Canadian Baseball Comes to Cleveland

Tomorrow may be the Fourth of July, when Americans celebrate everything that makes this country what it is. This past Tuesday, July 1st, however, cannot be overlooked in the celebration of things Americans hold dear to their heart. Tuesday was Canada Day, and, though it is called “America’s pastime,” baseball has strong roots in the United States’ neighbor to the north.

In fact, America’s pastime may actually be a misnomer, as the first document evidence of a baseball game came from a letter published in Sporting Life magazine in 1886 by Dr. Adam E. Ford of Denver, Colorado, who had formerly lived in St. Marys, Ontario and Beachville, Ontario. He wrote of a game palyed 48 years previously in Beachville on June 4, 1838 – which is a year before Abner Doubleday is credited with inventing baseball in Cooperstown, New York. There is no evidence that the rules of Dr. Ford’s game were recorded, codified, or adopted in other regions, however, though the claim is still there that the sport Americans claim as their own may very well have roots in Canada.

Regardless, baseball went on to flourish in Canada and the country maintains a number of noteworthy baseball accomplishments. By 1913, there were 24 minor league teams in the country. Babe Ruth hit his first professional homerun on September 5, 1914, on Centre Island in Toronto and, in 1946, Branch Rickey assigned Jackie Robinson to Brooklyn’s AAA farm team, the Montreal Royals, where he lead the Royals to the Governors’ Cup, which was the International League championship.

Canada boasts only one player in the National Baseball Hall of Fame – Ferguson Jenkins, who put together a 284-226 record, posted a career 3.34 ERA, and 3,192 strikeouts in the 19 seasons he pitched from 1965 to 1983. The first Canadian team to join the American major leagues was the Montreal Expos in 1969, who joined the National League but have since relocated to become the Washington Nationals in 2004. The Toronto Blue Jays joined the American League in 1977 and became the first Canadian-based team to win the World Series when they won the Fall Classic in both 1992 and 1993.

While the connection between baseball and Canada hits close to home for Clevelanders, as Canada is just across the Lake from Progressive Field, the links between Canada and the Cleveland Indians hit even closer than physical proximity.

For starters, the first Canadian player to appear in Major League Baseball was Bill Phillips, who played his first Major League game on May 1, 1879 for Cleveland. In 1880, his second season, he became the first Canadian to hit a home run in the major leagues.

The Tribe currently has two Canadians on their roster in John Axford and George Kottaras.

Kottaras, drafted in the 20th round of the 2002 draft by the San Diego Padres, made a splash in his introduction to the Major League team, when he blasted two home runs in his first two at-bats for the Tribe. Kottaras is a native of Scarborough, Ontario, and at 31, has spent seven seasons in the big leagues. He has bounced around the league, with stints on the rosters of the Boston Red Sox, the Milwaukee Brewers, the Oakland Athletics, the Kansas City Royals, and the Chicago Cubs before being signed to a minor league contract with the Indians at the end of March. He is best used as a backup catcher, though he does show promise at the plate. In the nine games in which he has appeared with the Tribe, Kottaras has six hits and three home runs. He has knocked in four runs, and has struck out eight times and walked on four occasions. Kottaras posts a .353 batting average and is triple-slashing .455/.882/1.337. Though he will likely not appear all too consistently for the Tribe, he is a good addition to the roster. Kottaras is the Canadian bacon to Yan Gomes’ American bacon – it’s clear which one you would choose over the other but, in a pinch, the backup can get the job done.

Axford, however, is more like maple candy. A little bit is okay – though if you have much more, you’re going to get sick. Maple candy can look good at a distance but, once it’s in front of you, you have to watch the intake closely.

Axford was signed by the Yankees in 2006 as a non-drafted free agent. He was then signed as a free agent by the Milwaukee Brewers in 2008, overlapping with Kottaras’ time on the Brewer’s roster for a few years. While with the Brewers, Axford was award the National League Rolaids Relief Man award. Axford was then traded to the St. Louis Cardinals in late August of 2013 and signed by Cleveland as a free agent last December. Traditionally a closer, Axford has been removed from that role by the Indians after a number of bad outings earlier in the season. He remains an option for late-inning relief for the team, though he is not as consistent as the team and fans would like him to be. Although he has the potential to strike out a number of batters, Axford’s tendency to get wild – and stay wild – makes him unreliable on the mound and keep his walk rate high. Axford has appeared in 37 games for the Indians and holds a 2-3 record with nine saves. He has allowed 14R/13ER on 28 hits, including four home runs, and has walked 25 batters while whiffing 39. Axford posts a 3.58 ERA on the season. He also boasts a noteworthy mustache and the ability to troll both fans and critics on Twitter with the best of them.

All things considered, the Tribe could have obtained much worse from Canada. Yes, these players are no Justin Morneau or Joey Votto, but they are no Sasquatches, either, and sometimes that’s all you can ask for, eh?

Photo: Jason Miller/Getty Images

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