By IAN WILSON
For Vauxhall Baseball Academy players Jaden Griffin, Damiano Palmegiani and Martin Vincelli-Simard, you just hope their suitcase-packing skills are as good as their baseball abilities.
The trio barely had a chance to return to Alberta from Florida – where they suited up for Baseball Canada’s Junior National Team (JNT) during a hectic 12-day stretch of spring training action against MLB prospects – before they were headed south again for tournament play in Las Vegas.
Vauxhall’s team name – Jets – was never more appropriate.
But you won’t hear any complaints from the three teenagers, who were thrilled to button up the Canada jersey last month and soak up all the talent that was around them.
From March 14-25, they had the opportunity to learn from national team coaches – including Hall of Fame second baseman Roberto Alomar – and square off against major league prospects with the Tigers, Phillies, Blue Jays, Orioles and Rays. Palmegiani and Vincelli-Simard also got to play in the signature event of the trip, a St. Patrick’s Day matchup against a Toronto Blue Jays split squad at Dunedin Stadium.
Palmegiani played first base and in right field during that game, going 1-for-3 at the plate and scoring one of Canada’s three runs in an 11-3 loss to the Jays.
“I took in the atmosphere and made the most out of the opportunity,” Palmegiani told Alberta Dugout Stories.
“I got to talk to Buck Martinez during batting practice and we shared baseball stories. He’s a very well-spoken guy and fun to talk baseball with. I also talked to most of the Blue Jays players that got onto first base during my time there.”
The Venezuelan-born 18-year-old called the entire spring training trip an “unbelievable opportunity” to assess his abilities.
“This allows us to look to the players across the field from us and see how we stack up with them and what we need to do to get to their current level,” said the Grade 12 student.
“My approach to the trip was to slow the game down and let my abilities play on their own, without trying to do too much. That’s when I’m at my best.”
The 6-foot-1, 185-pound player used the Florida games to analyze what worked and what didn’t against pro-level pitching, with the aim of making adjustments from what he learned at the plate.
And, of course, he also wanted to make sure he was enjoying his time there.
“As a player I believe I am a gamer. I want to do whatever it takes to win by using my tools and abilities. I want my uniform to be dirty when the game is over,” said Palmegiani, who named fellow Venezuelan Miguel Cabrera as his favourite player.
“But I want to do this all with a smile on my face because ultimately this is a game I love and have an immense amount of fun playing.”
Palmegiani – who has committed to play for California State University, Northridge – also said it was special to have some teammates from Vauxhall on the Canadian roster.
“I love looking around the locker room and seeing familiar faces that I’ve become close with over time, starting with my Vauxhall teammates Jaden Griffin and Martin Vincelli-Simard,” he said.
“It’s easy to play with a group of guys you’re comfortable with.”
INFIELD AND OUT
Palmegiani also had to get comfortable playing all over the field for the JNT, but he said he’s used to that.
“I am confident in any infield or outfield position I am put in because growing up I was moved around a lot. My dad believes utility players have a special value and made sure I took as many ground balls as fly balls,” said Palmegiani, who played the corner infield positions and in the outfield for Canada.
“I like being used in different places because I enjoy building up my versatility. As long as I pay attention to the details of each position during practice, moving around like this is made easy. At the end of the day, as long as I can be in the lineup and be able to hit I don’t have much of a preference where I am put.”
He also credited the Vauxhall Baseball Academy and head coach Les McTavish for putting him in a position to play for the national junior team.
“The Vauxhall academy is responsible for maturing me into the player I am today,” said the right-handed batter, who moved to Surrey, B.C. from Caracas with his family when he was five years old, before making his way to Alberta.
“I came in as a fiery kid with a short temper. I had a number of tools but no idea how to use them …. Coach Mac told me what I needed to hear on numerous occasions , which isn’t always what I wanted to hear. But by doing this he helped me grow as an individual and a player.”
McTavish praised Palmegiani’s work ethic and athleticism, adding he’s excited to see what the future holds for the young man.
“Damiano has got a shot to be a pretty good draft pick. He’s got as good a bat speed as anyone in the country,” said McTavish.
“He’s worked hard this winter and taken some big strides.”
McTavish called the JNT a major goal of many Vauxhall players and said more than 50 Jets have suited up for Canada over the last 12 years. He was thrilled to see three of them make the cut this year.
“All three of the boys are great players and they work hard and they have tonnes of talent – they don’t take it for granted to represent your country,” he said.
Before they went to Florida, McTavish told them to take in as much as they could and not put too much pressure on themselves based on game results.
Southpaw pitcher Jaden Griffin had no problem embracing that approach.
“It’s always important to have fun and enjoy what you’re doing, and that’s extremely important when going to these events,” said Griffin.
“That doesn’t take away from the competitiveness we all have … everyone at this level of baseball is competitive and I think players at this level learn to have a lot of fun while also competing.”
It was a busy schedule for the Canadian team, with only one practice day and the other days set aside for intra-squad games and matchups against MLB minor leaguers.
Griffin focused on daily routines to ensure he was prepared to pitch when called upon.
“These trips can get long and staying focused and locked into a routine can really help make it easier on you,” said the 6-foot tall, 200-pound product of Lower Sackville, Nova Scotia.
Like most of his Canadian teammates, he tried to absorb as much as he could from the coaches and players he encountered.
“I try to learn a little bit from all different types of players,” said Griffin.
“Each coach offers great advice and they all have different approaches to the game of baseball, and I think there’s something important I can learn from each one. Same goes for players. Everyone here has different skill sets and we are constantly learning from each other.”
Griffin didn’t appear in the main event against the Blue Jays split squad because he pitched the previous day, striking out four Detroit Tigers prospects in a row. He also saw plenty of action after the St. Paddy’s Day game versus the Jays.
“As a pitcher, I’m not someone who is going to blow you away with velocity but I have great confidence in my off-speed pitches and ability to throw all my pitches for strikes,” said Griffin, who has committed to play for the Virginia Commonwealth University Rams after he graduates from Vauxhall.
“I’m very competitive, and that shows while I’m on the mound and the pace I carry throughout the game. In the clubhouse, I’m pretty laid back and on days that I pitch I keep to myself a little more before games to try and help get focused.”
Since returning from Florida, Griffin and his teammates brought back more than just their suitcases.
They came home with more experience and baseball knowledge. Now they just need to unpack it while they’re in Vegas.