Globe iconLogin iconRecap iconSearch iconTickets icon

Steiner Stories: Alex Nolan

Canadian university pitchers don’t usually make it very far, but C's reliever Alex Nolan is trying to change that
(Mark Steffens - Fotoguy)
June 3, 2022

The workouts were at 10:00 a.m. For Alex Nolan, that was too late -- he would show up and put two workouts in before the rest of his teammates rolled in for 10, or more realistically, 10:15. “For me, baseball was always pro. I want to get there, and I

The workouts were at 10:00 a.m. For Alex Nolan, that was too late -- he would show up and put two workouts in before the rest of his teammates rolled in for 10, or more realistically, 10:15.

“For me, baseball was always pro. I want to get there, and I brought everyone around me to that standard,” Nolan told me. “My roommate said, ‘man, I love you, but on the baseball field, I hate you.”

Now in his third season with the Toronto Blue Jays organization, Nolan played his university baseball at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., a smaller school with a club-level, non-varsity baseball program. It was no Vanderbilt or University of Florida. Instead, the facilities at George Taylor Field were rather primitive, not where one would expect a pro ballplayer to come from.

Originally from Burlington, Ont. the now 25-year-old went to high school in Arizona. There, he became familiar with the level of training needed to develop into a top ballplayer. In the high school leagues, workouts were at 5:00 am, and games were on MLB spring training fields. The situation was exquisite.

While he played an entire season while in high school, the move to Brock brought a much different look. No longer was baseball the priority of most of his teammates; instead, their focuses were on school and learning to live independently in university. For Nolan, though, it was all on baseball.

At Brock, student-athletes are not on full-ride scholarships and play a 12-game Ontario University Athletics (OUA) season before taking on the playoffs.

It’s not impossible for athletes to be drafted out of the Canadian university ranks; however, it is extremely rare, and usually, the only pitchers are those who consistently light up the radar gun. With that situation, Nolan knew that his brief OUA season numbers wouldn’t get him a pro contract; the 75-game summer ball season was where scouts looked.

Before Nolan, the last Vancouver Canadian to come from a Canadian university was fellow Brock Badger Shaun Valeriote, a third baseman who played in 2013.

“When I would go to summer ball, I would think, ‘everybody thinks I suck because I went to some school that they’ve never heard of, I’ll just be good then,” Nolan said. “You have to put your career first and go all out because you don't want at the end of your four years or five years in university, thinking that you could have given a bit more.”

Nolan had a strong connection with fellow former Brock baseball player turned Blue Jays executive Andrew Tinnish, who, while never giving Nolan a stroke of luck, guided him to where he needed to be to succeed. Nolan played a few seasons with the Thunder Bay Border Cats, thriving on the league’s only Canadian team, as well as the Kalamazoo Growlers of the Northwoods League.

In addition to Tinnish, Nolan’s head coach at Brock, Marc Lepage, played an integral role in the young pitcher’s development. Having led the OUA program on and off since 1995, Lepage had seen many talented players as he, and other coaches tried to offer an alternative to the NCAA.

“[Nolan] was young, but he had a lot of potential and was a hard worker with a lot of energy. We saw a nice development of his personality and mental toughness and physical skill,” Lepage said. “He took criticism well, and he worked on things that we wanted to work on; even as a young guy, the desire to win, the desire to succeed was there.”

It was Tinnish, along with Lepage who pushed him to take his shot at the Summer Leagues in hopes of attracting the eyes of the MLB. While academics were of utmost importance at Brock, baseball was the priority for Nolan, and he made it count.

After playing summer league and taking Brock baseball as seriously as anyone would take the NCAA, the 2019 MLB Draft came and went without his name being called. A serious disappointment at the time, Nolan shifted his mentality, seeing the situation as a test from MLB teams, including the Blue Jays.

Days later, while Nolan was in the shower, his phone rang. The Toronto Blue Jays were offering him a contract as an undrafted free agent.

“I wanted to be drafted so bad, I was pretty down just because my family are massive Blue Jays people, and I’m a massive Blue Jays person,” Nolan said. “I knew everyone we signed from the draft, and when I got to the Blue Jays [as a free agent], I was like ‘yeah, I know exactly who you are.”

After instantly returning the call to Toronto, Nolan signed with the Jays and began his minor league career in Dunedin, before making his way to Vancouver later in 2019 with the Canadians in Short-Season baseball. Since then, he was released and re-signed by the organization, and since 2021 has found himself back in the Canadians' regular rotation in High-A.

However, each of his three seasons with the C’s has been extremely different. Although, it is a moment in his first season when he first realized this wasn’t summer league anymore.

Standing on the mound, 2019 Canadians manager and former Montreal Expo Casey Candaele handed Nolan the ball and gave him a handshake as Nolan went on to throw five innings allowing just a single run.

“My family and I watched [Candaele],” Nolan said. Since then, however, Nolan faced challenges. In year two with the C’s, playing out of Hillsboro, Ore., he got away from what he was comfortable with.

“I was thinking of it more like a business rather than just playing, and maybe put too much pressure on myself,” he said. “It took me away from my comfort zone because you’re just always stressing.”

The rise through baseball’s ranks has not been quick for Nolan, but the jumps have been substantial at every point. For him and other long-serving members of the Canadians, moving up a level was a challenge. Although the situation is different in High-A in Vancouver than it was in Short-Season A, it is still the same surroundings, a difficult adjustment for Nolan and others.

Still, there is an undoubted determination that the Burlington-born right-hander has when he steps on the mound, especially in front of a sold-out Nat Bailey Stadium. “The fanbase is insane, especially when it's full here,” he said. “They really make us want to play better and make us play better for Vancouver.”

In 2022, Nolan has begun settling into life in High-A in Vancouver, dealing with rainouts and double-headers in British Columbia’s wet spring. However, he’s playing with a clearer mind than in Hillsboro and enjoying every minute of being back in Canada.

There are just 13 Canadian players in Major League Baseball, and none of them have come through Canadian universities. Ontario university players just don’t make the MLB, but Nolan, a lifelong Blue Jays fan and Brock University alumnus, is trying to change that.

Baseball has always had a pro element for the hardworking Nolan and playing in the big leagues is the goal for every baseball player. For Nolan, bucking the trend would be a dream. While he knows that the system is flush with prospects, he also believes in himself.

“The life of a student-athlete, especially from the OUA and being those underdogs, I loved it,” Nolan said. “Playing at The Nat makes you want to work hard because you can see how good it can be, like, you know, if you work your way up through, and playing in Toronto is the ultimate goal.”