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Canucks dreaming with the boys of summer

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MYRTLE BEACH, South Carolina -- The music man plays Mozart as the shortstop comes to bat. We're at the best place in the world -- a minor-league stadium on a summer evening. A sultry breeze is waving goodbye to the ocean and tickling the flapping flags.

There is nothing in the hitter's resum© that suggests much of a threat. He's small, even for a middle infielder, a 34th-round Baltimore draft choice with a .214 average batting ninth and last in the order for the visiting Frederick (Maryland) Keys, and his Orioles-orange No. 6 jersey looks like he bought it at Gymboree. Moreover, he is Canadian, and what do Canadians know about playing the game of baseball?

The expatriate is a 25-year-old from Toronto by way of the University of British Columbia with a minimal salary and the million-dollar name of Sammie Starr. Hence the serenade as he walks to the plate in the third inning of a 0-0 game: Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.

The Myrtle Beach Pelicans' catcher, who also is Canadian, but a first-round thoroughbred named Kellin Deglan out of Langley, B.C. with as much facial hair as he can sprout at the age of 21, calls for Eine Kleine chin music to start Sammie Starr off. This warning shot backs the shortstop off the plate and -- one assumes -- sets him up for a curve ball low and away.

Only a couple of thousand of us are here to witness the existential struggle between batsman and pitcher, barely changed in 140 years. Every half inning, another rude distraction is imposed -- a race run by people dressed as crabs; a cannon on wheels that launches T-shirts -- but for the true fan, as for the players themselves, the game is the attraction and the everything.

Sammie Starr has been a Delmarva Shorebird or an Aberdeen IronBird or a Key -- named for the Frederick-born lawyer who wrote The Star-Spangled Banner -- for the past three seasons, which is a very long time to be treading water down in Class A ball. At his age, he understands every series, every game, every swing could be the tipping point to his promotion or -- sadly, but more likely -- his release into the baseless world.

"The danger's always there," Starr admits, when I meet him for a quiet moment during his team's three-day sojourn in Myrtle Beach. "If I'm done with Baltimore, I don't know what I'll do."

Still, he says, "I feel like I have a lot of baseball left in me. My body still feels good, and I still love the game. Every night, you try to go out there and impress somebody. You know that you're always being watched. It's always in the back of your mind that one little play might be the difference."

"Was there a moment," I ask him, "when you understood that you may never make the major leagues?"

"Probably two spring trainings ago," he answers, "I played a game with the big-league team. That's when you realize that you're further away than you think."

It is the same for the hundreds of other young men who are playing this summer for a thousand dollars a month for the Vermont Lake Monsters, the Albuquerque Isotopes, the Montgomery Biscuits, the Rancho Cucamonga Quakes, or the Great Lakes Loons -- each at-bat occurring at the intersection of baselines and destinies.

Then along comes a strong, confident, can't-miss prospect like Deglan, who received a million-dollar bonus to sign with the Texas Rangers right out of R.E. Mountain Secondary School.

"I feeI good where I am right now. I'm a tougher out. I'm an RBI guy now," he says when we meet one afternoon. "Watching big-league games and especially the catchers, I think I'm better than them. The way the jet stream blows out to right-centre in Texas, that park will be good for me."

Deglan has hit 11 homers for the Pelicans this season in 250-something at-bats. By comparison, Justin Morneau, another British Columbian, hit 12 homers in 236 appearances in Class A ball as a Quad Cities River Bandit and now earns $14-million a year as a Minnesota Twin.

"Why aren't you playing hockey?" I glibly ask the lefthanded-hitting left-coaster.

"I quit when I was 10," he says. "It was a lot more stressful than baseball. If I had a bad shift, the coach was getting on my case. I wasn't ready for it. It turned me off."

"How do you pitch to Sammie Starr?" I inquire. I promise I won't tell him.

"We call him an 'ambush hitter,' " Kellin Deglan replies. "You've got to treat the small guys like the big guys."

So the battle is rejoined. The 1-0 pitch to Mozart's favorite shortstop is a fastball over the plate. The small guy swings and raps a sharp single to left. This grants a dreamer one more trip around the bases, running so fast fate can't make the tag.


Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 12, 2013 A9

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