canadian Sport Institute Calgary, the training home for many of the nation’s Olympic winter sports athletes. It’s hard to miss his six-foot-five frame moving with a cheerful gait and large grin on his face. He’s wearing a black pea coat, black pants and dress shoes, and a collared shirt with sunglasses hung from the top button hole. In his right hand is a plastic Shoppers Drug Mart bag containing workout clothes. After he greets Reitsma and waves to the trainers, he’s chirped by one of them for his formal attire. “It’s not a suit!” Soroka responds. “I told you: I was at a luncheon.” He came straight here from a donor appreciation event for KidSport Calgary.

After Soroka changes, he begins to stretch and walks near the bench press, where he gets chirped again. “You don’t do bench presses,” says Quin Sekulich, a strength and conditioning coach at the complex. “What do you mean?” replies Soroka. “I could, but you won’t let me.”

Bench presses are not part of Soroka’s routine because they don’t suit his physical makeup. The trainers giving him a hard time all know that, though — these jibes are delivered with love. “Coming back to roots is important,” Soroka says. “I’m treated the same way here — year in, year out — by the people that allow you to be yourself and understand who you are and keep you in check, too.”

He has trained here for the past six years, rubbing elbows with all types of athletes, from Calgary Stampeders quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell to Olympic gold medal wrestler Erica Wiebe to bobsledding tandem Alexander Kopacz and Justin Kripps. Sports physiologist Jeff Osadec, who has trained Soroka since 2015, recounts a story from the pitcher’s first workout this off-season: “We’re looking at this kid who just had an amazing season and he was asking everybody how their seasons were,” Osadec says. “It wasn’t about how his season was. It was, ‘Oh, how did you do?’ He’ll come up and talk to Erica about wrestling — the Olympic trials are coming up. He wants to know how the alpiners did. He talks to the bobsledders. He’s asking about all this stuff. One of the guys looks at him and goes, ‘What are you doing back here? Shouldn’t you be going somewhere warm?’ He goes, ‘I live in Atlanta. It’s warm all the time. I was ready to come home.’”

Soroka, an avid guitarist, is the resident DJ when he’s at the facility and will connect his phone to a large speaker with a built-in disco ball. He’s a self-described “old soul” when it comes to music and his preferred genres are older rock, grunge and metal. On this day, the sound of Danish band Volbeat pulses through the weights area, along with tracks from Mötley Crüe and Metallica. There’s also a dose of Nickelback, the divisive band from Hanna, Alberta. “I definitely like to ask people why they don’t like Nickelback,” says Soroka, stone-faced. “For some reason, it became pop culture to not like Nickelback.”

There’s no soundtrack for the catch session between Soroka and Reitsma, however. That’s done in relative silence, the only noise being the pop of their gloves and the occasional directions from Soroka. He’s aiming for distance today and they start off 60 feet apart before slowly and incrementally moving to 150 feet. They’re standing on an indoor track that’s used for sprints and bobsleigh practice. The floor-to-ceiling windows offer a view of the colossal, snow-covered ski slope in the background that only serves to emphasize how out of place a baseball cutting through the air seems. Once at full distance, Reitsma begins to add some real zest to his throws, prompting Soroka to offer a quip of his own. “So much for light toss, eh?” he asks with a smile, before looking down at his glove, which has been bearing the brunt and crackling loudly. “It’s probably cause it’s my new leather.”

Reitsma has had his elbow surgically repaired five times and when he lifts his right arm, a giant scar is noticeable. He took two Advils before coming today, because he knew he would be playing catch. Reitsma doesn’t do that too often anymore and certainly doesn’t need to for his job as scout for the Kansas City Royals.

Soroka eventually calls the session and they come together and tap gloves. “Nice, thank you,” Soroka says, to which Reitsma answers, “Thank you, buddy.”

