Letters From Quebec: Catching Up With Spring Training
I admire catchers, a fact I rediscovered recently in chilly Florida where I attended four spring training ball games – and caught a cold.
I was travelling with an old friend who is now a judge in the courts of Ontario. My friend, letâ€™s call him Dave, once toiled as a left-handed relief pitcher for the Coaticook Canadiens of the Quebec Provincial League.
His manager was Ralph Lapointe, a former Phillies and Cardinals shortstop and long revered as the baseball coach at the University of Vermont.
During our growing up years in Quebec City I was Daveâ€™s catcher â€“ until studies, opportunity and young love, not to mention my limited skill-sets, drew us in different directions.
But never apart.
And so it was that together, in four different ball parks, we watched the usual mix of stars, veterans and neophytes live out our fantasy.
The whole experience was a hoot â€“ more so as it offered me another opportunity to exercise my catcherâ€™s soul.
We saw the full range of receivers, from impact players like Victor Martinez of the Red Sox, to journeymen such as the Jays John Buck, fresh from Kansas City, to a broad assortment of panting minor leaguers reaching hard just to hang on.
But there were four who caught our eye, not so much for what the accomplished as for who they were.
You couldnâ€™t miss Matt Wieters of the Orioles. If you have seen his recent Sports Illustrated cover photo you know that he is to the Tools of Ignorance what SI cover model Brooklyn Decker is to bathing costumes.
The day we saw him, Wieters was the Oâ€™s designated hitter and batted clean-up. Although he produced a quiet 0 for 3, the 6â€5â€ behemoth left little doubt of his potential to wreck serious havoc in the months ahead. You have been warned.
The other three all had links to Quebecâ€¦
Brian Schneider was a fifth-round draft choice with the Montreal Expos in 1995, and from 2000-2004 became a fixture behind the plate for our National League club. He then put in another three years with the faux-Expos in Washington before being traded to the Mets in 2007.
In Montreal Schneider was a favourite with the fans. Although his batting average and RBIs were middling, he was solid behind the plate and knew how to deliver in the clutch.
And he was one of those players â€“ there were certainly a few – who felt the pain the night the Expos folded their tents and fled town for the greener (!) pastures of Washington, D.C.Â We have always thought well of him.
This spring, longer now in the tooth, Schneider is on the Philliesâ€™ roster, listed behind regular catcher Carlos Ruiz.
The day we saw him Schneider caught all nine innings of an afternoon game against the Tampa Rays. He provided a steady anchor for pitchers Joe Blanton and Jose Contreras, among others, but through eight innings was unimpressive at the plate.
However, baseball is a funny game, a game where the Â â€˜untilâ€™ factor is always a lurking shadowâ€¦and, sure enough, in the bottom of the ninth, with the score tied, one out and runners at the corners, Schneider lifted a fly-ball high and deep to the fence in right-centre.
The winning run scored as the outfielder didnâ€™t even try to catch it. And for that brief moment, at least, Mr. Schneider could bask in the glory of knowing that he had revealed something of his worth to his new club.
It was like watching an old friend make good on a new stage.
The circumstances surrounding Luke Carlin and Maxim St. Pierre were a bit different. Quebecers both, and with solid minor league credentials in tow, neither has been quite able to make that final big leap to the major leagues.
Carlin, from Hull, Quebec, who signed with the Pirates as a free-agent last winter, has at least tasted of the majors. He spent part of the 2008 season with the Padres and last year was a late season call-up with the Diamondbacks.
Quebec Cityâ€™s St. Pierre has experienced success in the Tigers organization. In 2009 he was named to the Eastern League mid-season All-Star team and finished the year in Triple-A Toledo.
This spring the two were non-roster invitees to spring training. Much to our delight, we happened to see both in action, albeit in mop up roles.
Sadly however, when the Pirates and Tigers recently announced their final cuts, both Carlin and St. Pierre were reassigned to minor league camps, their dreams once again delayed.
Each is now 29 years old. Time is running out.
It used to be â€“ perhaps it still is â€“ that Quebec Province was considered the premier incubator for National Hockey League goalies. I am beginning to wonder if in this new millennium the province is about to show a propensity for manufacturing major league catchers.
Consider: in addition to Carlin and St-Pierre, the Quebec has also delivered Pete LaForest who saw action with the Rays, Padres and Phillies, and of course, Russell Martin, now a headliner with the Dodgers.
Fodder for another time perhapsâ€¦
Bill, a native of Quebec City, has been a SABR member since 20001 and was a founder of the SABR-Quebec Chapter in 2005.Â He collaborated with Danny Gallagher on the best-selling Remembering the Montreal Expos, and has published a number of articles about minor league ball in Quebec, particularly with respect to the Provincial League.