Commentary

Canada's Aumont makes most of chance

20-year-old Canadian overcomes tough circumstances, comes through in tough spot

Updated: March 11, 2009, 12:20 AM ET
By Amy K. Nelson | ESPN.com

TORONTO -- Stephane Petronzio was sitting at home watching Phillippe Aumont take the mound in the biggest game of his life, and he knew the 20-year-old kid was nervous. Aumont's breathing was heavy; the way he was holding the baseball was different; and his pacing around the mound signaled intense nerves.

Petronzio, who has known Aumont since the pitcher was 14, had seen those nerves before, but not on this stage. Not in front of 42,000 countrymen at the Rogers Centre, pitching for Team Canada, trying to contain the heart of Team USA's batting order, a group composed of big league All-Stars.

Aumont, 6-foot-7 and 225 pounds, had never looked nor acted his age; he'd always been far more mature than his years. And although Petronzio saw all the warning signs of a meltdown, especially when Aumont loaded the bases with nobody out against the powerful Americans, he watched as Aumont tackled yet another difficult challenge in his life, in this case wriggling free from this tight spot against Team USA.

"What really impressed me was his composure," Petronzio said. "I could tell he was very, very nervous. This was the biggest event of his life."

It was that moment in this tournament that now, sadly for Team Canada, seems to be one of the lone highlights. The Canadians were eliminated from this year's World Baseball Classic, in which they opened in their own country, after dropping the opener to the U.S. on Saturday, then losing 6-2 to Italy on Monday night. If the country is looking for hope for the future of its baseball, turning to Aumont is a good place to start.

"It's one of the toughest losses I've ever been associated with in Team Canada," manager Ernie Whitt said. "If there's one positive at all, it's some of the kids threw well out of the 'pen."

Before Aumont was drafted 11th overall by the Mariners in 2007 and signed a $1.9 million bonus, his life had been filled with plenty of adversity, beginning when he was placed in foster care as a child. Aumont was hesitant to give specifics, but he rejoined his father at some point and spent most of his childhood with his dad, who first instilled a love of baseball in his son. Petronzio was coaching a summer league when Aumont, just 14 years old but already 6-2, arrived throwing a mid-80s fastball.

[+] EnlargePhillippe Aumont
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhPhillippe Aumont made a brief, but memorable, appearance for Team Canada in the WBC.

It wasn't just Aumont's size or the radar-gun reading that impressed Petronzio. There was something else.

"What really struck me was that he used to come to practice by bus," Petronzio said. "To me, that meant he was very passionate about baseball and was willing to work for it."

Petronzio at the time had no idea that Aumont had a difficult childhood, spent in Gatineau, Quebec, a place Aumont described as "ghetto." He was trying to escape drugs and a future destined for trouble. And, back then, Aumont was on the path many seem to be in Gatineau, an outpost of Ottawa: He was taking drugs and committing petty crimes.

"It was a pretty rough place," Aumont said. "There's lots of drugs and lots of bad kids. I was going in that direction, and I finally realized that's not what I want to do."

Petronzio, a baseball instructor at the high school Aumont attended in Gatineau, was unaware of Aumont's background when he offered to take him in. It would have been a difficult commute by bus each way for Aumont -- whose mother is head of housekeeping at a local hotel and whose father is in the moving business -- so he moved in with Petronzio , attending classes in the mornings and playing baseball in the afternoons.

"We wanted to get him off the street," Petronzio said. "Our first objective was to make him a good man. Baseball was secondary."

Aumont grew into a prospect in his four years at the academy and graduated, becoming the first in his family to do so. Greg Hamilton, the director of national teams for Baseball Canada, spotted Aumont at a tryout and immediately asked him to be part of Canada's junior national team.

"His street smarts, his life smarts, were very advanced in his sense of what he wanted to be and what he wanted to accomplish," Hamilton said. "He had a desire to be successful; he had a desire to be a good person."

Hamilton said one of Aumont's best moments was in Cuba, when he pitched four innings, then homered in extra innings to win the game. That's when Aumont, who didn't start pitching until he was 14, began to attract the attention of scouts at international tournaments.

"You could see this guy was a first-rounder," said a scout who followed Aumont. "There was no question in my mind."

The scout noticed that Aumont would take control of the game and that he wouldn't get rattled when in a jam. He also was impressed by the kid's ability to throw more than just an overpowering fastball. Aumont was with the Mariners in big league camp last spring when Mel Stottlemyre, Seattle's pitching coach, saw how different Aumont was from other big men he has worked with.

"Most of the guys I had that size didn't have the pitches he has," said Stottlemyre, the bullpen coach for Team USA. "They would be strictly fastball pitchers. He's not. He's got a very good breaking ball and a start of a good changeup."

When Stottlemyre first met Aumont, he thought Aumont was ticketed for Triple-A, not having realized the kid had never thrown a professional pitch.

Aumont's repertoire is what helped him escape the jam of his baseball life Saturday. With Canada trailing 6-4 in the seventh inning, Aumont -- whose only experience pitching against professional hitters was with Class A Wisconsin last season -- had to open up against the top of Team USA's order. "I thought 'Oh boy, this poor kid isn't going to get out of the inning,'" Stottlemyre said.

Dustin Pedroia, last year's American League MVP, doubled to lead off the inning. Jimmy Rollins, a former NL MVP, followed with an infield single. With Chipper Jones batting, Aumont threw a wild pitch, which advanced both runners into scoring position.

Aumont admitted to feeling nerves against Jones. He was well aware of Jones' .364 average in 2008. He walked Jones to load the bases. It was then, with the bases loaded, nobody out and the heart of the order coming up that his good friend and teammate, Brett Lawrie, realized this was a defining moment for Aumont.

"Everyone's got their hearts in their mouth," Lawrie said.

Aumont didn't panic, he said, and that's how he got cleanup hitter David Wright -- who admitted to having no idea who Aumont was -- on a lineout and Kevin Youkilis on a strikeout. Just one out from escape, Aumont found himself in a 2-2 count against Curtis Granderson. With everyone in the building standing, Team Canada catcher Russell Martin called for a fastball. Aumont shook him off and threw a curveball. Granderson swung and missed, and Aumont stomped off the mound yelling and pumping his fists.

"Once he got through it, he knew he did something great. And everyone knew he did," Lawrie said. "It takes [guts] to throw a curveball 2-2 to Curtis Granderson, and he did it. And hats off to him, it was awesome to see."

Not only were Hamilton and Lawrie able to witness Aumont's coming-out party up close but his parents, sister and four friends from Gatineau did, too. With so many friends whose lives have been impacted by drugs, Aumont said he feels grateful that he was able to have a career and a life away from his hometown.

"I got a gift; I probably got somebody looking out for me, somewhere," he said. "I was born at the right time, and I was at the right place every moment. I just feel I'm really lucky, really gifted and, obviously, I try and enjoy it as much as I can."

Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at amy.k.nelson@espn3.com.

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