Manitoba Wins National Junior Baseball Crown
They were an unlikely bunch from the edge of the Canadian prairie, but by playing "Manitoba Baseball" they fooled 'em all.
By Scott Taylor
Jamie Bettens will never forget the flight of the baseball.
“I was standing in the third base coach’s box and when Elliot Desilets hit the ball, I remember looking at it and saying to myself, ‘Oh, my gawd,’ ” Bettens recalled. “Daniel Worb was on base and he was coming hard toward third. There were two out so as soon as the ball was hit, Daniel just started running, as he should have done. But by the time he got to third, I could see that he was looking to get some kind of sign from me to either head home or stay at third and I wasn’t even paying attention.
“I was just watching the ball sail over the wall.”
There are moments in people’s lives that define them and there are moments we’d all like to forget, but for 18 ballplayers from Manitoba, 18 young men aged 19-21, there was a moment this summer that will simply last a lifetime.
Elliot Desilets, an average sized kid from Elie, Man., was the hero, but every member of the Manitoba Junior Baseball League All-Star team that represented our province at the Canadian Junior Championship in Trois Rivieres, Que., this past summer, owns a piece of the moment.
It was the tournament quarter-final. Manitoba vs. Newfoundland. Two have-not provinces that most Canadian baseball fans don’t think about very often were locked in one of those games that people will talk about enthusiastically years from now.
Newfoundland, whose players had befriended and been befriended by the Manitoba kids, had jumped out to a 4-0 lead after four innings. For the MJBL All-Stars, it looked bleak.
But Manitoba scraped together a run in the fifth, one more in the sixth and scored one run in the seventh, in a desperate attempt to come back. Not that the reward was much. The winner of this game would get the powerful and heavily-favored all-star team from Ontario in the semi-final so even the tournament organizers looked upon this game as nothing more than a consolation prize.
And here we were, in the bottom of the seventh, the final inning in tournament baseball, with two out, Worb on first and the winning run at the plate. The count was 2-2 and Manitoba was down to its last strike.
“When the ball hit Eliot Desilets’ bat, it just made the nicest sound,” said Manitoba’s Chef de Mission, Glen Hunter. “I thought to myself, ‘Wow! This might have a chance.’ “
Oh, it had a chance.
“It’s just one of those unbelievable things that happen in baseball and that’s why it’s just the greatest game of them all,” said Bettens. “We were literally down to our last strike and Eliot, who wasn’t expected to be a big home run hitter – none of our guys were, for that matter – got every single bit of that pitch. What a game. What a way to win!
“At that moment I thought we just might have something going here. We just might be the team of destiny.”
A walk-off home run is always special, but a few seconds after the ball cleared the wall, Bettens came back down to earth. After Desilets had crossed the plate with the winning run, Manitoba’s manager knew what lay ahead. And it wasn’t pretty.
It was Ontario, the best team in the country, by far. And Manitoba was going to face Ontario’s best pitcher, a 6-foot-2, 205-pound fireballer from Oakville named Paul McKenna, who could get it up to the plate in the mid-90s.
“They were definitely the favorites in the tournament and their pitcher was supposed to be really something, but what they never could figure out was what we called ‘Manitoba Baseball’,” said Bettens. “The team we put together was a group from all over the province and every one of them was a very talented player. It probably wasn’t the Top 18 players in the Manitoba Junior Baseball League, but it was a group of guys who could hit, run and be versatile. We had guys who could play a number of positions. In fact, we didn’t really have a third baseman. We used three different guys who were all shortstops at third.
“We played outstanding baseball against Ontario. We ran the bases aggressively, used the sacrifice and the hit and run, we played great defensive ball, got good pitching and we got timely hitting. With our speed and our ability to hit to all fields we put pressure on Ontario’s defence. We put the bat on the ball and ran the bases. That’s what beat Ontario. It was a lesson in Manitoba Baseball.”
In the end, the semifinal turned out to be a rout. And not the rout everyone expected. Anthony Friesen, a 21-year-old from Somerset, Man., who had already thrown a three-hit, 7-0 shutout at Saskatchewan in the tournament opener, mesmerized the Ontario hitters. Meanwhile, a combination of singles, steals, sacrifice bunts and extra-base hits, just at the right time, buried the stunned Ontario kids under a barrage of small ball heroics.
Even the Ontario fans had a meltdown. With Manitoba leading comfortably in the sixth inning, Bettens’ reliable infield made a couple of errors. That prompted one Ontario father to yell, “Here we go! Welcome to the Circus!” Undeterred, one of the Manitoba dads yelled back, “Circus 6, Clowns 1!” Manitoba escaped the inning without allowing a run.
In the end, it wasn’t even close: Manitoba 7 Ontario 1. Nobody could have imagined it.
“It might have been the biggest win in Manitoba baseball since we last won the national championship in 1982,” Bettens said. “But it wasn’t the end. An hour after the game, the coaches were getting ready to face the home team in the final.”
