By the GBC Baseball Reporter
LAUSANNE, Switzerland – With Canadian head coach Tom Valcke at the helm, Hong Kong’s men’s national baseball team jumped 13 spots in the recently released annual World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) 2018 World Rankings, shooting up from 41st to 28th, more than any of the other 150-plus countries playing baseball across the globe.
USA is ranked 1st, and Canada holds the 9th spot, while the Canadian women’s national team is ranked 2nd behind Japan.
Valcke, who took over the program March 1, 2018, led Hong Kong to unprecedented performances in the 2018 Asian Cup in June, as well as the prestigious 2018 Asian Games, held in Jakarta, Indonesia at the end of August, where Hong Kong had never previously recorded a win. His contract was based on a seven-month grant, concluding September 30. The Hong Kong Baseball Association (HKBA) is hopeful for another similar grant to surface in 2019.
“I was heavily involved in the globalization of baseball in my younger days, but when Paula (Valcke’s wife of 31 years) and I started raising children, I maintained my career full-time in the baseball industry, but steered myself towards jobs that would allow me to be home much more,” said Valcke from Vancouver on his way back to his new home in Stratford, Ontario, and who has taught baseball in 23 different countries.
Valcke significantly reduced his scouting responsibilities throughout North America, as well as coaching clinics and technical commission assignments abroad on behalf of the WBSC and Major League Baseball, trading off for the positions of general manager with the Triple-A Calgary Cannons, television analyst for the Montreal Expos, president/CEO of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum, GM/head coach of the International Canadian Academy of Sports Excellence (iCASE, Ontario’s first full-time high school baseball academy), and accepting the position of head coach with Toronto’s George Brown College.
The father of three (Alanna, 26, is pursuing her Ph.D. in Psychology at U of Waterloo; Jaxon, 21, is studying Business at U of British Columbia while on a baseball scholarship; and, Mia, 18, who just finished playing for Team Canada in her second Senior Women’s World Cup in August, just began studying Kinesiology at UBC while on a softball scholarship), was also instrumental in helping open the Pinnacle Fieldhouse, an indoor training centre based in Stratford, so that local baseball, softball, rugby and soccer teams wouldn’t have to fight winter weather driving to Kitchener or London to train indoors. All of the caps Valcke was wearing were put into hiatus when he somewhat surprisingly accepted the job in Hong Kong.
“With Mia attending her final year of high school at Stratford St. Mikes, Paula and I were heading towards becoming empty-nesters, so it just seemed like the right time to remind the global baseball family that I was still willing and able to resume some of those previous endeavours,” added Valcke, who guided Hong Kong to the fifth-place game at the Asian Games, following upset wins against host Indonesia and a walk-off win over Thailand, as well as holding their own against eventual gold-medalist Korea, who, like the NHL has done for the Olympics, halted their Major League season in order to send a professional all-star team to Jakarta.
“Japan, Korea, and Taiwan, ranked number two, three and five in the world, respectively, are baseball-crazy, the way Canadians love our hockey, and I respected the fact that Hong Kong recognized that those three, as well as up-and-coming China, are in a class all by themselves. Hong Kong is an awesome place to live, and the players are hard-working and absolutely lovable, but the country as a whole simply lacks a comparative passion for baseball.
“Despite a population of eight million people, Sai Tso Wan is the only regulation baseball field in the country, and due to complaining residents in neighboring high rises, we aren’t allowed to have the lights turned on after 8:30 p.m. Corporations who employ our players will not even consider leaves of absence beyond the players’ two weeks of contracted vacation time, which makes it impossible to play games with the necessary intensity, nor develop in-game instincts, to properly train for the events of the magnitude that we play,” Valcke explained.
“China, as a quick example, sent their national team to Texas for five months to play 120 games this past season in the Texas professional summer league. How can we possibly compete with that?”
Knowing time was short, and that he was dealing with 20-and-30-somethings, Valcke utilized his decade of full-time scouting to analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the players as individuals, implemented strictly minor mechanical changes, and focused their seven-nights-per-week practice regimen on sharpening team tactics such as cut-offs and relays, rundowns, pick-offs, bunt coverages, first-and-third defense, throwing ahead of runners, backing up the proper bases, and anticipating errors, in other words, prevent versus react.
“On top of that, we put three new blankets over this team that were all new and necessary concepts to them, a blanket of aggressiveness on both sides of the ball, a blanket of internal competitiveness into our practices versus the boredom of simply repeating mechanics for hours upon hours, and a much-needed blanket of fun. You can still train hard while incorporating fun,” Valcke said.
“Baseball is a game, right? That means you’re supposed to have fun, and the more relaxed you are, the better chance you’ll be able to bring those skill sets from the batting tunnel or bullpen into your game.”
Hong Kong’s director of national team programs praised Valcke and hopes the relationship can continue. “Tom connected well with our players, making each one of them better as well as the collective unit,” said Sean Au.
“His passion for the game is infectious, and he always seemed to know the right button to push in the heat of the battle. Tom was also critical in pushing our association to develop programming for younger ages to not only serve their recreational desires, but to create a stable to deliver future prospects to the Senior team, and spent a great deal of his free time running those training sessions.”
Valcke remains tight-lipped as he considers returning to Asia for a similar opportunity in Hong Kong or at least one other country, as well as openings with Major League Baseball operations in both Asia and Europe. For now, he’ll charge his batteries in the comfort of their new home and prepare to resume his 32-year full-time career in the baseball industry. He’s just not quite sure yet in what area code.
Note: Mia Valcke, who plays baseball for the Stratford Nationals Midget Boys baseball team and the 2018 Canadian Champion Waterloo Ghosts Midget Girls softball team, has been invited to Ft. Myers, Florida to attend the ‘Final-27’ camp for Softball Canada’s Junior National Team, from January 6-13, 2019.
If she were to make it, Valcke would become only the second female in history to play in a World Cup for both Team Canada baseball and Team Canada softball, following Alberta’s Rebecca Hartley.