He may not be a household name outside the minor leagues, but this infielder could help lead Canada to a medal in baseball
American fans often approach Stubby Clapp as he's walking through the mall or pushing his cart down the grocery aisles. Many ask for his autograph. Some invite him to their children's birthday parties. They admire the intensity with which he plays second base, they love his congenial nature, and they cheer each time he does a back flip taking the field.
But while Clapp, 31, is a popular minor-league player in Syracuse and the other smaller American cities where he has toiled in his nine-year career, in Canada he's just a guy with an unusual name. "I haven't spent much time there," he says. "Canadians don't recognize my face."
He hopes to change that. Clapp, a Windsor, Ont., native, is part of a Canadian baseball team that has a good chance in Athens to win a medal in America's pastime, partly because the Americans won't be there.
The Canadian squad should be a serious contender at the eight-team tournament, along with powerful contingents from Chinese Taipei, Australia, Japan and Cuba, the perennial favorite.
"I'll be disappointed if we don't win the gold medal," says manager Ernie Whitt, the former Toronto Blue Jays star. "If our players play their best, we should win it all."
His high expectations stem mainly from Canada's success at the Olympic qualifying tournament in Panama last November. The Canadians finished with a 4-2 record overall and secured an Olympic berth by trouncing Mexico 11-1 in the semifinals. Two days earlier, Mexico staged a huge upset by eliminating the Americans 2-1 in the quarter-finals.
Canada's 24-man roster includes 15 players with at least some big-league experience. Catcher Pierre-Luc Laforest, a power hitter, has played for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and is now with the club's Triple-A Durham Bulls.
Infielder-outfielder Simon Pond started this season with the Blue Jays, and now plays alongside Clapp for the Syracuse SkyChiefs. Lefthander Jeff Francis hasn't reached the majors yet, but he's the staff ace. He has a deceptive delivery that allows him to hide the ball from batters until almost the moment he releases it.
Whitt would have liked to hide first baseman Justin Morneau. A hot prospect, Morneau was playing with the Rochester Red Wings until mid-July, when the Minnesota Twins called him up. He went on a hitting tear, prompting the Twins to keep the Canadian in their lineup rather than let him go to Athens.
Clubs are allowed to recall their players from the Olympic team as late as Aug. 5, three days after the Canadian squad holds its first practice.
But even without the services of Morneau and, possibly, other young guns, the Canadian team will remain a medal contender. "This team has great chemistry," says Whitt. "Last year in Panama, we functioned as a team, in the true sense of the word, on and off the field. It paid off."
Whitt will have 17 of those players on his roster, including Rob Ducey, 39, who played for six Major League teams, including the Blue Jays, between 1987 and 2001. "I couldn't win a 100-yard dash," Ducey concedes, "but I can make it from first base to home plate with all my parts intact." Ducey provides the kind of leadership that only a big-league veteran can.
Major Leaguer wouldn't describe a journeyman like Clapp or most of his teammates, but he has had his moments, including a game-winning hit in the 1999 Pan American Games. Clapp would like to have another big moment on the international stage - and end the season signing autographs in Canadian shopping malls.