Michael Saunders is excited about trying to help Canada qualify for the 2020 Olympics at next month’s WSBC Premier12, and once the tournament ends, whether the national team advances to the Tokyo Games or not, his playing days are done.
"My career is officially over," says the 32-year-old outfielder from Victoria, who appeared in 775 big-league games over nine seasons with the Seattle Mariners, Toronto Blue Jays and Philadelphia Phillies. "I got released in the last week of March this spring training by the Colorado Rockies. I stayed in shape, doing my thing, trying to hang on for a phone call, but nothing came. At that point of my career, with my wife and three beautiful kids, it was time for me to call a spade a spade, and realize my career was over.
"I officially retired and now I’m committed to the Atlanta Braves, managing their club in Danville (in the rookie ball Appalachian League) next year. I’m super excited about the next chapter. I always knew that when my playing career was over I had something to give back to the game. I just know in my essence I need to be in professional baseball."
The coming transition will make what he terms as "one last hurrah" with the national team all the more emotional for Saunders, an all-star in 2016 that helped the Blue Jays win a wild card and advance to the American League Championship Series.
He first connected with Baseball Canada’s junior national team program as a 15-year-old and eventually helped the senior squad qualify for the 2008 Olympics before playing in the Beijing Games as a highly touted Mariners prospect, hitting two home runs in that tournament.
Even without a trip to Tokyo, representing Canada at the Nov. 2-17 Premier12 tournament, where the top finisher from the Americas will secure one of the six remaining openings for the Summer Games, is an opportunity to bring his playing days "full circle."
"My career started with Team Canada and Greg Hamilton calling me up when I was 15 years old to compete and I feel like it’s fitting for me that this is where it’s going to end," says Saunders and there will be no second thoughts next summer if Canada makes it to Tokyo.
"I won’t play, because at that point I’m going to be managing and I can’t leave those guys in the middle of a season to go play," he says. "That wouldn’t be fair to them. It’s going to kill me but if I was playing for that team, I’d expect my manager to be there for me, and that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to do everything I can to get Team Canada to Tokyo for the Olympics but at that point I’m calling it a career. It’s time to take the next step."
The next step comes after a few years bouncing around, unable to regain the groove he found with the Blue Jays in 2016. That off-season, Saunders signed an $8-million, one-year deal with the Philadelphia Phillies that included a 2018 option with a $1-million buyout, but was released three months into the deal after posting a .617 OPS in 61 games.
He finished out the year back with the Blue Jays, appearing in 12 games, but then bounced around from the Pittsburgh Pirates, to the Kansas City Royals, to the Baltimore Orioles, to the Chicago White Sox in 2018.
The Rockies were his only team this year, getting released March 18 and finding no takers. Once he and his wife settled on the transition to coaching, Saunders began calling contacts he had around the game and spoke to a number of clubs, including the Blue Jays.
The Braves invited him to their fall instructs to do some base-running and outfield work and offered him the job at Danville, which he accepted.
They offered familiarity across the board, starting with general manager Alex Anthopoulos and AGM Perry Minasian – who brought him to the Blue Jays from the Mariners for J.A. Happ ahead of the 2015 season. DeMarlo Hale, his bench coach in Toronto, is a special assistant for Atlanta, while hitting co-ordinator Mike Brumley coached him in Seattle.
"It just seemed like the right fit," says Saunders, who has only one red line as he enters into coaching. "We’ve all played for the guy that still thinks he can play, the guy who forgets how hard the game is. I promised myself that if I ever got back into the game as a coach or manager or in player development, I would never forget how hard this game is.
"At this point, it’s no longer about me. I’m here to serve the kids and get them to the next step. Atlanta gave me that opportunity."
And Baseball Canada is giving him a chance to enjoy one last run on the field as a player.
The 2008 Olympics were both exhilarating and agonizing for the national team, which went 2-5 despite a plus-nine run differential, losing five times by a single run, including 1-0 to both Japan and South Korea. They also fell 5-4 to the United States, 7-6 to Cuba and 6-5 in 12 innings to Chinese Taipei, underlying the narrow margin between them and the podium.
"Canada has always been known as that team you can’t take for granted, because we can beat anybody on any given day, we’re the team that can ruin someone else’s Olympics," says Saunders. "The ’08 Olympics was a phenomenal experience. One hit here, one pitch there, it could have been completely different. I really wish I had a medal hanging in my man cave, but I don’t. I hope nothing more than to get us to qualify for 2020."
Doing so will be tough, as Canada is grouped with Cuba, Australia and host South Korea in the first round, and they’ll need to finish among the top two to advance to the Nov. 11-16 Super Round in Japan.
Should they fall short at Premier12, there will be another opportunity during the Americas regional qualifier in late March, where the winner will head straight to Tokyo and the second and third place teams to a last-chance competition immediately after that.
By then Saunders will be knee-deep into his first spring training as a coach, hoping the next wave of Canadian national team players carry on the traditions he’s tried to uphold while wearing the Maple Leaf.
"I promised Greg that I’d be a guy that really shows younger kids what it’s like to put on that Canadian uniform," says Saunders. "In the minor leagues, you lose sight of what it’s like to play for the team, and I don’t mean that in a bad way – you’re very concerned about yourself and moving on to the next level.
"When you put that Canadian jersey on, you better realize it’s no longer about you," he continues. "The cliché of you’re not playing for the name on the back but the name on the front really holds true. That’s another reason why I’m there. Greg and I talked about that. For me to be there, it’s really important to not only produce on the field, but to let these guys know what it means to wear this jersey and what they’re responsible for going forward."