Technically, this column is early. Canada Day—the Canadian equivalent of the Fourth of July which celebrates the uniting of Canadian providences, more about this later—is technically celebrated on July 1. But since the country is often seen as a footnote in discussions of baseball (witness the relative short-shrift given to Jackie Robinson’s time in Montreal in 42) it only seems fair to give Canada a little bit of a bonus.
Thus I present to you the all-Canada team, the best players ever born in our neighbor to the north. Besides the obvious requirement—they have to be born in Canada—the only rule for this squad is that each player has to be at the position where they played the majority of their career games. Other than that, it is a meritocracy. So let’s see who rises to the top:
Catcher: Russell Martin
Enjoying something of a renaissance with the Pirates this year—he’s on pace for his best offensive season ever—Martin is now officially a well-traveled veteran, on his third team and approaching a thousand games played. Always a solid contributor with the bat, he provides Canada with a strong presence at a position which is often a weak spot on these kinds of teams.
And of course, no little review of Martin’s career would be complete without pointing out that one is his middle names is “Coltrane,” after the jazz great. Who says Canadians aren’t cool?
First Baseman: Joey Votto
You could certainly make an argument for Justin Morneau in this spot, but I think Votto wins out. The 2010 National League MVP has a substantial career advantage in OPS+ over his fellow Canadian, even if you just consider their careers through the same age. Combine that with Votto’s defensive edge—good enough to earn him a Gold Glove—and it becomes clear that though Morneau is no slouch, the choice here is Votto.
Second Baseman: Pop Smith
If we’re being extremely literal about this, Pop Smith is not Canadian. That’s because he was born in Nova Scotia in 1856 when it was still part of the British Empire. In fact, Nova Scotia did not join with other provinces to become the Dominion of Canada until 1867. (Sorry, but I went to the trouble of looking up these facts, so I’m going to inflict them on you.)
|Canada’s greatest active player (US Presswire)|
Nonetheless, I’m declaring here and now that anyone born in the geographical area now governed by Canada is eligible for the team, so Pop Smith makes the squad. Truth be told, Smith was not a particularly great player. Toiling during the extremely early days of baseball, his career average of just .222 is a fairly accurate representation of his talents, or lack thereof.
On the other hand, he did at various times play for teams named the Ruby Legs, Eclipse, Beaneaters and Statesmen, so his appearance on the all-Canada team is not a total loss.
Third Baseman: Corey Koskie
You all know about Corey Koskie, of course. The long time Minnesota Twin—he also had stops in Toronto and Milwaukee—played nine years and would likely have had more had he not suffered a concussion. The injury cost him most of the 2006 season and, ultimately, his career. At his best, though, Koskie was a solid contributor, including a three-year peak from 2001-2003 during which he averaged nearly five WAR per year.
Shortstop: Arthur Irwin
Like his double-play partner, Irwin was born before Canada was Canada, but I’ll spare all of you recapping that story once again. Also like Smith, Irwin was not much of a hitter, posting a collective .604 OPS during his career. (It is tempting to look back on the deadball era and imagine the likes of Irwin and Smith were better hitters than their numbers, but the reverse is actually true—putting Irwin in a neutral ballpark with the same run-scoring environment as last year’s American League drops his career OPS to just .545—a number nearly .65 points lower than any batting title qualifier.)
Though defensive statistics from that era are nearly worse than useless—Irwin’s career fielding percentage is .881 and includes nearly 600 errors—one likes to imagine that he was a solid fielder to continue to hold down a job despite his pathetic hitting. There is at least one solid piece of evidence to support this: Irwin is widely credited with having popularized the wearing of a glove for players playing a position besides catcher or first base. This legacy was so powerful as to overwhelm the rest of his career, stories about him often bearing headlines like “Arthur Irwin Invented Glove,” which is a bit of an overstatement, but there you are.
Finally, any telling of the story of Irwin’s life would be incomplete without mentioning this: after Irwin died in an apparent suicide (he leapt off the side of a ship after being diagnosed with stomach cancer) it was revealed that he had been living a double life. Two widows emerged, one from Boston (who Irwin had married in 1883) and one in New York (who he married at some point in the 1890s). That no one has yet made a movie about the man who invented the baseball glove while simultaneously living with two women can only be described as a testament to the failures of Hollywood.
