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Blue Jays unveil refurbished field at Smythe Park

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TORONTO -- Thursday was a perfect Toronto night for baseball. A short drive away from Rogers Centre, where the Blue Jays had the night off, hundreds of members of the Smythe-Rockcliffe neighborhood gathered at Smythe Park to enjoy the newly refurbished main diamond.

Through the Jays Care Foundation, the Blue Jays invested $175,000 for the project -- reinforcing backstop fencing, new dugouts, new benches, higher outfield fencing, edging the infield and the ever-important snack-bar stairs -- to benefit more than 350 participants in the York Baseball Association for the 2013 season.

"With this grant, Smythe Park is now a jewel in the city," said Pete Zakkak, Keelesdale vice president of York Baseball. "York Baseball will be able to continue to provide youth a safe place to play the best game in the world while learning valuable life skills and promoting healthy lifestyles for another 50-plus years."

Community volunteers handed out hats and T-shirts to youth who participated in a Blue Jays Baseball Academy clinic after the official unveiling, emceed by Blue Jays Central host, Jamie Campbell. As the players divided into hitting and fielding groups on every corner of the field, parents stood on the sidelines with cameras in hand.

In one group, there was added focus as a tall instructor in a visor called his group close. He told them that it's OK to not be perfect. With 12 All-Star appearances to his name, two World Series rings and his 10 Gold Glove Awards, there's a thing or two to be taken away from the infield drills led by Roberto Alomar.

"When I came [to Toronto] in 1991, the city embraced me," he said. "Now it's time for me to give back to the community."

The Hall of Famer blended seamlessly into the event, telling one young boy how much he likes his hair and stopping to take pictures with moms and dads who remember his contributions to the game long before their kids were born.

"It means a lot to be here, because you never know what a kid can do if you inspire them," Alomar said. "I'm here to inspire them and to believe in them so they can believe in themselves."

Smythe Park is one of the host parks for the Blue Jays Baseball Academy Rookie League. Partnering with Toronto Community Housing and Boys & Girls Clubs of Canada, the no-cost program impacts 5,000 children and youth in under-resourced communities across Canada.

"I grew up in a low-income community, [and] beside me was the projects. I know what the projects mean and I know what it takes to get to where I got," Alomar said. "It's up to us to help [these kids]. If they can stay focused, hopefully we can take them away from the bad things and they can make the right choices in life."

Nearly three years in the making, the upgrades to the park don't end with Thursday's festivities. The Jays Care Community Crew will return to the park to clean up the field, sand and paint the bleachers and improve the pitcher's mound.

"Hearing the kids, talking to the parents about how much it's changed their baseball, and how much pride they're taking in it, it's pretty cool," said Rob Drynan, executive director of the Jays Care Foundation.

Jays Care has invested more than $7.5 million to date in communities across Canada, helping children and youth get active, succeed academically and live healthier lives.

Steph Rogers is a contributor to

Toronto Blue Jays