Team Canada confirms first 23 members
Former All-Star Walker will serve as a coach at WBC
By Ian Harrison / Special to MLB.com
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TORONTO -- The architects of Canada's entry at the World Baseball Classic know they can't compete with the star power of teams from the United States, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela.
Instead, Canada will borrow from the 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates, whose "We Are Family" attitude brought the team together and carried it to a World Series title.

"There's a lot of heart on this team," said first baseman Justin Morneau as Team Canada officials confirmed the first 23 members of its 30-man squad at an event in Toronto on Saturday.

"It's fun when you're around guys like that who love the game. It makes you better, it makes you want it that much more. You don't want to let the guy down next to you."

Morneau, outfielders Jason Bay and Matt Stairs and infielder Corey Koskie will be the heart of the lineup for the Canadian squad.

On the mound, manager Ernie Whitt will be counting on lefties Jeff Francis, Adam Loewen and Erik Bedard as Canada tries to advance out of Pool B, where it is matched up with the United States, Mexico and South Africa.

General manager Greg Hamilton, who worked with Whitt to assemble the Canadian squad, echoed the importance of the team concept.

"Most of these guys come in with a pretty tight-knit, family-type atmosphere, and I think we'll have that in our locker room," he said.

"We have a group of guys that are very well-versed in what it means to play international baseball and the sense of urgency that goes with 'win or go home.' That's probably the greatest thing you need coming into a tournament like this."

In addition to Morneau, Canadian players like Francis, catcher Pierre-Luc LaForest and infielder Pete Orr were on hand for Saturday's announcement.

Also in attendance were former Jays GM Pat Gillick, longtime Expos great Jim Fanning, former Texas reliever Jeff Zimmerman and new Blue Jays scout Rob Ducey, a one-time Toronto outfielder.

One player who won't be suiting up for Canada is Larry Walker. The five-time All-Star and 1997 National League MVP is still bothered by a herniated disc in his neck that pained him all last season, and he says his playing days are over. Instead, Walker will serve as a coach.

"I'm looking forward to putting on the Canadian uniform," Walker said. "I'm not overly excited about not playing, but I know that I can't.

"It's going to be tough to just sit there and not participate. It's still in my blood."

Canada is still pursuing pitchers Ryan Dempster of the Chicago Cubs, Oakland righty Rich Harden and Dodgers closer Eric Gagne.

Dempster signed a three-year, $15.5 million extension with the Cubs after converting 33 of 35 save chances last season. But he underwent ligament-replacement surgery on his elbow nearly three years ago, and is reluctant to put extra strain on his arm by pitching for Canada.

Gagne is coming off Tommy John surgery last June and is progressing well, but the Dodgers are concerned about letting the 2003 NL Cy Young Award winner air it out too soon.

As for Harden, Whitt says he's "cautiously optimistic" that the A's will release him for international duty, even though the Victoria, B.C., native suffered from muscle problems in his right shoulder last year, then had offseason surgery on his left shoulder.

"I spoke to him last summer and he was optimistic," said Whitt. "Since that time, there's been things that have been written and the organization has said they don't want him to play."

Once the situations with Dempster, Harden and Gagne are resolved, Hamilton says Team Canada will round out the remaining seven spots on its roster. Canada has named nine pitchers already but would like to carry 14 or 15, including six starters.

With tender-armed hurlers on early-season pitch counts, the plan is to piggyback two starters in each game, then turn things over to the bullpen.

Francis, Canada's likely ace, missed a chance to play for his country at the 2004 Olympics after he was called up to the Colorado Rockies.

"It's been a long time coming," Francis said of his international callup. "I'm definitely really excited about it."

Walker said Francis reminds him of Mets southpaw and longtime Braves great Tom Glavine.

"He's a control pitcher that doesn't overpower you, but he knows where he's throwing it, which is as important as anything else," Walker said.

Canada will prepare for the Classic at the spring home of the Blue Jays in Dunedin, Fla. The team will also warm up with a split-squad game against the Jays on March 3, followed by an exhibition against the Korean team the following day. Then it's west to Arizona, where they open up against South Africa on Tuesday, March 7.

"Our main goal is to get an understanding of our bunt defenses, our cutoffs and relays," Whitt said of the training camp.

"We've got a lot to do in a short period of time, as far as getting ready for our first game."

As for Canada's chances, Walker said there are no guarantees for any team, no matter how star-studded their lineup.

"There's all kinds of talent, and you never know what can happen in these things," he said "It's early in the season where a lot of guys haven't been playing. The so-called powerhouse teams that have all these big players that haven't been doing anything all winter, they might just be mediocre now. That might enable Canada to show something."


Ian Harrison is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.