The Roof is Open for the Future of Baseball in Toronto

Travis Logan winds up for a long distance throw at Wishing Well Park on Oct. 3.

It’s getting dark pretty early these days… guess the kids could turn the spot lights on. The infields are flooded, but I suppose Travis could practice in the outfield for now. Can’t get away with a t-shirt at night anymore, he might as well throw on a jacket.

The conditions of Wishing Well Park in Scarborough aren’t optimal in October, but it’s not enough to stop Travis Logan and his peers from practising as much as possible. Sure the season ended over a month ago, but there’s plenty of time in the winter for the young teenagers to hone their skills on their way to being a professional.

The road to professional baseball is a road seldom travelled by Torontonians, which is exactly why Colin Cummins created Red Eye Pro Baseball. The new training facility, which opened in Scarborough last year, was built for kids like Travis Logan.

“These kids have a passion. I want to take their skills and help develop them to the next level,” Cummins said with a smile. “They deserve every opportunity they can get to fulfill their dreams.”

Cummins played professionally in the independent leagues after being one of the final cuts by the Los Angeles Angels in the early 1990’s. Since then, Cummins has contributed more than 12 years of baseball camp experience.

“Toronto has been struggling the last decade or so. My focus is to increase the quality of athletes and provide a better future for baseball,” Cummins said.

After the Toronto Blue Jays won the World Series back-to-back in ’92 and ‘93, local interest in baseball skyrocketed. Since then, however, turnout and participation has steadily declined, clouding the future of baseball with questions of commitment from kids.

John Jepson, the general manager of the Toronto Mets Baseball Club, worries about the current state of affairs of baseball in Toronto. While certain programs are flourishing outside of the Premier Baseball Leagues of Ontario (PBLO), such as ‘The Prospects’ and ‘Pro-Teach’ teams in Etobicoke, others fade quicker than they started.

Parents are distancing themselves from the PBLO and creating their own “elite” teams for their children who were unable to earn early spots in the PBLO. Jepson fears the repercussions these temporary teams have on the Toronto Baseball Association (TBA) and the Ontario Baseball Association (OBA), as they continue to take players away.

“It’s a mess, suggests Jepson. These guys are taking players as young as 12 and charging them a ton of money to play ‘elite,’ it’s crazy, and it’s having a detrimental effect on the local rep teams,” Jepson said.

But while the PBLO may be struggling to run smoothly, there has been a major change in the last few years. The air is different, and the roof is open.

Jepson has noticed an increase in registration across the TBA, and a dramatic upheaval in the amount of Torontonians moving on to American colleges and universities, where they will have a better chance to play professionally.

“Pro scouts are at many PBLO games in the GTA, and there’s no reason to believe this won’t continue,” Jepson said.

Even the interest from fans in the GTA has increased substantially in the last year. The average attendance at the Rogers Centre this season was 22,440 – a 12 per cent increase from the 2010 season. More importantly, there are currently more Canadians active on Major League Baseball rosters, such as Joey Votto, Justin Morneau and Jason Bay, than in any previous season.

“There’s no question that baseball is enjoying a renaissance in Toronto now,” Said Greg Dennis, president of the Scarborough Stingers association and manager of the Scarborough Stingers AAA Bantam team.

“Certainly, it helps that Canadian players like Justin Morneau and Joey Votto are among the elite in major league ball,” he adds.

Dennis speaks highly of baseball in Toronto, and is optimistic about the future of Canadian talent.

“There is definitely a desire out there, and not just to play the game. The kids want to learn more skills, improve themselves and compete at higher levels,” Dennis said.

At a more advanced level, the PBLO now has eight 16 and under/18 and under teams across the province, managing some of the best athletes Toronto has to offer. Dennis believes the quality of local baseball is the best it’s ever been.

This summer, Jepson’s Toronto Mets became the first Canadian team to win the National Amateur Baseball Federation World Series, in Youngstown, Ohio. The prestigious tournament features many of the top teams from the United States.

Cummins, Jepson and Dennis all agree that Brett Lawrie and Adam Loewen, both young Canadians on the Jays, will inspire young kids to play baseball for years to come. Even Jose Bautista, MLB’s home run champ two years running, will possibly attract aspiring athlete

Yet Jepson remains modest in his hopes for the future of Torontonians in baseball.

“There will be GTA players drafted and maybe some will get to the majors. But we don’t have the numbers (of players) to have any significant impact on MLB; not in our lifetime. This is still a hockey country.”

Toronto’s, or even Canada’s development programs won’t reach the level that the United States or Japan maintains for decades to come, if ever. However, it’s clear that with dedicated young talent and equally dedicated coaches and instructors, Toronto is on the right track.

The roof doesn’t have to close after a certain age for youngsters like Travis Logan anymore. If programs like Red Eye Pro Baseball continue the growth of young athletes, the green turf and the orange clay of the Rogers Centre may be closer than they imagine.

It might only take a little hard work on a dank, wet field on a cold October night.

By: Kyle Larkin

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