By IAN WILSON
Standing 6-foot-5, Gary Soroka was always someone that his son could look up to.
As a child, Mike Soroka didn’t have much of a choice.
But the imposing figure that his father was on a physical level – Gary was urged to become an enforcer in his hockey-playing days – clashed with his gentle parenting style. He preferred a guiding hand to a clenched fist.
Growing up, Mike was not pushed into any sports by his parents.
“I wanted to make sure that the game was always just that, a game,” the elder Soroka told Alberta Dugout Stories during a recent interview.
“There was never this long, reaming out in the car type of thing. We saw some of the other parents do that and just felt sorry for those kids. We always kept it a game. The only two things I wanted out of him were: I want you to enjoy yourself and I want you to put your full effort into whatever you’re doing. I think I always made sure that he owned what he wanted to do.”
Now removed from the baseball diamonds and hockey rinks of Calgary, Mike is owning a lot more than his sporting choices – he’s taken ownership of opposing batters, too. The budding ace of the Atlanta Braves is having a spectacular Major League Baseball (MLB) season. Through 11 starts in 2019, the right-handed pitcher has a 7-1 record, 60 strikeouts and an earned run average (ERA) of 1.92.
The 21-year-old’s campaign has gone so well that the 2015 first round selection is generating buzz for the National League (NL) Rookie of the Year race, as well as consideration for the Cy Young Award, awarded annually to the best pitcher in the NL and the American League (AL).
Catching the first pitch from his dad?
— FOX Sports: Braves (@FOXSportsBraves) June 16, 2019
“I always thought that something in sports would click for him, but you can’t predict what’s happened to him,” Gary conceded.
“It’s still like a dream. It’s not something that you can predict … it’s been a pretty rapid rise.”
CHASING THE PUCK
When he was Mike’s age, Gary’s dalliance with high-level sports was squarely in the rearview mirror. He had received some offers to play in the Western Hockey League (WHL) as a 16-year-old, but his parents refused to let him pursue them until he completed his high school education. When he graduated, Gary joined the Saskatoon Blades as a walk-on defenseman in the 1978-79 season. After just nine games and two assists with the Blades, he was dealt to the Billings Bighorns and appeared in only two contests with his new team.
Gary played for the Battlefords Barons, a Junior A club in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League the following season. The results were much better – six goals and 11 assists in 22 games – but “offensive defenseman” was not the role that was expected of the towering rearguard.
“They wanted me to become more of an enforcer – it wasn’t something I was prepared to do,” Gary recalled.
“There wasn’t any question, in my mind anyway, that I had the speed and talent to keep up and play a bigger role … my game would be good for today’s game. Back in the late ’70s, early ’80s, with the Broad Street Bullies and all that kind of stuff, it didn’t mesh. So, at that point I decided I’d quit and go to school.”
He continued to play hockey at the University of Calgary (U of C) for two years, but when athletics began to interfere with his academic goal of a commerce degree, Gary stopped going to the rink.
“That was it. When I quit, I quit,” said the 59-year-old.
A career with the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) followed his time at the U of C and that’s where Gary met his wife Sally in 1990. She had two daughters – Shannon and Stephanie – from a previous relationship, and the couple decided to have another child.
Michael John Graydon Soroka was born in Calgary in 1997, a true baby of the family with teenage sisters looking out for him.
Mike’s parents introduced him to hockey at an early age, but he showed little interest in the game at first.
“I took him skating when he was probably about four years old. He hated it, he absolutely hated it. He didn’t want to play, he fell down and hurt himself,” said Gary. “It wasn’t until he was in kindergarten and he found out his friends were playing hockey that he was like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve got to play hockey.'”
Hockey was the first organized sport Mike played, followed by soccer. Baseball was added to the activities list when he was eight years old.
“Baseball’s kind of painful at that age,” laughed Gary. “The kids are all picking daisies, gardening as they say. He played a lot of different sports and always gravitated back to hockey and baseball.”
