Playing a Game, Spreading a Language

This may come as a surprise, but hockey isn't the sport of choice for every Canadian anymore. Just ask Luke Carlin, who spent last season with the Mobile BayBears, a Double-A affiliate of the San Diego Padres. That's right—baseball. In fact, the 24-year old catcher from Aylmer, Quebec in Canada played just about every sport in high school BUT hockey. Football, volleyball, track, basketball; he played them all at Philemon Wright. But wait, why not baseball when he gets paid to play it now?

"In Canada, a lot of the schools in Quebec didn't have baseball," Carlin explained, "so I had to play on a club team during the summer. I don't even consider myself a hockey fan."

Carlin is part of a strange breed of individuals from Canada whose sport of choice is becoming more and more-so baseball.

"Canadian baseball players have jumped leaps in the last ten years as far as being seen by college recruiters and pro scouts," said Carlin. "Now they have a lot of traveling teams that go all throughout the states and compete against different colleges in exhibition games."

At 15, Carlin began playing competitive baseball on a team that traveled to the states. According to him, traveling south of the border is the best way for a Canadian to gain exposure in America's pastime.

"It was tough for me (to get noticed)," he said, "but we got to play against some of the better American teams. That's how you get seen. Scouts go to see the American teams and we just happen to be playing them."

Assuming he'd have better opportunities in the states, the 5-foot-11, 185 pound Carlin played college ball at Northeastern in Boston, where he put together a .326 career batting average in 148 games from 2000-2002. He also totaled 15 home runs, 97 RBI, and 35 stolen bases and was a first team America East All-Conference selection in his final season before Detroit drafted him in the 10th round of the Major League Draft in 2002 (290th overall). The Padres then signed him on April 29, 2003 after his release from the Tigers a month earlier.

"I loved it at Northeastern. Boston was a great town to be in," said Carlin, who grew up rooting for the Red Sox. "We got to play at Fenway every year which was amazing. For me to be able to play at Fenway in a baseball city was something that was really important to me. Plus, it's a private school so the schooling was excellent as well."

Red Sox hitters will admit that the towering green wall in left field is not one of their better friends. Carlin, however, seemed to get along just fine with the "Green Monster". After all, he did smash his first college home run over the 37-foot wall, no easy feat at that.

For the sake of his hitting, it's a good thing he came to the states.

"Nobody really knew how to coach a swing in Canada," he said. "We didn't have a lot of coaches with college or professional experience, and that was a lot more readily accessible to American players. They knew a lot more about hitting and had the right resources. That's not to say that the stuff we were taught wasn't good. It was just that I'd much rather learn hitting from a former major leaguer than a 15-year Little League coach."

America isn't the only other country in which Carlin has played. Though he's still upset with the fact that that baseball is no longer in the Olympics, in September of this year, he represented Canada in the 2005 Baseball World Cup, held in five different cities in the Netherlands. The Canadians went 4-4 and Carlin played in seven of eight games, going 5-for 20 (.250) with one RBI. And while he was at it, he got to see a little of the countryside too, when he wasn't too busy "scouting" the different countries.

"At first I didn't know what to expect, but it was awesome. We played some teams that were at a college level, but six out of nine guys in the Cuban starting lineup could play in the majors here right now."

That could be why Cuba ended up winning the 18-team tournament.

"Each country played a different style of baseball over there. China, for instance, would play a lot of small ball, hitting kind of like Ichiro Suzuki from Japan. Their pitching mechanics are a lot different over there too. What we think is out of the norm over here as in the way Chan Ho Park or Hideo Nomo pitch, that's a regular occurrence over there. That's how they pitch."

With that many teams playing in one tournament, Carlin also had the opportunity to communicate with people of many different languages. Or try to.

"I was surprised to find out that a lot of the eastern countries didn't know English well at all," he said. "We would try to talk to people from Japan or China or South Korea, but they didn't speak any English at all. But I can speak Spanish so I was able to talk to the Cubans."

