By Ryan Divish The News Tribune
PEORIA, Ariz. — Michael Saunders left the Seattle Mariners as a player happy to represent his home country in the World Baseball Classic. He returned to the Peoria complex on Tuesday as a Canadian hero.
Team Canada failed to advance out of WBC Pool D qualifying, going 1-2 in three games and losing to the United States. In Sunday’s game against the U.S. — with the winner advancing and the loser eliminated, Saunders did everything he could and more to keep Canada alive in the tournament.
The Mariners outfielder put together one of the most impressive three-game runs in the history of the WBC, winning the Most Valuable Player award of Pool D, despite his team not advancing.
“He had a heck of a series,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. “He was swinging the bat here well for us before he went there. He was looking forward to playing for his country. Obviously, he did a fantastic job for them.”
How good was Saunders?
He hit .727 (8-for-11) with three doubles, a homer, seven RBI and four runs scored in three games. When Canada needed a big hit, he provided it.
“Unbelievable experience,” Saunders said. “I’m so happy I was able to be a part of that. It was tough leaving the boys and not moving on. But I was excited to get back and start getting ready for the season.”
On a team featuring former American League MVP Justin Morneau and former National League MVP Joey Votto, Saunders was the most productive player.
“I just felt I was locked in,” he said. “I felt like I was seeing the ball well. I felt like I was on time. I wasn’t thinking too much. And I was just trying to square the ball up.”
It helped batting fifth behind Votto and Morneau.
“It’s a lot easier when guys are on base for you every time you come up,” he said.
Saunders also got to see what makes Morneau and Votto so good.
“It’s gotten me ready,” he said. “I feel like I could start the season right now and do just fine. Hitting behind guys like Morneau and Votto, you can learn a lot from them and just see how they go about their business. They’re professionals.”
The atmosphere during those games was something Saunders has never experienced in his professional career.
“It was a playoff atmosphere — every game counted,” he said. “You are representing your country and it really doesn’t matter how well you do as long as your team wins. I’ve never been to playoffs, but I have to imagine that’s what it feels like.”
For Saunders, the WBC games have him prepared for the season.
“I feel like I’m ready to start the season tomorrow,” he said.
The only problem is that there are still 16 spring training games to play. But Saunders’ mindset toward those games has changed.
“I know these games are spring training games, but they are going to be taken seriously by me,” he said. “I’m going to try and prepare for the season. What I had for the WBC games, that’s the attitude I need to have on a daily basis come season time. I think that’s the biggest thing I learned from that experience.”
Of course the now infamous fight between Canada and Mexico was also something Saunders couldn’t avoid talking about. He said he planned on giving teammate Oliver Perez, who pitched for Mexico and was ejected from the game, a big hug when he saw him in the clubhouse.
“It’s part of the game,” Saunders said. “Not many people realize it because people rarely see it. But this is a man’s game. You have to stand up for your teammates, especially on an international level where emotions are running high. It just boiled over. Everyone did what they needed to do. We took care of business and stood up for our teammates and our friends. It looks a lot worse if you are standing in the dugout and everyone else is out there.”
And Saunders left the fracas unscathed.
“Luckily I didn’t get hurt,” he said. “On those kinds of things, you have to keep your head on a swivel because punches are coming from left, right and center. It’s certainly the biggest baseball brawl I’ve ever been a part of.”
It was so big it appeared on the fight segment of CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada. And for Saunders, a huge hockey fan, that was pretty cool.
“That was awesome,” he said.
Since his MVP performance, Saunders has achieved celebrity status in Canada. His phone has been ringing off the hook and text messages have been floating in from friends and family, while media all over Canada have wanted interviews.
“I had to turn it off,” he said of his phone. “It was getting to be too much.”