VANCOUVER — It takes some five hours to fly from Vancouver to Toronto. About 40 hours if you drive.
For a baseball player, the journey through the minor leagues from the Vancouver Canadians to the Toronto Blue Jays can take years. It’s a long trip many players start but only a few finish.
Tom Robson and Shane Dawson, two Canadian-born pitchers currently playing for the single-A Canadians, have taken the first steps along that road. They understand there will be potholes and detours, but remain focused on the final destination.
Robson, a 20-year-old right-hander, was born in Ladner, B.C., about 30 minutes south of Vancouver. Growing up he attended Canadians games.
“I used to be the little kid coming up to the fence getting an autograph,” Robson said, relaxing in the stands at Scotiabank Field at Nat Bailey Stadium prior to taking the mound for a game against the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes.
“I’m the guy on the field now, playing in front of everyone and signing autographs. It’s pretty surreal.”
The Canadians, one of the Blue Jays’ farm teams, play in the short-season Northwest League. It’s one of the first stops on the road to the majors.
Playing in front of family and friends has been a thrill for Robson but he wants more.
“Not a day goes by without me waking up and thinking about what the ultimate goal is, not getting comfortable where I’m at,” he said.
“Vancouver is home but this isn’t where I want to be. I want to be in the big leagues. I want to do whatever I have to do to get there.”
Dawson is a 19-year-old left-hander from Drayton Valley. While other kids played hockey he concentrated on basketball and baseball.
“Being a basketball player has really helped with my athleticism on the mound,” said Dawson. “They kind of have the same thinking patterns.
“In basketball you have to think more on the fly. In baseball you have time between pitches to think about strategic moves.”
Dawson, who was named the Northwest League pitcher of the week earlier this month, has set a timetable for himself.
“My goal from now is three to five years to be in the big leagues,” he said. “Hopefully quicker. You don’t want to get too high on yourself, you don’t want to get too low. This is what I wanted to do since I was three years old.”
Robson pitched five innings Monday night against the Volcanoes. He had five strikeouts, allowed five hits, gave up one run and one walk. He went into the game with a 2-0 record and 0.79 earned-run average. In 27 2/3 innings he’s allowed 21 hits, four runs, struck out 21 and walked seven.
In four starts, Dawson has a 1-1 record and 2.89 ERA. In 18 2/3 innings he has given up 17 hits, six runs, struck out 26 and walked four.
Clayton McCullough, the Canadians manager, said both players have major league tools.
The six-foot-four, 200-pound Robson can throw around 90 miles per hour. He has a good angle on his fastball, throws strikes and keeps the ball low in the strike zone. He has a good change-up and is still working on his breaking ball.
“He throws strikes with his fastball but he’s going to have to command it better,” said McCullough.
The six-foot-one, 180-pound Dawson needs to increase his velocity, which will improve as he matures. He has a good feel for the change-up but also must work on his breaking ball.
“He’s a terrific competitor,” said McCullough. “He wants to be perfect all the time.
“That’s part of the learning curve. You’re not always going to be perfect, you’re not always going to be even good. That’s how it is some nights.”
Any player needs talent to make the majors but McCullough said the proper mental attitude is essential.
“These two kids have a lot of talent,” said McCullough.
“They both have the chance to pitch in the big leagues.
“The physical stuff is there. It’s can they stay healthy, which nobody knows. Mental becomes a separator for a lot of people. Can they handle the times they stink it up for four or five stars in a row? A lot of things you won’t know for a few years down the road.”
The two players have followed different paths. The Blue Jays made Robson the highest Canadian pick in the 2011 amateur baseball draft, taking him in the fourth round, 139th overall.
“At the time it was something to be proud of,” he said.
Dawson wasn’t taken until the 17th round, 535th overall, in 2012. He had expected to be drafted by Boston.
“The Blue Jays never really talked to me,” he said. “Their scout would come to my games, maybe watch an inning or two, then leave. All the other scouts would stay and talk to me after the game.”
Dawson and Robson room together on the road but have very different personalities. Robson is a Vancouver Canucks fan while Dawson rarely watches any sports on television. Robson would race home from school to watch the Blue Jays on TV while Dawson never had a favourite baseball team. Both know where they need to improve.
Robson’s delivery has “a few flaws that have to be worked out.” He’s also adjusting to the professional workload.
“I went from pitching in high school once a week to throwing every day,” he said. “Getting up at 6 a.m., working out, throwing, practising . . . it really took a toll on me.
“This year I am more comfortable with everything. I knew what it was all about. ”
Dawson believes he has the tools, he just needs to learn how to utilize them.
“I need to learn how to step back and not try to overpower guys or try to do too much, that’s the biggest thing for me,” he said. “These lower levels are kind of the development stages. You keep building on what you have.”