Carlin's mother is French, and growing up, he attended a French-American school. Not only is he now trying to become fluent in Spanish as well, but he also thinks that foreign languages should be a requirement for everyone.

"It's getting to the point for me where I'm learning more Spanish rather than trying to have pitchers learn more English," he said. "The American players need to come half-way as far as language is concerned, and a lot of them are.

"Baseball is such an American sport, but it's also played in so many countries. It's like we have such a good thing here that we don't really know what's going on in the other countries with their baseball, but I don't think there is a language barrier as much in baseball as there used to be."

Carlin said that Ozzie Guillen is a perfect example of someone who can help break down a barrier if ever one still existed.

"(Guillen) really understands the American game, speaks Spanish, and is still a great motivator. There may be a lot of major league managers who can't speak Spanish or Japanese, for instance, but there is not one team in the majors that can't get through to a Spanish or Japanese player."

One Spanish-speaking player that Carlin knows very well is former Northeastern star Carlos Pena, who is now the regular first baseman for the Tigers. Carlin lived with his family for two off-seasons.

"(Pena's) as good as they get as far as personality is concerned," he said. "His brother is my best friend. A lot of my success is credited to that family, and everything I learned from Carlos has helped a lot too."

Pena and Carlin are both very qualified candidates for Northeastern's Hall of Fame. On the school's all-time list for career numbers, Carlin ranks fourth in on-base percentage (.444) and runs scored (128), fifth in walks (98), and tenth in stolen bases (35). He also led his team with a .364 batting average in his last year. Pretty good numbers for a catcher.

Mitch Duggins, a pitcher on the current Husky team, didn't play with Carlin but spoke very highly of him.

"He's considered one of the best, if not the best, catcher to come through Northeastern, especially because of his defense," Duggins said. "He has an amazing arm. Very few balls get past him."

Carlin, who was second best in the Southern League at throwing out runners attempting to steal, 48 percent (36-of-75), and led the category until the final week of the season, credits his catching instructor, Joe Ferguson, for his success behind the plate.

"I'm very quick with my feet, I have good hands, and a fairly strong arm, which makes a good recipe for throwing runners out," he said, "but I wasn't in sync with everything. My timing was off, my footwork was wrong, I was doing the wrong things with my hands, and I was inaccurate with my arm. I wasn't using any of my tools to help me, and Joe helped me a lot with things like my footwork and how to transfer the ball out of my glove.

"I really had no idea that I led the Southern League (in throwing out runners) until the very last week of the season when someone told me (Chris Stewart of Birmingham overtook him in the final days). That's when I realized that what Joe showed me really worked. One of my biggest improvements this year was to be able to control the running game."

Carlin's also not so bad from either side of the plate with a bat in his hands. Last season with the BayBears, the switch-hitter batted .257 in 88 games, with two home runs and 25 RBI.

"When I was about 12, I thought I should try (switch-hitting), and my dad took me to the batting cages to work on it. Eddie Murray was the first person I realized that was a switch-hitter, but even though I was a Red Sox fan, I really had an appreciation for Mickey Mantle.

"Switch-hitting definitely helps for a situational at-bat where I could be used off the bench from either side. To a manager's standpoint, it would be very advantageous, and to me it helps because I really don't have any pitch that breaks away from my body. The curveballs always come in to me. The only pitches that go away are two-seam fastballs or changeups with movement, and even those don't really move a lot away from me."

Now in the off season, Carlin is at home for the first time since high school, but he still works out every day and hits four times a week. Other than that, it's a whole lot of relaxing for the guy who wouldn't want to play baseball anywhere but in San Diego someday.

"San Diego's beautiful and would be the perfect place to play," Carlin said. "The Padres have a lot of fans, and it's a great atmosphere for a team that moved into a new stadium, something you don't see too often.

"If you get a chance to play in a baseball city, it makes life so much easier. To have that pride for the team that you play for, it really helps you become successful."

Carlin is right on the path to succeed. But forget hockey. Luke Carlin lives, eats, and breathes baseball. And hey, he can even speak a little baseball too.

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