Saunders, who first represented Canada at the Little League World Series when he was 12, has donned the red and white for this country in numerous international tournaments including the Beijing Olympics and the World Baseball Classic. Tall and physically imposing as a teen, he joined Canada's Junior National Team at 15 and ended his playing days 17 years later, a member of another Canadian entry, this time in the 2019 World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) Premier12 tournament.
“When you start sort of listing the connectivity and the list of accomplishments to Baseball Canada and extending out, you know, he's always cared deeply about representing his country,” Greg Hamilton, head coach and director of the men’s national teams for Baseball Canada, tells Capital Daily. “He's passionate about it.”
Father taught him the game
Saunders consistently answered the call from Baseball Canada, and most recently when Hamilton rang him up to tell him about his selection to its Wall of Excellence, his first thought he says, was of his father Derek.
“He was my first coach, whether he knew it or not, he really was, you know,” he says.
“He threw batting practice and hit me ground balls till I literally could not move anymore, so you know, I wouldn't be here obviously, without my dad.”
Like most athletes who make it to the top levels in their sport, he was lovestruck with baseball the moment he picked up a bat.
“My first memory was being you know, six years old playing catch in the backyard with my dad and throwing me BP (batting practice) with a tennis ball, you know, this kind of stuff, and hitting them into the neighbor's yard and just having fun.”
He couldn’t have known at age 11 when accompanying his Gordon Head Little League teammates to Seattle to see his first MLB game that, one day he would play there—albeit at Safeco Field (now T-Mobile Park), which would replace the Kingdome as the Mariners’ home.
“To get drafted by Seattle, I was thrilled obviously, and all of their minor league teams are pretty much West Coast, so it allowed my parents to travel around a little bit to watch me play as I was going through the system,” says Saunders, who grew up idolizing Mariners superstar Ken Griffey Jr.
Five-tool man impresses his BCPBL skipper
The foundation of his rise through the Mariners farm system has its roots in the BC Premier Baseball League’s Victoria Mariners where he played third base.
His manager—someone with whom he would develop a deep friendship—was Mike Chewpoy who immediately recognized the kid could play.
“I mean, he was a five-tool player,” Chewpoy tells Capital Daily, referring to Saunders’ speed, ability to hit for average and for power, his above-average fielding, and his throwing arm strength.
Chewpoy felt even though Saunders had what was considered the “best high school arm in the country”, angle-wise, Saunders would be better served to weaponize that cannon arm in the outfield.
The move to "the cow” would be cemented when he attended junior college in Tallahassee, where he shared the outfield with fellow future major leaguer Lorenzo Cain, who would win a World Series with the Kansas City Royals in 2015.
But what stood out to Chewpoy was Saunders’ power. The kid could swat.
“Some of the home runs he hit, I mean, they should have had a stewardess on them,” Chewpoy says, referring to batted balls taking flight like jet aircraft.
“There was no doubt in my mind the first time I saw him in my life—this kid's going to the big leagues.” Chewpoy wasn’t wrong.
The call from the Emerald City
With their 11th-round pick in the 2004 MLB draft, the Mariners selected Saunders—as a right-handed pitcher from Lambrick Park Secondary. His strong arm may have made Saunders a candidate for the mound, but his ability to lose baseballs over the fence made it clear he had to play daily.
Saunders slowly rose through the ranks with learning stops through the minor leagues, eventually finding himself in Triple-A Tacoma, the Mariners’ top farm team, and one step away from The Show.
His 2009 season was among his best in the bushes, when he hit 13 home runs and sported a .313 batting average, earning him a call-up to the majors where he stayed for 46 games.
Not quite ready for prime time, Saunders began the 2010 season in Tacoma, but in early May he was again promoted to the big team. This time he would stick.
Not even a week after arriving in Seattle, Saunders had what he describes as easily his biggest thrill as a big leaguer, his No. 1 moment after playing 775 MLB games.
