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Calgary Herald

Chasing The Dream In The CBL

Graeme McElheran

May 19, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Calgary Herald. All rights reserved. 

Amid the cracking sounds of fly balls and line drives echoing off the walls of an empty Burns Stadium, Spanish voices cry foul at the sky, which has decided it is time for a flash May snowstorm.

The snow doesn't last long, but as it falls, a score of players from much warmer climates stare upwards incredulously. "What the (blank) is going on?" one of the outfielders yells good-naturedly as they take turns shagging flies.

"Snow? Nieve?" shouts a Latino voice in dismay.

They huddle in small groups, infielders and outfielders, wondering just what they have got themselves into. The Canadian players, hardly surprised, stand apart and watch the action at home plate.

This is spring training for the Outlaws, Calgary's contender in the fledgling Canadian Baseball League. But who exactly are these players who make up the 20-man roster?

For starters, almost half of them are from Latin American islands such as Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. These are guys who, as general manager Glenn Dmetrichuk says, "feel they still have a shot at the bigs.

"I think that's what's going to make them produce even more in the field," he said.

"I think every one of them is looking at the same thing. If they have a good year here, you bet they're gonna get noticed."

There are three American pitchers on the team and three guys from Japan, all of whom, like the Latinos, are hunting for a break into the majors, and not necessarily for the first time. Right-hander Shad Williams threw for the Anaheim Angels in 1996-97; former Calgary Cannon Orlando Woodards also pitched for the Florida Marlins.

The Japanese players have a glut of experience back home, but the CBL was one of the only venues for hopefuls in their early 20s to pursue.

"I want to play, so I don't care," said second baseman Manabu Karamochi, who played minor-league ball in Florida last year. "I checked a Web site, I went to try-outs in London. I like American, Canadian baseball."

Five Canadians -- two from Calgary -- round out the roster and fulfil the league's minimum requirement for Canadian content.

For the Latino players, the adaptation to a colder climate comes on the tail of the Caribbean winter league. Inside the batting cage, Angelo Encarnacion (formerly of the Angels, the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the Los Angeles Dodgers) hits one off the end of his bat. A painful yelp escapes from his lips as he steps away from the plate, shaking his hands to get the feeling back.

"It's because it's very cold," the 34-year-old later explained.

"Sometimes you hit the ball from the top of the bat, and your hands start shaking and everything. But I think it's fun."

Indeed, the weather doesn't seem to matter to the die-hard Dominicans. As Outlaw aide and unofficial Spanish translator Dan Lilly said, "Baseball is like religion down there. It's a way off the island."

But Encarnacion says getting to play is more important than moving camp for prosperity. The few offers he got in the U.S. were unsatisfactory, so he took a chance on a new idea: the CBL.

"It's not better money but it's a new opportunity. It's a new chance. Sometimes you have to take less to win more," he said. "What I want is to play every day, and show people that I still can play."

Like Encarnacion, many of the Latino players are viewing the CBL as an opportunity to fluctuate between the Caribbean leagues and the Canadian one, with a constant hope of impressing a scout and making it into The Show.

There's no mistaking this point. Most of the players see the Outlaws as a stepping stone towards the Major Leagues.

"That's all they talk about, especially all the Dominican kids I know from Santo Domingo," Encarnacion said. "All they're talking about is, they take this chance, they play hard and show people they still can play."

Pitchers Jesus Matos of the Dominican Republic and Cristy Rosa of Puerto Rico are both in Canada for the first time. Though they share the objective of drawing a scout's attention they really don't know what to expect.

"We don't know what kind of progress this will bring because it's the first time, it's a new league," Rosa said.

"We want to keep going," Matos added.

But in the meanwhile it's still baseball, which is the favourite pastime of players and management alike.

"I was a season-ticket holder for 18 years with the Cannons," Dmetrichuk said. "I think baseball fans in Calgary are baseball fans. If the product is good and the sun is shining we're gonna put fans in our stands."

Thursday's opener against the Kelowna Heat will put Dmetrichuk's theory to the test. But as far as any lessons the legacy of the displaced Cannons might offer, Dmetrichuk is confident his players can provide a very different experience for spectators.

"I think one of the first things that people are going to find in this city is that our players are going to sign autographs," he said. "They are going to make eye contact with the fans. They are going to talk to them, they're gonna thank them for coming out to the game, because that's where baseball started from and that's where it's got to get back to."

For the players, to simply play is essential. To play professionally is a realized dream. Fans in Calgary will get the chance to watch talented hopefuls with a winning attitude that comes from having nothing to lose, and much to gain.

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