About the only thing missing from Matt McCallum’s baseball debut was a Jose Bautistaesque bat flip.
It would have been fitting since the success of Bautista and the Toronto Blue Jays have created the largest registration ever for the Leaside Baseball Association (LBA).
Wearing a new uniform – No. 10 on the back, Beavers emblazoned on the front – and playing with new friends, Matt, 9, belted a three-run home run in just his second career at-bat in the season opener of the LBA Senior Rookie Ball House League in early May.
“That was so much fun,” Matt said to his mom, Heather, on the post-game drive home. “I love this team.”
Matt and his kid brother, Will, 7, are among dozens of new baseball players taking to neighbourhood fields this spring, part of a surge not seen for a generation, since the last time the Toronto Blue Jays made the playoffs, winning back-to-back World Series titles in 1992 and 1993.
“We’re up 30 per cent and that’s pretty much the same story I’m hearing at other associations,” says Howard Birnie, longtime president of the LBA, which is based at Howard Talbot Park at Bayview and Eglinton but plays at other fields around Leaside. “It’s all the enthusiasm about the Blue Jays.”
About 850 youngsters from age 4 through a senior men’s team for those 21 and older are participating in LBA house leagues and playing on rep teams this season.
Leaside Atom Baseball, the house league for boys aged 9 to 11, has expanded to its maximum capacity of 180 players on 12 teams with another 50 kids on a waiting list.
“I think it’s wonderful,” says Birnie. “It’s great to see all these kids enjoying the game and getting involved in it.
“The only downside is that we don’t have enough practice times on our fields.”
For the McCallum brothers, the fire to be baseball players began burning during last fall’s playoff run by their big league heroes.
“We were watching every game and totally into it,” says their mom.
Unwilling to wait until the spring, the boys took part in a Friday night skills development program throughout the fall and winter. They learned about the game and key fundamentals.
But it wasn’t until their senior rookie ball debut in April that it all really came together.
“I don’t think they really knew what to expect,” says Mom. “They were all over that uniform.”
After that first game, Will neatly folded his uniform and placed it on his bedroom dresser.
“I love the game, we all do,” says Mom, who nurtured her love of baseball going to Blue Jays games at Exhibition Stadium with her dad when she was a young girl, a family tradition she and husband John have continued with their sons.
“What’s great is to be able to share their interest in the game.”