ST. PETERSBURG, Florida – Gareth Morgan sat in the dugout before Tuesday afternoon's sun-soaked Baseball Canada Junior Team's tilt against the Blue Jays, visualizing what was to come both in the short term and in the future.
"It's pretty cool and humbling," said Morgan. "It's an honour to be a part of this team and get an opportunity to do this. It's not everyday you get to put your uniform on and play against big leaguers."
Morgan, who turns 18 next month, is a presence at 6'4", 220 pounds. He is the top-ranked Canadian heading into June's amateur draft. Some projections have the product of Toronto's Vaughn Road Academy going in the first round. An outfielder, he possesses all the tools over which scouts salivate.
"He's a high school player so sometimes I think the expectation is unrealistic given the skill set," said head coach Greg Hamilton. "He has tremendous talent. He's got everything you're looking for. He's got size. He's got power. He's got speed for a big man. He's got a plus arm. It's a complete package. It's a major league right fielder in the making if everything falls into place and he stays healthy, obviously."
Morgan grew up splitting his summers and winters between baseball and hockey. Three years ago, his first in high school, Morgan made a choice. He would commit to playing baseball full-time and, having already gone through a growth spurt, was showing signs of the imposing figure he's become.
Fast forward three years, through all the games and the tournaments and the travel with the junior team, and he feels like he belongs.
"I feel like I've come a long way both mentally and physically," said Morgan. "I was a lot smaller back then and my skills weren't as good. On the mental side, I've gained more confidence and I just feel more comfortable with what I'm doing."
He recently spent a week visiting Larry Walker in West Palm Beach, Florida. They hit, shagged flies, worked out and talked the tools of the trade. It was an opportunity to pick the brain of a former great about life in the big leagues.
"It was awesome," said Morgan. "We hung out, went kayaking, played a little baseball, hit with the Cardinals."
There's a big decision looming on the horizon. As he awaits the June draft, Morgan also has a scholarship offer from North Carolina State University. He'll have to weigh the value of signing with the pro club that selects him versus a free education at a strong ACC school.
"It crosses your mind sometimes, of course you're going to think about it, but the less you think about it the better it is," said Morgan. "Just go out and play the game you love and have fun with it."
"We try to give them the information that's objective so that they know all the opportunities available to them and then they qualify what resonates to them the most," said Hamilton. "As long as they understand what a Division I scholarship means and what that experience means; what signing out of high school and minor league baseball and the challenges that come with that mean, the day to day grind that they're going to go through means to them on a personal level and where they are physically and mentally, I think if they've got the comparables in front of them, everything's in order, then it becomes a personal decision. We try to convince them it's not always about dollars."
Morgan cites Brett Lawrie as his favourite ballplayer. The two shared the same field together on Tuesday.
A few years from now, it could happen again.
ONYSHKO GRINDS IT OUT
Left-hander Ben Onyshko, a 17-year-old from Winnipeg, admitted to being nervous in the first inning. He walked the first two hitters he faced, Munenori Kawasaki and Colby Rasmus, almost hitting Kawasaki twice.
Brett Lawrie followed with a single, loading the bases with nobody out for Jose Bautista.
"I mean, I tried not to think about it," said Onyshko. "I tried to just execute pitches the same as always but I've got to admit, my mind was racing a little bit. It was surreal."
Bautista flew out to deep left centerfield for a sacrifice fly.
"I was scared for a split second when he hit the ball," said Onyshko. "Once I was able to get that first out I think things started to roll a little bit better. I settled in."
He certainly did settle in. Onyshko limited the Jays to that one run in the first and allowed two runs over his three innings of work.
Onyshko's curveball caught the attention of onlookers. It's a pitch he started throwing when he was 12.
"I just remember hanging in the backyard with my dad, just working on it, throwing it," said Onyshko. "He would sit there catching bullpens for me every couple of days."
LAWRIE HAS FLASHBACKS
It wasn't too long ago Brett Lawrie was playing for the Baseball Canada junior team in games like Tuesday's.
"It's a lot of fun for me," said Lawrie. "Especially nowadays because there's a lot more guys coaching that I've played with and had a chance to play with that are across the other way now. It's good to see those guys coming back and helping the young guys. It sets a good example for all them because the guys I played with were the good players and they're fun to play with so things are probably pretty light in the clubhouse, which is cool."
Lawrie and his Blue Jays teammates did most of the talking as they mingled with the young Canadians before the game.
"I think it's kind of keep your ears open, more or less," said Lawrie. "They're a little nervous, which I anticipated so I think, more or less, they just kept their ears open, listened to how the boys talked and just taking it all in."
HAMILTON APPRECIATES BLUE JAYS' APPROACH
Brandon Morrow started for the Blue Jays. Baseball Canada alum Brett Lawrie, Jose Bautista, Colby Rasmus, Adam Lind and Dioner Navarro were in Toronto's starting lineup on Tuesday.
Head coach Greg Hamilton appreciated the Jays' willingness to send some of the club's top stars to the game. The rest of the roster was in Lakeland for a game against the Tigers.
"It's a special day and an opportunity to come out on the field and play against the players that you watch on TV and aspire to be like is incredibly special," said Hamilton.
Fans will follow the paths of these young players. Visit www.baseball.ca to learn more about the program.
"Every player that we've got has a chance to play beyond high school," said Hamilton. "At minimum they're going to go on scholarships and play collegiate baseball. You never know. You extend your playing career and you figure a few things out and there are some here today you think will be for sure potential major league prospects and there are others who will sneak up on you too just by having the opportunity to continue to play."