NEW BRITAIN - For New Britain Bees outfield Michael Crouse, there is nothing to compare being in front of 35,000 screaming fans at Marlins Park. It is an experience all on its own.
While most players spent their final moments of the offseason working out and preparing for the upcoming year, Crouse spent nine days about as far as a player in the Atlantic League can get from New Britain Stadium.
In the beginning of March, the 26-year-old was around the likes of current and former Major League players that included Freddie Freeman, Ryan Dempster, John Axford, Éric Gagné and Justin Morneau as part of Team Canada in the World Baseball Classic.
“It was amazing,” Crouse said of the experience. “It was nine days of big league experience, hanging around a bunch of guys, prospects that are in Triple-A and probably going to be in the big leagues this year, ex-big leaguers like Dempster, Gagné and Morneau. It was an awesome experience, especially playing against teams like the Dominicans, Colombia and the USA. It was an experience that I haven’t really experienced before.”
In 105 games with the Bees last season, Crouse hit .291 with 10 home runs, 60 RBI and stole 51 bases after being traded from the Lancaster Barnstormers. In Miami, he had the chance to work alongside and observe a former AL MVP and NL batting champion in Morneau and an all-star in Freeman and ask questions that could help improve his own game.
“You don’t want to be a pest, but around [batting practice] that’s when you try to pick people’s brains,” Crouse said. “Around BP you would see how they work and ask, ‘why do you work like that,’ and observe and ask questions based on what you see. Do they do things different than you? Do they do things the same? You ask about the little things they do.”
Officially, in the three games Canada played against the Dominican Republic, Columbia and then Team USA, Crouse registered just two at-bats. But what he took away from his time on the national team was much more than how much playing time he received or how many times he stepped to the plate.
“That’s where I belonged,” said Crouse in response to what he took away from the tournament. “I felt extremely comfortable being up there, with the lifestyle and holding yourself accountable for every little thing. It felt natural.”
Canada ended up going 0-3 in pool play and afterward Crouse continued his training in Florida before working his way back up to New Britain in preparation for the start of the Atlantic League season. Something of a far cry from the feel of the Miami Marlins’ home ballpark.
“It’s a little bit of a transition,” Crouse said with a laugh. “I mean, the baseball part of it, it’s baseball. The atmosphere part of it, the fields, are extremely different. But you just mentally get over that and focus on baseball. A lot of guys in this league can go and compete in the World Baseball Classic with the level of talent in this league. As far the fields go, there are some nice fields here, but it’s hard to compare to Marlins Park in front of 35,000.”
Now, as the Bees begin their second season as a franchise and Crouse his first season as the full time centerfielder from the start, he believes this team has the chance to compete for more than just the playoff spot that eluded the club last year. It will just be about how the players in the clubhouse attack the season.
“New year and everyone is healthy, I think we can be really good,” Crouse said. “I think it comes down to the mindset of ‘is everyone going to buy in right away’ and get rid of their egos that they’re out of affiliated ball, or didn’t get a different job, and get that out of the way and accept that we’re playing for the Bees, that we may not want to be here, but show your best. If we can do that, we have the names to be one of the best teams in the league.”