By Taylor McKee
For a Canadian, the road to Major League Baseball can seem insurmountably long. The effect that the competitive climate has on those intent on playing at the highest level is great. Players in Florida, North Carolina or Texas have likely never experienced cancelled games in May because of snow. For this reason, Canadians seem to be at a natural disadvantage from the beginning, but as the exploits of Canadian players have proven in recent years, it may only be an inconvenience.
Like many other sports, the majority of elite talent in baseball is funnelled into specialized academies with the intention of converting raw talent into professional prospects. More and more of these academies are appearing in Canada and they are beginning to put Canada on the map as a source of reliable prospects for professional teams.
Proudly displaying a scar that would make the most grizzled veteran of any sport squirm, Jordan Wong is optimistic. A 20-year-old draft pick of the Milwaukee Brewers born and raised in Calgary, Wong has already had a lifetime of baseball experiences and his career is far from over. Jordan began playing baseball at the age of eight in Calgary with his older brother as his athletic role model. “When I started, I wasn’t very good,” he said. “I wasn’t naturally gifted or anything. Everything I got, I earned.”
Wong is a product of a diverse group of clubs in Alberta and British Columbia — he played for the Okotoks Dawgs of the Western Major Baseball League, the Calgary Cubs and then travelled to Fraser Valley, b.c. and Vauxhall Academy in his senior year of high school.
Vauxhall, Alberta is quickly gaining a reputation as one of the most respected baseball academies in Western Canada. It was in Vauxhall that Wong had some of his fondest baseball experiences as a teenager. “I loved it there, it was the best experience I had ever had. Those guys, the coaches, are still some of my best friends.”
Unquestionably the best baseball academy in Alberta, the Vauxhall high school academy has produced eight players who were drafted to the mlb. It might not seem like an obvious place for an academy of elite teenaged baseball talent, but the links between Vauxhall and organized baseball reach back as early as the 1920s. Now, the Vauxhall Academy of Baseball is a fully functioning high school and routinely produces players who receive interest from professional scouts. The instructors and trainers are of a professional calibre, giving students a unique opportunity to learn from the best in the country.
“It’s developing a lot the last few years,” said Wong. “They have coaches who have played at high levels, coached at the high levels. They bring in the head trainer of the Blue Jays and they’ve got mental trainers as well.”
When Wong left for Vauxhall, he was 16 — a common experience for any talented baseball player. They are forced to leave home at a young age and make a life-changing decision. Wong billeted with a family on a farm 15 minutes outside the town.
“They are like a second family for me,” beamed Wong. “I am a city boy through and through, but I would help out around the farm when I could. It was just like a new home for me.”
Centres like Vauxhall bring players from all over the country, where bonds are formed between boys dealing with their future as men. The familial atmosphere of baseball players in Western Canada was rocked to its core with the unexpected and tragic deaths of Mitch MacLean and Tanner Craswell in December, both of whom played with Wong. Craswell was a graduate of the Vauxhall academy. MacLean and Craswell were killed in a murder-suicide south of Calgary on Dec. 15.
“It shook the community at first, but in the long run it brought everyone closer, especially the alumni,” said Wong. “It’s so hard. They were the best guys in the world. Tanner [Craswell] was one of the best shortstops I had ever seen.” Wong speaks of being drafted, discussing signing bonuses and the death of his former teammates, as one would expect from someone reflecting upon a long career. However, Wong is only 20 and is by no means done with baseball.
Freshly freed from a cast, Wong is focused on rehabilitating his surgically repaired elbow and returning to the pursuit of his professional dreams. An injury that began to surface in 2010, Wong eventually needed surgery to remedy an elbow, damaged from repeated stress of pitching full time. “Where the ligament attaches to the bone, the bone snapped off. I threw through it for a year. I couldn’t soap the left side of my body.”
With baseball the number one priority for Wong, he doesn’t believe the surgery hurts his future due to the ubiquitous prevalence of players who have gone under the knife.
“It’s so common now, you would be hard-pressed to find a team in [America] that doesn’t have a guy who has had Tommy John surgery [repairing a torn ucl in the elbow] or something similar to that,” said Wong. “It’s about a 90 per cent success rate now.”
Wong also explained that baseball is different from a sport like hockey that has pros as young as 18.
“In baseball, they say you hit your peak around 27 and they will keep an eye on you until around then. So missing a year due to surgery when I am 20 is not that big of a deal.”
The resiliency of Jordan Wong is emblematic for what is required of an aspiring pro athlete in any sport. When one makes the decision to operate within the slim margins of elite talent, certain sacrifices are made and experiences mortgaged. However, for every new team, town and challenge that Wong faces, the opportunity to realize a once-distant goal grows closer. Even though he isn’t where he wants to be yet, Wong’s story reaffirms that there are no shortcuts to one’s dreams. He has the scars to prove it.