Left Fielder: Jason Bay
Left for dead by many—myself included—after his disastrous last season with the Mets, Bay has somewhat resurrected his career in Seattle this year, hitting nearly a third as many home runs already for the Mariners as he did in three years in Queens.
As you may have noticed, I’m not spending too much on the modern players, but I’m going to say this about Jason Bay because I finally have the chance to do it: he looks so much like the actor Aaron Staton (best known for playing Ken Cosgrove on Mad Men) that when I see one, I invariably think of the other. And while we’re on the subject—well, more or less—of ballplayer/celebrity look-a-likes, let’s not forget Texas pitcher Colby Lewis and Flipping Out host Jeff Lewis. (Yes, they do share a name, but I don’t think they’re actually related.)
Center Fielder: Terry Puhl
A speedy outfielder—he stole 22 or more bases six times in a 15-year career—Puhl spent all but one season with the Astros. Though his other gifts never quite matched his speed, Puhl’s biggest problem was inconsistency. After seemingly breaking out during the 1980 season when he posted a .729 OPS at age 22—an impressive figure in Houston’s cavernous Astrodome—he dropped to .670 the following season. This pattern would continue to plague Puhl as 1983 through ’85 saw him post a collective .787 OPS, but bookended by years of .710 and .656.
|The Jays celebrate Canada Day (US Presswire)|
Nonetheless, the team can count on Puhl to carry the all-Canada team flag proudly. In 2008 he led the Canadian National Baseball Team during the Olympics in Beijing. The team went just 2-5, but lost to all three medal winners–South Korea, Cuba and the United States, respectively–by just one-run.
Right Fielder: Larry Walker
Arguably the greatest Canadian baseball player to ever live, but unquestionably the greatest position player, Walker played for six seasons in his native country, batting a collective .281 for the Expos. Of course, it was after he departed Montreal for Colorado that his career really took off. It is true that Walker benefitted from the thin air in Denver, but in some ways that has begun to mask his greatness. Adjusting Walker’s numbers to a more restrained 750 total runs environment still leaves him with four seasons with an OPS over 1.000 and leave his career batting average at .300.
Walker has languished at around 20 percent of the voting in his three appearances on the Hall of Fame ballot, and seems unlikely to be seen as a serious candidate. This is a shame, Walker may not merit inclusion—he played for 17 seasons but averaged fewer than 120 games per season—but he deserves better than to be seen as an afterthought.
Starting Pitchers: Fergie Jenkins, Ryan Dempster, Russ Ford, Rich Harden, Erik Bedard
If Walker is not the greatest player in Canadian history, the title instead would go to Jenkins. Jenkins won 20 or more games six years in a row (1967-72) and 284 overall. In 1971 Jenkins won the National League Cy Young Award, with one of the top 20 post-integration pitching seasons. He won 24 games with a 2.77 ERA while pitching 325 innings. Elected to the baseball Hall of Fame in 1991, Jenkins was already made a member of the Order of Canada in recognition of his service as a player.
Pitching in his sixteenth season and on his fifth team, Dempster is still an effective pitcher at age 36, continuing a career that has seen him serve as both an effective closer (he averaged 28 saves for the Cubs in the middle portion of the last decade) and starter.
Though he played just seven years, including two in the Federal League, Russ Ford won nearly 100 games, including a very strong 48-17 record with a 159 ERA+ in his first two full seasons.
I assume there’s not actually anything about being a Canadian born pitcher that makes them more prone to injury—Dempster is still going strong, after all—but Bedard and Harden both seem doomed to be effective pitchers with careers inexorably derailed by their inability to stay healthy. Bedard has never been the same after suffering a torn labrum and the subsequent surgery, he average nearly 4.5 WAR per 200 innings prior to the injury but less than 1.5 WAR per 200 innings since. Harden meanwhile was only healthy enough to top 150 innings once in his career, though his career 117 ERA+ speaks to his effectiveness when on the mound.
Relief Pitcher: Eric Gagne
There was a period—2002 to 2004—where it looked like Gagne might go down in the Mariano Rivera class of closers. He won the 2003 Cy Young Award, and saved more than 150 games with an exquisite 1.79 ERA. After that, however, the wheels entirely came off. Gagne underwent Tommy John surgery and never again regained his old form and was named in the Mitchell Report shortly after signing a contract with the Brewers for what would prove to be his last Major League season. He made some aborted attempts at a comeback, but his legacy—and his spot on the All-Canada team—he defined by his peak with the Dodgers.