Blue Jays first base coach Tim Leiper calls Arizona home these days but should qualify for honorary Canadian citizenship given his ties north of the border.
Thanks to a past stint in Ottawa with the minor-league Lynx, Leiper (pronounced Leeper) is a valued member of Baseball Canada. And the appreciation goes both ways.
“This is the absolute best thing I’ve ever done,” said Leiper. “They are the greatest people. (Head coach and director of national teams) Greg Hamilton, (president) Ray Carter, (director general) Jim Baba. The guys that run the program, they’re the nicest people in the world. And we’ve kind of like become family.”
It started after Leiper became hitting coach of the triple-A Ottawa Lynx of the International League in 1999, eventually moving up to manager. There he became friends with Hamilton and, one day in 2003, he asked the Baseball Canada man if he ever needed help with the program.
“I didn’t think I could do it because I was from the States,” said Leiper. “He said he never asked me because he didn’t think I wanted to do it. That’s kind of how it started.”
They joined forces for Olympic qualifying in Panama later that year. Leiper, 47, has gone on to serve as a coach on the 2004 Canadian Olympic team as well as Canada’s 2006 and 2009 World Baseball Classic squads.
In 2009, he estimates he was involved in 255 games — a journey that included helping a Dominican Republic club team at the Caribbean World Series.
He was also part of the Baseball Canada staff that won bronze medals at both the 2008 and 2011 Baseball World Cups and the gold medal at the 2011 Pan-American Games.
Those connections made Leiper a natural to coach a Toronto split squad against the Canadian national junior team earlier this month while manager John Gibbons led another Jays team the same day against the Detroit Tigers in Lakeland.
Leiper’s affection for the opposition that day was plain to see. The Jays won 12-2 at Al Lang Field in St. Petersburg but it took a while to break down the Canadian teenagers.
And it was truly a Canada Day as the Jays threw out one Canadian prospect after another as the game wore on.
A former outfielder, Leiper spent 12 seasons in the farm systems of the Detroit Tigers, Pittsburgh Pirates, New York Mets and Kansas City Royals.
His minor league journey was bumpy but helped make him the coach he is today.
“I was a mess,” he said with a smile. “I was emotional. I couldn’t slow the game down.”
Coaching proved to be more up Leiper’s alley. He knows the stresses of the game and can see things through the players’ eyes.
“I know it’s a hard game ... When guys mess up, they don’t mean to mess up. When they play poorly, they don’t mean to play poorly. You realize that (you need to) keep it in perspective, it’s just one day. You go out and try to do your best the next day.”
Even superstars have bad days, he noted. But the really good ones can put the bad days aside and compete the next day as if nothing happened.
Leiper joined the Jays’ coaching staff in the off-season after spending the past year as a special assistant to player development in the Toronto system.
He knew GM Alex Anthopoulos and assistant GM Tony LaCava from their days together in the Montreal Expos organization, an education in itself due to the franchise’s lack of funds and constant turnover. That allowed him to become a triple-A manager at the age of 36, learning on the fly.
“I’ve really seen baseball from the ground up,” Leiper said. “This is kind of a new step.
“I enjoy it. I enjoy being around the guys. It’s great to be around motivated guys, especially us this year. We know what’s at stake, coming off a tough year but also knowing that we’re going to push forward and we want to be better.”
“Everyone keeps asking me what it’s like to be in the big leagues,” he added. “But the bottom line is it’s all about winning and we’ve got to do the little things to win.”
A glass half-full kind of guy with a contagious smile, Leiper says he has seen positives in all of the many stops on his baseball journey. He enjoys working with players, taking pleasure in their success.
Leiper, who succeeded the retired Dwayne Murphy, sees his role at first base to help his players “find a way to take an extra 90 feet.”
“I always say I’m responsible for the first 180 feet,” he said. “I think it’s important for us that we do something a little bit extra — not to be crazy and stealing bases and doing stuff, but allowing ourselves to take the ones that we can. Like if a pitcher gets lazy or they bounce the ball in the dirt and we can advance it.
“I think that’s going to help us ... I think we can improve our offence just by being a base-running team.”
Almost half of the Jays’ games last year were decided by two runs or less, he said. So any little edge during the game helps.
He still has good memories of his time with the Ottawa Lynx. The crowds were small but the fans who did show up knew the game, he recalls.
“A good baseball city with some good baseball roots.”
Leiper returns to the Canadian capital regularly.
“My children still live in Ottawa. I’m there half the winter, I’m still really tied to Ottawa and to Canada.”