Slugger named Canadian Hall of Fame’s Tip O’Neill Award winner for 2020
By Pat Payton
LONDON – While playing ‘AAA’ minor hockey for his home-town London Jr. Knights, Jamie Romak attracted attention from the St. Marys Jr. ‘B’ Lincolns.
Romak was also a baseball player and it was at that time in his young life that the teenager had to make a decision. He chose baseball as a career path.
Romak, now 35, was recently named the winner of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s 2020 Tip O’Neill Award. It’s presented annually to the Canadian-born player judged to have excelled in individual achievement and team contribution, while adhering to baseball’s highest ideals. He is a first-time winner of the award.
This past season, Romak batted .282 with 32 home runs and 91 RBI in 139 games for the SK Wyverns of the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO). The 6 ft., 3 inch, 225 lb. slugger also scored 85 runs, recorded 32 doubles and walked 91 times, while registering a .546 slugging percentage and a .945 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS).
“Those numbers were the best by any Canadian professional player this year,” said Scott Crawford, the Baseball Hall of Fame’s director of operations. “Most importantly, Jamie is highly respected by his peers and teammates, and has been a great ambassador of the game for our country.”
Romak also ranked in the top 10 in several KBO offensive categories, including tied for first in walks, tied for sixth in home runs, seventh in slugging percentage, and eighth in OPS.
Winning award incredible feeling
In a recent interview with the Independent, Romak said it was “an incredible feeling” when he was informed by Crawford that he was the 2020 Tip O’Neill winner.
“It was quite a thrill, and it didn’t really hit me until later when it was formally announced,” he said. “As a local guy, the sense of community was so strong. That’s been the coolest part of this whole award process.”
Romak has lived his entire life in London, and his wife Kristin is also from the Forest City. The Romaks, who have two children, Nash and Pierce, live in London in the off-season.
“We are truly part of the community,” he says. “The amount of people I heard from, it’s been a cool thing to share this award with a lot of people from around here.”
Like a lot of Canadian youth, Romak grew up playing both baseball and hockey. As a teenager, Romak remembers playing hockey in St. Marys while a member of the London ‘AAA’ Jr. Knights. That’s when he appeared on the Lincs’ radar.
“We would play the Huron-Perth Lakers there. I know it’s not their home centre, but we would play games against them in St. Marys.
“But I stopped playing hockey after my OHL draft year. I had got to the point where I had to make a decision, which way I wanted to go. I chose baseball, but interestingly, I had an opportunity to play Jr. ‘B’ hockey the next year for the Lincolns.
“I didn’t pursue it, but it was presented to me that there was interest from St. Marys. I kind of regret that I didn’t let the hockey side of things play its course. I just wanted to be fair and honest, and opted to concentrate on baseball. Obviously, in the end, I did what I love to do and that’s play baseball.”
While growing up in London, some of Romak’s best friends were hockey players, including the late Kelly Thomson, who began his Junior career with the Lincs in 2002-03. Thomson, who died tragically last year at the age of 34, was a member of the great London Knights team which won the Memorial Cup in 2005.
“Kelly was my childhood best friend,” Romak noted.
Played for his country
As a youngster, Romak played baseball in the London Badgers system. When he was 17, he suited up for the Junior national team for the 2002 U18 Baseball World Cup. In a game on July 21, 2002, he played for the Junior nationals against the U.S. squad at the Hall of Fame in St. Marys. It was dubbed as the ‘Hall of Fame Classic.’
He debuted with the Men’s national team at the 2007 Baseball World Cup. He slugged his way to MVP honours with the national team in 2010 at the COPABE Pan Am Games/World Cup qualifier, and later won World Cup bronze and Pan Am Games gold in 2011.
His most recent appearance with Team Canada came at the 2017 World Baseball Classic.
Originally selected in the fourth round by Atlanta Braves in the 2003 Major League draft, Romak played a total of 1,069 games in 13 minor-league seasons before Major League stints with Los Angeles Dodgers in 2014 and Arizona Diamondbacks in 2015. He didn’t play his first Major League game until he was 28.
“I knew that I would eventually get (to the Majors),” he said. “You get on the same playing field as your peer group and you see where you fit in. Unfortunately, I got traded several times and got lost in the shuffle. You fall through the cracks.
“Had things worked out differently with the Diamondbacks, I probably would have stayed in North America and continued to pursue a Major League career.
“But there is a lot that goes into maintaining a Major League roster spot, outside of your performance alone. There is a lot of roster movement that is just out of your hands. I could kind of see the writing on the wall, and that a chance to play every day in Asia would be a better path for me.”
Won KBO title in 2018
Romak signed with his KBO club in 2017. He has played on one championship team while in South Korea. Wyverns won the Korean Series in 2018, defeating the Doosan Bears in six games.
Covid 19 greatly impacted the KBO last summer, he pointed out. Crowds were contained to 20 or 30 per cent capacity at times. “For the playoffs, they tried a 50 per cent capacity, and then they had an outbreak and it went back to a 10 per cent capacity,” he said.
“The league is at the mercy of the government; whatever the government dictates they have to work around it.”
(See Part 2 of the Jamie Romak interview in next week’s Independent)