Former Vancouver Canadians manager John Schneider led the Dunedin Blue Jays and New Hampshire Fisher Cats to championship seasons in 2017 and 2018 respectively.

It was the final day of January and it was a wet and miserable one in Vancouver. However, the first sign the start of the upcoming baseball season moves into scoring position is the annual Vancouver Canadians Hot Stove Luncheon at the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver in support of the Vancouver Canadians Baseball Foundation.

What wasn’t known then was the luncheon could turn out to be the only highlight of 2020 for the C’s given the spread of Coronavirus which has stopped sports and most business operations in its tracks.

Before social distancing became the catchphrase of the year, the guests of honour were made available to the local media before the luncheon.

First up was Blue Jays coach John Schneider, the skipper of the good ship Canadians in 2011, 2014 and 2015. Most of that interview can be found at Batter’s Box as he talks about his rookie season coaching in the bigs.

Calling Nat Bailey Stadium “my favourite minor league venue ever. It’s just awesome,” Schneider had nothing but good things to say during his time at 4601 Ontario Street.

“I’ve always said, I’ve told (president) Andy (Dunn), I’ve told (owners) Jake (Kerr) and Jeff (Mooney) and (broadcaster) Rob (Fai) and everyone. They’ve kind of got me ready for professional baseball I think and dealing with crowds and media and all this kind of stuff.

I landed (the day before the Hot Stove Luncheon) and kind of drove downtown and right back here and it was just like nothing really changed. I know the ballpark looks a little bit different from when I was here the last time but it’s been a really cool spot for me.

I went through some hard stuff personally in 2011 here—the first time that I was here—but when I think of Vancouver, I think of 2014 and 2015 really and kind of just the memories that it brings back.”

The 2014 season was especially memorable for Schneider as the team reached the Northwest League final. He managed 11 future big leaguers including Tim Locastro, Franklin Barreto, Ryan McBroom and Ryan Borucki.

“That team in 2014 was unbelievable. You look at so many guys that have made it to the big leagues from that team. I think about that, I think about the Nat, the crowd, I think about the people that I stay in touch with. It’s been a really cool place for me to come back to. I was joking with Andy (the night before) that it took you long enough to get me back here. It’s just a place that I kind of really hold near and dear to me for a lot of different reasons and it’s awesome to be back.”

Schneider also shared his thoughts on the Jays number one prospect, 2017 C’s right-hander Nate Pearson.

“He’s a stud. For as good as he is on the field, he’s that much of a pro off the field. The way he takes care of himself, the way he works, the way he leads by example. I think—like everyone around the game knows—he’s going to have a great future ahead of him.

Whenever he does arrive with us, it’s going to be awesome. It’s kind of a shot in the arm. You always look at guys that are the homegrown talent guys like Bo (Bichette) and Vlad (Guerrero Jr.) and Cav (Cavan Biggio) and then you look at Pearson, it’s like you go out and get these guys that are going to be impact players.

It’s like signing a huge free agent but except you developed him yourself and here he is so we’re all really excited to see what he can do.”

Jesse Barfield and his cannon of a right arm was credited with 162 outfield assists in his 12-year major league career.

1980’s Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Jesse Barfield also headlined the luncheon, returning to the place his son Jeremy began his professional career in 2008 when he batted .271 with three home runs and 41 runs batted in for the C’s. Also the father of former San Diego and Cleveland second baseman Josh Barfield, the elder Barfield was more than happy to attend the event.

“I love Vancouver. I think it was 2008 when Jeremy was here. Oakland had the franchise at the time. A lot of great times here. My wife loves it. I think I’ve been here live seven or eight times myself with the Blue Jays Academy and now that this is one of our affiliates so it’s great place to visit.

Last night we sat at dinner and talked baseball and had a great time with Schneid (John Schneider) and Rob (Fai) and we just reminisce. That’s what it’s all about. Baseball’s a great sport. It brings a lot of people back together and it’s a great community.”

