Had Michael Saunders’ career taken a left instead of a right, he might very well be complimenting the Sedins as part of Vancouver’s top trio or gritting things out with Ryan Kesler and Mason Raymond on the second line.
Saunders, a rookie outfielder with the Seattle Mariners, is a Victoria product who grew up a diehard Canucks fan with dreams of one day emulating Pavel Bure in the big leagues. An athletic kid, Saunders played hockey in the winter and baseball in the summer, until he was forced to choose between the two.
Having worked his way from the Victoria Mariners of the B.C. Premier Baseball League to Major League Baseball’s Mariners, the 22-year-old knows pitches over pucks was the right call, but he can’t help but wonder what might have been.
Saunders was recently in Vancouver as part of a Mariners caravan tour that made stops in 20 communities across the Northwest to give back to fans and unofficially kickoff the team’s 34th season.
Fortunately for Saunders, and Seattle teammate Shawn Kelley, that included a stop at GM Place where the boys took in the Canucks vs. St. Louis Blues on January 27, a 3-2 Vancouver win.
“If I could choose one thing and go back in time, I wish I wouldn’t have given up hockey as early as I did,” said Saunders. “I know I made the right decision, I love what I do, but I do miss hockey.”
At 16 Saunders laced up his skates for the final time and never looked back. Although his participation in hockey ceased, his passion for the game, and particularly the Canucks, continued to grow. Vancouver games are now like fly balls, he catches them all.
“Ever since my dad introduced me to the game, I haven’t been able to get enough,” said Saunders, “but when I was 15-years-old I got to travel the world a little bit with baseball and I think that made me fall in love with the game even more.
“Every year I seem to become a bigger Canucks fan and these days I try not to miss a game if I can.”
Now a full-fledged major leaguer, Saunders got to mix his two favourite sports last summer when he crouched behind the plate and caught a ceremonial opening pitch from Canucks defenceman Willie Mitchell before a Toronto Blue Jays game in Seattle.
"He threw a strike too, which was good,” Saunders told Rocky Bonanno of NHL.com. “He just ran out there and threw it right down the middle. He's a lefty; he made me look good back there.”
Mitchell was a bit of out his element standing on the pitcher's mound, but he looked more at home there than Kelley, Saunders’ partner for the caravan tour, did at only his second hockey game. Ever.
Kelley, a 25-year-old pitcher who will be entering his second season with the Mariners, hails from the hockey hotbed of Kentucky, where “ice is either in drinks or making the power go out.”
“I was saying earlier that my hockey knowledge consists of the Mighty Ducks from when I was little,” laughed Kelley, revealing a truth that would have a Canadian chastised for life.
A quick study, Kelley was right into the game from puck drop, with Saunders by his side as a hockey encyclopedia. After only the first period, Kelley already needed a break from the end-to-end action.
“I guess really it’s like the opposite as far as the pace and stuff, baseball is more slow and drawn out, a lot of strategy, a lot of thinking, a lot of down time, whereas this is go, go, go,” Kelley said.
“I was just learning about how they sub out like every 30 seconds or whatever, that’s crazy. It’s been really exciting so far.”
While Kelley admitted he loves hockey fights and would make scraps legal in baseball if he were commissioner – “When the brawls happen, just let it happen. That would be great.” – he's sticking to America’s pastime.
Because of the strong play of newcomers like Saunders and Kelley, in addition to consistent contributions from the likes of future hall of fame inductees Ken Griffey Jr. and Ichiro Suzuki, the Mariners are poised to build on their turnaround campaign from a year ago.
Seattle went 61-101 in 2008, its worst showing since 1983, but rebounded going 85-77 in 2009 finishing 10 games back of a wild card spot. According to Kelley, that was just a preview of what’s to come this season.
“Every year is obviously going to present a different case, but with the moves that we’ve made to add on what we already built last year, and with the core guys we had last year returning and the leadership that we have, I keep telling people that the sky is the limit this year.
“I’ve been a baseball fan all my life and watched the game and I just feel like with the pieces that we have right now, that you could see us going into the playoffs and seeing us play for a while.”