TAICHUNG, Taiwan – Qualifying for the Olympic Games is always the ultimate goal for any national sports federation. Baseball Canada is no exception and the ultimate goal could be achieved very soon at the Final Olympic Qualifier.
Canada will be competing to qualify for their third Olympics, second since becoming an official Olympic sport and second in a row here in Taiwan from March 7-15.
The 2008 team attempting to qualify is quite different from the one that competed in the 2004 Olympics with only five players on the current roster returning for Canada in this qualifier. But the experience of players like Stubby Clapp (Windsor, ON) and Adam Stern (London, ON) goes a long way with a young team.
“You just have to remind them that it’s still baseball,” says Clapp. “There is obviously alot a stake, but if they can learn to relax and just do what they can do and not do anything extra. Everybody has a role on the team, everyone will fill in and the job will get done.”
“They all understand what needs to be done,” says Stern. “Those guys are coming in with a lot of intensity and it shouldn’t be a problem getting anybody up for these games and they all know what’s on the line.”
To help motivate the team and perhaps visualize the objective, the team held a meeting while in Australia and showed a montage of Olympic footage from 2004 where Canada finished fourth. Mike Saunders (Victoria, BC) was moved by the video.
“I got chills,” explains Saunders. “The hairs were standing on my arms and I got goosebumps. It’s something I’ve been wanting this since (the qualifier in) Cuba and it’s now or never.”
Even those who lived it were moved by the video.
“It brings back alot of memories and you relive alot of emotions,” remembers Stern.
Now, it is up to this team to accomplish what the 2004 team did and they know what lies in the road ahead. All players are eager for a chance to play in the Olympics.
“This might be the most excited I’ve been for baseball for a long time,” says Saunders. “Going to spring training, getting ready to start the season is pretty exciting but it’s nothing like this.”
“When we were in Australia, everybody was excited to be back together again and playing. Now it’s game time and that is different electricity and a different type of intensity,” says Clapp.
For the dream to come true, Manager Terry Puhl says that the pitchers must lead the way.
“We’re going to need continued good pitching,” says Puhl. “If the pitching holds up, the offence is good enough to score runs, but pitching is the key.”
This experience is also new to Puhl, who has been the Senior National Team Manager since 2006. Ernie Whitt managed the 2004 team that went to the Olympics and the former Major League outfielder hopes to duplicate that feat and says it would be a career highlight.
“To be a part of something like this is why I’m here. This is a great bunch of guys. I never had that opportunity as a player to represent Canada and it’s exciting for me, but it’s about the players and the team is always first. But for what I hear, the Olympic experience is one of a kind.”
For Stern and Clapp, they witnessed an event that few athletes have experienced. They hope to relive that experience.
“It was probably one of the greatest memories as far as baseball goes,” says Stern. “No matter what happens in your life or career I think that will be one of the highlights and whatever you can do to be there is what you want to do.”
“I can’t even begin to describe the feelings I had from being at the Olympic ceremonies to playing in the games and playing against the best athletes in the world. It’s awesome,” says Clapp.
For younger players like Saunders, a spot at the Beijing Games would be a dream come true.
“The Olympics would be the number one highlight of my career right now. It would be number one for a long time, if not always.”
The 2008 Beijing Olympic Games will be the last for baseball until the International Olympic Committee reinstates baseball as an Olympic sport and the earliest that can happen is for the 2016 Olympics. For that, there is an extra sense of urgency to qualify for the Games.
“It’s going to be special because it could be the last Olympics, but it’s also a big part of our program,” says Clapp. “If we’re not able to participate, our program could take a big hit.”
And for those who were there in 2004, qualifying for the 2008 Games would a second kick at the can to get a medal.
“Going from a good position, then losing a heartbreaker to Cuba those things stick with you,” says Stern. “Even four years later those things are fresh in your memory. People need to understand what went on there and try to avoid that this time around.”