For more on Jesse Barfield, head to Batter’s Box for the rest of the interview.

Toronto Blue Jays Charlie Wilson
Toronto Blue Jays director of minor league operations Charlie Wilson (pictured here at the 2019 Vancouver Canadians Hot Stove Luncheon) has been with the club since 1993.

The director of minor league operations for the Toronto Blue Jays was in attendance for the luncheon.

Charlie Wilson says a big focus was the renovation of its spring traning facilities in Dunedin, Florida.

“Huge renovation going on in Florida at both our facilities, both our major league facility and then of course the big one three miles away which will be our new player development complex, a 110,000 square foot building. Six full fields, two half-fields.

It’s going to be start-of-the-art facility with modern amenities which is really going to help our player development and high-performance efforts. Obviously we’ll have plenty of room for the outdoor fields, updated and state-of-the-art batting cages which is including all the bells and whistles. 

Wilson went into more detail about the features of the minor league complex.

“There’ll be pitching labs at the end of (construction). Inside, we’re going to have a big set of offices. We’re going to have plenty of room for clubhouses, locker rooms, a 20,000 square foot weight room, indoor pools, a state-of-the-art athletic training center, cafeteria and kitchen eating areas to allow our first-class nutrition team to serve the proper meals. There’ll be classrooms, there’ll be workstations, there’ll be chat rooms just to name a few.

We’ll have the ability to set up the machines inside and outside on the field. There’s an indoor almost-half-field which is covered. We’ll be able to get our work done every day, weather permitting, rain or shine, we’ll be on the field.”

Wilson is hoping the club can expand technology such as Rapsodo pitching machines to each of its minor league affiliates.

“I think that’s all in the plans as we continue to grow and continue to evolve. Yes, we want to have as much resources at every single facility, every single ballpark where our players are. We want to do the best to enhance the player experience and we want to have that competitive edge and find ways to get better everyday.”

The Blue Jays are also continuing their efforts by scouring the globe for young Latin American talent. Baseball America placed seven Jays prospects on its Top 100 International Prospect Signings in 2019.

“It’s another part of the operation that everybody is really excited about. The international guys have done a wonderful job. That’s of course a 12-month a year program down in Latin America. Andrew Tinnish heads up the international scene. “

Though he did not say Vancouver, Wilson hinted that a pair of international prospects that could see playing time at Nat Bailey Stadium provided there is a season in 2020.

“We’re really excited about a couple of young ballplayers. (Leonardo) Jimenez and Orelvis Martinez have a chance to potentially be in the short-season leagues here. Those are two names out of many we’re really excited about. A lot of young players coming this way.”

Martinez—a shortstop/third baseman from the Dominican Republic—was rated the number one prospect in the Gulf Coast League by Baseball America in 2019. The Jays gave him a $3.5 million dollar signing bonus in 2018. Jimenez hit .298 with Bluefield in 2019 before getting a two-game trial in Lansing. The Panama native got an $825,000 bonus as a 2017 international free agent.

Before COVID-19 was on the radar, Wilson was anticipating the continuation of a strong partnership that the Blue Jays enjoy with the Canadians.

“When we think about Vancouver, we love it. What a great affiliation to have. Starting with the C’s management team and ownership group, they’re solid and great to work for. This is a great place for young players to play. You have an outstanding fan base and support, the host family support. The players come and get to play in front of large crowds, there’s great energy in the ballpark and that’s all part of it.

We’re excited to continue the relationship and continue to bring players in here and have a chance to live in Canada, to play in Canada. We’re looking ahead to 2020. We think we’re going to have a fun team, an exciting team with a lot of energy and we can hardly wait to get started.”

To learn more about Charlie Wilson, check out this story from my Batter’s Box colleague and fellow Irishman Gerry McDonald.

Thanks a million to John Schneider, Jesse Barfield and Charlie Wilson for their time and to C’s broadcaster Rob Fai for arranging all three interviews.