North Star

Twins rookie Corey Koskie and baseball's Canadian invasion

The Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in St. Marys, Ontario, is a modest shrine to a group of men whose accomplishments are largely unknown to any but the most obsessive of American baseball fans. Nobody's fooling anybody in St. Marys; a vast majority of the 46 fellows enshrined there are likely unknown to most Canadians as well. There's Ontario's Jack Graney, who played 14 seasons with the Cleveland Indians at the turn of the century. Graney's .250 lifetime batting average is nothing to get excited about, but he was the first batter ever to face a Boston left-hander named Babe Ruth, as well as the first player to bat wearing a number on his uniform. And, his plaque will remind you, he twice led the league in bases on balls. Swift Current, Saskatchewan's Reggie Cleveland is also immortalized in St. Marys, his 105-106 record as a major leaguer obscured by the fact that he was the first Canadian-born pitcher to start a World Series game (for the Boston Red Sox, in 1975).

The Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame is nothing so much as a reminder of the game's longstanding second-fiddle status in our sprawling, hockey-obsessed neighbor to the north, but over the past decade that has slowly been changing. The major leagues' best all-around player may well be the Colorado Rockies' Larry Walker, a reformed hockey player and a Canadian. One of the surprises of the 1999 season has been Texas reliever Jeff Zimmerman, who had previously labored in Northern League obscurity with the Winnipeg Goldeyes. Canadians weren't eligible for the major-league draft until 1991, yet in the most recent draft 44 Canadians were selected. At present 45 Canadians are playing professional organized baseball.

And here in Minnesota, with every hit of his young career, Twins rookie and Manitoba native Corey Koskie takes another step out of the slim shadows of obscure Canadian baseball legends like Reno Bertoia, George "Twinkletoes" Selkirk, and Moonie Gibson, St. Marys inductees all. One can't help suspecting that one or two decent seasons might be all that is required to secure Koskie a place in Canadian baseball history and a plaque in St. Marys.

Koskie is still only 25 years old, and his route to the major leagues was a strange one by almost any standard. He grew up in Manitoba and, like many a Canadian youngster, had dreams of a career in the National Hockey League. A standout goalie for the Selkirk Steelers in the Canadian junior leagues, he appeared to be headed south to play for the University of Minnesota-Duluth. When that fell through, he applied himself for a time to volleyball and was a member of the national team in that sport. He came late to baseball, and never played seriously until he was 18 years old.

"There's no such thing as high school baseball in Canada," says Koskie, among the strongest and most soft-spoken of Twins. "I played recreationally in summer leagues, but we didn't practice, and I certainly never imagined that I'd be able to make a career out of it. When I was 18 or 19 years old, I was just looking to find a way to come to the United States to go to college. Baseball was really my third sport, but it turned out to be the one that provided that opportunity."

Koskie was spotted by a coach from the Des Moines Area Community College at a scouting camp the Cincinnati Reds ran once a year in Canada, and in 1992 he packed up and moved to Boone, Iowa, to begin his rapid transition to a full-time baseball player.

Lorne Korol, now the executive director of the Manitoba Baseball Association, coached Koskie in midget ball when he was 18. "The first time I laid eyes on him, I could see that he was a tremendous athlete," Korol remembers. "He was this big, strong kid, very raw, but with obvious, pure potential. At the time he was the third-ranked vertical jumper in Canada. Baseball was still definitely secondary to hockey and volleyball, but he had incredible natural tools and tremendous mental makeup, and you couldn't find a guy who would work any harder. You never look at a kid and automatically think of him as having major-league potential, but nothing Corey's done has surprised me."

Koskie had an outstanding junior-college season in Iowa, batting over .400 and attracting the attention of the people at the National Baseball Institute, a Canadian organization sponsored by the Toronto Blue Jays that is dedicated to building a national team and helping players acquire an education.

"The experience in Iowa was all about adjustment and growing up," Koskie says now. "It was a huge maturing process, learning to play every day against guys who can consistently throw 90 miles an hour, learning how to prepare and take care of yourself. The big step for me was learning that I could actually play with these American guys who'd been playing baseball all their lives."

In 1993-94 Koskie worked out of the NBI while attending Kwantler College in Surrey, British Columbia, and in 1994 he was the Twins 26th-round pick in the free-agent draft.

"It was a big decision for me whether to sign with the Twins at the time," says Koskie. "I had the option of staying in Canada and playing with the national team, but I got talked into signing." That same summer he played 34 games for Elizabethton in a short-season rookie league, and batted just .234, but the next year in Fort Wayne he hit .310 with 16 home runs. Koskie worked his way quickly through A and AA ball in the Twins' farm system; last year a .301 batting average, 26 home runs, and 105 RBI for Triple A Salt Lake City earned him a September call-up.

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