Eye of the Tiger

By JOE McFARLAND

Cole MacLaren was already having a great day with family when he received a text message that changed his life.

The 22-year-old catcher from Prince Edward Island was at his brother’s high school graduation when he learned he would be continuing his baseball adventure professionally.

Not that he was looking to overshadow his brother’s big day, but it certainly added to the celebration knowing he would be signing a contract with the Detroit Tigers.

Little did the Dawgs Academy product know, he would soon be jet-setting around the United States, playing a total of 20 games between the Lakeland Flying Tigers in Advanced-A, the Gulf Coast League Tigers in Rookie League and the Erie SeaWolves in Double-A.

In looking back on the year he had, the 5-foot-10, 190-pound backstop feels fortunate. And as he told Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast, he’s grateful for his roots, which took him through his home province and Alberta before stops with Colby Community College and the University of Pittsburgh Panthers.

Q: Take us back to the day you got the phone call saying Detroit is interested.

A: Well, it’s a pretty hard day to forget. I was actually at my little brother’s high school graduation reception. We were in the gymnasium, sitting for his graduation when I got a text from Coach Mike Bell at Pittsburgh. He said to have my phone on me, expect a call from someone pretty soon. Not long after that, I got a call from the Tigers area scout from the Pittsburgh/Ohio area and he said they were going to offer me a contract. And the rest is history, I guess, is what they say.

Q: What was that whirlwind tour like, going from getting signed to playing ball again?

A: Yeah man. It was definitely humbling. After the draft, I was a little disappointed obviously, but I knew my situation, which helped big in coping and not hearing my name getting called and knowing there was still a chance to keep playing with signing as an undrafted free agent. That opportunity came along and finally got down there and got the ball rolling and it’s been good ever since.

Q: How challenging was it to be sitting there wondering if you would be playing after graduation and thinking, “What next?”

A: Yeah, it was definitely a thought that crossed my mind a couple of times. I had a good year at Pitt, but I didn’t have a great year offensively, I guess you could say. Just knowing that I did graduate from Pitt with my degree – so knowing that if baseball didn’t work out that I would still have my degree to come back and put to use if baseball didn’t work out – there wasn’t really a whole lot of panic for me, just knowing that at the end of the day, I had my education.

Q: What was your mindset getting in behind the plate again and playing at the pro level?

A: It’s the same game as I’ve been playing all along, but at the pro level, it amps up like no other. I played at a pretty high-level conference at Pitt and then going from there to pro ball was a pretty big jump, but it was something I knew I was prepared for. From all my coaches at Pitt and Colby and Okotoks, they prepare their players to play at this level. So I didn’t have any doubts in my mind that I could compete at that level.

Q: Did you lean on anyone through that process to make sure that you tried to keep your game simple?

A: Not really, to be honest. I just try to keep a level head myself and know that it’s not the end of the world if you have a bad game or whatever. You just need to have a short memory in baseball and move on the next day. I just kinda kept to myself, to be honest.

Q: You had a whirlwind tour just in playing. You played in Lakeland, with the GCL Tigers and then the Erie SeaWolves. What has it been like not knowing where you might be from game to game?

A: Yeah man, they keep you on your toes in pro ball, that’s for sure. You think you’re staying in one spot for a couple weeks then you get a call that you’re going to this place or that place. It keeps it exciting, I guess. You get to see the country and you get to play in front of great fans every day. Yeah, it was a little bit crazy getting to play for three teams in my first year of pro ball. Not many guys can say that, but it was a great experience.

Q: Did you learn anything about yourself and your abilities as you went through the different levels?

A: Yeah, you know, just that I can compete with any draft pick, with any pro guy. I was even playing against former big leaguers and catching former big leaguers. That was kind of a feather in my cap, so to speak, just knowing that I can catch those guys and hit against those guys. It doesn’t take a high draft pick to compete at that level.

Q: What kinds of things are you going to be working on going into the offseason?

A: Definitely strength. Get into the weight room and work on strength and mobility, keeping up with that and making sure my body is in tip-top shape going into spring training. It’s a long, long season now that I will be going into my first season of pro ball. It will be 140-some games, so I want to make sure my mobility, flexibility and strength are good and that I have no nagging injuries. On the baseball side, just keeping things simple. I’m trying to swing three or four times a week, if not every day, and then getting behind the pitching machine, catching baseballs and getting into a routine.

Q: How crazy is it to think that you will be going to spring training in just a few months?

A: It’s humbling, for sure. It’s where a lot of guys make names for themselves. It’s how nobodies turn into somebodies. Just being around all those coaches and minds there, I’ll be learning so much. I’m beyond excited for it.

Q: Take us back to your path through baseball and how a kid from PEI ends up at Dawgs Academy.

A: The main reason for the move to Alberta was opportunity. I hate to say it, but if I stayed in PEI, I don’t know if I would be talking to you today saying I’m preparing for pro ball. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but I’m saying that if I didn’t make the move to Okotoks, it would have been less likely. Going to Okotoks was a great opportunity to play every day, listening to those coaches and everything they had to say and the exposure with college coaches. That was the main reason – opportunity.

Q: What did you take away from that experience?

A: It’s hard to pinpoint one thing, but one thing I took away, not even from a baseball standpoint, is just how the community and billet families and the coaches and everyone treats the players. It’s like one big family, the Dawgs are. It’s crazy. Some of my best friends I met out there in Okotoks, and just meeting everybody in the town and getting to play for the college team after my time in the Academy. It was awesome, man.

Q: Do you have a favourite memory of your time in this province?

A: Yeah, I mean, when I played for the college team. Whenever I came up to bat, my walk-up song had everyone clapping along. That was a pretty sweet experience in Okotoks.

Q: What was that walk-up song?

A: “Heave Away” by The Fables. It’s an Irish song from Newfoundland or something like that. Every time I came up to bat, the fans would start clapping along. It was Canada Day heaven … with 6,000 people clapping along to your walk-up song is pretty sweet.

Q: What does it mean to look back on the last year and all the successes you have had?

A: It’s tough to believe, to be honest. Coming from a kid from PEI, undrafted, it just goes to show that anyone can do it from anywhere. Just don’t set the bar too low. Always keep working and don’t give up, regardless of what anybody says. It has been a humbling experience so far through everything. Through Okotoks and Colby and Pitt and now the Tigers, it’s been humbling, to say the least. I’m grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had so far.

Featured Image provided by Okotoks Dawgs

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