Huge step for big-league dream

The nurse was given fair warning. But she handed the kid a ball, anyway. After all, it was a fairly standard method of testing toddlers' motor skills during routine medical checkups. And little was only two years old. Really, how hard could the pint-sized tot hurl the ball?

      "She was only a few feet from him," Brant's mom, Brenda, recalls from the family acreage about six kilometres outside of Veteran, Alta. "I said, 'Well no, I don't think so . . . you'd better back up a bit. He throws pretty hard.' And it was hard ball, too.

"Well, he winged it at her and hit her right in the chest. Knocked her right over. I said, 'Well, I told you . . .' I felt so bad."

Velocity was never a problem for Brant Stickel, the small-town Alberta pitcher who recently signed a minor-league contract with Major League Baseball's Los Angeles Dodgers. Just the people around him.

A few years later, he smashed a ball through the front window of his family home while playing catch.

And once, when his dad Elden was giving a pitching tutorial in peewee, the lanky kid's fireballs created baseball-sized holes in the side of the family shed.

The Stickels learned the hard way to become accustomed to their son's enthusiastic but often unpredictable left-handed tosses. "We had a few throwing accidents," says Brenda, chuckling.

"From the time he was little, he could throw a ball. And he just loved it. We'd play catch lots. In the house, too, sometimes . . . but just with a soft ball.

"Him and his dad would go out and then (Elden) would come in and say, 'That's enough.' Well, he'd stay out there and throw the ball up and hit it with the bat. Which was really good motor skills for just a little guy. That's a hard thing to do.

"I can't catch for him anymore, though. He throws so hard now and I realized that my sight is going . . ."

Growing up in small-town Alberta, it was all about hockey. And Brant's family's ties to the sport run deep. One of his cousins is Phoenix Coyotes captain Shane Doan; another is Keaton Ellerby, who was drafted 10th overall by the Florida Panthers in 2007. He's also a distant relative of Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price.

Like everyone else, Brant played hockey - and loved the game. But baseball won him over in the end.

"He was so intense on the diamond," says Brenda, laughing. "We had many talks about how it's good to be competitive, it's good to be intense. But you have to draw the line sometimes." Dad, however, saw his son in a different light.

"He was born with game sense," adds Elden. "You can't teach that. Some guys have game sense, some guys don't. He always understood the game, hockey, ball, volleyball - any sport.

"He was extremely competitive at anything. Baseball, checkers, it didn't matter. If you're keeping score, you want to win."

One night, Elden, Brant and his younger sister Karlin decided it was time to build a proper backstop in their backyard. Tall enough, of course, so they wouldn't have to chase an overthrown pitch or a foul ball that would otherwise drop into a nearby cow pasture.

Finding a team to play on, however, was more of a challenge. There wasn't one in Veteran, a blink-and-you'll-miss-it village of around 293 people about 200 kilometres east of Red Deer. Brant would join players from five or six surrounding communities and would often get picked up by teams at higher levels as an affiliated player.

His summers were spent on the road, travelling to games all over the province in the family camper.

"We tried to figure it out one night after I was done playing Alberta baseball, how many teams I played with," Brant says. "I think it was around 15 teams or close to it."

So was the general attitude toward baseball. In the early days, Brant faced plenty of naysayers.

"My Grade 3 teacher asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up," says Brant. "I said I wanted to play in the major leagues. "She told me, 'Well no, let's be realistic. What do you REALLY want to do?' . . . I always remembered that."

Brant grew up idolizing slugger Ken Griffey Jr. and watched faithfully as Joe Carter, Roberto Alomar and the Toronto Blue Jays captured World Series titles in 1992 and 1993.

But hockey, of course, was the sport to play and watch in the winter.

Just as his cousins did, Brant would happily lace up his skates. Forward, defence - whatever. He even strapped on the pads and guarded the net for two seasons when the midget team's goalie quit.

"Stopped 67 of 69 shots in a double overtime game during league finals in my last year of midget," Brant remembers.

Family and friends - including Ellerby, a year younger than Brant - would also congregate in the Stickels' undeveloped basement and play hockey for hours.

"It would be so dusty down there, you couldn't even see," Brenda says. "They would literally wear their socks right off. They would come upstairs in bare feet with socks around their ankles. Just worn right out."

It was Brant's skills on the diamond that eventually earned him a ticket out of Veteran.

