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Toronto adds international flavour to Jr. RBI Classic

Toronto adds international flavour to Jr. RBI Classic
KANSAS CITY -- For the Toronto Blue Jays RBI youth baseball team, this weekend at the fourth-annual Jr. RBI Classic isn't about winning games.

It's about learning the fundamentals of baseball, and sometimes even the basic rules.

"Ball four means you go to first base," manager Todd Erskine said. "Strike three means you come back to the dugout. Three outs mean we change up. It's been really good that way."

The Blue Jays, the first international team in Jr. RBI Classic history, lost to the Chicago Cubs RBI program on Sunday morning. But even as the game progressed, the 11- and 12-year-old Blue Jays showed a better understanding of the game.

After issuing walk after walk early in the game, the Blue Jays' pitcher started sacrificing velocity for accuracy, forcing the Cubs to swing the bat. Blue Jays hitters started running through first base instead of stopping immediately on the bag and losing speed.

Erskine said the coaching staffs in Canada focus on basic skills instruction, leaving game situations on the backburner. Grassroots baseball is definitely spreading in Canada, and Erskine said the ability to come to Kansas City can only help the program grow.

The Jr. RBI program in Canada operates under the Blue Jays Baseball Academy "Rookie League" and provides playing opportunities for more than 800 children. The Rookie League started on July 4, and culminates with a championship game at Rogers Centre on Aug. 16.

The 12 players in Kansas City this weekend are all part of the Rookie League and live in Toronto. The Jays Care program supports Rookie League Baseball, as well as several other Blue Jays' outreach programs.

"With our investments through the Jays Care foundation and the Toronto Blue Jays, to be able to grow and develop has been very important," Erskine said.

Third baseman M.J. Hanchard moved to Toronto from Jamaica two years ago. He said he's learned a lot about stealing bases and pitching while in Kansas City.

"It's kind of fun," Hanchard said. "I'm getting better at baseball."

He's one of the many players on the Blue Jays team who had never been to the United States before this week. The others who have been to the States had never been as far south as Missouri.

Since so many players on the team immigrated to Toronto from more southern locales, the festering heat in Kansas City hasn't been much of an issue.

"For any kid it's hot, right? It hasn't been really overbearing in the sense that they haven't been complaining about it," Erskine said.

So while the Blue Jays may not be lighting up the scoreboard, just their appearance in the Jr. RBI Classic is a boon for baseball in Canada.

"With the program that we provide for the kids within our framework, to be able to bring them down here is absolutely incredible," Erskine said.

Clark Goble is an associate reporter for

Toronto Blue Jays