maybe next year.....or decade....

Why Baseball Canada Needs To Replace Erine Whitt

Jon Nava

March 14th 2017

Ernie Whitt is every Canadian sports lover's dream - he stayed with the same team for almost the entirety of his career (and a Canadian one to boot). Whitt was a catcher during his Major League Baseball career - essentially the equivalent of a grinder in hockey, one of the more beloved archetypes in that sport for Canadians.  The take-no guff approach was well seen in Canada's bench-clearing brawl with Mexico during the 2013 World Baseball Classic - once again, another staple borrowed from hockey.  Whitt speaks his mind when needed, which has served him well in his capacity as field boss of Canada's national baseball team for the last decade. 

But the time has come for some new blood to head the Canadian national baseball team, as shown in their less than stellar performance in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. 

Three straight losses in pool play this year - the most galling to WBC newcomer Colombia - underscores the fact that Whitt and the Canadian teams he's led have failed to advance to the second round since the first WBC in 2006.

To be fair, some of the failures can be attributed to a lack of prominent Canadian players to participate in this year's WBC.  Major League Baseball All-Stars like catcher Russell Martin (insurance issues), first baseman Joey Votto (declined) and reliever John Axford (pulled himself from roster at the last minute) were not on Team Canada this year.  Infielder Brett Lawrie passed, as well as promising young hurlers like Jamieson Tallion (Pittsburgh Pirates) and James Paxton (Seattle Mariners) focused their efforts on making their teams Opening Day roster.  After Team Canada was eliminated in their final game, Whitt, without naming anyone in particular, expressed frustration at the players who chose not to play for Canada in this year's WBC.

However, some curious and head-scratching decisions during by Whitt have taken place during his Team Canada tenure

In 2006 the team and Whitt could be granted a mulligan - Team Canada lost out on a tiebreaker despite a 2-1 record in pool play.  In 2009, in a double knockout format, the odd decision was made to not start their best pitcher, Scott Richmond, in an elimination game versus Italy.  The saving of Richmond for a future KO game in that pool backfired as the underdog Italians beat Canada 6-2.  In the 2013 WBC, Canada was trounced in the rematch with the Italians as the latter invoked the mercy rule in winning 14-4 in eight innings, a win that helped the Italians advance to the next round. 

In this year's edition of the WBC, given the pitching constraints, Ryan Dempster started the opener for Canada, despite not having thrown an MLB pitch since 2013.   Dempster only lasted two innings versus the defending WBC champion Dominican Repbulic, allowing four runs and absorbing the loss in a 9-2 decision.  Dempster, a solid pitcher in a 16-year career that spanned five clubs, desereved a better fate than facing an All-Star D.R. lineup for his first starting assignment in four years.  What was more galling is that Dempster was toeing the bump two days later for Canada in its win-or-go home game versus the United States.  The Gibsons, B.C. native never made it out of the first inning, recording only one out while allowing three American runs to score in a game Canada ultimately lost 8-0.  A very puzzling decision to be sure, in giving Dempster another start after being hit early and often by the D.R., and especially in an elimination game.

The most egregious loss in this year's WBC tournament for Canada was to the upstart team from Colombia

Bolstered by last fall's win over two-time WBC qualifer Panama, the Colombians came into the game with nothing to lose and everything to gain.  Team Colombia had taken the powerful Americans to extra innings the night previous, only to lose in walk-off fashion.  The quick turn-around (as their game versus Canada was at noon the next day) for Colombia would have seemed to work against them as they allowed a first-inning run to Canada, but no more after that opening frame.  Strangely, the Canadians ran themselves out a promising first inning versus Colombia.  With only one out, runners at first and third base and a run already in, Canadian baserunner Freddie Freeman was caught stealing second base.  The baserunning out seemed to energize Colombia, and got out of the inning unscathed.  Once again, a curious lineup change was made for Team Canada as outfielder Rene Tosoni - a left-handed hitter who had two hits and an outfield assist against the D.R. - was replaced for righty-hitting Jamie Romak.  Tosoni's benching was a surprise move, given he was a lefty bat that might have done well against the Colombian right-handed starter Julio Teheran (career .790 OPS vs LHB; career .579 OPS vs RHB).  Romak went 1-for-4 versus Colombian pitching, but struck out with two runners on to end the game.  Granted, one player doesn't make up for the fact Canada could only muster five hits and a run against Colombian pitching, but minutae like this in a short series only magnifies the final result.

Whitt has had success leading his Canadian charges in several international baseball tournaments.  He has helmed the national team to Pan American baseball gold medals in 2011 and 2015.  He has successfully steered the squad to Olympic berths in 2004 and 2008, with a fourth-place finsh in the 2004 Athens Summer Olympics.  He was the manager of the Canadian side that bested the United States during pool play in the inaugral WBC.  But one cannot hang their hat on one victory alone, especially if it isn't the final game of the tournament or the season.  The fact remains after this year's elimination, Canada has failed to move out of the first round in four straight World Baseball Classic tournaments.  And that is really a shame, given the talent that Canada has put out over the last two to three decades with more promise on the horizon and baseball coming back to the Summer Olympics in Tokyo 2020. 

If Baseball Canada wants to live up to its sixth-place international baseball ranking, changes need to be made and it has to start with replacing Ernie Whitt as manager.

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