At 17, he landed a scholarship to play baseball at North Dakota's Minot State University - not exactly a dream come true. After playing only two innings in six months, he was so dejected he thought about packing it in. Maybe it was time to move on; start a family and work in the oilpatch, as most folks seemed to do back home.

"With kind of the way my family is, I said to him, 'I don't think you should quit,' " Brenda says. " 'You've dreamt of being a ballplayer since you were little. I think you should try going to Calgary.' "It was a new program and a new coach." And a fresh start.

A.J. Fystro had just taken over the University of Calgary team with a small, 25-man roster. The lack of players meant Brant was a utility player as well as a pitcher, first baseman and outfielder.

For a kid who had off-season odd-jobs such as building fences, rounding up cattle and cutting grass? No problem.

"Small-town mentality," Fystro says. "A farm boy, up early every morning - that's the way he came to the park every day. Full-work ethic, he gave it his all. Whether it was a practice or a game."

Calgary Vipers manager Morgan Burkhart shared the same sentiments. With the Dinos last season, Brant led the Canadian College Baseball Conference in strikeouts with 61 in 44 innings pitched. And after watching Brant pitch in his final game with U of C, Burkhart saw potential and invited Brant to the Vipers' 2010 Golden Baseball League spring camp.

"He just needed to pitch every day," Burkhart says. "But the talent was there.

"He wasn't there for the glory and he knew he wasn't going to play a lot."

Playing baseball for a living isn't exactly lucrative in Alberta. "If it was hockey, there would probably be 1,000 scouts looking at him right now," said Drew Miller, a Medicine Hat native and Brant's Vipers teammate. "When it comes to baseball out here, it's few and far between for any scouts to even see him."

Even advancing beyond the college ranks was a struggle. During a summer stint with the Western Major Baseball League's Medicine Hat Mavericks, Brant found himself buried in the bullpen.

"Nobody knew who I was," Brant says. "I was this tall, lanky, wild left-hander from Veteran, Alberta. They'd always put me on the bottom of the list under someone that had a reputation already. "There was a lot of doubt. I'd doubt myself a lot of the time."

But that doubt gave way to opportunity in October when the unthinkable happened. Doan, the veteran NHLer and a huge baseball fan, pulled some strings to get his cousin an audition with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He even paid for Brant's flight.

At the one-on-one, walk-on trial in Phoenix, the six-foot-five, 210-pounder threw only four pitches - one clocked at 92 miles an hour and another that almost took out the bullpen coach.

But it was enough to convince the Dodgers to sign a 23-year-old short on experience but long on raw talent to a minor-league contract. The deal is for an initial year, but means he'll be under the Dodgers' umbrella for up to seven years at the minor-league level.

Following the tryout, Brant pitched against the San Francisco Giants rookies in the instructional league in Glendale, Ariz., before the Dodgers sent him to Venezuela to play winter ball with an affiliate team for San Joaquin's Los Tiburones de la Guaira. He and Ontario native Jeff Hunt were the lone Canadians living in a hostel dorm room with 30 other players.

As a closer and reliever with the Tiburones, Brant gave up eight hits, one run, and struck out 10 batters in 10 innings - all on a diet of mostly chicken and rice.

At spring training next year, he'll compete for a single-A roster spot. But in the meantime, he's working on modelling his pitching style on sidearming lefty Javier Lopez from the World Series-winning San Francisco Giants.

"His low one-third arm slot delivery and the tailing movement on his pitches make him tough on left-handed hitters," said De Jon Watson, the Dodgers' assistant general manager of player development. "We were impressed by Brant's tryout and are looking forward to getting a better look at him in spring training."

Back home, the whole area is buzzing.

"My mom tells me every night who says, 'Good job' or whatever in e-mails, so that's good to hear, that those people are on my side," says Brant.

Elden explains it in hockey terms.

"The way I put it is he's made the WHL now. So, he's gotta make the AHL and then the NHL. That's the way I look at it. And he's gotta view it as his job now."

Whatever happens from this point on, Brant has already come a long way in a short time - against all odds.

"It's pretty amazing," says Brenda. "Nobody knows where Veteran is.

"Of course, it's hard to keep in perspective. His sister, is like, 'If you make lots of money, will you buy me . . .?' 'I'm like no, Karlin, he's a long ways from there.'

"We've always told him you have to work hard and absolutely do the best that you can. As long as you're doing that, things will come your way. And if they don't, then carry on with life. "Sometimes, you'll have a bad outing. But the sun comes up in the morning."

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