Blue Jays' resurgence triggers youth baseball boom
Leagues across Canada experience growth not seen since '90s World Series years
Nearly 25 years later, Rob Butler still can't believe it.
"I was only 5-foot-9, the smallest player on every team I ever played on. I just somehow managed to grind my way up to the big leagues," Butler remembers during a phone call from the baseball facility he operates in Ajax, Ont., just outside of Toronto.
Butler's career was brief (he managed 200-plus at-bats spread over parts of four big league seasons) but memorable. The obvious highlight for the Toronto native was being part of the Blue Jays' 1993 World Series-winning team. He remains the lone Canadian to win baseball's biggest prize as a Jay.
Butler says it was the Blue Jays' early success in the 1980s that pushed him towards what he calls the "greatest" game.
"[The Jays] really impacted what I thought about baseball and how much I loved playing and how I wanted to play every day," Butler says. "It was never a dream of making it to the majors because nobody in Canada really did back then.
"It was just a love of the game."
Youth leagues filling up fast
Now it appears Jose Bautista's epic bat flip and the Jays' thrilling 2015 post-season run are inspiring a whole new generation of players across the country.
Minor baseball associations report booming registration numbers, with many leagues already full.
"Particularly in the younger age groups, we are seeing a very significant increase, to the point where we have waiting lists," says Howard Birnie, president of the Leaside Baseball Association, one of the largest youth leagues in Toronto.
"I'm hearing this from other associations as well. Some people we just told don't bother because we can't help you," adds Birnie, who has been involved with minor baseball for more than three decades.
The story is the same across the city in Scarborough.
"The influx of new kids is tremendous this year. We have a 150 kids from last year that haven`t registered yet, and if they don't hurry they aren't going to have room," says Darryl Harding, who runs the Wexford-Agincourt Baseball League.
Parents looking to enroll the next Bautista could be disappointed. Websites for most of Toronto's biggest leagues say they are full in virtually every division.
And it's not just Toronto.
"Our numbers are up about 25 per cent compared to last year," says Kevin Gerla, president of Calgary West Little League. "Mainly the younger divisions. Everything from tee-ball through to the 11- and 12-year-old division."
It's a baseball boom that hasn't been seen in years.
"This is similar to what we experienced in the '90s when the Blue Jays won [back-to-back] World Series," says Birnie, the Leaside baseball head. "In those years, '90-'94, it really grew much more and then plateaued and then started down."
Birnie says it's difficult to turn kids away.
"It's particularly a problem in Toronto because it's an old city and there's really almost no new parks... there's really no place to go."
At the same time, those who have spent years trying to grow the game realize this baseball renaissance could be fleeting.
"We have a tremendous opportunity to engage these kids and get them wanting to stay playing baseball if we teach them the right way," Harding says.
Rob Butler can only smile at the renewed enthusiasm the Blue Jays have set off, remembering how the team's success once fuelled his own dreams.
"When I was kid I loved the Blue Jays. Now I'm seeing that again."