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Baseball Canada has great partner in Blue Jays

SOURCE: Gregor

TORONTO -- Baseball Canada's recent breakthrough on the international stage was cause for celebration -- not only for the national program, but for many of its partners as well.

Canada picked up its first gold medal at the senior level with a 2-1 victory over the United States at the Pan Am Games at Mexico in late October.

The feat was accomplished by a team filled mostly with Minor Leaguers, and the celebration extended all the way back to Toronto, where the Blue Jays received some credit for the role they played in Team Canada's development.

"They deserve a part in this gold medal as well, because they help us," said Jim Baba, director general of Baseball Canada. "They helped our program get to where we are, and they're helping to develop younger players across Canada. Hopefully they can see what they do has a benefit to some of our success."

The two organizations first became intertwined when Toronto joined the Major Leagues in 1977. The relationship blossomed over the years, but it seems to have grown even more since veteran executive Paul Beeston rejoined the Blue Jays as team president in 2008.

Beeston, along with senior vice president of business operations Stephen Brooks and their staff, has been credited for putting an added emphasis on amateur baseball. That involves sponsorship of events such as the Canadian Little League Baseball Championships and the World Baseball Challenge, while also providing equipment and improving field conditions across the Greater Toronto Area.

"We really look at it as a way to promote the game across the country," Brooks said of his team's role in amateur sport. "We have a unique situation from the other clubs in that we have national marketing rights. We look at that as an opportunity for the club, but it's also an opportunity to increase participation in the game.

"We think the Blue Jays have a responsibility in the country to facilitate that. It's really just to promote the game and get kids playing baseball at all levels -- grassroots and elite."

Another stepping stone in the overall promotion occurred with the return of the Winter Tour in January 2011. The caravan-style trip brought members of the Blue Jays organization to various parts of Ontario and Western Canada. It's expected to continue again in 2012 as a way to reach out to fans who don't normally have access to the team.

The relationship between the Blue Jays and Baseball Canada can also be found in the recent series of minicamps for amateur players. Blue Jays alumni teamed up with the national program to visit seven provinces and host 10 camps for more than 2,000 children.

Toronto's willingness to reach out to people all over the country is beneficial in a number of areas. It helps to build the brand, but it also increases the level of competition for the youth who take part.

"I don't think there's any -- not only not any baseball team, but any sports team -- that is doing anything similar to that scale, coast-to-coast and with that many alumni players," Brooks said.

"It speaks to the connection these alumni players have with the Toronto Blue Jays. For them to come during their summer and fly to multiple cities and teach baseball to all of these people was tremendous."

One of the Blue Jays' most successful amateur initiatives has been as a co-sponsor for the Mizuno Junior Elite Baseball Camp at Rogers Centre. Toronto has hosted the annual event, which features Canada's top players aged 16 and under, since the late 1990s.

Current Toronto players -- and natives of British Columbia -- Adam Loewen and Brett Lawrie were participants during their rising amateur careers. For at least a brief period of time, the camp provides the young ballplayers with a taste of what it's like to be in the Major Leagues.

"We get messages back from kids that leave the Mizuno Camp and can't believe they got to play on the same facility that the Blue Jays play on," said Baba, who is also a former coach. "They get training from the Blue Jays, training from the national coaches. It's a tremendous experience for every one of them.

"It's only four days, but we can go back and say someone like Adam Loewen was at the Mizuno Camp. Now we can say [to the kids], 'Look where he is now.' "

The Blue Jays, now more than ever, have a distinctly Canadian feel to their team. Lawrie represents the first true Canadian star to play for the club, while general manager Alex Anthopoulos and many of the front-office personnel grew up in the country as well.

That should only help build its relationship with fans from all over and set the stage for even more cooperation with the national program.

"We're very happy with the partnership with Baseball Canada," Brooks said. "They have been incredibly supportive and accommodating to us. They helped with providing instructors for the Super Camps, and we've done some things to promote some of their programs as well.

"We're very excited with that. They have been a tremendous partner. We expect it to continue well into the future."