What a difference a change makes.
The last time Manitoba won the Canadian junior baseball championship was in 1982 when the St. Boniface Legionnaires brought the title home.
This year, the Manitoba Junior Baseball League decided to follow the lead of several other provinces and send an all-star team, with a result that stunned the nation. They beat the host team Trois-Rivières 6-4 in the gold-medal final Sunday in Quebec.
"We were definitely an underdog going in," said team manager Jamie Bettens of St. Boniface, "and we became less of an underdog as the tournament went on. In our first game, we threw a three-hit shutout at Saskatchewan, but I think the one that really made noise, and announced that Manitoba was back on the map, was the 7-1 win over Ontario in the semifinal. They are a traditional powerhouse, and to take care of them with relative ease, was something that I think made that statement."
Mac Batchelor pitched five complete innings to claim the win. The 6-foot-5, 215-pound right-hander, allowed only three runs on six hits while striking out four. Anthony Friesen, the tournament's MVP, and who picked up the win against Ontario the day before, finished the game, allowing one run on four hits while striking out two.
"We said all along that nobody is going to realize how good we are until it's too late," commented Batchelor, who plays for Altona Bisons, "and Trois-Rivières found out too late I guess."
Right-fielder Kellen Burman (two hits and one RBI), who was already two days behind in classes at Mayville State University in North Dakota, said nothing was certain until the final out. "It was incredible. They were pressuring us, with two runners on, and only down by two, so it wasn't like we knew we were going to win it. We still had to earn it."
"It had become increasingly tough to declare a league champion, and two weeks later raise the funds to go to the tournament," said Scott Neiles, president of the MJBL, explaining the change to all stars this year. "They've also cut back dramatically on the national funding to go, so it is up to the teams independently to raise funds. It costs about $20,000 to send a team to the national championship, so we felt that the financial aspects, along with the competitive nature which we've been sorely lacking for a number of years, we'd put together an all-star team and see if we fared better.
"We've always been ranked six, seventh and eighth," added Neiles, a member of the Legionnaires team that won the title in 1982. "Your strong provinces are always B.C., Quebec, Ontario, Alberta, but this year we just went in with a different mindset -- that with the quality of players we had, and the pitching we had, we're as good, or better, than anybody and we proved it."
While there was no official award for the tournament's top manager, tournament officials presented Bettens with the dirt-covered third base from the final game, for the job he had done moulding the Manitoba team into champions.
"They actually gave me third base as a sign of respect for the job I did," said Bettens. "The gentleman said, 'with all due respect you've earned this,' and he gave me third base. We're hoping that there is a spot in the Manitoba Baseball Hall of Fame for this some day."