On August 4th, 1991, at Westbran Stadium in Brandon, Manitoba, 18 scrappy teenagers did something that no Canadian baseball team had done to that point and that no Canadian baseball team has managed to repeat since, they won a world baseball championship. A 5-2 win over Chinese Taipei in the gold medal game of the World Youth Baseball Championships (now known as the WBSC U-18 Baseball World Cup) sent an overflowing crowd of 5,000 fans into mass jubilation when pitcher Jason Birmingham flipped a comebacker to first baseman Troy Croft for the final out.
Ten days of competition that saw the Canadian squad quickly come together as a group, win the hearts of the locals by pouring their entire beings into winning baseball games came to a dramatic conclusion with the gold medal victory.
Some players went on to careers in professional baseball including 1997 MLB All-Star and current Baseball Canada President and CEO Jason Dickson along with Stubby Clapp who both reached the big leagues. Others had careers in professional baseball and went on to represent Canada at various international competitions including the Olympics while others ended their careers at the college level.
No matter where they ended up, the 1991 Canadian National Youth Team, led by Head Coach John Haar, was on top of the international baseball world that day and will forever be remembered as world champions.
Haar took some time to reflect on that time 30 years ago where he along with Pitching Coach Gary Picone and Coaches Tony Flood and Gord Leduchowski, flanked by Business Manager Earl Bedard took those teens on that unbelievable run.
Before scouting the National Selects championship in Regina that summer, where 30 players were chosen to try-out for Team Canada, one of Haar’s primary jobs was securing his preference for pitching coach to lead Canada’s talented group of young hurlers.
He had one person in mind, Gary Picone.
“Gary was a great pitching guy,” explained Haar. “Gary was a key guy in handling the temperaments of young kids, always keeping the pitchers calm and going in the right direction.
“He was a great addition (to the coaching staff).”
With only 18 spots available and with 30 players in camp, the battle for roster spots was fierce. Players were challenged to show their stuff to the coaches in a short period of time.
With decisions down to the final few players, Haar says one memory sticks out above the rest with the decision to choose one player over another paying dividends at a crucial time down the road.
“Jason Dickson was a player that we really liked,” said Haar. “He could really pitch and play the outfield, but he didn’t do very well in the camp. He was on the wrong side of my ledger as far as selections go.”
With just one inter-squad game left before the roster was finalized it was Dickson who approached Haar with a request. The future big leaguer and MLB All-Star was desperate to have one more chance to prove himself worthy of the final 18 players.
“Jason came to me and said, ‘I know I haven’t done really well here, but I think I’m better than I’ve shown’,” Haar explained. “‘If there’s any opportunity that you can give me to pitch tomorrow, I’d really appreciate that’.”
Haar met with Picone and both men agreed to let Dickson pitch one inning the following afternoon. Dickson responded with an outstanding outing and earned the final spot on the team. Little did anyone know at the time, but the right-hander from New Brunswick would play a large role in a key Team Canada win later in the tournament.
The pre tourney buzz had the United States with flame thrower Kenny Henderson, Cuba with future international baseball star Pedro Luis Lazo and a strong Chinese Taipei squad as tournament favourites.
Canada opened the tournament with a win over the Netherlands to avenge a pre-tournament loss with the lone Québec player on the squad, Daniel Brabant, tossing a three-hitter with seven strikeouts.
“(Brabant) didn’t speak much English and we wanted him to feel a big part of the team, so we gave him a nickname ‘The Bull’,” explained Haar. “He was ‘a Bull’ out there on the mound and did his talking with his arm.”
Canada got by a tough Australia squad, 9-7, in game two with Jason Birmingham picking up the win while Todd Betts went 3-for-5.
“Suddenly after a couple of days we were getting recognized around town,” added Haar who witnessed the attention around the team grow as the event went on. “I think people realized throughout the tournament that our team could play.”
Canada suffered a 3-2 setback to Cuba in ten innings for their first loss of the tourney in their third game before reeling off wins against Brazil, Mexico and Italy to set-up a showdown with 5-1 USA and flamethrower Kenny Henderson, who fanned 19 batters in a win over Chines Taipei, toeing the rubber for the Americans.
“It was the game of the tournament,” noted Haar. “Our key guy in that game was Jason Dickson.”
