Winning a championship is hard. Repeating as a champion is harder.
Not only are you dealing with the expectations placed on you, but you now have a target on your back. The preparation is different as you go from chasing a dream to being chased.
It was the situation the Medicine Hat Mavericks found themselves in heading into the 2015 Western Major Baseball League (WMBL) season. After capturing the league title in 2014, general manager Greg Morrison immediately took to recruiting for the next summer.
One of his first stops was the Tournament-12 (T12) in Toronto. He was set to be a coach for Alberta at the annual showcase and had the opportunity to meet some potential recruits. One such player was a lanky pitcher from Calgary by the name of Mike Soroka.
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The young hurler was already gaining attention from Major League Baseball (MLB) clubs for the 2015 Draft, but he kept in touch with Morrison just in case.
Even after he was taken 28th overall by the Atlanta Braves, Soroka did leave the door open to playing in the WMBL, in the event he didn’t sign on with the big-league organization. That obviously didn’t happen, nor did the Mavericks’ aspirations of winning a second-straight title, falling to the eventual champion Lethbridge Bulls in the division final.
Morrison’s squad returned to the top of the heap in 2018, but as he watches Soroka light it up with the Braves, he finds it hard not to wonder, “What if?” We recently caught up with Morrison to talk about his first impression of Soroka as a high school player and what it’s been like to watch his ascent to stardom. Here is the full transcript of that conversation on Alberta Dugout Stories: The Podcast.
Q: How is it that you came upon a young Mike Soroka? Do you remember the moment when you first heard the name or saw him on the field?
A: Hmmm. Now, we’re going back in time a little bit here. It would have been the T-12 where I was one of the Alberta coaches there for a few Septembers. I might have heard it before then because the buzz was starting to build a little bit even as he was 16 years old and this kid from Calgary. I had the privilege of meeting him, I believe it might have been 2014 out in Toronto. Great kid, great mature kid for his age, tall kid, you know and what a career so far, right? What an exciting moment for him and his family right now to be the Opening Day guy for the Braves.
Q: What was it about him that stood out to you where you thought maybe you could get him to come to Medicine Hat?
A: Well, on the field, just utter domination. He just had composure and knowing how Chris Reitsma was his mentor and one of his pitching coaches. I actually knew Chris, who was a little younger than me in the farm system but I remember facing him and knowing what kind of makeup Chris had as a pitcher and a player and it really rubbed off on Mike. He had command of all of his pitches. For being a large, big-bodied kid at that age, generally you don’t have that much body control.
When I played in the minors, there were guys in their early or mid-20’s who were still figuring out their bodies and their size. He just seemed to know where and how to control his body and good balance as a pitcher. On the mental side, he seemed very polite, very dialed in, concentrated and knew what he was doing – just like that professional attitude that you’re trying to impart on these guys before they become professionals. So I think you have to tip your cap to his work ethic and to Chris Reitsma and whoever else that Mike felt were mentors along his path.
Q: I know in recruiting for the team, you’re typically going to the college ranks. How did it come to be where you were opening up that line of communication with a high school product, should he not get drafted by an MLB team?
A: Well, we had some experience with younger guys, some of the upper-tier guys if you want to call them that, in Grade 12 through our involvement with Vauxhall Academy. We had players from Les McTavish who were Grade 12 kids over the years who filled a void for us or came when they could. It comes down to talent, right? Whether you’re 16, 17, 18 or 23 years old, playing in the WCBL is about competition, obviously development, we want these players to develop. But if you’re going to go out there and compete and you’re a pitcher who can throw strikes and throw two of your pitches for strikes on any given day, you’re going to do well. To me, it’s more about can you perform and can you compete as opposed to where are you from and what’s your age kind of thing.
Q: What were the conversations like as you tried to lure him southeast?
A: I don’t think there were any conversations that September at T12. I think it was probably that winter. It’s just like anyone else. You start a list and find the guys who you feel can help your team win. It was great just talking to him and I think getting around him for those ten days at T12 helped a little bit. Those younger guys, you know, they have to put a lot of trust in you as a coach and know if they’re getting in a car to go somewhere to play ball, they want to know they are in good hands.
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From my end of it, just conversations and reaching out. Such a good kid on the phone, very professional and very appreciative. Right down to the end there, where we were anticipating him coming down and the way things went with him, getting word that he was most likely going to be a top two round guy. He reached out, communicated to us and just a great all-round kid and great to see him flourish in his career right now.
