As the Blue Jays become further removed from the inaugural Tournament 12 -- originally bringing together the country’s best amateur baseball players to showcase their skills in front of scouts and college recruiters in 2013 -- the impact becomes increasingly obvious.
Throughout the 2019 season, Toronto welcomed Mike Soroka, Josh Naylor and Abraham Toro back to Rogers Centre as members of the Braves, Padres and Astros, respectively, after all three suited up for their home provinces, representing Alberta, Ontario and Quebec at both the first and second editions of the event.
When Soroka toed the rubber against the Blue Jays in August, it was the 22-year-old right-hander’s second trip back since he last played at Tournament 12 -- after also making the fifth start of his big league career in Toronto last season -- but his memories of the event remain at the forefront of his mind.
“The more I look back at it, the more influential it is,” the native of Calgary, Alberta said. “It was probably the most nervous I’ve been on a mound ever. [Team Alberta] had the first game of the morning and I went out there and was pure jitters, pure nerves, trying to throw as hard as I could -- at that time it was 87 -- but that was the first moment of whoa, this is baseball.
“I’m very thankful for that experience.”
Naylor’s return to the building in May was more than just a homecoming for the native of nearby Mississauga, as the 22-year-old outfielder was afforded the opportunity to make his Major League debut for San Diego on home soil, and in the familiar setting he was offered by his Tournament 12 experiences.
“I think that’s why I’m not really experiencing any nervousness or heavy legs or anything like that,” Naylor said during his first weekend in the big leagues. “I’m really calm and relaxed here. Maybe it will hit me [later] because I won’t be as comfy, but playing here I feel just fine.”
Toro joined Houston in the last week of August, and in his fourth series with the Astros the native of Longueuil, Quebec travelled north of the border to step on the field at Rogers Centre once again.
“It was amazing,” Toro said of Tournament 12. “At the time, it was like you get a chance to play where the big leaguers play. I had never been to a stadium that big at the time, so it was an unreal feeling…I was probably anxious a little bit, trying to play well, but it was fun. It was a great experience.”
Impacting a nation
Thinking back to the games at the amateur level in which he matched up against high-calibre competition like fellow big leaguers Soroka and Naylor, Toro shared the gratitude he has for the exposure the tournament offered to players from coast to coast.
“We had some pretty good players at the time,” the infielder said. “[The event was] huge, because especially in Montreal, we don’t have a lot of exposure to Major League scouts. So coming to a tournament like this, where the whole country’s best players can showcase their talents, is pretty awesome.”
Despite hailing from across the country, Soroka has seen firsthand how much the Blue Jays have done for amateur baseball in Canada, and takes pride in knowing the team represents the entire nation and its players.
“It’s amazing,” Soroka said. “Getting to talk to guys who played for the Blue Jays about being in Calgary, Vancouver, Edmonton, during winter camps, summer camps, the Winter Tour, the outreach they make throughout Canada has been huge.
“Their impact, especially when they were in the playoffs and all of a sudden kids in Canada realized that baseball could be a reality as well as hockey, is incredible. They’re instrumental in being Canada’s team and I’m very proud of that.”
From the original vision that came to fruition as Tournament 12 to the seventh-annual event, stories like those of Soroka, Naylor, Toro and many more were always what the Blue Jays had hoped for.
“Tournament 12 is such an unbelievable experience for a kid in high school,” Toronto’s program director of amateur baseball TJ Burton said. “It’s an unbelievable opportunity, and I hope they make the most of it. We hope it adds to the stories of their careers and allows them the best opportunities to move on past their high school graduations to keep playing this game, whether it be in college, professional or abroad.”
Beyond Tournament 12
Impacting an entire country and its amateur players is something the Blue Jays focus on year round, as they aim to not only bring the nation’s best together once a season, but also to fulfill a responsibility to grow the game and make sure Canadian athletes can take to a diamond if they so choose.
“The Jays Care Foundation does an incredible job of using baseball as a platform to impact at-risk and underserved populations,” Toronto’s president and CEO Mark Shapiro said. “It can be uplifting, we can use the power of our brand to raise money and funds, and we can create programming that will improve lives, which is really strong and really powerful.
“We also have an obligation -- because we all work in the game because we love it -- to grow the game…Finding creative ways to spark an interest in baseball and provide the ability for our kids to play is important because A, we love the game, and B, they’re our future fans.”
Since joining the Blue Jays organization in the fall of 2015, Shapiro has gained unique insight into the amateur game in his second country as the executive has watched his son Caden navigate the landscape, both as a member of the Toronto Mets and a returning participant to Tournament 12.
“What I’ve seen from watching Caden play games is the brand of baseball up here, and I’ve got an appreciation and respect for the effort that players and their families have to make in order to get to fields and find facilities and practice,” Shapiro said. “There’s a reason to believe that they’ll find a way to develop, to get better, they’ll find a way to maximize their potential.
“I’m an advocate for those guys [and] a believe that the kids who are playing baseball up here are tough, they’re passionate and they’re driven to be great.”
Proud of what the organization has already been able to implement around the country, the Blue Jays are always looking to maintain the progress they’ve made and continue to find ways to make more.
“What we’re doing right now is amazing,” Burton said. “It’s evolved so much over the years and gotten bigger, and it’s only going to get bigger. Now it’s about staying consistent through high times, low times, and showing the country that we’re Canada’s team. It’s very important to us, and a responsibility that we take on, and we’re always going to take that very seriously.”