In Canada, from every small town to major city, kids grow up playing hockey. As a kid growing up in St. Catharines, I dreamed about playing for the Leafs — roll your eyes if you have to — the team I loved and watched every Saturday night on CBC. And as much as I loved baseball and the Toronto Blue Jays, I, like many other Canadians, was just better at hockey. I never really dreamed about playing for the Toronto Blue Jays in the same way. However, a growing number of Canadian kids out there do dream of putting on the best blue and white jersey in this country and writing their names into Blue Jays lore.
Toronto Blue Jays prospect, Connor Panas, is one of them. He grew up in Etobicoke, a quick ten-minute drive from the Rogers Centre. As a kid, he idolized the Blue Jays and was lucky enough to grow up hanging around former Montreal Expos and Toronto Blue Jays catcher, Darrin Fletcher, who was his neighbour. Connor played little league baseball with Fletcher’s son, and they would go down to the SkyDome and hang out on the field with the players — pretty much living the dream of every young Jays fan.
Panas batted clean up for Dunedin this year and swung a hot bat that helped lead the High-A Blue Jays to becoming co-champions of the Florida State League. Connor wore number 27 before Vladdy Jr. arrived from Lansing and claimed that number for his own. So Panas changed his to 15, and it looks like that number might have worked out for him. After changing his number he truly started to heat up.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Connor and talk a bit about baseball, the minors, player development, and how young he is (or how old I am!) He may not know who John Candy is or be familiar with the Kids In The Hall, but Connor certainly knows how to get wood on the ball, and he really could end up becoming one of the best power-hitting prospects in the Blue Jays’ system — so I think we can forgive him for that (but seriously man, check out Uncle Buck now!).
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When did you realize that baseball was your thing? And how would it feel to be able to take the field one day at the place we all call Dome?
Growing up as a kid, I always had the dream of playing in the Major Leagues. Kids want to be astronauts, or police officers, or, you name it, but I’ve always just wanted to be a baseball player. But to get the opportunity to step on the field of the SkyDome, aka the Rogers Centre, it would be the best moment in my life. I am a hometown, grown kid — a local boy. There are no words that can describe it. It’s no longer a dream, it’s a goal.
Which Blue Jay did you look up to as a kid growing up in Toronto?
I’d have to say Darrin Fletcher because I was always around him and his son was my best friend. But, I guess, I would also say Carlos Delgado. And now he is one of our Blue Jays rovers, so I always see him. I always admired him, and I always watched him at the Rogers Centre. And I loved when he would put the balls off the glass in center field.
Have you worked closely with Delgado?
Oh, yeah, whenever he’s in town, he always works with us. He always gives us advice on our swing, or he’s there for us if we need to talk. Pretty much anything.
You were selected by the Blue Jays in the 9th round out of Canisius College in Buffalo. I grew up in St. Catharines and used to go to Buffalo for wings all the time – what is your favourite wing joint there? – I’m guessing it’s the Anchor Bar?
I mean, (long pause) Anchor Bar is pretty close to Canisius, so they’re pretty good. Ah, (long pause) there are just so many to choose from, but I would just say Anchor Bar because the wings are massive.
What does a typical Connor Panas offseason day look like?
Well, my offseason was sort of different this year because I had the chance to go to Australia and play for six weeks there, get some games in, get some reps and build off the season that I had. But, just a typical offseason day from Monday to Friday, I’m at different training facilities in the GTA and on Tuesday and Thursday at the Sky … ah, the Rogers Centre training facility. So I get the luxury of training there since I’m here in the offseason.
Before I went to Australia, I was lifting and working with Aaron Sanchez. I see guys every now and then when they are in the city. Basically, I get my work in. I hit, I throw, I run, and I do my lifting program. But I’ve also been doing something different, too. I’ve been training my eyes a bit because vision is a huge part of it.
Is this a new part of the performance program with the Blue Jays?
Not necessarily with the Blue Jays yet, but I’m sure they will eventually implement something with vision for the performance program, because they are big on that and trying to improve it. It’s just something that I found and that, you know, I’m just trying out because you always want that upper edge and that advantage on the competition. So if it’s going to give me that extra edge to see the ball better or recognize pitches better then I’m gonna try it.
You were one of the hottest prospects over the final two months of the season last year. Did you make any adjustments to your game that you think translated to the success you had?
At the beginning of the season, I was getting a few at-bats a week, and, you know, it’s hard to stay consistent that way. But, when I finally did get into the lineup everyday, I did make a physical adjustment, where I used to have a little leg kick – or whatever. In Lansing, I had it and that’s when my power numbers started to jump, but I found out that I had to be perfect to just square up balls consistently and stuff like that. So I made an adjustment with my hitting coach, Corey Hart — and one of my teammates suggested it, too — which was to not even pick up my front leg, because I was sort of just lunging forward and my head would move, and head movement and seeing the ball is the biggest thing for me. So basically keeping my front foot — not necessarily planted — but I don’t really lift it in the leg kick anymore and it allows my head to stay still and that allows me to see the ball better, recognize pitches better, and pick up spin. I literally started that on July 1st and the numbers showed.
I think you are close to becoming one of the system’s top power hitters. What personal goals have you set for yourself for next season?
I think it’s just a matter of staying consistent, you know. The big thing with baseball players is just staying consistent and not being too up or too down, just staying level minded. If I could do that, I think my numbers will either be the exact same, or even greater.
How did it feel to win the Florida State League championship with Dunedin this year while, y’know, kind of rocking it at the plate, hitting .333 with 4 hits and 5 RBIs in the series, including two dingers in the final-championship game?
Yeah, I had 3 home runs in that series, so, you know, I just wasn’t trying to do too much. I wanted to win, I just wanted to produce for my team, and I just allowed everything I’d done in the past few months lead up to that. I was just playing how I was expected to play at that point. And it felt good helping my team secure that championship. It’s a good feeling at the end of the season with all those guys being able to celebrate holding the trophy on the field.
OK, so I thought it would be fun to do a little Canadian kind of hoedown with you to end the interview [Note: it was during this part of the interview that I realized I’m getting pretty goddamn old].
Ketchup Chips or All Dressed?
A Double-Double or a Triple-Triple?
Ah, geez. Neither.
John Candy or Dan Aykroyd?
Is it bad that I don’t know who they are?
Poutine or Kraft Dinner?
If I had to choose, ah, man, (long pause) poutine.
Gretzky or Lemieux?
Joey Votto or Larry Walker?
Toronto or Turonno?
Half and half, man.
Kensington Market or St. Lawrence Market?
Yorkville or Queen St. West?
High Park or The Beaches?
High Park if I had a dog.
Bob or Doug McKenzie?
(Long pause) Bob!
(Ed. I honestly don’t think Connor knows who these two great knobhead characters are, and it was in that moment during our interview that I realized I’m getting old.)
Trailer Park Boys or Letterkenny?
Trailer Park Boys
SCTV or Kids In The Hall?
Ah, man, I don’t even know what that is.
Bacon or Bacon-bacon?
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I want to thank Connor Panas for doing this interview with me even though he helped me realize that young people might not know some of the great things that came out of the eighties.
It will be cool to see Connor pick up where he left off last season in Dunedin and make some prospect noise this year — and my bet is that this Canadian kid is going to be a name that we’ll be reading a lot more about. Let’s hope that one day sooner than later, we will get to see this young man live out his dream in the place we all call Dome!