BOISE — Baseball has long been known as America's pastime, but our northern neighbors take the game seriously, too.
Look no further than the Boise Hawks' roster, which features four players from Canada with Saturday's addition of 2013 second-round pick Rob Zastryzny. The three others are pitchers Jasvir Rakkar and Ethan Elias, and catcher Justin Marra.
"It's pretty unusual, but it's good," said Marra, who is from Toronto. "We try to stick together. We make jokes about it and guys give us a hard time, but we have fun with it."
Truth be told, nobody will be giving the Canadian contingent too much of a hard time. Manager Gary Van Tol hails from Calgary, Alberta.
"I'm proud of those guys," said Van Tol, who now lives in Boise. "I know what they've been through - playing indoors in the winter and finding ways to practice - and I know what it takes to get here. So I want them to do well."
The weather wasn't the only obstacle for Hawks from Canada. There was the pull of the nation's most popular sport: hockey.
"I played hockey until I was 16 years old," said Elias, whose hometown is Entwhistle, Alberta. "Eventually, I had to make a decision whether to play hockey or baseball. I chose baseball."
Van Tol was playing hockey in Canada when he was recruited to play baseball at Treasure Valley Community College in Ontario, Ore. He decided to give it a try, and ended up starting at shortstop for two years. He's been around baseball ever since.
Van Tol and his players will get a chance to return to their homeland this week as the Hawks travel to Vancouver to play the Canadians in a five-game series that begins Wednesday.
"It's the first time playing in Canada as a professional athlete," said Elias, who played for the Canadian junior national team, as did Marra. "It's going to be really special, and it's going to be a great experience. I hear they've got great fans, so hopefully we can go up there and win a few games."
It will be a homecoming for Zastryzny, too, in the most traditional sense. But he's a little uncomfortable being mentioned in the same breath as the other three Canadian Hawks.
Zastryzny was born in Edmonton, Alberta, but his parents moved to the U.S. a year later.
So when he reads accounts saying he was the top draft pick from Canada this year, he chuckles.
"I enjoy hearing that," Zastryzny said. "But those other guys have been playing in Canada, and I had the luxury of playing year-round in Corpus Christi (Texas). So it's not fair. But man, there some good ballplayers out of Canada."
Although Zastryzny grew up in Texas, he too gave hockey a try when he was younger - until he saw how far behind he and his teammates were in comparison to a serious young hockey player who moved to the area.
"We had a Canadian come down to Corpus Christi, and I was the starting center and I thought I was the best player," he said. "But he came down and started skating circles around us, not only our team, but the whole league. That's when I realized baseball was the way to go."
Turned out to be a good choice.=
Zastryzny made his professional debut with the Hawks on Sunday after playing at the University of Missouri. He had a 3.38 ERA in 13 starts for the Tigers this season and struck out 82 men in 90 innings.
If a team from north of the border comes looking for a left-handed pitcher who happens to throw a 95 mph fastball, Zastryzny might be the man for the job.
"If I had the opportunity down the road, I'd be more than happy to play for a Canadian team," he said.
The more the merrier, the way Rakkar sees it.
"Baseball in Canada is getting pretty big," said Rakkar, who is from Brampton, Ontario. "It seems to be growing and growing every year."
HAWKS HEAD TO CANADA, SOME NOT GOING
While most of the Hawks will be making their first trip to Vancouver, passport issues and other personnel issues will force a few players to head to Mesa, Ariz.
Outfielder Yasiel Balaguert, shortstop Carlos Penalver and pitchers Trey Masek and Trey Lang will travel to the Cubs' training facility, while the rest of the team travels to Canada.
A few players from the Mesa Cubs' rookie team are expected to join the team for the Vancouver series, but those additions won't be disclosed until Tuesday, team officials said Monday night.
The Hawks don't return to Boise until July 19, and play 11 of their 11 next 16 games on the road.
Chris Langrill: 377-6424