From Jays to sandlot, baseball’s a hit

BATTER UP: Howard Birnie, a baseball volunteer for 50 years, says the sport's popularity is aided by the number of Canadians in the majors.

Fresh leather. Pine tar. Bubblegum.

If these are the smells you associate with spring, you must be an avid baseball fan.

For those foreign to the game, there’s hope, as both the Toronto Baseball Association and Major League Baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays work to teach kids how to play one of North America’s favourite pastimes.

Howard Birnie, president of the Leaside Baseball Association, says the Blue Jays play an important role in creating interest in amateur baseball.

“We saw some growth start three or four years ago when there started to be a buzz when they signed (B.J.) Ryan and (A.J.) Burnett,” he says of the team’s two all-star pitchers.

As a volunteer in baseball for 50 years, Birnie has seen a lot change since his days on the sandlot, and he can track participation from when the Blue Jays first played ball in 1977.

The one major curveball for the sport is the lack of familiarity with the game among newcomers to Canada. With soccer being internationally known and inexpensive to play, most immigrants tend to lean towards it.

“For first generation immigrants, baseball is a foreign game to them,” Birnie says. “They just don’t play it, whereas everyone knows soccer.

“It tends to be massive.”

Enter the Blue Jays, who have come in to relieve waning interest, helping amateur leagues across Ontario introduce kids to the game.

“The more we get out in the community, the more we help to build the game in Toronto and Ontario as well,” says Michael Volpatti, the Blue Jays’ director of community relations.

Blue Jays baseball offers instructional clinics, sponsorship, fundraising events and even awards to children involved at all levels of play.

“The idea is to get kids involved in baseball at an early age so they really do develop a love for the game that seems to last for many years to come,” he says. “It’s really nice to connect with the kids at a grassroots level.”

That’s nothing to balk at, especially when you consider star-pitcher Burnett’s award program helping to promote community involvement, academic performance, personal accomplishment and sportsmanship.

The award is given monthly to one player from each of Baseball Ontario’s Rookie, Mosquito, Peewee, Bantam and Midget leagues at the Rogers Centre.

The kids get a Blue Jays plaque, a hat autographed by Burnett, four game tickets and a group discount for friends to attend the game.

“They’re star-struck when they’re shaking A.J. Burnett’s hand,” Volpatti says. “A guy of his size and stature sends them over the moon.

“Just walking through the field, they get a real idea of the size of playing field the Jays play on.”

And, Volpatti adds, the parents get a kick out of the on-field ceremonies as they appreciate the Jays’ involvement in amateur baseball initiatives.

Rob Cotton is one parent who believes baseball is an exceptional choice for those looking to get their kids involved in a team sport.

As the North York Baseball Association’s house league umpire-in-chief, Cotton says he sees about 2,000 registrations each year, and adds it is almost at capacity for the 2008 season.

Parents can register their kids online for baseball through any one of the Toronto Baseball Association’s smaller leagues at www.torontobaseball.ca.

Baseball’s popularity doesn’t close with just the Blue Jays. Many Canadian players have broken into the majors with American clubs, including Justin Morneau of the Minnesota Twins, Erik Bedard of the Seattle Mariners, Jeff Francis of the Colorado Rockies and Jason Bay of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Opportunities have multiplied for all kids to be a hit in the big leagues, says Birnie.

“When I grew up, there was only one opportunity that you might get signed to a pro team,” he says. “There’s far more opportunity now. That’s why we’re seeing more Canadian baseball players.”

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