ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The next generation of Canadian baseball players had the opportunity of a lifetime on Tuesday afternoon when they were matched up against their country's only big league team.
Toronto sent the vast majority of its starting lineup to Al Lang Field for an exhibition game against the Canadian Junior Team. It was a chance for Canada's top players under the age of 18 to get a taste of what it's like to compete against some of the best in the game.
The Blue Jays trotted out the likes of Brett Lawrie, Jose Bautista, Colby Rasmus and Adam Lind, while right-hander Brandon Morrow took the mound in a game during which Team Canada held its own for a long period of time despite the lofty competition. Toronto eventually won the game, 12-2, but the final result was the last thing everyone on the field was thinking about.
"It's a special day, and an opportunity to come out on the field and play against the players that you watch on TV and aspire to be like is incredibly special," said coach Greg Hamilton, who also is the director of Canada's national teams.
"Every player that we've got has a chance to play beyond high school. At minimum, they're going to go on scholarships and play collegiate baseball. You never know. You extend your playing career and you figure a few things out and there are some here today you think will be for sure potential Major League prospects, and there are others who will sneak up on you, too, just by having the opportunity to continue to play."
The game between Toronto and the Canadian Junior Team has become an annual tradition. The two sides have played against each other in three of the past four years with the only break coming last spring because of the World Baseball Classic.
Bautista gathered the Canadian players together in the morning and held an informal talk. The Junior team also remained on the field to shag balls as the Blue Jays took batting practice while Lawrie, Lind and others made their rounds to exchange pleasantries.
There were understandably a lot of nerves on the Canadian side. Left-hander Ben Onyshko got the start and had trouble keeping the ball down early in his outing. The 17-year-old from Winnipeg, Manitoba, walked the the first two batters he faced and then surrendered a single to Lawrie.
That loaded the bases with nobody out for Bautista. Even a Major Leaguer would find that scenario rather daunting, but Onyshko somehow found a way to settle down and limited Bautista to a sacrifice fly before striking out Lind and getting catcher Dioner Navarro to pop out. The final results came secondary to the overall experience, and Onyshko couldn't have been happier with the way things went.
"It's awesome. Right when I found out I was going to be pitching against them it was completely surreal," said Onyshko, who allowed two runs over three innings. "This is obviously something thousands of people my age dream about, but only a few get to do. I think this is going to be something I remember for the rest of my life."
For Lawrie, it was an opportunity to give back to the program with which he essentially grew up. The native of Langley, British Columbia, played for his country at the 2008 World Junior Baseball Championship, during which he led the tournament with a .469 average, three home runs and 16 RBIs.
During the ensuing years, Lawrie also went on to compete for Canada at the 2008 Summer Olympics and the World Baseball Classic the following season. Lawrie was set to take part in the Classic last season until an oblique injury kept him off the field for the tournament.
Lawrie was one of seven Canadian players who suited up for Toronto. Minor Leaguers Dalton Pompey, Michael Crouse, Marcus Knecht, Mike Reeves, Justin Atkinson and catcher Mike Nickeas also participated, while first-base coach Tim Leiper and Minor League instructor Stubby Clapp were there as well.
"All of those guys look up to us," Lawrie said. "I remember when I was first coming up with the national team, they were always playing video of big league guys, Team Canada big league guys, doing stuff, and it always pumps you up. When you're that age, you just want to play.
"The biggest thing for them right now is the World Baseball Classic. When I was their age that was what I really wanted to play in, and they were always playing that video of Team Canada beating Team USA [in 2006]. It's always fun when they play that stuff, and it's always good for them to come over and see what we have here."
The partnership between the Blue Jays and Baseball Canada has grown exponentially over the past few years. Under the guidance of president Paul Beeston, senior vice president of business operations Stephen Brooks and manager of social marketing Rob Jack, there's a number of initiatives currently underway.
Toronto now hosts an annual Tournament 12 at Rogers Centre that features the top players from all regions of Canada. The Blue Jays also run a national coaching clinic and send some of their alumni to various parts of Canada for a series of baseball Super Camps.
The main goal is to continue growing the game and along the way provide exposure to some of the emerging talent in the country.
"I think the fact that they're willing to do that, we're tremendously grateful for," Hamilton said. "The fact that they care about the next generation of Canadian players is something that we really pride ourselves on in our program.
"We hope that when guys move forward they'll remember what the older generation gave to them when they were young and the fact that somebody else was willing to come around in the same timeframe and the fact they're willing to do it makes a huge difference to us."