Joe Young, a promising pitcher from Fort McMuray, Alberta who later went on to a be a third round pick of the Toronto Blue Jays in the 1993 MLB Draft got the start against USA but didn’t have his best stuff.
“He just couldn’t get his composure (against the US),” explained Haar. “(Pitching Coach) Picone turned to me and said, ‘what do you want to do?’ and I said ‘Jason Dickson, let’s get him going’.”
Dickson and Picone raced down to the bullpen to get ready before coming in, down 4-0 and tossing 5 2/3 innings where he allowed just one run.
“He was absolutely spectacular. He shut the door and gave us a chance to come-from-behind and win the game.
“To this day, it was the best relief performance I’ve seen out of a young kid.”
Canada got to Henderson, and it was catcher Blaise Laveay who delivered a two-run homer in the sixth to give Canada a 5-4 lead before Betts delivered a three-run shot in the eighth in an eventual 10-6 win.
“It was such a key game and to be able to win the way we did, that just raised the level of confidence in our team, and we knew we could win the tournament from there.”
With Canada now 6-1 they faced and overmatched Nigeria squad to pick up their seventh win before Australia upset Cuba to clinch Canada a spot in the gold medal game.
With the final round robin game pitting Canada against Chinese Taipei, and Canada already in the gold contest, Taipei came up with a 9-7 win to clinch a spot in the championship contest. Had Taipei lost, Canada would’ve faced the US for gold.
“We knew we could play with (Taipei), we weren’t overwhelmed,” said Haar. “If we play well enough, we could beat them.”
By the time Canada had booked itself a ticket in the world championship contest word had picked up across the country and interest was building.
“CBC did their best to try and get the game on national TV but ran out of time, so that’s one unfortunate thing that came out of it was that there was no TV broadcast.
“Obviously they didn’t think we were going to be in the final,” chuckled Haar.
Daniel “The Bull” Brabant was Canada’s starting pitcher and he lived up to his nickname for 5.2 innings before being forced to leave the game due to injury.
Down 2-0 in the sixth, Canada pushed across three runs highlighted by a Betts two-run double before Kevin Collins drove him in with a single to give Canada the lead.
Newfoundland’s Troy Croft hit a monstrous two-run homer in the eighth to put Canada up 5-2 which was more than enough for Birmingham, who had taken over from Brabant, to shut down Chinese Taipei the rest of the way to secure the win.
“(Jason) never showed any nervousness, he had a job to do, and he threw a masterpiece,” said Haar of Birmingham’s relief performance.
When Birmingham made the final out, 1-3, to end the game, you would have thought there were 50,000 fans at the game. It was that loud of a celebration.
“Oh Canada” bellowed from the ballplayers and faithful alike as is tradition with the winning team’s anthem played.
“That’s the strongest version of ‘Oh Canada’ I’ve ever witnessed. It was tremendous,” said Haar.
“The kids ran a full lap of the outfield; it was great to watch they were so excited.”
With little time to grasp what they had just accomplished, the actual celebration and the reality that players and staff would be heading their sperate ways the next day, Haar and his coaches took the time to address the group.
“Postgame we talked to the kids about how important this (win) was. This was a life-skills championship win. The team camaraderie, a group effort. We put a team together, and for a ten-game period, they truly fell in love with one another. It was so impressive and as a coach you just stand back and watch.”
That chemistry that Haar refers to started from the very first day that the team was together and was a crucial element to later success.
“Our group of kids, even though we had to get them together over a short period of time, we used every moment of every day to bring them together as a group,” he said. “The key thing we tried to impress upon them is we need to work hard here, work hard with your teammates and give the best effort you can so that we all get better together.
“It’s not a competition to see who plays second base or catcher, we’re 18 kids and we all are important to the success or failure of this team.”
“The kids became such a close-knit group in such a short period of time, I’ve never seen anything quite like it,” he continued. “There were no kids that sat by themselves during mealtimes at the dorms on the campus at Brandon University. It was 18 players together at all times, a family.”
“If you have a desire to be successful you can do some magical things, and, we did!”
“The effort of those kids and the end result left me speechless. Even 30 years later, I’m speechless again.”
The 1991 Canadian National Youth Team was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 1992.