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Baseball rookie a veteran hockey enthusiast

by Rocky Bonanno / Vancouver Canucks
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It's not often that a Major League Baseball rookie is tabbed to catch the ceremonial first pitch before a game. But when the pitcher is an NHL defenseman, might as well call on the only Canadian on the roster to catch the pitch.

And that's how outfielder Michael Saunders of the Seattle Mariners earned the honor of catching the ceremonial first pitch from Vancouver Canucks defenseman Willie Mitchell on July 27 before an 11-4 home loss against the Toronto Blue Jays at Safeco Field.

"The team just said, 'Would you like to catch the first pitch?' I guess they picked me for the Canadian tie," Saunders said. "He threw a strike too, which was good. He just ran out there and threw it right down the middle. He's a lefty; he made me look good back there.

"There wasn't time for hockey talk afterward, but he knew I was big a Canucks fan."

Saunders, 22, who made his MLB debut only two days earlier, went 1-for-4 with a run scored and two strikeouts.

Saunders, who hails from Victoria, British Columbia -- about 70 miles from Seattle -- is one of a small fraternity of Canadian-born players currently active in MLB. Growing up a Canucks fan, Saunders played his fair share of hockey but also excelled in baseball.

"It got to the point where, as I got older, I started paring down sports. I played hockey in winter and baseball in summer," he said. "Canadians, most of us lean to hockey, but I got more exposure with baseball, travel-wise, playing for the national team. I just fell in love with the game. That determined my choice in the end.

"I was scouted for major junior A, but I gave up hockey when I was a junior in high school because I was getting ready to graduate. So a few major junior A teams talked to me, but I had already made up my mind that I'd go with baseball"

After attending Tallahassee Community College in Florida, Saunders began his pro ball career in 2005 with the Everett AquaSox of the Northwest League (Class A short season).

At 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, Saunders is comparable in size to Carolina center Eric Staal and Calgary defenseman Jay Bouwmeester. In high school, he played for the Victoria Racquet Club Kings of the British Columbia Minor Hockey Association, the same program that produced NHL players Matt Pettinger, Kent Manderville and Mel Bridgman.

"Growing up I was a center, all the way through my hockey career," Saunders said. "I still miss it. I have fun every year, go back home and skate at the rink. I don't regret my decision at all. It's tough to give up something that you've done for so long. In any sport, any profession, you have to make sacrifices."

The Canucks were a big part of Saunders' youth. "I was a big Vancouver Canucks fan, I still am to this day. My favorite player was Bobby Orr because of my dad. On Saturday night we'd watch old videos, highlights tapes. For myself, the guy I liked was Pavel Bure, especially in the early to mid '90s. I still remember '94, that heartbreaking loss to the Rangers."

Though the 8-year-old Saunders was crushed by Vancouver's seven-game loss to the Rangers in the 1994 Stanley Cup Final, he sees reason to be optimistic about the 2009-10 edition of the Canucks.

"Andrew Raycroft will take over the backup role and that will be good to give Roberto Luongo a day off now and then," he said.

"Getting Mikael Samuelsson, that's big. He's a veteran presence on a young team, and he's won a few Stanley Cups.

"Kevin Bieksa, when healthy, he's a big offensive presence from the d-line which is nice, but he needs to stay healthy.

"I think they've always been a solid team. They're in a bit of a rebuilding stage, and to do what they've done during that time, I'm exited for the years down the road."
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