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Canadians broadcaster Rob Fai catches up with the first manager to take the helm when the Toronto Blue Jays came to town

May 5, 2020

I could still see a few of the cleat marks in the dirt surrounding home plate out at Nat Bailey Stadium as I rushed from one dugout to the other, a fist full of notes crammed in my right hand as I raced toward a looming press conference. Those scratches

I could still see a few of the cleat marks in the dirt surrounding home plate out at Nat Bailey Stadium as I rushed from one dugout to the other, a fist full of notes crammed in my right hand as I raced toward a looming press conference.

Those scratches in the clay in and around the batter’s box were from a collection of Canadians and Aquasox players who battled for the right to advance to the Northwest League Championship. Vancouver had put together a memorable year but so too had the Aquasox who swept past the C’s en route toward their first title since 1985. For Vancouver, it was yet another stymied shot at glory not knowing that weeks later the affiliation between the Canadians and its long-time player development partner the Oakland A’s was about to conclude.

For eleven seasons, the Canadians opted for the white cleats of the Oakland Athletics organization, one that took pride in sending Vancouver it’s best despite never coming away with a single championship to speak of. Many great players stopped by between 2000 and 2010, everyone from Nick Swisher, Rich Harden and Kurt Suzuki through to Sean Doolittle, Dallas Braden and Nelson Cruz. The C’s never lacked talent while working alongside the A’s, there were just no rings to show for it.

A thousand great memories echoed from foul pole to foul pole as I rushed toward that awaiting press conference. The microphone was on, the podium set up in the stadium concourse and a throng of media awaiting what had been a pretty well kept secret despite the variety of familiar faces strolling around Robson Street for a full day and a half prior to meeting at ‘The Nat’ for the announcement.

Vancouver Canadians owner Jake Kerr, Jeff Mooney and team President Andy Dunn had pulled off an agreement with the Toronto Blue Jays to become partners in player development. A four-year contract that Blue Jays President Paul Beeston said was “just the beginning” had fans jumping to purchase any kind of ticket package that they could. This was the perfect partner for Vancouver as it connected Canada’s only affiliated Minor League team with Canada’s only Major League team – the script wrote itself and the Blue Jays knew they had struck gold as well.

The roll call of Paul Beeston, General Manager Alex Anthopoulos, Assistant General Manager Tony Lacava, Minor League executives Charlie Wilson and Doug Davis were in attendance and former Cy Young Award recipient Pat Hentgen all lined up behind Rogers Communications Vice-President Phil Lind to help make the announcement. You don’t get THAT kind of star power without realizing quickly the importance of the moment.

The deal was official, and the Canadians had received the shot in the arm that as a franchise they had always hoped for – the local and national buy-in.

Fans wanted anything C’s! Hats, shirts, jerseys with the new Blue Jays patch on the sleeve – anything that could be snapped up did and to be honest the Canadians weren’t completely ready for the wave of excitement that followed. They caught up in time but never before had an affiliation resonated the way that the Blue Jays connection did for so many reasons.

The Canadians knew it was going to be a big year from the attendance perspective and in turn the Blue Jays wanted to deliver and start with a bang.

“I’m not going to lie, as I was walking through the concourse and looking at all of the Oakland players that had come through here I got kinda jealous,” stated Alex Anthopoulos during a media scrum just minutes after the announcement had become official in the fall of 2010.

“I want to start adding Toronto Blue Jays prospects to these walls,” he added.

Fast forward to the spring of 2011 and one of the first decisions Toronto needed to make was who would manage the first edition of the new-look Vancouver Canadians.

The man tabbed with the responsibility was 31-year old John Schneider who immediately became the youngest manager of the Canadians in franchise history. A former minor-league catcher, Schneider’s presence which was a combination of no-nonsense and compassion was the perfect balance for a clubhouse that was littered with potential and prospects.

“Coming up with the team that we had – it was a pretty close knit group that we had down in extended spring training so you knew it was a pretty cool vibe that was coming to Vancouver,” says John Schneider who is today a coach with the Toronto Blue Jays.

“It was a good mesh of people, personalities and players. For myself and Cy (pitching coach Jim Czajkowski) and Pano (hitting coach Dave Pano) we got up there and it was kinda like we were in charge of seeing what Vancouver was all about and I just remember raving to everybody who would call and ask ‘how is it?’

“For me at the time I had played at Triple-A as a player, and I thought this here in Vancouver is what you’re shooting for. You have media and fans and support – it’s loud, its boisterous and its cool and it made you want to deliver.”

The Canadians had a pretty good club from day one with names like Jon Berti, Shane Opitz, Nick Baligod and a young Balbino Fuenmayor all trying to generate some offense while on the mound it was almost an embarrassment of riches as the Blue Jays sent all within the same season Noah Syndergaard, Aaron Sanchez, Justin Nicolino, Taylor Cole and David Rollins to Vancouver. All five of those pitchers have since gone on to reach the Major Leagues.

The Canadians scuffled at times despite the high-octane pitching and ended the regular season by squeezing into the post-season on the final day of the season. John Schneider had returned home that summer replaced by Rich Miller who helped guide Vancouver to a Northwest League Championship. Schneider would return in 2014 to led what many consider the greatest team in franchise history – but back in 2011 he had laid the ground work for the club by prepping the Blue Jays organization for what they could expect in Vancouver and then helping lead them toward the post-season.

A Championship, in the Blue Jays first season. After a decade of missing out on the ring with the Oakland Athletics – John Schneider, Rich Miller and the Toronto Blue Jays delivered on its first try. (spoiler alert – they would win three more after this).

“I was flattered and humbled that the Blue Jays chose me to be the first manager to go out there to Vancouver. There’s two teams that when I look back on my Minor League managerial career that I look back on and say they were the best. It’s that team in 2011 and the team I had in Double-A in 2018 with Bo and Vladdy. Both teams won Championships but those teams had this feeling of family, the relationships really stand out to me and for reasons both on the field and off that I will never forget.”

A quick walk outside of historic Nat Bailey Stadium will showcase all four of the Canadians Championship pennants including the first one delivered in 2011 and inside the ballpark stands a long list of Toronto Blue Jays players names scattered throughout our walls – just the way Alex Anthopoulos would have wanted it.