Alex Anthopoulos points to Soroka as a player with the ability, star power and dedication to his country necessary to really grow the game in Canada

Soroka’s wearing his pea coat again, sitting on a wooden bench in the Sports Institute’s concourse area, surrounded by three ice pads and an indoor luge course, and plowing through a Beyond Meat burger, sweet potato fries and a large bottle of water. At one point, he points to the Canadian flag hanging above one of the rinks and notes that he doesn’t see it much anymore when he’s plying his trade in the States. “It’s special to think about that because you’re representing more than just a team or an organization … you’re representing a place.”

Soroka is a staple at the annual Baseball Canada National Teams Awards Banquet and Fundraiser held in Toronto every January. Hamilton, his old coach on the junior national team, always messages him a reminder, but there’s really no need for that — it’s saved as a recurring event in Soroka’s calendar. He feels indebted to the program for the experience, exposure and chances to travel. “I view him as an ambassador for baseball in Canada,” says Alex Anthopoulos, general manager of the Braves and a fellow Canadian.

Anthopoulos went to the banquets when he was in the Blue Jays organization. He was always struck by the passion of Justin Morneau, a former MVP and four-time all-star who was an avid Baseball Canada supporter. “I view Mike the same way — he’s got that same sense of pride and feels a sense of responsibility to help grow the game across Canada,” says the GM. “There’s a lot of good, young players right now, but I think you need to be that type of high-quality player. He’s in there for Cy Young voting and was an all-star. All that stuff helps [grow the game in Canada].”

After a 2018 that was ended in June by a shoulder injury, Soroka finished second in NL Rookie of the Year voting last season and sixth in the NL Cy Young race. He also became the youngest Braves pitcher to be named to the All-Star Game, a mark previously held by Hall-of-Famer John Smoltz. He went 13–4 with a 2.68 ERA over 29 starts and 174.2 innings. Since 1975, only one Canadian-born starting pitcher (Ryan Dempster in 2008) has produced a season with more wins above replacement than the 5.7 Soroka accumulated in 2019.

Along the way, Reitsma has been a constant presence via text and phone calls. He watches and dissects all of Soroka’s starts, makes mental notes and then they talk between each outing. The conversations have certainly evolved from those in the junior national team’s dugout. “It’s much less protege-mentor,” Soroka says. “I like to talk to him because it’s a similar perspective. He sees the little things that I saw. It’s a true conversation: ‘What were you thinking when you did this? What happened when this happened?’ It’s cool to share that with somebody that you have grown up with.

“Over the last couple of years, we’ve grown closer,” he adds. “My best friend is my dad [but] he’s my honourary brother.”

After a big game, Reitsma is often the first person Soroka will call for support and insight

On the afternoon of Soroka’s playoff start, Reitsma was nowhere to be found. His wife walked through the house calling his name, only to find him bunkered in the garage, in front of the TV. Janelle thought something seemed strange and asked him what was wrong. Soroka was about to pitch, he explained. “She’s like, ‘Are you nervous?’” Reitsma recalls. “I’m like, ‘Yeah. For the first time, I’m actually really nervous. Because I want it so bad for him.’”

Those nerves dissipated considerably following Soroka’s 13-pitch first inning. He’s going to be okay, Reitsma thought. When the game was over and after Soroka dialled a number beginning with the 403 area code, Reitsma congratulated him and asked about the experience and what it felt like. He also told the hurler he was proud of him.

When you listen to Reitsma speak about Soroka, it’s interesting to note that he calls him “Michael,” whereas the rest of the baseball world refers to him as “Mike.” It’s the same way a family member addresses you by your given name, while your friends may shorten it or invent a nickname. Soroka has two older sisters in his family; Reitsma has three older sisters and three daughters. One thing was missing, but it’s not missing anymore.

“I never did have a brother,” says Reitsma. “It’s at the point where I just love to see him enjoy his life. I just feel a kinship to him and I’m very thankful for him and proud of him.”

Photo Credits

Photography by Colin Way