MONTREAL – We met the version of Éric Gagné Game over while his arrival at the low mound welcomes to the Jungle it was enough to terrify hitters. But when he left Quebec in 1993, Gagné needed support to spread his wings.
At that point, the 17-year-old pitcher had to learn to step out of his comfort zone. He was representing Canada at the World Junior Championships in Windsor, and he found that English-speaking environment scarier than any hitter his age.
Life got him right when Ryan Dempster became the reassuring teammate he was looking for.
“I had a lot of good teammates, but Ryan was very important to me. Maybe he doesn’t even know it, but he had a huge impact,” Gagné began.
“I barely said anything in English when I arrived with the Canadian team. Ryan, he’s a clown! He is always in a good mood, he does magic tricks. He helped me fit in, make others laugh a little in English, and not get too stressed. He is the player who influenced me the most as a teammate,” the 46-year-old Quebecer boasted.
When we wanted to know why, according to him, Dempster had shown such an openness towards him, Gagné amused himself by saying “that he must have found it pitiful to speak English like that”.
Recalling this chapter of his career, Gagné revives a panoply of good memories.
“When you are young, you know nothing. You’re 17, 18, you’re having fun, and all you want is to be able to find $5-10 to buy a beer after the game. They were the good old days. You just want to play baseball and have fun,” the right-hander agreed.
But Dempster’s influence was very important as it better prepared Gagne for human relations in the Major Leagues.
“It made me feel a little more comfortable with English speakers and even Dominicans. In the sense that even if you speak French, you share something in common with others,” Gagné said.
“Because you want to, you don’t want to, when you arrive with the Canadian team and you don’t speak English, the three or four Quebecers go to their little corner and do their business together. It’s the same on a professional level, it clicks. Ryan understands the feeling of being part of a team. […] It brings people together, it’s always positive. In short, he is a good ambassador for baseball,” said Gagné, who finds it very natural to see him now hosting a podcast (off the mound) in which he dialogues with important personalities from the world of baseball.
By a wonderful coincidence, Gagné was privileged to make his first major league start on September 7, 1999, against Dempster and the Marlins in Florida. In addition, Gagne had hit Dempster and the two pitchers had not allowed earned runs in this matchup won 2-1 by the Dempster Marlins.
Without the Expos, Gagné wants to help the next generation
Their bond continued in 2017 when they returned to action to round out Canada’s young pitching staff at the World Baseball Classic.
“We were the two old men, the two grandparents,” laughs Gagné.
“It was funny because I saw him often during training camps, but we had never played together. It was nice to help the young people and represent Canada,” added the man who has several mutual friends with Dempster, including Justin Morneau.
Gagné hasn’t had a flawless career, but he has the merit of giving back to the next generation. He knows all too well what it takes for Quebecers like Abraham Toro and Charles Leblanc to stand out from the great competition of professional baseball.
“When you are a professional player, you are good. The difference, to have a good career or even reach the Majors, is to have self-confidence and be comfortable in your surroundings,” said Gagné, who has often hosted players in his home to give them advice and train with them.
“This is what is missing a little in the play This day. We always hear about statistics and data, but rarely do we stop at team spirit and things we can’t calculate. We say, more and more, that we should let young people play and have fun, experience emotions, and sometimes do stupid things. It helps express your personality and flourish,” he continued when Dempster had given him the tools to do so.
Gagné agreed to take mutual aid to another level by collaborating on a 12-day camp of nearly 40 ABC (Canadian Baseball Academy) players in Arizona.
“I wanted them to be able to feel like big-league guys. That way, when they continue to rank up, they won’t be too lost or overwhelmed. Otherwise, when you’re scared or intimidated, your body doesn’t work as well. I want to show them that we are in this together, we are all trying to help each other ”, launched the former Dodgers, Rangers, Red Sox, and Brewers.
The young people were able to visit the “Mecca of baseball” as Gagné calls it, played games in the most beautiful training fields, and met various personalities such as Trevor Bauer and Jonny Gomes. Oh yes, they also faced shots from Gagne!
“We want to show them where we’ve been, the mistakes we’ve made, and try to guide them in the right direction,” admitted the right-hander.
His goal is to show them that, like Russell Martin, Phillippe Aumont, Abraham Toro, and him – and soon Charles Leblanc – did, they can play in a Major League team.
“Les petits culs du Québec, maybe I shouldn’t say that word, we’re not used to seeing people in Los Angeles. We don’t think that’s possible. But it’s fun if you can see Russell, Abraham, me or Charles. »
The road is still laborious. Especially in the minors where the kids have to survive on crumbs and lots of peanut butter sandwiches.
“We are trying to prepare them because it will not be easy. They go, run, a little and they travel everywhere without seeing their families. I had a lot of ups and downs in my career, so I want to give back to young people. We are trying to have a positive impact,” Gagné said.
That said, as a child, Gagné had the privilege of watching the Expos and imagining himself on the mound at the Olympic Stadium.
“I was lucky, but the team left. On the other hand, we have players who are good ambassadors. It is our job to help them”, she concluded with a message that will hook quite a few gamers.
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