#Parana2012 - To Argentina and back again

November 22, 2012

Delhi, ON

When you sign up to coach a world championship taking place in Argentina, you know it's going to be an experience.



George Ryder got everyone associated with his trip to the 2012 ISF Junior Men's World Championships in Parana, Argentina, to sign this ball wrap made by his sister-in-law Bonnie Brown. The ball wrap is dedicated to the memory of James Robert Buck (1923-2007). (JEFF DERTINGER Simcoe Reformer)



When you sign up to coach a world championship taking place in Argentina, you know it's going to be an experience.

George Ryder went through some kind of experience alright.

Ryder, 52, was the pitching coach for Team Canada at this year's International Softball Federation (ISF) Junior Men's World Championship in Parana, Argentina. The end result of that event — a fourth-place finish for Canada and an Argentinian victory — is just one small part of Ryder's story, however.

In the span of a few short weeks, the Port Dover resident had to deal with the death of a loved one, battle a bout of sickness in a foreign land, watch as dumb luck decided the outcome of years of preparation, and witness first-hand the kindness, generosity and caring perfect strangers can show one another.

Team Canada may not have come home with a medal, but George Ryder doesn't need any object by which to remember these past few weeks.


Team Canada

Ryder's journey actually began two years ago when he was tabbed to be a member of the junior national team coaching staff by Softball Canada.

Working under head coach Tom Doucette — who himself has been a part of Softball Canada since 1979 and has coached in four world championships — Ryder's job was to assemble and look after the pitching staff. Over the next two years, Doucette and his staff scouted more than 1,000 players across the country.

Ryder traveled all over Canada, visiting with prospects, their coaches and their families. The staff eventually narrowed the field of players under the age of 19 down to 30 invites for a training camp in Kitchener this past August. From that camp, 17 were selected to wear the maple leaf and represent their nation, half a world away.

The team was ready and the plane trip was booked, with Oct. 26 circled as the departure date. The plan was to get down there early to get plenty of work done in the staging event taking place prior to the actual tournament.


Tragedy strikes

The week of the trip, tragedy befell the Ryder family. George's mother Ruth Ryder passed away at Norfolk General Hospital at the age of 88 of bone cancer.

The funeral was set for Oct. 25, one day before Team Canada left its native soil.

“It's tough,” Ryder says, trying to find the words. “At first I really didn't know what to do or how to handle things. I mean . . .

“One thing is for sure, Softball Canada was absolutely great about everything. They told me whatever I needed — whether I wanted to stay home, change my plane ticket to a later date, whatever. They left it completely up to me.”

After talking it over with family and friends, Ryder decided to travel with the team. He said being able to focus on ball really helped, allowing him to escape completely from his thoughts for a time.

“When the games were actually going on, that was the best for me. All you think about is the game, and you're lost in the moment.”

Ryder was back in the game, but there was another curveball heading Team Canada's way.


Battling Sickness

Just a few days into the trip, people began heading for the toilets.

Sixteen of the 17 players, all the coaches, some of the parents who traveled with the team and even the group's local security guard and translator came down with a stomach illness. Other teams were equally afflicted, and the suspected cause was the group mess hall, although that was never confirmed.

Those afflicted developed a rash on the outside while their guts churned inside. Ryder said a new rule was quickly put in place.

“Every player was told to take two pairs of ball pants, extra underwear and a roll of toilet paper to the park with them, because if it isn't you in need, it's gonna be the guy beside you.”


The Tournament

By the time tournament play began Nov. 1, most of the team was feeling better, or at the least learning how to cope.

Canada lost its first game 1-0 to host Argentina, but bounced back to finish round robin play 4-2 (the other loss coming to Japan). In the elimination round, Canada first beat Denmark 7-0, then downed the U.S. 4-2.

With a spot in the medal round on the line, Canada faced Australia, the same team that beat them for gold in the last World Championship. With the score tied 2-2 entering the seventh, Australia took a 3-2 lead in the top half, putting the pressure on Canada's shoulders.

