Blue Jays Flashback: Michael Saunders

Our Blue Jays Flashback series is proving a real hit with stars of yesteryear making a return to the limelight. In his latest article, our man Kevin Glew looks back just a handful of years.

Michael Saunders

It was the closest Michael Saunders ever came to recording a hat trick.

That’s how the former Toronto Blue Jays outfielder remembers his three-home run game against the Baltimore Orioles at Camden Yards on June 17, 2016.

“When I was younger, I almost gave up baseball for hockey, so that was as close to a true hat trick that I could ever get,” said Saunders, in an interview prior to Baseball Canada’s National Teams Awards banquet on January 13. “There were a lot of Blue Jays fans there and watching them throw the hats on the field after the third home run was a pretty cool moment.”


With that power display, the Victoria, B.C., native became the first Canadian to belt three home runs in a game for a Canadian major league team.

That was one of many highlights from his stellar 2016 campaign with the Blue Jays that saw him sock 24 home runs, the second-most a Canadian has ever hit in a season for a Canadian big league team (behind only Montreal-born Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s home run totals for the Blue Jays in the last three seasons).

That history-making season was the best of his nine-year major league career that also saw him suit up for the Seattle Mariners and Philadelphia Phillies.

It was an impressive run for an athlete who didn’t focus on baseball until he was 15. When he was growing up, he also played hockey, basketball and volleyball.

It wasn’t until he was spotted playing for British Columbia at a national tournament and invited to try out for the Canadian Junior National Team that he decided baseball might be his sport.

Greg Hamilton, the director of Canada’s men’s national teams, can recall a raw, young Saunders at that tournament.

“Mike didn’t really have a defined position. He was a big gangly, athletic kid. His arm worked and you could dream on him pitching at that time. He played third base and a little first in high school, but I just saw the athleticism,” said Hamilton.

Saunders would make the Junior National Team and his performance with them caught the attention of major league scouts, including Wayne Norton who was responsible for the Mariners selecting Saunders in the 11th round of the 2004 MLB draft.

After parts of five seasons in the Mariners’ minor league ranks, Saunders made his big league debut on July 25, 2009. The left-handed hitting outfielder would struggle in his first three major league seasons, before enjoying a breakout campaign with the Mariners in 2012 when he belted 19 home runs and stole 21 bases in 139 games.

He carried that success into the 2013 World Baseball Classic where he went 8-for-11 (.727 batting average) with seven RBIs in three games for Canada and was named to the All-Tournament Team.

In 2014, he hit a career-best .273 in 78 games in an injury-shortened campaign prior to being dealt to the Blue Jays for left-hander J.A. Happ that December.



After missing most of the 2015 season with a knee injury, he returned with a vengeance in 2016.

In late June that year, with the All-Star Game approaching and a three-home run game under his belt, Saunders was flirting with a .300 batting average and was among the Blue Jays’ leaders in OPS. For his efforts, he was named one of five candidates for the American League’s All-Star Final Man Vote, with the winner earning the last roster spot in the Midsummer Classic. To help Saunders, the Blue Jays created a “Vote Captain Canada” campaign.

“Leading up to that All-Star Game, I remember the support – not just from Blue Jays fans, but from Canada,” said Saunders. “It was extremely humbling for me to get that type of support and the backing from the organization and the push every day on the big screen.

“I had friends coming out of the woodwork and organizing these voting parties. I just felt loved. That was the biggest thing. Then to actually be voted in and to go there and sit down in my locker and kind of take a panoramic view of the locker room and seeing Hall of Famers and listening to a pre-game speech by David Ortiz, it was pretty surreal.”

Saunders replaced Carlos Beltran in right field in the eighth inning and flied out to third base in his only at bat.

Saunders finished the 2016 regular season with 24 home runs. He then led the Blue Jays with six hits and a .429 batting average in the American League Championship Series against Cleveland.

Following that season, Saunders signed a one-year contract with the Phillies. After 61 games with the Phillies, he found himself back with the Blue Jays.

He retired as a player in 2019 at the age of 32. The former big league All-Star, who became the 12th member of Baseball Canada’s Wall of Excellence in January, is now a minor league outfielder/baserunning coordinator with the Atlanta Braves.

He resides just outside of Denver, Colo., with his wife and three children. When he looks back on his playing career, he feels fortunate.

“I was really blessed to play with some great veteran leaders in my first couple of years in the big leagues [in Ken Griffey Jr., Adrian Beltre and Mike Sweeney] that helped show me the ropes,” said Saunders.

The Victoria, B.C., native also feels grateful that he got to play with the Mariners and the Blue Jays.

“When I was a kid, my dad used to take me to games at the Kingdome to see Ken Griffey Jr.,” said Saunders. “I felt like I got to play for my two home teams [in Seattle and Toronto].”