I like pretending to be Charlie Lau in search of the next Harold Baines. The legendary scout discovered Baines as 13-year-old in St. Michael’s Maryland. I walked through Confederation Park in Montreal’s Notre Dame de Grace (NDG) neighborhood with an imaginary clipboard.
Nothing ever caught my eye, not on the diamond anyway, but a guy with curly black hair and a big smile pulled me in from under a tree. I climbed the three-tier bleachers and we talked. He told me about a left-handed pitcher living in Montreal who was born in North Africa. He raised his eyebrows while saying Africa.
Mehdi Djebbar was his name. He was born in Algeria, grew up in NDG;the same stomping ground as MLB catcher Russel Martin.
Djebbar was selected by the Milwaukee Brewers in the 2006 amateur draft; 20th round-602nd overall pick; a ridiculous number when you consider the rarity of reaching the major leagues, but in Quebec, it’s cause for a pat on the back and then quickly back to work. There’s barely a whisper of “you never know,” but then again Dominic Brown was the 610th pick in that same draft and now has a home in the Philadelphia Phillies outfield.
I took the orange line subway to Ahuntsic Park shortly after the draft. Mehdi was pitching for the Montreal Orioles in the Ligue Baseball Elite Quebec (LBEQ). I pretended to be a sportswriter and made me way onto the field. It’s not too tough in Montreal where the average crowds are well below 100 fans; yeh, one hundred.
The Montreal area is home to four of the 12 teams in the LBEQ; the highest amateur league in Quebec. The other teams are spread throughout the province; from Saguenay in the north to Sherbrooke, closer to the US border. The league holds an annual draft and plays games from mid May to late September.
Mehdi was shy and shrugged his shoulders as if to say “why do you want to talk to me,” but he answered all my questions. He never played catch with his father. How could he? There is no baseball in Algeria and after moving to Montreal, dad never cared too much for baseball. Education was what mattered.
Mehdi had no idea that Milwaukee Brewer scouts were watching him. Canadian baseball players don’t assume anything and as result have nothing to lose. There are no expectations. Hockey is typically their first love.
Larry Walker grew up in Maple Ridge, British Columbia dreaming of the NHL, but became a professional outfielder instead and a damn good one with Hall of Fame numbers; career .313 batting average, .400 OB%, 383 home runs, .565 slugging percentage.
Baseball Reference lists 239 players, 123 pitchers, and 6 managers born in Canada dating back to 1871. The majority were marginal players at best. But there was Ferguson Jenkins; born in Chatham, Ontario. He’s the only Canadian in the Hall of Fame and deservedly so. No pitcher has won 20 games for 6 consecutive seasons since Jenkins did it from 1967-72. In total, he won 284 games and maybe more impressive were his 3,000 plus strikeouts and less than 1,000 walks with a career WHIP of 1.14.
The first Canadian I ever knew about was Terry Puhl; born in Melville, Saskatchewan. He inspired me to look at a map and find out what the hell was Saskatchewan. He spent fourteen years in the Houston Astros outfield. Pretty damn consistent too. Career .280 hitter -.349 OB%.
Joey Votto-born in Toronto may be remembered as the greatest Canadian hitter when it’s all said and done. He’s only played 7 seasons, but already has me hooked. I’ve never seen a hitter with better plate discipline.
The Milwaukee Brewers have more Canadian scouts than most MLB teams. I don’t have exact numbers, but Jay Lapp coordinates Brewer scouts in the Atlantic Provinces alone. Some teams have only one scout for all of Canada.The MLB holds an annual tryout in Quebec. The Brewers hold three or four.
It’s no surprise considering Brewer’s GM-Doug Melvin was born in the same city as Fergie Jenkins-Chatham,Ontario. The Brewers at one time last season had 11 Canadian players in their organization including three on the major league roster; John Axford, Jim Henderson and Taylor Greene.
Mehdi never signed with Milwaukee. He attended Seminole State Junior College in Oklahoma, then Oklahoma University, where he suffered arm injuries and returned to Montreal.
The competition level is lower in Canada. The seasons are shorter. The odds of playing professional are horrible. It turns the birthplace on the back of Justin Morneau’s, Jason Bay’s and even Maxime St. Pierre’s baseball cards into more than height, weight, or hair color.
The film board of Canada rolled out a glorious doozy in “King of the Hill,” a close up look at Fergie Jenkins through the 1972-1973 season.