It’s a turn-back-the-clock edition of C’s Chat with 2011-2012 Vancouver Canadians pitcher Bryan Longpre.
The road to professional baseball had its share of detours for Longpre. After his senior season at his hometown La Crescenta High in California where he was a pitcher and shortstop, Longpre joined San Diego State as a walk-on but did not wind up pitching for the Aztecs. He went to Grossmont College in El Cajon, California for two years before winding up at Cal State Northridge where he pitched for two more seasons. Compiling a record of 2-1 with a 4.54 earned run average out of the Matadors bullpen in his senior campaign, Longpre was hoping to hear his name called in the 2010 Major League Baseball draft.
“I had talked to almost every team that year, so I thought there was a strong chance I’d be drafted, but I also understood the nature of the MLB draft and since I was a senior with a degree I had no leverage and would likely sign after the draft. I was just waiting for my chance and I’m grateful to the Blue Jays for giving me that chance.”
That chance came in the form of a free-agent contract from the Jays.
“I had a decent senior year at Cal State Northridge. It was really important to me to get my degree (in finance) and graduate. Shortly after the season, I got a call from Blue Jays scout Tim Rooney. He said, ‘How would you like to be a professional baseball player?’ and I said, ‘What took you so long?’
I remember calling my Dad in tears. This was something I dreamed about since I was 5 years old. The very next day I was on a flight to Florida to the Training facility in Dunedin. It was a whirlwind.”
Even though things were moving fast, Longpre was able to move in style.
“Funny story – The Jays actually flew me first class. This wasn’t normal practice. It was the first and last first class flight I ever had. But I assumed this was the norm. I was so lost, I remember having so idea what to do with those warm towels, like I was in a movie. I think they made a mistake in booking, but I’ll take it. I think it was a day or two after the draft.”
1st Professional Season
Longpre made a good early impression in his professional debut with the Gulf Coast League Blue Jays that year. The right-handed reliever struck out three over 1-2/3 scoreless innings against the GCL Phillies June 21 in his first outing and earned his first professional win four days later against the GCL Tigers. He also made three appearances with the Dunedin Blue Jays that year and picked up a win in relief against Tampa August 29. Between the two stops, Longpre struck out 28 batters over 26 innings with an earned run average of 3.12.
Pitching in the Florida heat took some getting used to for Longpre.
“Oh boy, was it an adjustment. We called it the Gulf Roast League. I remember trying anything and everything to grip that ball and it was like throwing a cue ball covered in grease. Definitely an adjustment for a kid born and raised in California. I’ve never put on more sunscreen in my life than that summer.”
There were three people in particular who stood out to Longpre during his first pro season.
“The people I was fortunate to meet one of my best friends Noah Syndergaard that year. He was 17 at the time and we became lifelong friends from then.
I also met some incredible coaches including Pete Walker that year who was a great mentor and I was really proud to see him move on to become the Big League pitching coach.
Coach John Schneider had a big impact on me throughout my career. I played two seasons for him and that was my first season with Coach Schneider who is also on the big league club now.”
Welcome to Canada
Longpre would head north of the border to begin his 2011 season as he assigned to Vancouver.
“2011 with the Canadians was my first time in Canada and I fell in love. Our first night in Vancouver was actually Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. That was the night of the riots so that was a bit of a crazy introduction to Canada for me, but I grew to love the city and I fell in love with the country.”
That year marked the first year of the affiliation between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Vancouver Canadians and Longpre realized how big a deal it was for Canada’s Teams to be joined at the hip.
“Absolutely. I could tell right away that there was a sense of pride surrounding the Blue Jays and how excited the city was to have an affiliation there in Vancouver. What is so unique about the Blue Jays is that they don’t just represent a city like other MLB teams, but they really represent an entire country.
We felt that pride and that responsibility that came with it. We were very proud to be a part of that and Vancouver was very proud to have the next generation of Blue Jays right in their back yard.”
Bolstering the Bullpen
Longpre reeled off five scoreless appearances to start his tenure with the C’s. That earned him a brief call-up to Lansing where he pitched twice for the Lugnuts but returned to Vancouver to finish out the season. He became a key part of the bullpen for Monty’s Mounties by keeping his ERA below 1.00 heading into August.
“That season in Vancouver was probably the best season of my career. No question. I was healthy, I was hungry, and I had a team and coaches that pushed me. I always thrived on pressure and I loved pitching in front of a sold out stadium at The Nat. You don’t get that same intensity in the Gulf Coast League or Florida State League.
I found that I was at my best in high pressure situations and I was lucky to have coaches like Schneider and (Jim) Czajkowski that would run me out there with the game on the line. I wanted the ball when the game was on the line. That’s when I was at my best.”
C’s managers John Schneider and Rich Miller enjoyed the luxury of a strong bullpen in 2011 that included Longpre, Aleson Escalante, Philip Brua and Drew Permison.
“Our bullpen was a really big part of our success that year. Escalante took the longer middle innings. Then it was always Brua in the 7th, Me in the 8th, and Permison in the 9th.We always felt like if we could get to the 7th inning with a lead the game was over. They were going to have to get through the 3 of us and we each were so different it made it really tough for hitters to adjust.”
The Canadians just missed out clinching a first-half playoff berth but the C’s managed to scratch and claw their way to the postseason in the second half. According to Longpre, missing out on that first-half playoff spot kept the team motivated during the second half pennant chase.
“That team was something special. We had several big name guys who came through at different points like (Aaron) Sanchez, Syndergaard and (Kevin) Pillar. But the core of that team were grinders. We were scrappy. We got knocked down every time we made a run and we never stopped coming back. I think it helped us to lose the first half, because it humbled us and made us fight that might harder leading into the second half and playoffs.
