For one glorious year, local pitcher Mark Fraser was indeed living his own personal Field of Dreams.
Sure, there were plenty of other memorable moments that dotted the diamond career of the current 47 year-old clinical director of Compass. But few could match the rags to riches tales of that stretch of 1991 when Fraser went from being a Sudbury anomaly to being a 71st round selection of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
(Mind you, that would also classify him as a Sudbury anomaly, to be sure - rare are the local lads who would ever catch a sniff of majopr league baseball)
The eldest of four children in the family, Mark was the only member of the household who enjoyed any kind of inkling for sport. “In the early 1980s, I found myself pulled to baseball and I couldn’t explain it,” said the father of four children of his own.
“My parents weren’t avid sports watchers.”
By contrast, for this highly intellectual young man, The Baseball Bunch with Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench was must-watch TV. “I was fascinated by the players’ stories,” said Fraser. “Johnny Bench would stress that with hard work and practice, anyone could make it in baseball.”
“There was a parking lot across the street from my place, so there I was, right after the show, just throwing against a wall – and not really knowing why.”
By the age of 11 or 12, Fraser’s interest had clearly been recognized by his mother, enrolling the youngster in a local loop. “I was a first baseman to start, but then the coach saw my arm and decided to put me on the mound,” he said. “That was it; that was my calling.”
The quirkiness of his story is evidenced everywhere.
While his arm would reach the point where he could throw in the low nineties, very impressive numbers in that era, there was so much more depth to the approach that Fraser would take to his craft.
Somehow, he stumbled across some material at Bay’s Used Book Store, something published in the fifties or sixties, to his recollection, that would provide the young man a template for the success that would come his way.
“That’s how I learned to pitch, how to pitch to the “L”,” said Fraser. Google it – pitching to the “L” definitely exists. “I would go in my backyard – I had made myself a mound – and I pitched to the L. I would turn the ball over, throwing changeups, curveballs. I would spend hours practicing.”
In his own mind, there was no other way. Mark Fraser was not about to blow anyone away via his natural athleticism. “When I made the jump to bantam, I was shorter and younger. I was skinny, all arms and all legs.”
“It wasn’t until I threw that first pitch that things changed.”
Pop. Pop. Pop.
The sound of baseball hitting mitt.
Strike one. Strike two. Strike three.
It’s a scene that played out at the Terry Fox Sports Complex, but also a few years later, in a far more impactful environment.
Fraser had done pretty much all he could in Sudbury. With competitive players still forced to play houseleague as well, just to help with the numbers, the talented right-hander would not be allowed to enter a game (as a pitcher) until the final inning.
Simply too dominant, the league ruled. “My velocity had gotten to the point where parents were complaining,” he said. Even as he made his debut in the Nickel Region Senior League at the tender age of 14, Fraser overpowered the opposition.
Unlike today, the pipeline for baseball talent to head south of the border was relatively unexplored. Thankfully, there was Miles Tourigny.
Actually, in the case of Fraser and his mother, it was actually Tourigny’s father that acted as a key sounding board and purveyor of State-side baseball knowledge, his son pitching in Tennessee at the time.
Sure, Fraser had a brief showing at the Boyle Baseball Academy in Florida, getting tested against his peer group and scoring quite well. But it was on the urging of Mr Tourigny that he would attend the Team Ontario tryouts that fateful spring.
(cue the pop-pop-pop strikeout video one more time)
“I threw nine pitches, had three strikeouts and walked off,” said Fraser. “I’m getting goose bumps just talking about it.”
No surprise that he would make the provincial team. The big surprise came a few weeks later.
“I am sitting in Chemistry class at Lasalle and I am called to the principal’s office,” recalled Fraser, fearing the worst. Greeted by his mom in tears as she walked with the principal did little to alleviate that knot in his stomach. Nope, that would disappear only after he was presented the telegram that had come, informing him that he was drafted by the fabled L.A. Dodgers.
You might think that summer could not get any better.
You might most certainly be wrong.
Helping lead Ontario to a national crown, Fraser was then selected to be part of a 40-50 player tryout in Kindersley (SK), with a final roster selected for the World Youth Baseball Championship in Brandon (MB).
The United States and Cubans were the monstrous favourites. Few gave the host Canucks much of a chance at all. Fraser started against Brazil, pitching seven innings for the win. He seemed like a lock for another start, but the coaching staff had other plans.
“They quickly saw my grit and I became the closer,” he said. With saves against both Australia and the United States, Fraser would top the statistical category and pitch in (pardon the pun) for a team that would defy the odds, capturing the tournament on home soil and inducted a year later into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.
“That’s when I really started receiving attention from colleges,” he said.
Fraser would forego turning pro, opting for the school route, starting with Indian Hills Community College in Iowa, both he and his mother adament that a back-up plan be maintained. Sprinkling in a year at the Academie Baseball Canada in Montreal and a couple of summers in the Inter-County Major Baseball League, sharing MVP honours in 1994 or 1995, Fraser would find his way to Northeast Oklahoma Community College.
There, fate would come a callin’.
“It was a cold February morning, we were pitching bullpens,” Fraser mused. “I stepped on the mound, threw a pitch and heard a pop. I was in a sling for about six weeks.” Though he would tough it out for another two years, the shoulder injury would effectively end his major league dreams.
And while it took a little while to eventually find his way in terms of a career that provided the right fit, his passion for academics (he has both an undergraduate and masters degree and has done the bulk of the work towards a PhD), Fraser has now settled in nicely back home, still open to the idea of assisting other local pitchers pursue their dreams.
He knows, more than most, that with a little luck and a whole lot of hard work, dreams can become reality, even if just for one short glorious summer.