On the other side of the playoff draw, the host team from Trois Rivieres had upset the powerful Quebec champions. Suddenly, the tournament favorites, Ontario and Quebec were playing in the bronze medal game while the host team and a bunch of all-stars from the edge of he prairie were going to go head-to-head in the final.
“We didn’t have the guys who could hit it out of the park, but we had guys who played hard and played as a team,” said Bettens. “We were the Manitoba team nobody picked to even have a chance and we were in the final. There was no pressure on us. There were 3,000 people in the stadium and maybe 25 were cheering for us, but we believed this was our chance. Everything had fallen into place for us. We just weren’t going to let it slip away.”
Indeed. In fact, in the end, the final was almost anti-climactic. Trois Rivieres went ahead 3-1 and Manitoba cut the lead to 3-2 after four innings. Then in the fifth, the boys from the West blew it open.
“We scored four runs and put it away,” Bettens said with a smile. “Have you ever heard 3,000 people go dead silent?”
Mac Batchelor, a 6-foot-5, 220-pounder from Altona who is headed to the Winnipeg Police Academy this winter, earned the win in the final. Friesen, the tournament MVP came in to get the save. Cody Hunter and Kellen Burman each had two hits to lead the offence.
When Friesen got the last out, the Manitoba dugout erupted, but most of the team members admitted that it really didn’t sink in until they got home, were met at the airport by their families and friends and honored at a Goldeyes game.
“As long as I can remember, this is pretty much the best memory I’ve ever had,” said Batchelor modestly. “We just played as a team. We did what we had to do. Everyone contributed.
“We had a long-term plan for the tournament and everything fell into place. I knew, right from the start of the tournament that I was going to get the ball in the final and I was still nervous, anxious, excited. I didn’t have my best stuff, but I battled. I fought through it. I guess you could say that about our whole team. We weren’t expected to win but we fought through it.”
Altona product Mac Batchelor earned the win in the championship final.
Bettens knows exactly how Batchelor feels.
“When Anthony got their No. 5 hitter to pop out to end the game, I just tried to focus on the moment,” said the head coach. “But afterward I told the guys that this accomplishment might not sink in until they’re taking their grand kids to the ballpark one day. It’s a big, big deal.”
It was an especially big deal for Neiles, the president of the Manitoba Junior Baseball League and one of the players on Manitoba’s last national championship team in 1982.
“This was huge for a number of reasons,” Neiles said. “It was big for the guys themselves and it was also big for Manitoba baseball. Over the years, we’d developed the mindset that finishing in the middle of the pack was good enough. We needed to change that.
“This year, we went with the mindset hat we were sending quality ballplayers who were good enough to compete at this level. And when Elliot Desilets hit that home run to win the quarter-final game, everything just fell into place.
“Ultimately everybody has to play a part. In a tournament like this, the players have to come to the forefront and they did. Now, our mindset has changed. We’re going to go into next year’s tournament expecting to win.”
That’s quite a leap of faith. For 28 years, Manitoba had failed to win the national title. Then, 18 kids came together and played almost flawlessly for a week. Chef de Mission Glen Hunter, who played on Manitoba’s 1981 Canada Games baseball team, knew how special it was.
“Your face,” he said emotionally. “It was sore from smiling.”
* * *
THE STATS PACK:
Chef de Mission Glen Hunter compiled the statistics that illustrated clearly how the MJBL All-Stars stacked up against the other teams competing in Trois Rivieres.
1st in Runs Scored (31)
1st in On Base % (.420)
1st in Walks (26)
1st in Stolen Bases (21) note - 2nd in Stolen Bases had 12.
2nd in Hits (42)
2nd in Team Batting Average (.290)
2nd in Slugging % (.379)
Tied for 2nd Extra Base Hits (10)
Tied for 1st with the fewest errors with only 6 in 6 games. Quebec also made 6 errors, but in 5 games.
3rd Best ERA at 2.05
3rd Best Oppositions Batting Avg. at .217
3rd Fewest Runs Allowed (14).
* * *
MEET THE CANADIAN JUNIOR BASEBALL CHAMPIONS
2. Brendan Johnson, 1B - Winnipeg
3. Elliot Desilets, 1B - Elie
5. Kellen Burman, OF - Winnipeg
6. Jesse Grant, C - Winnipeg
11. Cody Hunter, 2B - East St. Paul
13. Dale Fehr, P - Morden
15. Daniel Worb, 3B - Winnipeg
17. Nick Drews, C - Eriksdale
19. Wes Pomeransky, SS - Winnipeg
20. Neil Walton, P - Winnipeg
22. Mac Batchelor, P - Altona
25. Darryl Ellis, OF - Winnipeg
32. Jordan Paschnyk, P - Woodlands
34. Shane Sedden, P - Winnipeg
44. Anthony Friesen, P - Somerset
48. Brett Schreyer, C - St. Andrews
55. Josh Ginter, OF - Winkler
58. Mark Hildebrand, OF - Winkler
Head Coach: Jamie Bettens
Coach: Brent Laverty
Coach: Marc Babaluk
Chef de Mission: Glen Hunter
View More Articles