“There's one that really stands above everything else,” he tells Capital Daily. It was Sunday, May 10, the day he hit his first major league home run. And his mother—who was battling cancer— was in the stands.
“I was able to hit it into the bullpen and our bullpen catcher was able to get it and give it to me and I was able to give it to my mom after the game.”
Saunders’ mother Jane would pass away one year later.
The homer happened on Mother’s Day.
Another thing about that swing (and his idol)
And, Chewpoy says, because it was Mother's Day most players symbolically included pink in their uniforms and used pink bats at the plate.
“And being a rookie, he didn't have a pink bat and Ken Griffey Jr. gave him one, and that’s what he hit it with.”
Chewpoy’s voice cracks as he tells the story, a testament to the closeness he feels with Saunders.
“I was there for him when his mom died of cancer—he was there from when my dad died of cancer,” Chewpoy says.
“We have a pretty special relationship. He's like, the most loyal person, aside from my family that I've ever met.”
Saunders' showed that loyalty once again to his country in 2013. In three games of the World Baseball Classic, he posted a .727 (8-for-11) batting average, with a home run and seven runs batted in to take MVP honours in Canada’s pool. The team would brawl with Mexico and almost pull off an upset over the United States, and the up-and-down experience left Saunders mentally drained.
“I was exhausted once the tournament was over, just because of how emotionally invested I was,” he tells Capital Daily. “Being one pitch away from advancing and knocking out Team USA, you know, so for me, it was really bittersweet.”
As a Mariner, Saunders says he used to look forward to playing in Toronto and “always thought it was really cool that when you stepped up to the plate as a visiting player, they put a little maple leaf up on the on the Jumbotron next to your stats or your name or whatever to let everyone know hey, this guy's Canadian.”
The call from the Big Smoke
In 2015, "A dream came true for me” he says, when the Mariners traded him to the Blue Jays for pitcher J.A. Happ.
"To one day just put on that Jays uniform and represent not only Toronto but Canada as a Canadian, and then to get the love from the crowd was special," he tells Capital Daily.
“I'm getting goosebumps actually talking about it right now because it's just bringing up awesome memories.”
Saunders has vivid memories of the emotionally charged Game 5 of the Jays' 2015 American League Divisional Series against the Texas Rangers highlighted by Jose Bautista's tape-measure shot over the left-field wall, which he punctuated by tossing his bat. Saunders considers it one of the “most iconic” moments in sports. “The place was going crazy—it was deafening,” he says.
“You could tell that his emotions got the best of him and it just happened naturally,” he says of his teammate's notorious bat flip. “I loved it.”
The Jays won that game and series but would go on to lose to Kansas City and Saunders' Tallahassee pal Cain.
The following season, Saunders led the Jays with a .429 batting average as Toronto fell one round short of the World Series again, this time losing to the then-Cleveland Indians in six games in the American League Championship Series.
Traded to the Philadelphia Phillies the following season, he wrapped up his time as a Blue Jay when Toronto reacquired him later that summer.
Saunders had stints with four other MLB teams (Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Baltimore, and Chicago White Sox) and signed one final contract with the Colorado Rockies before retiring in 2019.
Still in the game, with a better home schedule
Saunders works for the Atlanta Braves now. He'll soon jet to spring training to begin his third season as the club's outfield baserunning coordinator. "And I love every minute of it," he says.
"It allows me to be home during the season as well, which I've never been able to do." And that gives him more time to spend with his wife and three young children, an 11-year-old daughter, nine-year-old son and six-year-old daughter.
"He's an awesome husband," says Chewpoy, his old coach and buddy. "He's an awesome, awesome dad. Like, I get choked up talking about it."
Saunders finished his career with 570 hits, including 81 home runs in 2,455 at-bats and a .232 lifetime batting average. He had a .397 slugging percentage, a .701 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage), and a 6.0 WAR (wins above replacement).
Chewpoy says as good a ballplayer as he was, Saunders is an even better individual.
“He's such a good person, and he deserves everything he got in the game, for sure.”