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Big league hopefuls showcase talent north of border

Opened by former big leaguer Stern, Centrefield Sports facility hosts inaugural event
Special to

It's about that time when many young Canadians are beginning to trade in their cleats for skates, ditching baseball bats for hockey sticks, and worrying more about the frozen pond than throwing a frozen rope.

November baseball north of the border is a rarity, but as the amateur game continues to grow in Canada, that might become less true.

It's about that time when many young Canadians are beginning to trade in their cleats for skates, ditching baseball bats for hockey sticks, and worrying more about the frozen pond than throwing a frozen rope.

November baseball north of the border is a rarity, but as the amateur game continues to grow in Canada, that might become less true.

The inaugural Tournament 12, hosted by the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre in September, started a trend, allowing young college-eligible baseball players to realize that if they work hard, there are opportunities out there for them at the collegiate or professional levels.

On Sunday, that trend continued in London, Ontario, as former Team Canada star and Boston Red Sox outfielder Adam Stern opened up his facility, Centrefield Sports, for 117 young players to showcase their talents in front of almost 30 college recruiters and scouts from 11 Major League organizations.

Add to that the fact that Roberto Alomar, Toronto's Hall of Fame second baseman and commissioner of Tournament 12, was in attendance, and it was a great day for everyone.

"Baseball at this level means a lot to me," Alomar said. "Because this is where, if you look back at my career, these are teams and events that I wish I'd had. It's a chance for people to scout and you have more opportunity to be seen.

"This is really good for baseball here in Canada. Baseball in Canada is growing, and it's good for us to come here and watch the kids and how they're growing as baseball players."

T.J. Burton, the Blue Jays' coordinator of amateur baseball, was also in attendance for the daylong event. He believes that it was a fantastic chance to not only see young players who have already advanced in their games since Tournament 12, but also take a look at next year's class of talent.

"We want everybody to know that there are great opportunities like this one, run by Adam Stern and Centrefield Sports," Burton said. "We're just making a conscious effort to get out and see as many kids as we can so we can get all of the right players for the next Tournament 12.

"There is definitely a lot of talent. There are some kids who were in the tournament here, and now you get to see some new kids that we haven't had a chance to see before. We've now been able to identify them, and we can keep an eye on them. It's going to help tremendously for the future."

The inaugural Centrefield Sports showcase focused on college recruitment in an attempt to open up the eyes of young players to avenues they might not have been familiar with before. Though the facility's instructors have all played professional baseball or are still currently playing, they know how hard the pro side of the game can be. They are hoping to give their players more options within baseball.

"I want to keep doing it at least once a year, maybe twice a year," Stern said. "We want to connect with more colleges and universities and see about bringing them up here. That's the biggest thing. Not everyone is a pro-style player. A small percentage of them will actually have interest on the pro side, and the majority of them are going to fall into the college ranks. So to get the [recruiters and scouts] out here, that's a big deal for a lot of these kids."

Though not even two months have passed since Tournament 12 ended, it has already begun to pay dividends for several players. Some have since made college commitments, one signed a professional contract, as Maritimes pitcher Andrew Case became a member of Toronto's farm system almost immediately thereafter, and others got a chance to represent their country. Greg Hamilton, Baseball Canada's director of national teams, added some new faces to his junior roster following the tournament, after being able to see players in the environment that the event provided.

"It was a great event and it was an opportunity to look at guys relative to other players," Hamilton said. "The comprehensive nature of the tournament is invaluable, because you really do get to see a big cross section of the country competing against one another. And some of the younger guys at the end of the season, their games will have evolved a little bit -- they will have gotten a little bit bigger and a little bit stronger. For a 16- or 17-year-old, another season under their belt is significant."

Sunday's event gave Hamilton another chance to see top talent side by side and head to head with even more of the area's talent. And because of Centrefield's London location, young players from all over southwestern Ontario made the trip, giving looks to some who might not have been seen otherwise.

"There are some younger follows, which are great," Hamilton said. "There have been a few from smaller communities who have shown up here, which is great because sometimes in the big [baseball] centres, the kids are seen a little bit more, and some of the kids from underlying areas and smaller environments, you don't necessarily see all the time. They showed up today, which is a good thing."

Added Burton: "It's great. This is one of, if not the best, facility in Canada. There's a lot of great baseball down in this area in some of the smaller centres. To see these kids and to see all of the work they put in in the offseason to get to this point, it's awesome."

Though many impressed throughout the workout day that consisted of running, throwing, hitting and pitchers throwing bullpen sessions, Alomar was focused on one young Tournament 12 player who has continued to grow his game since September: outfielder and pitcher Tristan Clarke.

"Tristan is going to be good if he continues to work hard, and there is also a lot of other baseball talent here," Alomar said. "If they continue to work hard, and I know Adam and the guys here are doing a good job of that, they can continue to grow baseball here. ... This is going to help us grow Tournament 12, also."

Clarke received some special attention from Tournament 12's commissioner, getting advice on his game and his future. And after receiving an invite to the junior national team in the fall because of his presence at the September event, his newfound relationship with Alomar has capped off a great season for the young Brampton native.

"It's a great feeling," Clarke said. "Just the first time, to be able to meet him was amazing. Just to be at Tournament 12 and to be able to meet him and shake his hand was one thing. But now he knows who I am, he knows my name and he's going to be around to see me more often. It's amazing. It's actually just amazing."

Alomar was happy to lend an ear or a hand throughout the day at Centrefield, but he most enjoyed just getting out to see more of the impressive pool of baseball talent that Canada continues to produce.

"This is good to basically keep baseball growing here in Canada," Alomar said. "I know everybody here in Canada talks about hockey, and hockey is the No. 1 sport, but when you come to this kind of showcase, you can see that there is a lot of talent here in baseball.

"If we can continue to do these showcases, it's good for the game. You're going to see more Joey Vottos and Brett Lawries. Some of these guys will have a chance to be in the big leagues, so this is great for them."

Alexis Brudnicki is a contributor to

Toronto Blue Jays