* RHPs Aaron Sanchez, left, and Marcus Stroman, signed autographs on the Blue Jays winter tour in Calgary. John Ircandia and Doug Mitchell co-chaired the which included a fund-raising luncheon with proceeds going to the Okotoks Dawgs youth team facilities. The Dawgs have have enhanced their fields and facilities.
By Jonathan Hodgson
CALGARY — The Toronto Blue Jays concluded the Calgary leg of Winter Tour 2015 presented by TD Canada on Thursday, taking part in the Calgary Baseball Luncheon hosted by Borden Ladner Gervais LLP at the Fairmont Palliser.
Blue Jays players Marcus Stroman, Drew Hutchison, Aaron Sanchez and Kevin Pillar — as well as Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar — attended the luncheon, which was held in support of the Okotoks Dawgs Youth Academy and youth baseball in Alberta. Master of ceremonies for the afternoon was Jamie Campbell of Sportsnet.
Doug Mitchell, who is national co-chairman for Borden Ladner Gervais LLP, as well as an executive committee member of the Calgary Stampeders and chairman of the Calgary Tourism Sports Authority, addressed the gathering. He told the crowd that it was a conversation with Jamie Campbell and Blue Jays president Paul Beeston that brought the luncheon to Calgary, with Beeston’s only requirement being that the proceeds go toward a local non-profit organization.
The luncheon and the 2015 Winter Tour continues the Blue Jays’ longstanding community outreach efforts in the province of Alberta, following the resounding success of the Alberta editions of the 2014 Honda Super Camps in Okotoks, Lethbridge, Medicine Hat and Lloydminster.
The Okotoks Dawgs have formed a successful relationship with the Blue Jays in recent years, becoming a Super Camp host in 2013. The event — featuring an impressive roster of Blue Jays alums like Alomar, Duane Ward, Jesse Barfield, Devon White and Lloyd Moseby, among several others — was an instant success, with Okotoks being the highest attended Super Camp outside of Toronto that year.
“We have received great support in Alberta,” Alomar said, “and we absolutely plan to return and look to keep growing these events and partnerships. I remember being a kid with dreams of the Major Leagues. I want to teach them what I learned, and being surrounded by Blue Jays alumni motivates them to pursue their goals and keep working to achieve them.
“I absolutely see chances to grow what has been started here. Hopefully, someday we see a Major Leaguer who attended these camps.”
The Roberto Alomar & Friends Home Run derby has also found a home at Seaman Stadium, held in conjunction with the super camps. The event raises funds to support youth baseball in the local area, but the 2013 Okotoks derby was dedicated to aiding relief efforts of that summer’s devastating floods in southern Alberta, raising over $25,000.
Blue Jays radio broadcaster Jerry Howarth and alumni Homer Bush have spoken at the Dawgs banquet in past years, with Alomar scheduled for 2015.
The Okotoks Dawgs Youth Academy operates out of the Seaman Stadium Complex, located 20 minutes south of Calgary, in Okotoks. The Academy fields 120 youth players at the midget, bantam and peewee levels, and it has claimed six provincial titles in the last seven years, and the 2011 Midget National Championship.
Proceeds from Thursday’s luncheon will go toward facility upgrades, such as a new backstop and refurbished dugouts. The complex is named for local philanthropists Don Seaman and the late Doc Seaman. Don was in attendance on Thursday.
Stroman, 23, said that a supportive environment during a child’s formative years is imperative to create a foundation for a successful career.
“Growing up in Medford, Long Island, all of my youth coaches played a pivotal role in shaping who I have become,” said Stroman. “I began playing sports when I was five years old, and played all sports. Going to the local fields every Saturday morning for years grew into my travel baseball teams, which took me to places all across the United States.”
Two coaches in particular had a deep impact on the young Blue Jays pitcher.
“There are two coaches who stand out; Mike Torro from Monroe High School, and Gregg Sarra.” Stroman recalled. “I played for them for several years all the way through high school. They are passionate, fiery coaches. And after playing for them, I was ready for the next step when I went to Duke University.”
Alomar echoed that statement.
“A youth coach needs to be patient and learn how to teach the game. They need to be there to pat a player on the back, and stay with them through the ups and downs,” said Alomar. “Most important, remind them to keep focused, work hard and always believe in themselves.”
Seaman Stadium is also the flagship facility of the summer-collegiate Western Major Baseball League (WMBL), averaging 2,827 fans per game at the 3,200-capacity ballpark in 2014, making the Dawgs the fourth-highest-attended summer collegiate team in North America.
Four of the WMBL’s 10 franchises are located in Alberta, including Medicine Hat, Lethbridge and Edmonton. The Medicine Hat Mavericks, defending league champions, play in Athletic Park, former home of the Medicine Hat Blue Jays, Toronto’s Rookie affiliate from 1978-2002, where former Blue Jays centre fielder and Super Camp instructor Lloyd Moseby began his pro career.
Alomar says having a team of their own to look up to will inspire youngsters to become ballplayers.
“The WMBL teams are very important to the kids here.” Alomar said. “They give young kids something tangible to look up to. They are great stepping stones and can point kids in the right direction. The Blue Jays come with events like the Super Camps, and provide instruction and motivation from players who have been there to let them know that they, too, can make the Major Leagues.”
The Calgary Baseball Luncheon raised over $35,000 in support of the Okotoks Dawgs Academy and amateur baseball in Alberta.
There was a distinct hometown flavour throughout the afternoon. The Blue Jays players took part in a traditional White Hat Ceremony, held for top dignitaries visiting the city of Calgary.
Calgary Stampeders quarterback Bo Levi Mitchell and head coach John Hufnagel were also in attendance. Mitchell, a native of Katy, Tex., returned to Calgary a week early to attend, and he says it was an easy decision when he got the call from Doug Mitchell.
“Baseball was actually my No. 1 sport my whole life growing up, and I had dreams of being a Major Leaguer.” Mitchell said. “I was always a catcher and a closing pitcher. My favourite thing to do in the game was to throw out a basestealer.”
Mitchell has attended Dawgs games, and he says he is pleased to see the passion for baseball in Canada.
“It is great to see so much support for baseball in Canada, with what the Blue Jays are doing through events like these.”
True to baseball tradition, Okotoks native Hayden Neuman led the gathering in a round of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Neuman, a young singer at Dawgs games, put a home team twist on the timeless anthem, inviting the crowd to “Root for the Dawgs team.”
Neuman’s mother, Allison, explained why.
“I don’t know that my kids would have become interested in baseball without the Dawgs.” Neuman said. “The atmosphere at their games and the way they interact with their fans, similar to what the Blue Jays are doing, is something special.”
The luncheon concluded the Calgary leg of Winter Tour 2015, which saw the Blue Jays visit the Alberta Children’s Hospital and conduct an autograph session at CrossIron Mills Mall in Calgary on Tuesday, then participate in a field trip with Banff Elementary School on Wednesday.
The week was an eye-opening experience for Florida native Drew Hutchison.
“Honestly, it is kind of overwhelming to play in Canada.” Hutchison said. “The Winter Tour is special. Representing Canada is a privilege, and it is very important to make time to give back to Blue Jays fans across the country, who may not have a chance to make it to a game.”
The Winter Tour presented by TD Canada now heads west to Vancouver beginning on Friday, when Beeston, Russell Martin will join Alomar, Stroman, Hutchison and Sanchez.