By IAN WILSON
When it comes to baseball, Bermuda will not be mistaken for the Dominican Republic anytime soon.
But with the help of Baltimore Orioles’ 2017 second-round pick Adam Hall and some bat-and-glove loving Albertans, there is hope the sport will grow on the island in the years ahead.
Hall was born in Bermuda and played baseball there until he was 12 years old. When his parents, Helen and Tyler, noticed his love of the game, they decided a move to London, Ontario would help him develop his skills, play more often and measure himself against stiffer competition.
The move paid off for the shortstop, who signed a contract last year with a $1.3-million signing bonus on his way to becoming Bermuda’s first professional baseball player.
“Adam is just amazing … he is a very rare athlete and it will be surprising if we don’t see him in the majors one day,” said Joel Czember, who grew up playing baseball in Medicine Hat and now lives in Hamilton, the capital of Bermuda.
“There is definitely a lot of buzz around Adam being drafted … it is a big deal for all the people in the baseball community. When he is up with the big club and people see him on TV I think it will sink in more for the general population. We may need to build more fields.”
Czember, who has known Hall for over a decade, put in training and practice time with the Oriole prospect when he was between the ages of 10 and 12.
“To be honest, he was such an amazing athlete, my main goal was to not doing anything to screw him up,” said the father of two. “It’s really hard to describe how good he already was at 11 years old.”
Hall, who recently told Czember he added 15 pounds of muscle this offseason, makes a point of spending time with young baseball players every time he returns to Bermuda, including a visit in October.
“Adam has been wonderful with the young players,” said Czember. “This last visit was extra special as it was his first time home since being drafted. He was a rock star to the kids. More importantly, it gave the players a chance to meet him and dream to be in his shoes one day.”
Hall’s impact on baseball in Bermuda has yet to be fully realized, but there is hope that other professional ball players will make their way from the British overseas territory in the Atlantic Ocean to ball diamonds in North America.
Czember is one person working to make that happen.
GAS CITY DIAMONDS
While pitching for Crescent Heights High School (CHHS) in Medicine Hat, he also played American Legion Baseball from 1989-92 for the Moose Monarchs, whose alumni include Mavericks owner Greg Morrison and former Calgary Viper Drew Miller.
From there, Czember played junior college ball in Austin, Minnesota.
“It was a step up from American Legion, but not a huge step,” he recalled. “Instead of continuing on to play and party for another three years, I decided to move on with life. In my case, it was time to grow up.”
While taking pre-management courses at Medicine Hat College, Czember got into coaching – at CHHS for four years with Lovell McDonnell and in the American Legion with Wayne Schlosser.
“That was the time I truly learned the game. As much as you learn playing, you take in so much more when coaching. That was also when I caught the coaching bug,” said the 44-year-old.
“I still have a tremendous amount of respect and appreciation for Lovell and Wayne. They have done so much for baseball in Medicine Hat. Thousands of players have been the beneficiaries of their hard work.”
His educational pursuits took him to the University of Calgary in the late 1990s, where he studied to become a chartered accountant, a job which was in high demand in Bermuda.
By September of 2000, Czember traded Canadian winters for the subtropical island that has never experienced snow or frost. Apart from a move to the Cayman Islands from 2002 to 2005, he has lived in Bermuda ever since.
“The lifestyle is great. I work hard but my seven-minute commute allows me to spend a good amount of time with my family,” Czember told Alberta Dugout Stories.
“The weather is much better than Alberta, which doesn’t hurt, and people are friendly here. I wouldn’t trade it for anything … I still find myself caught up in the beauty of the island and the ocean when I take the opportunity to stop and look.”
With a population of just over 65,000, Bermuda doesn’t have a huge talent pool to draw on, and soccer and cricket remain more popular than baseball.
But the sport was able to take hold when the U.S. Kindley Air Force Base was in operation from 1948 to 1970.
“Bermudian kids played alongside the Air Force kids,” said Czember. “I’ve run into people who speak very fondly about their time learning baseball from the Americans.”