Q: That had to be bittersweet though. You had this idea on having this kid on your mound and you had to say goodbye before you even had a chance to say hello.
A: Yeah, it’s happened a few times. We’ve had some guys who ended up never getting a chance to don the uniform for us. I’ve been around at enough different levels that I know the Mavericks and our league aren’t the end-game for a lot of guys, whether it’s a coach, a player or a front office person. It would have been great to have him down here and throw an inning or two and have the fans be able to say, “Hey I saw that guy pitch in that year right before he went into the draft.” It happens occasionally and like I said, when you call it bittersweet, for how his career has panned out, it’s very well-deserved for him. Just a pleasure being able to coach him at T12. It was pretty special.
Q: Did it surprise you to see him have this much success at such a young age?
A: Well, to be that good that quick is a rarity, you know. And as good as scouting is getting and player development is getting, there is a lot more science to it but even so, for him to be that good that quick in the major leagues? I think it took him parts of maybe two or two-and-a-half seasons in the minors to develop his craft. Really, I think a lot of that was just showing each level that he could perform. Surprising? No, I’ve seen it before. The fact that it’s a Calgary kid is awesome. It makes you smile a little more. He definitely has all the attributes so it’s not necessarily a surprise.
Q: Obviously, his stuff is good. But is it the mental side that sets him apart from the rest?
A: Yeah, and I think as we always said in the minors that aside from that five to ten percent superstars in the major leagues, there are eighty to ninety percent of guys that are very similar talent that are Double-A or Triple-A, never get there or never stick at the show. And the difference, in my opinion, has to be that side of it, the mental aspect and the ability to go out and compete. If you have a bad outing, you can get out the next time and want the ball. He’s definitely got what a lot of guys don’t have in the game and I would even say that consistency in the major leagues, there’s even some separation from some of the best to the lower performers in the show or those guys who don’t stick.
He does have the talent though. He has an amazing change-up, he has amazing movement on his fastball and pinpoint accuracy. These are things that you do need to perform that well but I think the mental side of it is going to make you over a career where his body of work, you’ll just see this constant, continual improvement. He may have a bad outing out of every seven, eight or ten starts, but he bounces back and that’s what the great guys do. They bounce back from pitch-to-pitch and it doesn’t take them a week or a month to bounce back.
Q: You mentioned the Calgary connection and we all know that story. But does it make your job as a recruiter and someone in the baseball community in Alberta a little easier as you can say, “Look at this kid who made it all the way to the show and he’s from our part of the world?”
A: Well, you know, I saw those glimmers back when I first sat and watched my first WMBL game in 2008. I’m like, “Hey, there’s some decent baseball out here.” But yeah, every year I think as a team or as a league, we’re getting more and more of these players that are popping up and saying, “Oh gosh, this guy was playing in Yorkton or Medicine Hat or Okotoks.” It’s definitely a boon for the league in regards to PR and there are a lot of summer collegiate leagues out there, so it’s nice for these kids to be able to see with the access they have on social media to say, “OK, this is a great league,” and you get to taste all of Western Canada, some of these guys move on, some great coaching and big crowds.
So yeah, absolutely, any time you get a kid who moves on and up and out of the league is a tip of the cap to the league. I’m always of the mind though that we’re just a part of the journey. We can’t hang our hats that these guys get to places because of us. They are really just here and really it’s a privilege for me when a lot of these top-end guys want to come up here and, whether it’s spending a summer in Canada or get into coaching or it’s a door we can open, it’s definitely great when you have great players who come and go through the league.
Q: You’ve been involved in the game for quite a while now and have seen the game from a bunch of different levels. In your assessment, what’s the ceiling for Mike Soroka?
A: Oh gosh, I think it’s gotta be longevity now, right? I mean, he’s done what he’s done now. Can you do it over 15 or 20 years. Now, you start talking about whether this guy is an all-star every couple of years or every year. And then in 10 or 15 years, you start talking about Hall of Fame stuff. It’s pretty exciting. I see guys like Michael Young, who I came up with through the minors and you kind of follow their careers and they just put the time in. They do it year after year and before you know it, you’re 36, 38 or 40 years old and you’re talking about Hall of Fame ballots. And that’s kind of the journey for guys like Mike and it’s well-deserved. He works hard and is there such a thing as a ceiling for a guy like that? I don’t know.