TORONTO -- It was a night at the ballpark where every fan went home with a smile on their face. Monday evening's annual Curve Ball Gala at Rogers Centre, hosted in support of the Jays Care Foundation, provided an opportunity for fans and sponsors to hang out with their favorite Toronto Blue Jays players, members of the coaching staff and team management.
The event gave its attendees a rare experience behind the scenes of their favorite ballclub -- providing clubhouse access, a chance to try Toronto's new dirt infield and photo opportunities in the team's dugout -- all while raising money for youth in need.
• Jays Care Foundation information
"This is still a kid's game, and a lot of times you lose sight about what this is about," said catcher Josh Thole. "Days like today are a chance to use baseball as a tool to grow. Baseball is a tough game, and if you can teach kids how to deal with life through baseball, that's a great thing."
Established in 1992, the Jays Care Foundation has largely focused on the social and physical development of youth in Canada through the sport of baseball, helping them engage in active lives and inspiring excellence and leadership both on and off the field.
"More and more, people are realizing how important using sport for development can be to create life skills," Jays Care Foundation executive director Robert Witchel said.
"One of the key life skills that can make or break someone's life is resiliency, and if you think about the game of baseball, there's no other game that teaches you resiliency like baseball. If you miss seven out of 10 times at the plate, you will likely go to the Hall of Fame. And if you think about kids growing up in poverty, you immediately get the sense that they can learn that life skill in particular, but also leadership and teamwork."
The 2016 Curve Ball Gala raised more than $1.24 million to build safe spaces for educational and recreational programming, and it will positively impact more than 62,000 kids across Canada, an impressive feat that did not go unnoticed by Blue Jays president Mark Shapiro.
"One of the great honors of working in Major League Baseball is the ability to positively impact kids and to positively impact the community," Shapiro said. "In the case of the Blue Jays, our community is not just this incredible city or province, it's the nation."
The many attractions for fans at the event included a 40th anniversary Blue Jays museum, with mementos such as Jose Bautista's bat from Game 5 of the 2015 American League Division Series against Texas, as well as the 1992 and '93 World Series trophies.
Jays Care Foundation also featured various silent auction items, such as team-signed jerseys, along with finely crafted portraits of players, and it allowed fans to buy specialty items such as a 30-minute table tennis match with reigning AL Most Valuable Player Award winner Josh Donaldson.
Guests also enjoyed dinner and dessert in a lavishly redesigned centre field, before concluding their night socializing with fellow attendees and Blue Jays players.
"Them understanding who we are is special, because then when we take the field, they know who we are and what we stand for," pitcher Jesse Chavez said about his interactions with the fans. "It's been great to be with them, take pictures, sign autographs and share stories for a great cause. That's why we're here, and we couldn't ask for a more incredible time."