Canzano: Oregon State baseball is a tale of resilience and guts
Mitch Canham's program is still playing.
It took some real guts, didn’t it? Mitch Canham’s Oregon State baseball team woke Monday, running on fumes. His Beavers faced elimination, stared down a sobering end to the season and punched it straight in the nose.
Three OSU home runs.
Ace pitcher Cooper Hjerpe summoned to pitch two innings as a closer.
The Beavers won 7-6, beating Vanderbilt. The No. 3-seed advanced to the Super Regional, where it will host Auburn. But all I could think about was Canham in the dugout and the strength it took all those years ago when he was just a kid.
Canham’s father served in the Navy. His younger brother, Dustin, was a Marine and his older brother, John, was in the Army. He even had an uncle who was a paratrooper nicknamed “Skull.” The former Beavers’ catcher talked about his family in 2007 when I covered him as a then-college kid in Omaha.
He spoke then about his mother, Kim, too.
She began using drugs when he was in elementary school. His parents divorced. Life got hard. Canham was just a freshman in college when his mother was discovered dead in her apartment in Spokane.
“Heroin and methamphetamine,” the autopsy read.
She was 40.
It was difficult for Oregon State to lose on Sunday to Vanderbilt and have to come back for a do-or-die Monday game. The Beavers pitching staff was worn out. The end of the season crept closer. The Commodores had a deep and dangerous lineup and good pitching. The television coverage in the last couple of days kept cutting to the now 37-year old Canham in the OSU dugout.
He looked unfazed.
The Beavers aren’t the most gifted team in college baseball. But they’re opportunistic, resilient and tough — a lot like Canham. They’re Jake Dukart, who grew up rooting for OSU as a kid and scored two runs on Monday. They’re Matthew Gretler, who hit the go-ahead home run in the seventh inning. And they’re Hjerpe, a dominant starter summoned like Randy Johnson to get the final six outs in a must-win game.
Five of them came via strikeout.
The sixth out was a harmless ground ball that Hjerpe fielded himself.
Gutsy stuff, isn’t it?
Canham’s team found a way to win. Beavers fans celebrated. And our region has become so accustomed to the success of baseball at Oregon State that exactly none of us was surprised by any of it.
A couple of weekends ago, after all, OSU blew a nine-run lead in the ninth inning to UCLA. The Bruins won that Pac-12 Conference Tournament game with a walk-off home run in extra innings, forcing an elimination game rematch 45 minutes later.
Some teams might have wilted. Others would have been broken psychologically by the meltdown. We all watched, though, as Canham’s team regrouped to win the nightcap and knock out UCLA. It’s what OSU has done over the years.
Canham has emerged as a stabilizing force in the OSU dugout. He’s surrounded himself with former Beavers’ teammates. Darwin Barney, Rich Dorman and Ryan Gipson are his lead assistants. Canham’s two undergraduate assistants and director of operations are also former OSU players.
It all feels so familiar and natural.
In 2007 in Omaha, Pat Casey said of Canham, his star catcher and leader: “If the enemy’s coming over the hill, I want him pretty close.”
The Beavers beat North Carolina in that College World Series final and dogpiled on the field. I was there to write about it. Canham was smack in the middle of every important scene that weekend — the hugs, the heroics, and a wonderful pile of OSU exuberance after the final out.
Canham emerged as the go-to interview for media members that unforgettable week in Omaha. He spoke candidly about the death of his mother. The catcher confessed that he felt lost and blamed himself after her death. To cope, he wrote songs, played baseball and leaned on his teammates.
Canham is such an easy guy to pull for.
After college, Canham spent the next eight seasons riding buses in the minor leagues. He played for 12 different teams, in places such as San Antonio, Memphis and Harrisburg, Pa. He never made the big leagues, but never lost the joy either.
When Canham was named head coach at Oregon State in 2019 he told me, “I love this game.”
It loved him back on Monday.
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