Coach Czajkowski always said there are two types of players in the world. Those who are humble and those who are fixin’ to be humbled. We got humbled in the first half after a hot start, and we were hungry the second half. We were going to just flat out want it more than everyone else.”
The C’s needed some help to get to the playoffs and they got it when Everett lost its season finale to Spokane. Longpre was the one to give the team the good news on the bus ride home.
“(It) was a special moment on the bus when we were listening to the Everett game and waiting to find out if we made playoffs. I was on the phone with my Dad, he was giving me the play-by-play from his computer and I was telling the rest of the team while we sat in the parking lot.
I think once we knew we were in playoffs that this was a special team. It just felt different than any other team I’ve ever been on. It’s hard to describe, it felt like we had the whole city behind us and we were going to do something special.”
2011 Playoff Drive
Considering the travel the 2011 Canadians had to endure, one could not question their character. After ending the regular season in Boise, the club returned home to open their playoff series against the Western Division champion Eugene Emeralds before having to head down to Oregon to rally in that best-of-three series.
“Northwest League travel was brutal. 13 hour bus rides, fast food, sleeping on the bus. It’s not ideal for your body to play at a high level. But like I said, that team was full of grinders. We came out to play hard every day and we were relentless. We would have run through a brick wall that year to get that championship.
I just remember the intensity of that series. Eugene is always a great team in that league. They had some very talented hitters and very good closer that year. I remember we had to battle for every single pitch and every single out.”
On to Tri-City
After rallying to win twice in Eugene, the Canadians advanced to the Northwest League Final against the Tri-City Dust Devils who knocked off the Boise Hawks in two straight to take the East Division flag.
Vancouver surprised Tri-City by taking Game 1 on the road thanks to five solid innings from Ajay Meyer in his Northwest League debut after being called up from Bluefield.
The C’s had a chance to clinch the title in Game 2 at home but a ninth-inning rally came up short when Jon Berti hit into a 6-4-3 double play that he appeared to beat out when the bases were loaded.
That set the stage for a winner-take-all Game 3 on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Jesse Hernandez struck out nine over six innings and left with a 3-1 lead after surrendering the game’s first run. Longpre kept the Dust Devils at bay with a 1-2-3 seventh inning.
“Jesse pitched his heart out. I’ll never forget that game. I just remember Cy telling me that it was Drew and I taking us home if Jesse makes it to 6 innings. I was so amped up that day I felt like I couldn’t wait to get the ball. He said we were going to close it out and it was our game from there.
Tri City was tough too. They had a couple very good lefty hitters and Permison and I were going to face the heart of their lineup in the 8th and 9th innings. Our offense really came through that day and had a huge 7th inning that put the game away.”
Longpre was nicked for a run in the eighth but that was the time to give one up as the Canadians offence had scored five times in the bottom of the seventh before matching that Tri-City run with one of their own in the eighth. Permison tossed a scoreless ninth to set off the celebration of the C’s first-ever Northwest League title.
“It was just pure joy. For a lot of us we were nobodys. We were late round draft picks or free agents and to win a championship with a professional baseball team—with some of the best fans I’ve ever played for, it was truly incredible.
I remember we just attacked Permison on the mound and it was the best dogpile I’ve ever been a part of. It really felt like we were underdogs in a lot of ways, but you couldn’t tell us that at the time.
We were going to leave our heart and soul out there on the field and we did that. I was so proud to be a part of that team. I’ve never played with a harder-working, humble group of guys in my life. The summer of 2011 was one of the best years of my life and that is in large part to the coaches, the fans, and the teammates that made it special.
Celebrating that day was just a culmination of so much hard work for all of us. Not just that season, but the body of work each of us put in to make it there. The sacrifices we all made over the years. And it was special to share that with such incredible ball players and people.
Just like in 2011, Longpre began 2012 with five straight scoreless appearances as a member of the Dunedin Blue Jays. He had an ERA of 1.17 over seven games but was sent down to Lansing in June before returning to Vancouver in late July. The change of addresses made it a trying season for Longpre.
“It was definitely tough. Every time I started to feel settled somewhere I would get moved to another team. It makes it tough to build chemistry and consistency, but that’s the nature of the game. You go where you’re needed, when you’re needed.
2012 was a tough year for me. It started on a very high note when I was in High-A Dunedin. I was pitching very well there and picked up where I left off in 2011.
When I was sent to Lansing, Michigan, I remember throwing a pitch that didn’t feel right. I felt something in my elbow I hadn’t felt before. My velocity dropped and I was in a lot of pain after every outing. I just tried to push through it but I didn’t realize until after that season when I had an MRI that I had a partially-torn UCL in my elbow.”
Longpre made seven appearances out of the bullpen for the C’s but did not pitch again after August 21. Still, he got to experience another championship run in Vancouver as the C’s captured back-to-back Northwest League titles.
“When I came back to Vancouver I was hurt, but I was still able to compete a bit. It was special to win another championship that year, but it was bittersweet for me because I knew I was going to retire at the end of the season. I wanted to go out on my terms and I had a feeling my injury was more serious.
After the championship game in Boise, Idaho I hung my cleats up in the locker and left them hanging there in the middle of the room. I took one last walk out to the mound by myself that night after the game and felt the rubber one last time. That was the last baseball game of my career and it was pretty special way to go out. A few weeks later I had the MRI and I formally retired from the Blue Jays.”
Currently, Longpre is a Senior Vice President at Morgan Stanley in Los Angeles and is the proud father of twin boys.
Thanks a million to Bryan Longpre for taking part in this episode of C’s Chat.