More out-of-province competition the key to improvement
Newfoundland and Labrador’s Travis Taylor gets the forceout at second base on Prince Edward Island baserunner Jed Noonan (38) during Canada Games baseball action in Sherbrooke, Que., on Saturday. It was the first game for the Newfoundland entry, which won 5-3.
SHERBROOKE, Que. — Sean Gulliver and Frank Humber, two-thirds of the Newfoundland baseball coaching staff here at the 2013 Canada Games in Quebec, were both members of the province’s Summer Games team in Saint John, N.B., 28 years ago, a highwater mark for local baseball when that club finished fifth overall.
Humber went on to play professionally, after pitching in the Seoul Olympics three years following Saint John. Gulliver enjoyed a Hall of Fame playing career locally, and now is immersed in a second career as coach.
As for Newfoundland baseball as a whole, however, it’s been pretty much downhill as far as Canada Games is concerned.
In the six subsequent Canada Summer Games since 1985, this province has finished eighth and ninth twice each, and placed and 10th, and dead last, in 1997.
Minor baseball registration numbers remain strong in the St. John’s/Mount Pearl area, and it’s shown at the junior and senior levels of the game as St. John’s has won five straight provincial under-21 titles. It is 13 years and counting the Caps have won the all-Newfoundland senior championship.
Corner Brook, for decades a force in provincial baseball, has gone through a downturn of late, but there are signs the Barons are becoming more of a player again at the provincial level.
At Canada Games, however, there’s a disturbing trend of mediocrity, or worse.
“Not to make excuses,” Gulliver said, “we have a good program with the kids we have. But some of the baseball programs around the island, being a little smaller, it does create some challenges for us.
“I’d like to see the programs across the island maybe a little stronger than what they are.”
Nobody has to tell Gulliver, who’s been around the block a few times, the key to improvement is competition. And that competition isn’t found at St. Pat’s Ball Park or Jubilee Field, or any of the other ball parks in the province.
While rugby teams travel overseas routinely like they’re going to Topsail, and the Games men’s basketball team plays in Florida, and soccer teams tour the UK and the States, baseball hasn’t seemed to figure it out.
“For us to get more competition, we need to get off the island,” Gulliver said. “And now you’re talking dollars and cents.
“For the kids now to get off the island, it’s a major contribution for them, and more specifically their parents. We don’t have the luxury of major corporate money behind us.”
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In the months leading up to the Sherbrooke Games, the baseball team worked out regularly at the Techniplex in St. John’s.
It wasn’t the best fit, considering half the team is from outside the Overpass. In fairness to baseball, it is one of the few sports in these Games with representation from one end of the province to the other.
While many teams are, for the most part, centralized in one region, baseball has three kids from Corner Brook, one from Grand Falls-Windsor, three from Gander, two from Upper Island Cove and the rest from metro St. John’s (Mount Pearl, C.B.S. and Torbay).
“There’s no easy answer to it,” Gulliver said. “I’d love to have all the kids together every weekend, but unfortunately it’s not a reality.
“And baseball is a sport you need all the kids on board (to run a practice).”
Gulliver admitted he even toyed with the idea of centralizing the team in St. John’s, kind of what Hockey Canada does with its national women’s team, which has the players live and train in Calgary.
But that’s a difficult prospect when you’re dealing with 16-, 17- and 18-year-old kids.
So maybe this is all something the provincial baseball association will have to address — corporate sponsorship, fundraising ventures for travel and maybe even facilities, though that may be out of their domain.
Soccer, which has seen Field Turf facilities spring up in a number of different municipalities, has enjoyed the luxury of a longer season as a result of the synthetic turf.
“Look,” Gulliver said, “I’d love to see a strategy in the sense that you have a long-term vision in what you’re trying to do to get to the next step.”
Take note, Newfoundland Amateur Baseball Association. You’re on deck.
Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org
or follow him on Twitter @TelyRobinShort