That American presence planted the seeds for YAO Baseball Bermuda, a program where over 300 children between the ages of four and 16 play in five divisions on former U.S. military base lands in St. David’s – now known as Kindley Field. A second league on the island caters to another 100 players.
“Baseball is not that advanced, but we do get some fantastic athletes and have had some waves of good baseball,” said Czember, who has coached, umpired and helped run baseball clinics in Bermuda.
“There are a couple potential players in the pipeline right now. Hopefully we are talking about them in a few years time.”
Power-hitting first baseman Braxton Stowe of Hamilton made his way onto the St. Louis University Billikens roster in 2015 and has since been slowed by a knee injury. And fellow Bermudian David Lehmann left the island to pitch for the Western Mustangs of the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) league.
JETTING BACK TO ALBERTA
Meanwhile, with the help of Czember, pitcher KJ Moreno ended up moving from St. George’s to southern Alberta.
“I coached him as a nine-year-old and watched him progress over the years. When he was nearing the end of his baseball life in Bermuda I wanted to find a place for him to continue on,” recalled Czember.
Moreno said his coach went above and beyond to give him the best training possible, spending hours each day to help him improve.
“Even though Joel had his own family and work commitments he still made time for me. Joel was such a great role model and awesome coach to me,” he said.
In 2013, Czember brought Moreno home to Medicine Hat during a family vacation.
Prior to making the trip, Czember sent an email to Les McTavish, head coach and director of operations at the Vauxhall Academy of Baseball.
“I didn’t know Joel prior to our connection through Bermuda. He sent an email saying he had an athlete that he thought would be a good fit in Vauxhall,” said McTavish, a former head coach and manager of the Lethbridge Bulls of the Western Major Baseball League.
“It ended up being a tremendous situation. KJ came and was a great teammate and worked really hard. He was a great ambassador … he just embodied everything that we try to instill here in Vauxhall.”
McTavish didn’t have the benefit of seeing Moreno in game action but they ran some drills and the Vauxhall coach was impressed with his athleticism. More importantly, he was impressed with how Moreno carried himself.
“The first time I met KJ we were out at the field, and I came up and introduced myself. KJ took his hat off and shook my hand and he just had a different respect level. He just gave me a really great first impression,” said McTavish.
Moreno became an honours student while pitching in Vauxhall, and earned a leadership award in his senior year, before committing to play for Cloud County Community College in Kansas in 2016. He has since returned to Alberta and is studying criminal justice at Lethbridge College.
“I will forever be grateful to Joel for opening up that opportunity for me. Without him, Vauxhall wouldn’t have been possible,” said Moreno.
“And because of coach Mac and the academy, I became a better person and a better player. I became more independent and more responsible. It was an experience I will never forget.”
Unfortunately, a broken collarbone over the summer has left the 20-year-old unable to play in Lethbridge, but he plans to get back on the field as soon as possible to resume the sport he loves.
No matter where Moreno’s baseball or criminal justice careers take him, he can take some credit for strengthening ties between Bermuda and Alberta.
McTavish and Czember became good friends as a result of the right-handed hurler, with McTavish now making regular trips to Bermuda to run baseball camps and work with coaches on the island.
“Someday could it be a big benefit to Vauxhall? Sure, but more importantly it’s a benefit to the kids that are on the island and playing baseball,” noted McTavish, a former coach of the Canadian Junior National Team who also works as a scout for the Seattle Mariners.
“It’s something I’m proud to be a part of.”
Czember credited Moreno for paving the way for more Bermudians to play in Alberta and he is also thankful for McTavish’s decision to take a leap of faith on Moreno and Bermuda baseball.
McTavish, meanwhile, praised Czember for single-handedly creating an opportunity for Moreno … and quite possibly for Bermuda.
“It is really a wonderful and interesting place, which is culturally touched by all the different people that live here. I truly think everyone should come at least once. There is a saying that ‘Bermuda is another world.’ This really holds true. there is nowhere like it,” said Czember.
His efforts have ensured that baseball people will come visit the remote island, often more than once. And hopefully more Bermuda ball players will find their way to the baseball academies of Alberta as they chase their sporting dreams.