Paul Spoljaric Still Carrying a Torch for the Major Leagues
By RICK WESTHEAD
Canada's Paul Spoljaric, pitching in an independent league in Ontario, last played in the majors in 2000.
ORONTO, July 30 - Paul Spoljaric's fastball no longer pops a catcher's glove, and he has not sent major league scouts scribbling for at least several years.
Spoljaric, 33, a left-hander whose tenure in the majors from 1994 to 2000 included stops in Toronto, Seattle, Philadelphia and Kansas City, has spent the past two years pitching once a week for about $6 in gasoline and meal money in Ontario's Inter-County Baseball League.
Although it has helped keep him in shape, the stint in the independent league - a former home to pitchers like Ferguson Jenkins and Denny McLain - will not get Spoljaric back in the big leagues.
For that, he will have to play in Athens.
"He's facing an uphill battle," said Jon LaLonde, the Toronto Blue Jays' director of scouting. "But with the state of left-handed pitching being what it is, if he goes out and gets hitters out, you never know."
For Spoljaric, the Olympic tournament represents more than a "way to cap my career." It is also a last-chance audition.
Teams are always on the lookout for talent, and most major league clubs will send scouts to the Olympics, especially to scrutinize the Cuban team, said Craig Shipley, director of international scouting for the Boston Red Sox.
Canada enters the Olympics as a medal contender thanks partly to the unlikely absence of the United States, which lost out to Canada and Mexico in a qualifying tournament last year.
Spoljaric will be handed the ball in almost any situation against the high-scoring Cuban and Japanese teams, said Greg Hamilton, the Canadian team's general manager.
"The only thing he won't do is close," Hamilton said, "but he brings an awful lot of flexibility and experience."
The son of an immigrant construction worker from Croatia, Spoljaric began playing baseball at 13 when a friend's team was short a player. He said his father soon agreed to build a pitching mound on an empty lot next to his family's home in Kelowna, British Columbia, complemented by a makeshift strike zone built with two-by-fours.
In 1989, Spoljaric signed as a free agent with the Blue Jays for $35,000, and after seven years in the minors, he became a major league regular. In 1997, he was traded to Seattle. Two years later, after trades to Philadelphia and back to Toronto, he was traded again, this time to the St. Louis Cardinals. They released him before the start of the 2000 season after he injured his back while bending to tie his shoes.
In 195 games and 277 1/3 innings, Spoljaric posted an 8-17 record with a 5.52 earned run average.
"Paul left the game out of frustration and didn't read the sports section for at least a year," said Lisa, his wife. "Baseball just wasn't talked about."
Instead, Spoljaric began working in a Toronto suburb as a project supervisor for a construction company. Playing in the Inter-County League started as a way to help re-establish ties to the sport, Spoljaric said.
"Playing here has helped me get past the 'Woe is me, I don't belong here, I'm better than this' mentality," said Spoljaric, who made as much as $450,000 a year in the major leagues.
Last year, pitching against mostly former United States college players and those with low-level professional experience, Spoljaric was the Inter-County League's most valuable player with an 11-0 record and a 1.61 E.R.A.
"The stigma he faces is why he hasn't been in pro ball recently," LaLonde said. Another concern could be Spoljaric's arm strength. His fastball averages 85 miles an hour, about four miles an hour slower than when he was last in the major leagues.
Spoljaric will not necessarily be playing with Canada's best. Hamilton will not have access to all his country's top talent because the tournament runs Aug. 15-25, at a time when major league teams may be poised for a pennant race.
Among the players absent from the Canadian lineup are the Baltimore Orioles pitching prospect Adam Loewen, the fourth pick in the 2002 draft, who signed a $4 million contract, and Minnesota Twins first baseman Justin Morneau, who was recently recalled to the majors.
"I'm not trying to snuggle up to anyone, and I'd tell you if I thought teams were giving us a hard time, but they've been very accommodating," Hamilton said. "If you look at Morneau, the Twins are fighting for the playoffs and he's batting near .300. How can you argue with that call-up?"
The Colorado Rockies have not said whether they plan to allow the left-handed pitcher Jeff Francis, the ninth pick over all in 2002 and now in Class AAA, to participate in Athens, Hamilton said.
Spoljaric, meanwhile, said the Olympics was just the high-profile event he needed to bolster his comeback attempt.
"I can pitch and go out there and do the job," he said. "I may not throw as hard as I once did, but I'm a better pitcher today than I was when I broke into the majors. I just need to have a few teams see what I can do."