From Rookie League to Major League
Each year, during the MLB All-Star Week, select Jr. RBI teams make their way to the host city to participate in the Jr. RBI Classic, a round-robin baseball tournament for RBI teams from under-resourced communities across the United States. Participants are outfitted in official, team-branded equipment, and provided with an all-expense paid trip to play baseball, interact with their counterparts from other cities, and enjoy the week of All-Star festivities.
In 2012, eleven Rookie Leaguers were given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of representing the Blue Jays Baseball Academy Rookie League program in the Jr. RBI Classic in Kansas City - the first international team in the tournament's history. For six weeks, the Rookie League team honed their baseball skills in preparation for the friendly, round-robin tournament and took what, for many of them, was their first trip outside Toronto.
Two years later, the Toronto Blue Jays were once again asked to send a deserving group of kids, this time to the 2014 All-Star Week in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This years' team will be from the Boys and Girls Club of Saskatoon - a Blue Jays Baseball Academy Rookie League partner club, with three sites throughout the city and approximately 370 members.
"The cases we deal with [at the Boys & Girls Club of Saskatoon] are very extreme," explained Heidi Carl, Director of Programs, BGC Saskatoon. "[Our members] are awesome…the circumstances some of them have lived in and faced…it makes their achievements even more impressive."
"The 2012 Jr. RBI Classic was such a powerful experience for the team we sent from Toronto Community Housing - we wanted to make sure we shared this once in a lifetime experience with Rookie Leagues from beyond the GTA," says Danielle Bedasse, Executive Director, Jays Care Foundation. "The Boys and Girls Club of Saskatoon has been such a vibrant, engaged and excited group of kids. We know this experience will go a long way for these kids, their families, the club and the greater Saskatoon community. We are so excited to hear their stories!"
Upon learning they would be representing the Blue Jays in Minneapolis, Carl, BGC Saskatoon staff and Jays Care representatives embarked upon the task of selecting which members would don the Blue Bird on their chest. "It was based on who are the kids most in need…based on leadership and attitude and involvement with our club," said Carl. "It was easy - very easy."
The 12 children on the newly formed team have been members of the club for years, and have faced a wide variety of issues throughout their childhoods, ranging from a lack of access to organized sport; a lack of positive male role models; a lack of self-esteem and close family members sometimes making unhealthy life choices.
It's not just the individual members of BGC Saskatoon that are faced with challenges, either. The club itself struggles to find a safe place to practice baseball, as the closest diamond, Pleasant Hill, has been deemed unusable by the club.
"Definitely, the needles [littering the field] are a huge issue," explained Carl. "When you talk about Pleasant Hill, it's such a high-traffic area that, 15 minutes after a needle pick-up, there will be more on the ground. That is an absolute 'not happening,'…we can't do it, we can't and won't play baseball there."
Despite being forced to practice inside, due to a lack of usable diamonds and an unusually long winter, the team has made tremendous strides. Practices began on March 18, led by Jays Care staff and volunteer coaches from Saskatchewan Minor Baseball, and according to Carl, "…the boys have really bonded together as a team and help support each other. The look in the boys' faces when they're out there and they're trying to hit or pitch the ball…it just totally lights them up. The progression that these boys have made is phenomenal."
"I don't think they'll even fully understand what they're getting until they go to Minneapolis," continued Carl, who explained that some of the participants' families have been saving money to make the trip to All-Star Week to cheer on the team in person. "These kids just don't have the opportunity that others do, it's just not there! How can they expect anything when they haven't had anything? That's what makes this all so amazing."
While baseball is the focus of this unique experience, it is the hope of all involved that these 12 young men will learn far more than how to slide into second, field a fly-ball and swing for the fences.
"We hope that these kids gain confidence to continue and pursue whatever they'd like," said Carl. "We'd love to see them stay active for life and continue their involvement in baseball. We want them to take away the life-skills they need to make positive choices for themselves. These opportunities don't just come - we're absolutely, 100 per cent grateful and appreciative of our involvement with the Blue Jays and Jays Care. It allows us to do things that we would never have imagined possible for the kids in our programs."
Keep an eye out for the Blue Jays Jr. RBI Classic team throughout MLB All-Star Week in Minneapolis, Minnesota.