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.

The major leagues were a rude awakening. Wary of the rookie's limitations at third base, Twins manager Tom Kelly used him sparingly. Koskie struggled in his limited playing time, and batted just .138. He got his first major-league hit off Oakland's Tim Worrell on September 12, an occasion made more memorable by the fact that he had a contingent of family and friends in attendance. (In a wonderful coincidence, his sister Crystal was chosen as the Subway "Fan of the Game"). Still, by his own account, it was a confusing and difficult time.

"I was nervous for two weeks before I got called up," he remembers. "You have this image of what it's going to be like when you finally get there--you know, there's all this hype and this excitement, and you don't imagine the day-to-day struggle of it. I went through this phase where I wondered, 'Is this it?' I had to really work on my mindset. I was lucky to have the influence of guys like Rick Aguilera and Todd Walker. This is a great opportunity, but I think I had to learn that you have to live your life for other more important things than baseball, and just come to the ballpark and work hard and try to have fun."

During the off-season Koskie played in Puerto Rico and the Arizona Fall League, working on his defense and shortening his swing, and he went to spring training determined to win the confidence of Kelly. He has taken thousands of ground balls at third base from coach Ron Gardenhire, and hours of extra batting practice with hitting coach Scott Ullger in an attempt to refine his swing and plate discipline.

The extra work has clearly paid off, and, perhaps equally important, it has also won him points with Kelly and the coaching staff. Kelly is a notorious stickler for defensive fundamentals, and he has traditionally been reluctant to sacrifice solid defense for offensive potential. The organization as a whole has tended to be less than impressed by big offensive numbers posted by players at Salt Lake City in the Pacific Coast League, and Koskie has found himself in much the same position as Ron Coomer did when he first came to the Twins in 1995 after posting impressive stats with Albuquerque in the PCL. Such players, it seems, must work extra hard to earn Kelly's trust, and, like Coomer before him, Koskie has quietly applied himself to the challenge. The result: It has been increasingly difficult for the manager to leave him out of the lineup. Koskie has earned regular turns at third base, and has even begun to pick up the occasional start in right field, a position he had never previously played at any level.

But if Koskie is daunted by the challenge of learning to play the outfield at the major league level, he doesn't let on. "I'm just working hard so T.K. can find a place in the lineup for me," he says.

Koskie's offensive numbers have held up with increasing playing time; as of this past weekend he was batting .305 with 7 home runs and 31 RBI. He has also enjoyed remarkable success as a pinch hitter, going six for eight in that role.

"It's pretty ordinary for a guy to hit .300 in the Pacific Coast League," asserts Ullger, the hitting coach. "It's a whole different thing up here, but Corey's done fine. He's held his own against lefties and righties, and he comes to the cage every day and works his tail off. He's already a nice gap-to-gap hitter, and he's so strong--he's got those big hands and big legs--that he definitely has tremendous power potential."

Not a bad beginning for a guy who didn't consider himself a baseball player eight years ago. With any luck at all, Corey Koskie might make Canadians forget Moonie Gibson.

 

SIDELINES

SPEAKING OF CANADIAN BASEBALL: Winnipeg, Manitoba, just north of our border and a proud Northern League sister city, will play host to the Pan American Games later this month, from July 24 through August 3. The Pan Ams being the launching point for the Olympics, only the top two teams from Winnipeg will go on to Sydney--this despite the fact that the pool for this year's event includes seven of the top ten teams in the world. In other words, the Pan American Games will feature better baseball than the Olympics. It will also pit the Americans against the Cuban national team, which is a better squad than the one that humbled the major-league Baltimore Orioles earlier this year. Also on hand will be powerhouses Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Panama, and Mexico--and, for that matter, Canada). Tickets are downright cheap--starting at $10 to $14 for the preliminary matchups and ranging up to $18 to $25 for the medal games, plus a $2 service charge--and aside from the gold-medal game, they're still available. To buy 'em, call (888) 780-7328; for more information, visit the Pan American Games Web site (www.panamgames.org) or call (204) 985-1999.

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