Of all the high-profile Island athletes this spring-summer sporting season — think the likes of Jamie Benn and Ryan Cochrane — the most enigmatic may be Michael Saunders. But don’t look away.
After missing all but nine games last season due to a freakish pre-season accident when he stepped on a sprinkler head, and an aborted pre-season trade attempt to the Los Angeles Angels, the 29-year-old Victoria baseball product is back with a vengeance.
Heading into Saturday, the former Lambrick Park Secondary all-rounder in basketball and volleyball, led the Toronto Blue Jays with a .324 batting average.
That was abetted by his two home runs in Friday night's 6-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays that gave him four homers along with 23 hits, 13 runs and eight RBIs in 18 games.
More pointedly, the 2004 B.C. Premier League MVP during his Victoria Mariners days, has an on-base percentage of .377. That goes with a career trend in which the Islander's on-base percentage of .304 has run ahead of his batting average of .234 in 580 MLB games with the Blue Jays and Seattle Mariners.
That's one of the reasons — along with the deceptive speed coiled in his six-foot-four frame — the Jays made left-fielder Saunders their lead-off hitter nine games ago. He has responded by banging .368, with 14 hits in 38 at-bats, up to Friday as a lead-off batter. Saunders noted he has batted lead-off before in his career and an at-bat is an at-bat regardless of where it comes in the order.
“I don't change the way I approach the plate or how I swing,” Saunders said in an interview.
Despite his travails since joining the Jays last year, Saunders knows he is fortunate to have spent his MLB career with the two teams that most Islanders grow up cheering for — the Blue Jays and Mariners.
So he admits it was “very hard” watching from the disabled list last season’s Jays run to their first playoff berth in 22 years. But the national reaction to the run reopened his eyes to what the Jays mean to fans in this country as the lone MLB team.
“It really hits you that it’s not just Toronto's team. It’s Canada’s team,” said Saunders, who represented his country in both the 2013 World Baseball Classic and 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics.
Some consider it a disappointingly slow start to the 2016 season for the highly touted Jays. But baseball is not a sport in which success or failure is declared in April.
“We have a lot of talent in that clubhouse. It’s only a matter of time until that is going to start to show,” said Saunders, who still fondly recalls those many afternoons spent hitting and catching with his dad at Majestic Park in Gordon Head.
This year, he will relish feeling more a part of it with the Jays. After all he's been through, he has earned that chance.