Youngsters learn from the best at Waterloo clinics
Hall of Famer Alomar among Blue Jays alumni offering instruction at Super Camp
WATERLOO, Ont. -- During his 17-year career in the big leagues, Roberto Alomar turned double plays with some of the best shortstops in the game. There was fellow Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr., potential Hall-of-Famer Omar Vizquel, and the likes of Tony Fernandez, Rey Ordonez and current Blue Jays shortstop Jose Reyes.
On Saturday afternoon in Waterloo, though, a group of young ballplayers -- ages 9-16 -- had the opportunity to team up with the 10-time Gold Glove Award winner. The double plays they turned will surely never be forgotten.
But that wasn't all the 130 youngsters experienced on the second day of this weekend's three-day Honda Blue Jays Super Camp, held at the RIM Park baseball complex. The campers worked on the fundamentals of the game as former Toronto players and the Blue Jays Baseball Academy provided instruction.
The youngsters hit off tees under the watchful eye of Sandy Alomar Sr. They took soft toss from Lloyd Moseby. They shagged flies with Devon White. And they worked on pitching mechanics with Duane Ward.
"This is what it's all about -- giving back to these kids and teaching them the basics of the game," said Alomar, an integral member of the Blue Jays' World Series championship-winning teams in 1992 and '93. "When I was a kid, I was surrounded by big league ballplayers. Most kids don't have that opportunity, so this is important to me. Hopefully these kids will take some of our teaching into their own games and lives."
In addition to receiving instruction from former Blue Jays players, each camper received a photo card supplied by Honda Canada, as well as a hat, a t-shirt, and an instructional manual -- not to mention plenty of photos and autographs.
The weekend in Waterloo marked the third installment of the 2013 edition of the Super Camps, which will take place in 17 cities across all 10 Canadian provinces this summer. Alomar, who is scheduled to participate in nine of those camps, is excited to help grow the game of baseball across the country.
"My heart has always been here," he said. "The Blue Jays organization has always been there for me, and the fans have been there since day one. And it's not only about baseball, but about life. It's an honour to be part of this."
One of Saturday's campers, nine-year-old Gavin McIver, may not have known who Alomar was prior to this weekend, but the youngster says his first experience at a Blue Jays Super Camp has been a thrill a minute.
"It's really fun," said McIver, who sported a Brett Lawrie jersey on Saturday. "My favourite part is meeting all the people from the Blue Jays. And I learned a lot, like how to hit farther."
Gavin's mother, Heather, says she's been equally impressed by this weekend's event.
"Honestly, I think it's amazing the way the Jays are giving back," she said. "I can't wait to tell everyone about it. The personal interaction from the coaches has been great, and Gavin loves how friendly the instructors are."
That has been a common experience for kids across the country over the past three years, as the Super Camps continue to grow the game at the grassroots level. And no one is happier about the program's success than Ward, who -- along with Blue Jays front office staffers Rob Jack and T.J. Burton -- has been instrumental in guiding the program.
Nearly 40 Blue Jays alumni have attended camps over the past three years, and this year alone that number is expected to reach at least 30. As for Ward's approach to working with young ballplayers at the camps, he said it's simple.
"All kids are different," the former Toronto closer said. "Their strengths are different, their abilities are different, and their level of baseball savvy is different. But I say let's find out what those abilities are, let's get them better, and then let's find a way to where they can excel with the abilities that they have. Obviously nobody is going to field a ground ball like Robbie [Alomar]. Only Robbie can be Robbie. But we tell the kids: 'You want to be the best you.'"
And when he sees results, like he has this weekend in Waterloo, Ward says it's a special feeling.
"You'll see a kid where all of a sudden, something goes off in their head, and you'll see it in their eyes," Ward said. "And you're thinking, 'You got it.' That's the beauty of it."
The Super Camp formula has been a winning one, and Homer Bush was one of the first to buy in. A Blue Jay from 1999-2002, the former second baseman has a great deal of experience working with youth in his native Texas, where he has coached baseball for the past five years. He's already a veteran of 15 Super Camps.
"It was an easy transition for me," Bush said, noting that he didn't have the same opportunities growing up. "I always felt I learned the most later in my career, so in high school and the Minor Leagues I was just feeling my way. But with that experience came knowledge, and now I feel like I'm able to give these kids that vital information and start them off early."
Ward says he's been impressed with the number of former Blue Jays players who are involved in the program, and it continues to grow.
"It's reached the point where current Blue Jays players are involved, sponsoring kids in our camps," Ward said. "Mark Buehrle is sponsoring kids in our camps, Casey Janssen is sponsoring kids in our camps, Edwin Encarnacion is sponsoring kids in our camps. I asked those guys if they wanted to help, and they said, 'Absolutely, whatever you need. We believe in this, and we want to help.' It's beautiful. John Gibbons asks me all the time, 'What can I do?'"
In Waterloo this weekend, the lineup of instructors included former World Series winners, former All-Stars, a former manager, and, of course, a Hall of Famer. And in Alomar, the campers received even more than just baseball instruction.
"It's also about making the kids believe that in life there's hope," Alomar said. "You have to go to school and stay away from the bad things. But if you stay on the right path, good things will happen."
For 130 lucky kids in Waterloo on Saturday, that meant turning double plays with perhaps the greatest second baseman of all time.