Chris Leroux had yet to play in a Major League game when he got his first taste of a big league atmosphere.
It was 2009 and Leroux was a reliever for Team Canada at the World Baseball Classic. He still remembers that first game at Toronto's Rogers Centre, running out of the bullpen in front of 42,000 people in the sixth inning. He got two outs on four pitches, but Canada still dropped a 6-5 decision to the United States.
That memory is one of the best for Leroux, a member of Team Canada in two World Baseball Classics and last year's gold medal-winning team at the Pan-Am Games.
He didn't know until his buddies sent him text messages that baseball, along with softball, was added back to the Olympic program for the 2020 games in Tokyo. He was too busy with righting his own ship with the Buffalo Bisons this summer. Leroux has had some struggles in the Herd's rotation and his career has been mostly spent at the Triple-A level with 65 appearances in the Major Leagues.
That's what makes being part of Team Canada so special. It's the allure of the international game where the cliche of playing for something bigger than yourself finds its meaning.
"I’ve spent a lot of my career in the minor leagues and the minor leagues it is what it is. It’s a means to an end," Leroux said. "Guys are trying to get to the big leagues and you try to care about winning but at the end of the day, you’ve got to be selfish and you’ve got to care about how you are doing personally.
"International baseball is the complete opposite. If you go 0 for 5 in a game and your team wins that’s all that matters. It’s refreshing to play a game and truly care about the result. I say that every time. People ask me what’s the best part of international baseball and that’s the truth, caring about the outcome."
While baseball has grown internationally, international competition has had varying degrees of success. It's been part of the Pan-American Games since 1951 with Cuba winning 12 gold medals. Canada has won the last two golds while the U.S. has just one gold, back in 1967.
Baseball was first included in the Olympics as a demonstration in the 1984 and 1988 Games and added to the program in Barcelona in 1992 (Cuba took the inaugural gold) and was part of the next five Olympic Games until the International Olympic Committee voted it, along with softball, out after the 2008 Beijing Games. Despite being America's pastime, the U.S. has won just three Olympic medals in baseball --gold in 2000 and bronze in 1996 and 2008.
With no Olympic baseball, enter the World Baseball Classic -- an international event that brings together Major League Baseball, the Major League Baseball Players Association and the World Baseball Softball Confederation. The fourth installment is scheduled for 2017 in March, which doesn't interfere with the MLB schedule.
That is the major sticking point with Olympic baseball.
While the sport is back in the 2020 Games, there is no guarantee it will stay. The IOC would like Major League Baseball players to participate in the Games. Big names equals big draws. The NBA allowed its players in the Olympics in 1992 and the NHL in 1998 with pro hockey building in an Olympic break to its regular season schedule.
Major League Baseball is not as keen to do that with its 162 games in 183-day schedule. An agreement would need to be reached among players, owners and management to allow the best MLB players to represent their respective countries.
Details aside, infielder Casey Kotchman thinks the Olympics provides a good stage for baseball. The 33-year-old played for Team USA last year in the Pan-Am Games.
"The international competition is fun," said Kotchman who has played in 939 MLB games. "I was able to experience it when I was 15 and 16 at the youth levels and to be able to do it again last year was fun, especially when throughout baseball you’re playing with guys from different countries."
As far as if the Olympics is a good showcase for baseball, Kotchman said "I don’t see why not. Anytime you can get another USA representative in a sport it's good and especially baseball being America's pastime if you will, that’s nice that you can have a representative in the sport."