Some days, Abbotsford Cardinals head coach Corey Eckstein would just love to wipe the smile off Tanner Rempel’s face.
It’s not quite as bad as it sounds. It’s a compliment, actually.
Rempel, the Cardinals’ highly talented catcher, is a bit of a comedian who (quite rightly) enjoys playing baseball. And Eckstein doesn’t begrudge him that. It is, after all, a game.
But in the B.C. Premier Baseball League, the province’s elite under-18 circuit, the game is also serious business. That’s because of the stakes – players are battling for college scholarships and for a shot at being selected in the Major League Baseball draft.
Rempel, a 16-year-old Grade 11 student at Yale Secondary, has already been hearing from U.S. colleges, and Eckstein believes he’s got the tools to play pro ball, though he won’t be draft-eligible until next year. But to max out that potential, he needs to mix in the odd grimace amongst all his grins.
“He’s just this happy-go-lucky kid, which is fine,” Eckstein said with a wry chuckle. “But you’d like to see more fire in the belly. Everything is always OK with him. He’s got to get upset once in a while – show a little bit of fire and a little bit of grit, and just not be OK with a mediocre performance.”
That Eckstein is challenging Rempel in terms of his mental approach indicates he believes the youngster can be special.
Last season with the Junior Cardinals (age 14-16), Rempel hit .292 with 18 RBI, a .438 on-base percentage, and a team-high 25 walks and 17 stolen bases. He also earned multiple call-ups to the senior team, and played in the BCPBL Final Four hosted by the Cards at DeLair Park.
“Defensively, there’s not much better in B.C. than him behind the plate, or at third base for that matter,” Eckstein said. “And the kid can swing – it’s got to be just a little bit more consistent, a little bit more power.”
Rempel said his stint with the senior Cards last year helps him out immensely as he prepares to move up to the big team full-time this season.
“It was a pretty big deal,” he recalled. “The atmosphere was so different than playing down in junior – bigger guys, faster ball.
“This year, I’d like to be more of a role model on the field. Last year I was sort of the little guy coming up . . . But this year, I’ve got to be one of the bigger guys, and I’ve got to take that leadership role and take charge a little bit.”
Rempel loves making people laugh – “I won’t go into detail, but hotel rooms with the teams are a comedy-fest, I’ll tell you that much,” he said – but he understands Eckstein’s emphasis on bearing down mentally.
“It all makes sense,” he said. “The two personalities just have to find their place to be. The comedic side has to be practices, hotel rooms, hanging out with the team. And the more serious side has to be out on the field, being more engaged out there.”
HOME OPENER ON APRIL 11
The Cardinals open the BCPBL regular season in two weeks’ time at DeLair Park, hosting the Langley Blaze on Friday, April 11 (7 p.m.), and the Coquitlam Reds in a doubleheader on Sunday, April 13 (12 p.m. and 2:30 p.m.).
The 2014 edition of the Cards has a tough act to follow – the 2013 squad set a team record for victories with 29, won the first playoff series in club history, and finished a program-best third at provincials. Eight players went on to land college scholarships, and one – Kurtis Kostuk – was drafted by the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Beyond Rempel, Eckstein will be looking for key contributions from returnees like Jesse Braun, Liam Shibata, Joel Van Ee and Liam Kano-McGregor. The Cards have also added Cloverdale native Matthew Reston, a 6’5″ corner infielder who can hit for power.
“I feel like our offence is definitely better than it was in years past,” said Cards first baseman Benji Wieler. “We can definitely out-hit some teams this year.
“Last year was definitely a breakthrough for this program. We know we can win in this league, and that’s big. If we can hot at the right time, who knows what can happen?”
Eckstein suggested this season is a bit of a rebuilding year at the senior level, but he’s bullish on the young talent on the Junior Cards and on Abbotsford Minor Baseball’s bantam teams.
“We’re two or three years away from being really, really good,” he enthused.
Epitomizing the youth movement is Ethan Kano-McGregor, Liam’s brother, who will be the lone full-time Grade 10 player on the senior Cards.
“He’s a switch-hitting shortstop who can deal on the mound a little bit – he’s got a plus arm,” Eckstein said.
COACH ECKSTEIN WORKING FOR MLB’S ROYALS
Eckstein took a step forward in his own career in October, when he landed a scouting job with the Kansas City Royals. He covers the Western Canadian high school and college scenes for the big-league club, and keeps tabs on the Canadian junior national program.
“I pinch myself – it’s always been my goal to be part of professional baseball, somehow, some way,” he said. “I knew it wasn’t going to be easy to get there.
“A lot of guys who end up in professional baseball have played professionally, whether it be the coaching side or the scouting side. Sometimes it’s about putting your time in, and sometimes it’s about who you know and developing relationships. I’ve been able to do that the last few years, and hopefully I’ll continue to grow and develop.”