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Montreal Play Ball event boasts big turnout

Jackie Robinson's granddaughter, former Expo All-Star among headliners
March 23, 2019

MONTREAL, Quebec -- It was a homecoming of sorts on Saturday at Olympic Stadium. Ahead of two exhibition games between the Blue Jays and the Brewers on Monday and Tuesday -- bringing big league baseball back to the Quebec ballpark for another spring -- Major League Baseball joined forces with

MONTREAL, Quebec -- It was a homecoming of sorts on Saturday at Olympic Stadium.

Ahead of two exhibition games between the Blue Jays and the Brewers on Monday and Tuesday -- bringing big league baseball back to the Quebec ballpark for another spring -- Major League Baseball joined forces with Jays Care Foundation, Baseball Canada and Baseball Quebec for the third consecutive year to host more than 600 young players at a Play Ball event.

As the league celebrates the centennial of Jackie Robinson’s birth, and Montreal reflects on the 50th anniversary of the Expos, the event featured 14-year Major League veteran Ken Hill, an All-Star with the Expos in 1994, and Meta Robinson, the granddaughter of Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson, who famously got his start in affiliated baseball in '46 with the Montreal Royals, the Triple-A affiliate of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

“It’s an honor to be here,” Robinson’s granddaughter said. “To not just visit Montreal, but to visit Montreal as my grandfather’s grandchild, as a member of the Robinson family, and really continuing his legacy.

“People have asked, ‘What would Jackie think?’ And it’s a special question for me, because he would be proud that what he started and what he did, did not end with him. … So it’s a special experience, and being in Canada for the first time, and within this context, will stay with me for a very long time.”

Jackie Robinson’s legacy continues to thrive in baseball and beyond. On Friday, at Ecole Sainte-Bernadette-Soubirous in Montreal, the game was introduced to a set of young players who might not have ever been given a chance to experience baseball without his initial impact, at one of 250 Winterball events scheduled this year to be hosted by Baseball Canada with the support of MLB.

“With the [Winterball] program, we are trying to recruit little kids -- new Canadians,” Sainte-Bernadette-Soubirous physical education teacher Jessica Lacoste said. “Because most of them -- my kids, my students -- have never seen a baseball game.

“So it’s a new thing for them, and it helps integrate them into Montreal life and the culture of what we have in Canada. We have two girls, and I brought two little guys to today’s workshops, and they’re excited, amazed and they love the sport already, and it was their first time [playing] yesterday at the school.”

On the field at Olympic Stadium on Saturday, the players from Ecole Sainte-Bernadette-Soubirous, along with 600 other young players, participated in fun-focused, casual baseball and softball activities, rotating through stations that included hitting, baserunning, home run derbies and more. Those in attendance received hats, T-shirts, bats and balls to take home to continue their fun away from the stadium.

“They’ve got 300 kids for both sessions; that’s really good,” said Hill, who will also attend the Expos Fest Celebrity Gala on Sunday. “I’m ecstatic that they’re excited about playing baseball. I’m hoping that they can get a team here that these kids can grow up with. That would be great. … It’s always good to come back up here and see the fans, and the people who are passionate about baseball.”

As the game continues to grow at the grassroots level, Baseball Quebec is excited about the consistently growing response it has had to the Play Ball events and the increased interest in the game around the province. This year’s sessions filled to capacity in mere hours, and the Canadian affair is the biggest among the Play Ball events.

“It says a lot about the hard work that Baseball Quebec is putting into the development program and into its youth initiatives,” said Andre Lachance, Baseball Canada’s director of business and sport development. “And it tells you that baseball is healthy in the province, for sure.”

As one of several female instructors for the event on Saturday, long-time Canadian Women’s National Team member Vanessa Riopel was grateful to see the growth of interest in the game in her home province, and she was most impressed by the number of young female players in attendance.

“There are so many more girls than when I started playing baseball, so it’s really fun,” Riopel said. “There was a group with all girls here, and I was the only girl playing when I was nine years old. It’s really good for women’s baseball and the future of the sport.

“I would love to see more girls from Quebec on Team Canada. There were never any events like this when I was young. It’s nice that girls are accepted, and now, when I see my three kids, I can imagine seeing them here when they are old enough, and I can show them they can play, too.”

Play Ball has been showing young hopefuls they can play since 2015. Hundreds of events have been hosted throughout the United States, Puerto Rico, Canada, Mexico, Brazil and Panama. Since the launch of the initiative, baseball has seen a 52.8 percent rise in casual participation, according to an annual Topline Participation Report produced by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.

Alexis Brudnicki is a reporter/producer for MLB.com based in Canada.