There's still another month before Blue Jays pitchers and catchers report to Dunedin, Fla., for the first day of Spring Training. On Thursday, nearly 50 lucky Blue Jays fans found an exciting way to fill the void -- taking to the turf at Rogers Centre to be coached by Blue Jays alumni.
Winter Training Day, in support of Jays Care Foundation, is a new initiative launched in an effort to continue fan engagement throughout the offseason, and former Blue Jays were hard at work for a great cause. Alumni, including Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar, Jesse Barfield, Lloyd Moseby and Pat Tabler, ran numerous hours of on-field instruction for fans who had raised a minimum of $500 in support of Jays Care Foundation.
"I'm excited about connecting with fans and enjoying the day," said Alomar. "Today is about raising some money for Jays Care Foundation, [which] I have a lot of respect for, and I'm just glad to be part of the program."
Participants took part in a number of events, including batting practice, hitting drills, soft-toss and shagging balls in the outfield. For many the highlight of the day was taking swings with Alomar mere feet behind them.
For one participant in particular, the moment was even more special.
Alex Bruce, who attended with a number of coworkers and clients, sent a ball over the fence in right field with Alomar watching.
"The highlight wasn't necessarily hitting the home run," said Bruce, "it was having Roberto Alomar chirp at me and say he didn't think I could hit one to the opposite field."
Tabler seemed to take notice of Bruce's power.
"I want to get a fantasy draft going for the Blue Jays," joked Tabler. "I'll draft that guy number one."
Participating in Winter Training Day was a belated Christmas present for Mike Lanzilotta, whose wife, Kayla, signed him up.
"At first," said Mike Lanzilotta, "I didn't know what it was, because it was just a piece of paper, But as soon as I read it, I couldn't believe it."
The Lanzilottas, who say they are Blue Jays fans from birth, could hardly contain their excitement on the field.
"We go to a lot of games," said Kayla Lanzilotta, "probably about 20 per year, but this is the kind of opportunity you never get. I've never been on the field before, so this is pretty cool!"
All proceeds from Winter Training Day will support the Blue Jays Baseball Academy Rookie League national program, which helps 7,100 children in more than 100 communities across Canada. The program, which celebrates its 26th year in 2014, provides access to baseball for thousands of youth in all 10 provinces and the Yukon Territory.
"Providing access to amateur baseball is a large part of how the Toronto Blue Jays, and Jays Care Foundation, continue to break barriers to organized sport and get kids physically active across Canada," said Danielle Bedasse, executive director of the Jays Care Foundation. "Fund-raising programs such as Winter Training Day are both interactive and engaging -- they continue to solidify the bond between the Blue Jays and the community at large, and provide a great deal of support toward funding Jays Care Foundation initiatives."
After all the balls had been hit and the bats had been swung, participants and alumni alike took time to reflect upon what Winter Training Day meant, not only for themselves but for amateur baseball across Canada.
"I play baseball in a community where there's a big Jays Care and Blue Jays logo at one of the fields, so I see the money in motion in a lesser-privileged area of the city," said Bruce. "It's going to good use."
"Just to be able to give back and to know that what you're doing is going to benefit somebody else -- I think that's why you see a lot of players come back and want to be a part of Jays Care," said Tabler. "It's a great thing."
Matt Warner is a contributor to MLB.com.