Story by: Dustin Saracini
Photo credits: Amanda Fewer
A pair of Dawgs exchanged their red and black colours for a different shade of red in March, suiting up for the Canadian Junior National Team as they hit the road to St. Petersburg, Fla. for spring training.
The hours may have been strenuous, but for Cesar Valero and LaRon Smith, the experience gave the two a professional perspective.
The days weren’t normal by any stretch of the imagination, especially for teenagers. But, each time the 7 a.m. alarm rang, neither Valero or Smith wanted to be anywhere else. The days began with an early breakfast before hitting the field for a three-hour practice. Once there, the team would get set for their MLB opponents in the afternoon. The strenuous schedule remained the same over the 10-day stretch, but the knowledge gained from taking at-bats against major-league talent provided an entirely different view on their journey to the big leagues.
“The experience was one of a kind, playing pro players really puts a perspective on where you have to get to, to compete,” Smith said. “It was honestly nice, the strenuous schedule is just a regular week for the pros, so it was a great little taste.”
“It was a test both physically and mentally, but it was well worth it,” Valero added.
In order to get ready for the task at hand, both Valero and Smith said the Dawgs Academy, which has an innate ability to get the best out of its players, made sure they put the reps in regardless of the weather. It’s this type of elite-level training the pair are grateful for.
“I think the Dawgs prepared me for this with the extra work before and after practices and the offseason strength and conditioning training,” Valero said. “They also prepared me for this mentally with our very hard metabolic circuit during the winter and with our indoor competitions between our teams. Without those things, I don’t think I would’ve been as ready for the trip.”
Team Canada began their spring training against the Detroit Tigers before taking on the Toronto Blue Jays, Philadelphia Phillies, Baltimore Orioles, and Tampa Bay Rays. A staple for the Junior National team is their annual game against the Blue Jays’ split squad, an opportunity to go up against players the team watches daily at home. It just so happened, on this day, the stars aligned perfectly for the players to be taking live at-bats against Toronto’s ace, Marcus Stroman.
“That’s crazyyy!” Valero texted hours before going head-to-head with the Gold Glove winner, and then came back down to Earth. “It’s a great opportunity for us to see what facing one of the best pitchers is like.”
Hitting third, Canada’s shortstop dug into the box against the diminutive pitcher.
“When I was going to face Stroman I was very excited,” he said. “But right away I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. I knew that his stuff wasn’t going to be anything like the stuff we had been seeing before. My mentality when I was going in the box was to jump on the first fastball I saw and barrel it up.”
One thing Valero wasn’t going to do was pass on a chance to put the ball in play against Stroman, but, as he has done so often to major-leaguers himself, the firery pitcher got ahead 0-2 before striking Valero out with his go-to pitch.
“Unfortunately, I fouled (the first pitch) back and ended up seeing a video game slider which I struck out on.”
Coming to the plate with an approach against one of the game’s best is one experience the Oregon State University commit won’t soon forget.
Later in the contest, it was Smith, the Indian Hills, Iowa commit, who strolled to the batter’s box in a pinch-hit situation. Maverik Ruffo of the Lansing Lugnuts, a class-A affiliate of the Blue Jays, opposed him on the mound. Damiano Palmegiani found himself on base the at-bat before, and Smith wanted to make a difference. He did just that.
“Well, when I was on deck, seeing Damiano get on base and it being my first at-bat of the game, I knew I had to do something,” he said. “So, on my first swing, I felt like something was off, so I thought to myself ‘stay inside and stay through,’ and when I hit it, and seeing it go by Vladimir Guerrero Jr., I couldn’t stop smiling. When I got to second, a few of the players said ‘nice hit.’ It will be something I’ll remember for a long time.”
Smith absolutely ran into the 0-1 offering, barrelling the pitch down the left field line for an RBI double and Canada’s first run of the game in the bottom of the sixth.
In the end, the Canadians took the loss against a talented split-squad team and moved on to the Phillies the next day, where it was Valero’s turn to make some noise.
One of his favourite moments of the trip, Valero, now hitting second while Smith batted clean up, injected some energy into the Canadian bench, blasting a home run over the wall to put Canada on the board in the first.
Following the contest, the Academy product summed up the moment.
“How can you forget your very first home run playing for your country?!” he smiled.
I don’t think you can.
While the memories were everlasting on the field, and the opportunities were once-in-a-lifetime with each pitch the Canadian kids saw, or each batter they battled against, for Smith, aside from smashing a ball past a diving Guerrero Jr., what made the experience was enjoying it with his fellow countrymen.
“The moments I’ll never forget is the locker room chats and the friendships I gained from the trip,” he reflected.