For several years, it looked like Mike might follow in his father’s footsteps and chase the dream of playing in the National Hockey League (NHL). A run to the Stanley Cup Final by his hometown Calgary Flames in 2004 helped stoke his interest in the game and one player in particular served as his boyhood idol: Finnish goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff.
“He just loved Miikka Kiprusoff. The sun rose and set on him,” said Gary, who had some concerns about footing the bill for expensive goalie gear in support of his son’s aspirations. But upon hearing of Mike’s interest in tending the twine, his grandfather stepped up to help out.
“My dad would do anything for Michael. The next day there was a room full of goalie equipment. So, Miikka kept him wanting to be a goalie and my dad fueled it with equipment.”
DEALING WITH LOSS
While Mike was navigating victories and disappointments on the ice and at the ballpark, the biggest loss of his life occurred in 2010 and it had nothing to do with sports.
Cancer claimed his mother’s life when Mike was just 12 years old.
“Something like that happens and it’s devastating for everybody, and you just try to keep things going normally and eventually you learn to cope,” said Gary, who was thrust into the unwelcome dual roles of widower and single parent.
“After she passed away, I was able to access some work leaves, unpaid mind you, but especially in the summer, just to hang with him and make sure that he was okay.”
Life continued through “a couple of tough years.” For Mike, hockey and baseball also continued.
As his teen years progressed, Mike reached a crossroads and felt compelled to decide between the two sports he loved most.
“I remember this as clear as day, we were coming back from a hockey game and he was the goalie and he got shelled, a couple of goals that shouldn’t have gone in because certain people made mistakes and he was going on and on. I turned around and I said, ‘You know what? That’s the game. If you don’t want to play hockey anymore, there’s a tonne of different sports out there. We’ll go and play something else.’ …. At that point, I think he knew,” said Gary, who continued to counsel his son through the decision.
“It’s just hard to give up on hockey, especially if you’re immersed in it. It’s just so prevalent. It really is Canada’s game. All your friends are playing it and you just want to continue, but for him, at 14, he said, ‘Look, I want to play high-level something, baseball or hockey.’ Knowing the answer already, I said, ‘What do you really enjoy, not just playing, but practising?'”
Mike’s reply: “It’s a no brainer. Baseball.”
TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME
With his dilemma behind him, Mike was – unbeknownst to him or anyone around him – on the fast track to baseball stardom.
He was in a good program, under the tutelage of Jim Lawson, former MLB pitcher Chris Reitsma and other coaches with the Pro Baseball Force (PBF) Redbirds. Canada’s Junior National Team (JNT) came calling, as did the Tournament 12 (T12), and the Braves took notice of his talent by making him the 28th overall pick when he was 17 years old.
This year, he’s taken the major leagues by storm. He’s a fan favourite in Atlanta, where his abilities, calm demeanor and thoughtful interviews have earned the respect of the media, his teammates and his opponents.
It’s all still a bit surreal for Gary, who is always available if Mike needs someone to talk to, but is careful not to step on any toes as his son’s baseball career unfolds.
“It’s just me there to support him if he needs emotional support … he’s more or less got it figured out. I can’t, by any means, help him with his baseball,” said Gary, who – despite his accounting background – does not handle Mike’s finances because “he’s got a money guy.”
“I’m proud of everything he’s done … the way he handles himself and the comfort he has now with what he’s doing. I think he realizes he’s in a special situation.”
Mike also realizes how fortunate he was to have the parental guidance he did when he was younger.
“My dad played a higher level of hockey. He understood what it was like to be at a higher level of play,” Mike told Alberta Dugout Stories in a 2018 interview.
“Not having the constant expectations from your parents, the people that you’re closest to, goes a long way. They never pressured for results … you’re only hurting those chances if your parent pushes too hard. They knew I wanted it and as long as I wanted to be there, they were more than happy to drive me around.”
Gary also spoke of expectations.
“I have no expectations of him. I want him to, it doesn’t matter whether it’s sports or career or anything else, I think if you’re doing what you love to do, good things will happen. That’s my philosophy and I think that’s carried him through. You do the best you can and you make your adjustments and just let the chips fall where they may.”
In this case, the chip hasn’t fallen to far off the old block.