With two outs and runners on second and third, opportunity struck. A wild pitch went past the Australian catcher, and Canada's runner on third took off for home.

Through some sheer force of will — luck, chance, whatever you want to call it — that passed ball caromed off a piece of concrete foundation just so, landing right back in the catcher's mitt as he turned around to look for it. Still standing close to home plate, it was an easy tag out, giving Australia the victory and ending Canada's run.

Doucette, who has seen it all in his 64 years, can only wonder at what could've been had the ball bounced differently.

“I know if we got through that game, I liked our chances going forward (against Japan and Argentina),” Doucette said in a telephone interview from his home in Musquodoboit Harbour, Nova Scotia. “I'm very, very proud of the boys though. Of course we would've liked things to go differently, but I'm pleased with how they represented their county. They were true ambassadors, true gentlemen.”


Pitch Perfect

Doucette is quick to point out, his team's downfall had nothing to do with the pitching staff. The head coach called his team's ace, Michael Lagace-Roote of New Hamburg, “the top pitcher in the tournament.”

Fellow hurlers Steven Normand, Ty Sebastian and Cole Bolton also drew praise from the boss, giving full credit to the job Ryder did.

“George is very good at what he does. He's knowledgeable about the game and the position, and he should consider this a job well done,” Doucette said. “I tip my cap to him.”

Ryder has nothing but praise as well for his pitchers and his skipper, noting the team's defence was as good as any in the tournament.

The problem for Canada was the offence. The team simply couldn't get anything going, and when opportunities did present themselves, they were unable to take advantage.

Doucette said this had as much to do with the tournament being held in Canada's off-season as anything else. While the eventual champions in Argentina never stopped playing in the lead-up, our squad was already trading in cleats for skates.

“Maybe if the boys used hockey sticks instead of baseball bats, we would've won this thing,” he quipped.


Warming the Heart

Despite all the things that went wrong, there's no way any members of Team Canada will remember this as a wasted trip. From the time they stepped off the plane until the time they left, the city of Parana and the Argentinian people made the newcomers feel welcome and appreciated.

“When 7,000 people turn out to watch a junior fastball game, it's something to see,” Ryder said. “The crowds there were so into it. They've worked hard to grow the sport in Argentina, and you can see it has paid off.”

While Ryder was working with the pitchers one afternoon, a youngster came scampering up. The young man told Ryder he himself was a pitcher, and asked if he could get any tips. Ryder spent about three hours working with him on his grips and form and such, a rich experience for both parties.

When the tournament was over, Ryder gave his ball bag to the kid, thinking nothing of the gesture. The Argentinian was so moved, he decided to give Ryder a gift in return. The young man got everyone in his section of the stadium to sign a softball, then presented that ball to the pitching coach.

“It was really great. All the players were trading jerseys, giving away equipment — it just made the experience even greater,” Ryder said.

Ryder brought along another piece of memorabilia, a bat wrap, which holds bats and can be tied up to the dugout fence. The wrap was made by Ryder's sister-in-law, Bonnie Brown, and is dedicated to James Robert Buck (1923-2007) a decorated war veteran and huge contributor to the local fastball scene. Ryder got everyone involved with the trip to sign it, in a show of camaraderie and friendship.


What's next?

For his part, Doucette says the Argentina trip was his last heading up a national team.

“I've had a wonderful run, and it's just time to move on,” Doucette said. “I've mentored many coaches, and I know many who are fully prepared to step in. They're well-versed in what they do, and I know the program will be in good hands.”

The next ISF World junior men's event will be in Whitehorse, Yukon, in 2014. Ryder has already applied to be part of the next national team coaching staff, but said he's fully aware how many great coaches are out there.

The last month has been a trying one for Ryder, but also an uplifting one. No matter what cards the future holds, Argentina is one experience he's not ever likely to forget.


Jeff Dertinger

519-426-3528 ext. 134