Vancouver Canadians Shaun Valeriote (left) of Guelph, Ont., and Justin Atkinson of Surrey during media day and practice at Vancouver’s Nat Bailey Stadium on Wednesday, June 12, 2013. The Canadians’ Northwest League season opens on Friday.
Photograph by: Ward Perrin, PNG
VANCOUVER — First baseman Justin Atkinson is more than just a Vancouver Canadian. He's a Canadian from Vancouver on the Vancouver Canadians.
Okay, maybe he's not quite from Vancouver. He was born in White Rock and moved to Surrey at a young age. He played Little League in Whalley before joining the Premier League's Langley Blaze. That's pretty much greater Vancouver and there's no point in picking nits to ruin a good story angle.
“I feel like I'm in the big leagues now,” Atkinson said Wednesday as the 2013 short-season single A Canadians went through their media day paces at Nat Bailey Stadium. “It's going to be a big thing coming out and the announcer saying my name and the fans cheering. The publicity, and stuff like that, is going to be good for me. It means a lot being able to play here in front of my family and friends.”
Atkinson, 19, was drafted by the parent Toronto Blue Jays in the 26th round in 2011. He wasn't good enough to make last year's edition of the C's but he's now being touted as their opening-day first baseman. He's 6-1, 210 pounds and bats right.
Atkinson is one of three Canadians on the initial roster but the only one from B.C. Returning pitcher Eric Brown, a former UBC Thunderbird, hails from Thunder Bay, while infielder Shaun Valeriote is a Guelph native.
The C's open defence of their back-to-back Northwest League titles Friday night on the road against the Tri-City Dust Devils. Their home opener is slated for Monday, 7:05, versus the Spokane Indians.
Atkinson shouldn't be intimidated by the crowds at The Nat. During his time in Whalley, he twice went to the Little League World Series in Williamsport – 2005 and 2006 – where the tournament draws enormously well.
“Playing on national television is a big thing at that age,” he noted. “You didn't know what to do being so young. It was a good experience.”
Because he was busy playing himself, Atkinson never saw the C's in person until last year when, as a member of the Blue Jay organization, he took in some Northwest League playoff action.
“I came to the Everett game and then the Boise game in the championship,” he said. “It was a pretty good atmosphere.”
He's obviously experienced playing in this climate where the air is often damp and heavy. During the interview sessions Wednesday morning, those were precisely the conditions. Nothing new there.
“I mean, this feels normal for me but everyone is, like, this is cold,” he chuckled. “They're wearing long sleeves and jackets and I'm, like, this is just perfect.”
His new teammate Valeriote is new to Vancouver despite his Canadian passport. The 23-year-old was drafted by the Blue Jays in the 39th round in 2012. A Blue Jays fan growing up – “also a bit of a Red Sox fan, too” – he admitted that being a part of the Jays organization was something he never fathomed.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to be here,” he said. “It's a dream come true. My favourite Blue Jay would probably have to be Joe Carter, even though I was really, really young when he played. Seeing him on video hitting that walk-off homer (1993 World Series) a number of times makes me want to do the exact same thing.”
Valeriote has been busy gathering a scouting report on Vancouver. He arrived with the team Tuesday night, never having previously set foot in the city. But he's heard plenty already.
“I heard it's a blast,” he said. “I'm jealous. Some of them are walking around with rings and that's what I want to do this year. I know the crowds are great and there is a lot of energy. It speaks about how baseball is growing in Canada. I'm really looking forward to it. My parents are excited and they're already looking into flights out here.”
Meanwhile, second-year C's manager Clayton McCullough added another few lines to his resume after spending the past two and a half months up with the big-league Blue Jays. He caught some bullpen and threw a little batting practice.
“It was outstanding,” he said. “I was kind of soaking it all in and helping out wherever they needed a hand. I always felt like I was a patient person with the players but I will be even more so now because, you watch those games night-in, night-out, and as great as those players are, they still make the mistakes that guys at this level do.”
C-NOTES: Southpaw Bobby Brosnahan is scheduled to start Monday's home opener... Eric Brown will be Friday's starter in Tri-City... Maple Ridge's native Tyler O'Neill, drafted in the third round last Friday by the Seattle Mariners, has signed with the M's. He'll report to Arizona later this month.
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