SHERBROOKE, Que. - Brooks McNiven always wanted a life in baseball. After years as a player, he's found it as a coach.
The 32-year-old is on the coaching staff of British Columbia's baseball team at the Canada Summer Games, and he's found a calling giving advice to the young players on one of the top-rated squads at the tournament.
"When I first finished playing pro ball I came home to Vancouver and I didn't really know what kind of direction I wanted to go with the rest of my life after ball," said McNiven, who was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in 1999 and then by the San Francisco Giants in 2003. "It was just kind of there at that time and it was kind of filling a void for a bit to try and give myself some time to figure out where I wanted to go.
"Getting involved with younger kids and being able to guide them and help them and everything is really kind of cool."
McNiven is well-suited to coaching in multi-sport events like the Canada Games. His father Al represented Manitoba in the 1973 Canada Games, while the younger McNiven pitched for B.C. in 2001. Brooks McNiven went on to play for Canada internationally at the 2007 World Cup, the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2009 World Baseball Classic and the 2009 World Cup.
"It's an amazing experience to play for your country," said McNiven on Wednesday. "You hear all those cliches that it's completely different when you put on a jersey that says Canada across the chest. You never really believe it until you're there and you actually do it.
"You immediately come together as a family. You immediately have something in common with all those other baseball players even though you've never met them before."
McNiven is particularly close with left-handed pitcher Brad Smith, also from Vancouver. The two met four years ago when McNiven was helping out at a baseball training camp organized by the University of British Columbia — his alma mater — and Smith was one of his pupils. The two kept in contact with each other while McNiven continued to play in the minor leagues.
When McNiven started coaching for Vancouver's North Shore Twins they spoke more frequently and Smith joined that team this season.
Smith has relied on McNiven for advice both on and off the field. The coach first helped with his throwing motion, then addressed the mental side of Smith's game.
"Throughout my baseball career I've had a lot of trouble on the mound keeping my cool. I was a big head case last year, I'd be throwing my glove and swearing at my players," said the 18-year-old Smith, who went 11-1 in the British Columbia Premier Baseball League, including playoffs. "This year I didn't do it as much — because I had a lot of success this year, so it didn't really come out — but when I didn't have that success I got back into the same routine.
"I remember in the States I came back and said 'I hate baseball, I don't want to do this anymore.'"
McNiven calmed his protege down and got him to recognize that those emotions were just coming in the heat of the moment. He also recommended Smith meet with renowned sports psychologist Saul Miller. Two sessions with Miller, who's worked with the Vancouver Canucks and B.C. Lions, amongst other professional sports teams, helped Smith centre himself and remain calm when he was pitching.
McNiven and Miller's guidance faced its biggest test on Monday when Smith was called on to start against Quebec in a key matchup of the Canada Summer Games.
"It was the biggest stage I've ever pitched on," said Smith. "It was the Quebec team so the whole city's cheering for them — everyone's rooting for Quebec — and there were a lot of scouts there and there was some talk that if I pitched well I could make the junior national team."
Although Smith struggled in B.C.'s 11-9 loss, he still saw it as a growing experience. He credits McNiven's support and guidance for that change in attitude.
"I kept my cool in that game, and if I didn't go see Saul there's definitely no way that I'd be staying cool in that game," said Smith. "I just would've made myself look like a fool. And if Brooks hadn't sent me to see Saul, I just don't know what would've happened."
For McNiven, that is the biggest reward of being a coach and why he's drawn to being a mentor to Smith and other players.
"I've never been on that side of the game before," said McNiven. "It kind of gives you chills at times when you see kids you've worked with for a while and they go out and have success and they do some of the things you've been working on.
"Not saying that I'm taking any credit for what they do out there because I can't go out there and throw the ball for them anymore — it's all them."