His Oregon State teammates respected Mitch Canham as a player during his time in Corvallis from 2003-07.
But as a person? That's where the Beavers' new head baseball coach was really off the charts.
"Mitch was ultra-talented, a long, rangy left-handed-hitting catcher," says Ryan Gipson, an infielder who played with Canham on the 2005 and '06 College World Series teams. "But what he did in the clubhouse for our team as a whole — it was more than what he did on the field."
From the time he arrived in Corvallis as a baby-faced freshman from Lake Stevens, Washington, in the fall of 2003, Canham oozed leadership qualities.
Cole Gillespie was a sophomore outfielder during Canham's freshman campaign.
"I remember one of our first player meetings as a team, going over goals for the upcoming season," said Gillespie, who would become Pac-10 Player of the Year in leading the Beavers to the national championship in 2006. "Teams like Stanford and Arizona State were dominating the conference. We were near the bottom of the Pac. Our goals weren't very lofty.
"Mitch stood up and challenged the upperclassmen. He said, 'Why can't we strive to be the Pac-10 champions? Why can't we set our goals that high?' I was thinking, 'Wow, here's a freshman coming in saying why can't we better than in the past?' The next couple of seasons, I could see the leadership in him continue to grow.
"We've stayed in touch over the years, and I'm not surprised with what he has done in the Mariners organization (and as manager of the Double-A Arkansas Travelers). Mitch is a natural-born leader."
"Mitch has always been a leader," seconds Kevin Gunderson, the great closer on the OSU teams from 2004-06. "A lot of guys stay in their lane and let the veterans lead. He took the reins as an 18-year-old kid. You could see it from the get-go."
Canham came to Oregon State as an infielder and started the 2005 season opener — a 19-0 whitewash of New Mexico State — at first base. He converted to catcher early that season.
"I had phenomenal people around me when I was learning how to do it, and they were very patient when I was learning," Canham says of being behind the late. "I was running to the backstop quite often."
Canham played sparingly at first, drawing six at-bats as a freshman first baseman. He hit .325 while becoming the starting catcher as a sophomore. As a senior in 2007, Canham led the Beavers in batting at .326 while serving as team captain. He was an all-Pac-10 selection, third-team All-American and excellent two-way player on the second of back-to-back national championship clubs that season.
"He was an outstanding catcher," says Gunderson, who advanced as high as the Triple-A level during his four years pitching in professional ball. "You knew he'd do everything he could to get a strike call. I was comfortable throwing breaking balls with runners on base and two strikes on the hitter. He was going to block it. He was an easy guy to throw to, and very comfortable in high-pressure situations."
Canham and many of his former teammates have stayed connected via an email thread called "Daaaa Beavs."
"It's grown over the years, especially last year as we all were following the (2018 national) championship team," says Gillespie, who played parts of six seasons in the major leagues and is still hoping to play at some level this season. "It's a great way for us to stay in touch, and everybody is happy about Mitch's selection (as head coach)."
"Mitch was ready," says Darwin Barney, the great shortstop on the OSU teams from 2005-07 who served as alumni representative on the selection committee. "There were other candidates who were very qualified, but Mitch is at that point where if we miss out on him now, he'd have been in the big leagues pretty soon.
"We're really excited to have Mitch, as a person and a coach. What he stands for is everything we stand for at Oregon State. We're in good hands at the moment."
Gillespie speaks for many former players in saying he is glad athletic director Scott Barnes kept the hire "in-house."
Canham was one of three finalists for the job. The others were pitching coach Nate Yeskie and Pat Bailey, who served as interim head coach last season after Pat Casey's retirement.
"I think highly of all of them," says Gillespie, 34, now living in Scottsdale, Arizona. "But I'm extremely excited for Mitch. He'll do an outstanding job.
"What I like best about the hire is he was part of this culture that we created with those teams when we went to the College World Series (from 2005-07). He understands what it means to be a family, to care for each other. That's what the Oregon State baseball program has grown into over the years. It's not just about one individual; it's about everybody doing their part to be successful. Mitch embodies that attitude."
Gillespie thinks Canham will be capable of being tough and administering discipline, too.
"He's not going to shy away from challenging players, much like Coach Casey did," Gillespie says. "He won't be afraid to make you uncomfortable and get in your face if need be. I'm not sure he has 'Case's' temper, but he has the ability to fire up his players and get the very best out of every one of them."
Canham will spend ample time lifting those around him, his ex-teammates say.
"Mitch is the most selfless person I know," says Gipson, who was first-base coach as a volunteer assistant with the Beavers this season. "As much as there were qualified candidates in 'Bailes' and Nate, Mitch is the right hire — 100 percent. I couldn't be happier for him."
"It's the perfect hire for the program," says Joey Wong, a middle infielder who was a freshman when Canham was a senior in 2007 and is in his 11th pro season. "I've played a lot of baseball, and Mitch is the best leader I've ever been around, collegiately or professionally — not only as a baseball person, but as a human being."
Wong, now playing with St. Paul in the Independent League, appreciates the effect Canham has on others.
"He's tough and gritty, but he's thoughtful and treats people well," says Wong, who played as high as Triple-A. "He empowers the people around him to believe in themselves. He makes people around him better. That's the greatest sign of a good leader.
"The passion and energy and culture he brings to a clubhouse is second to none. No doubt he's going to continue to elevate the program."
Tyler Graham, Oregon State's director of player development, was an outfielder with the Beavers from 2003-06.
He thinks Canham will be an effective recruiter.
"He brings something all the kids are going to respect and buy into," says Graham, who played 10 games with the San Francisco Giants in 2010 in the middle of a nine-year pro career. "He's about family. He's about being together as a team. All of his core values and morals and beliefs are spot on with what you need to do to get kids better and ready for the real world.
"Another important thing: Mitch is a tireless worker. He won't leave a stone unturned. He'll give it everything he has every single day. That's going to resonate with the kids. He's going to have great success as our head coach."
Gunderson agrees with Graham on both counts.
"I would argue that recruiting is going to his strong suite," says Gunderson, who operates a pitching academy in the Portland area. "He has an infectious attitude that people are attracted to. His players are going to play hard for him. They're going to run through a brick wall for the guy. He's like 'Case' in one way: he's going to demand a lot of hard work. But he's going to put in a lot of hard work as a coach, too.
"It's a tremendous hire for Oregon State. He's going to do an exceptional job. (The Beavers) won't skip a beat getting quality players into their program. They'll continue to be at or near the top of the Pac-12 and compete for national championships with Mitch at the helm."
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