For most of the Winnipeg Goldeyes players who landed in town this week, the clubhouse is full of new faces, a new set of names to commit to memory.
True, some have played together before -- returning outfielder Josh Mazzola was once roomies with incoming outfielder Ryan Scoma during a 2011 stint with the A-level Augusta Greenjackets -- and some recognize faces they once saw in the opposing dugout.
But three of the Fish share a history that runs deeper than just a former team: Pitchers Chris Kissock and Mark Hardy and outfielder Tim Smith have all suited up for Team Canada, were all part of the 2011 team that claimed Pan American Games gold, and have long been part of the national program they described as like extended family.
This marks the first time the Goldeyes have had three players who have worn the maple leaf -- and for three players adjusting to a new team and independent ball, the reunion comes something of a relief. "It's a small world in Baseball Canada, so it's good to see familiar faces," said Smith, 26, who batted .350 on that golden Pan-Am Games run. "You don't really get opportunities to play professionally in Canada... baseball, anyways. Maybe some hockey."
For that matter, like a multitude of Canadian kids, Kissock and Smith grew up playing hockey, making it as far as their local junior teams -- Smith with the Toronto-area Wexford Raiders, Kissock with the Trail Smoke Eaters of the British Columbia Hockey League.
Hardy, on the other hand, was always mostly a baseball kid while growing up in Campbell River, B.C. "My dad might have strapped my right arm behind my back and said throw with this hand," the southpaw pitcher chuckled. "I just sort of played ever since."
Those early experiences would take Hardy, 24, into the trenches of pro baseball, battling to make the major leagues. In 2010, he was drafted out of the University of British Columbia by the San Diego Padres, and played three seasons throwing around their minor-league teams. Still, he always kept an eye on the Winnipeg Goldeyes in case affiliated ball didn't pan out -- so when the Padres let him go this spring, the next phone call was a welcome one.
"It was a tough morning, and then instantly I got a call from (Goldeyes manager) Rick Forney saying other options were available," Hardy said. "It was tough getting released, but this is definitely the top choice for me... To stay in Canada is great."
Kissock and Smith came to the Fish in similar ways. Kissock, 27, was a seventh-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Phillies in 2007, and played six seasons in their organization before getting released. It was actually a Team Canada connection that led him to the Goldeyes, as national team general manager Greg Hamilton suggested it as a good spot to play.
"He made a couple calls for me, and shortly after (the Goldeyes) called," said Kissock, who earned a save in 1 1/3 scoreless innings at the World Baseball Classic qualifier in Germany last year. "I'm very excited to play close to home. Usually I'm down in the States, far away. This is going to be a good experience."
Smith played six pro seasons between the Texas Rangers, Kansas City Royals and Atlanta Braves; earlier this year he signed on with the Baltimore Orioles, but was cut right away. "I wasn't expecting it," Smith said. "But I'm grateful that there's an opportunity to keep playing. I didn't want to shut it down. Baseball's all I've ever done, and everything kind of weighs on your shoulders... 'what do I do with my life?' I'm happy I got the chance here."
For these three players, there's also a little something new after years slugging it out in the affiliated clubs of the United States: every game this season, they'll get to hear their own anthem played. "That's really rare, especially in baseball," Smith said.
"I'm not from (Winnipeg), but I feel like a hometown guy just because of the environment. It's going to be cool to not only represent the Goldeyes, but I feel like I'm representing Canada in a way."