Baseball Canada Shifts Focus From Olympics To Youth

As the countdown to spring training continues, Canadian ballplayers are getting ready to defrost their gloves and put the hockey pucks away.

Baseball in Canada has done anything but hibernate this winter and as a result the future looks bright for America's pastime north of the border.

On Jan. 15, Baseball Canada hosted a banquet and fundraiser for some of its major league alumni, corporate partners and others at the Renaissance Toronto Hotel at the Rogers Centre, where the organization's president, Ray Carter, said the outlook is positive.

"I see nothing but good things for the future of baseball in Canada," Carter said.

Though Baseball Canada no longer has the Olympics to strive for, or to gain from financially, the organization has shifted its focus to the Junior National Team—young athletes aged 18 and under. Benoit Lavigne, the treasurer of the Baseball Canada, indicated that the goal now is to see Canadian players going to colleges and universities, getting scholarships to American schools and being drafted.

"The game is growing in Canada and when you see all of these young athletes and the way they've performed nationally and internationally, I think there will be more Cy Youngs and MVPs," Lavigne said.

After Joey Votto won the most recent National League MVP award with the Reds, John Axford's breakout season with the Brewers, and the offseason signings of Jeff Francis with the Royals and Russell Martin with the Yankees, these Canadians, among others, are helping to put their native country on the map.

Many players enjoy coming back to events like the one at the Renaissance Hotel to support the organization that gave them the opportunity to do what they are doing now. Francis thinks it's an important thing to do, and lends his free time to Baseball Canada when he is able.

"I meet with some of the Junior National team players in the offseason and just try to pass on whatever I can," Francis said. "I don't pretend to be any kind of coach but sometimes you just talk about your own experiences and it can help them."

Brian Saucedo of the Canadian Junior National team stressed the importance of meeting and talking to the big league players when he has the opportunity.

"It really shows us how close we are to reaching our goals when we see these big league guys," Saucedo said. "What do we talk about? Just the game, how they got there, and their stories. I try to get some info, some feedback and tricks of the trade."

Saucedo's teammate Michael Foster said he just wants to learn as much as he can from the major league players, but events like the fundraiser and banquet just reiterate his appreciation for the ability to represent a nation.

"I think it's about just the whole country and the atmosphere," Foster said. "It's about realizing that life is bigger than the game. The game gets bigger and you have to adjust and take it all in."

The Blue Jays are trying to wave their Canadian flags high as they travel across the country on a winter tour this month. Several players and executive staff members will make four city stops in three provinces to put on skills clinics, and to visit schools and communities. Sean McCann, a Blue Jays ambassador for amateur baseball, thinks the Toronto organization is trying to embrace the nation in hopes for the same in return.

"Paul Beeston has made it very evident that he wants to make the Blue Jays Canada's team again," McCann said. "Sometimes you go to the Maritimes and people are talking Boston Red Sox. Then you go to Vancouver and they're talking Seattle. They're trying to reintroduce the Canadian character to the Blue Jays and make them a national team again."

Kevin Briand, a professional scout for the Jays and the director of Canadian Baseball for the organization thinks that the more people that follow the game of baseball, the better it is for business.

"Why not reach out and get to as many different markets as possible, wave the Blue Jay flag, wave the baseball flag and get more fans?" Briand said. "The more people that like the game, the better it is for us, the better it is for the game, and the country."

The Toronto organization has become slightly more Canadian over the offseason, with the addition of the short-season Vancouver Canadians (Northwest League) to their farm system, and also with the acquisition of Brett Lawrie via trade for Shaun Marcum—though the club says it wasn't attracted to the second baseman because of his nationality.

"The fact that he's Canadian, of course it's a bonus, but I've heard (Anthopoulos) say we're not out to make a trade specifically just to get more Canadian. We're trying to get better and that's the bottom line," Briand said.

As the Jays continue to improve, so will their presence in the game. Helping them earn recognition and further cementing a place for himself in Canadian baseball history this winter is Roberto Alomar. Alomar is one of the newest members of the Hall of Fame and will be inducted into Cooperstown this summer. The second baseman is the first in the Hall to wear a Toronto ball cap.

"It's good to have one Blue Jay," Lavigne said. "To bring the awareness that in Canada there's snow and it's cold, but we can play ball, too."