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Toronto Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista keeps an eye on the action at Jays Spring Training in Dunedin, Fla. on February 23, 2012. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press/Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)
Toronto Blue Jays slugger Jose Bautista keeps an eye on the action at Jays Spring Training in Dunedin, Fla. on February 23, 2012. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press/Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)

JEFF BLAIR

Canadian junior catcher gets thrill of a lifetime from Jays Add to ...

There is opportunity that comes from wearing the uniform but also a commitment that speaks of long, hot afternoons of repetition in junior colleges in not-very-exotic places. Forget being Brett Lawrie; not everybody can be Chris Shaw.

So how giddy Shaw must have felt Tuesday, when, as the only Manitoban on the Canadian national junior team they all came up and tapped him on the shin pads as he crouched behind the plate at Al Lang Field. Lawrie, J.P. Arencibia, Adam Lind and Jose Bautista – Jose Bautista! – all accorded the 17-year-old product of Winnipeg’s Charleswood area the same courtesy extended to every major-league catcher before the player’s first at-bat of every game.

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“I don’t think many guys from Manitoba get to experience what I experienced today,” said Shaw, a Grade 12 student who plays with the Okotoks (Alta.) Dawgs Baseball Academy and has signed with Midland (Tex.) Junior College.

“They all came up and tapped me on the shins, asked me how I was doing.”

Shaw laughed, nervously. “It was pretty cool. Really, we were just trying to challenge these guys with fastballs to get them out and see how we stack up against them, which was also cool.”

It was on a blistering hot day Tuesday as a team representative of the 16 Canadian-born players in the Toronto Blue Jays organization beat the national junior team 10-2 in an exhibition game at an 88-year-old facility that has been used as a spring training site by the likes of Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Stan Musial, Lou Brock and Ozzie Smith but now sits vacant, almost laughing at its current name: Progress Energy Park.

For 10 days, the Canadian juniors have used it as a training site in preparation for the World under-18 championships in Seoul, South Korea, in late August-September. The Canadian team will continue preps until the end of April, when it plays games against extended spring training teams in Orlando.

“A year and a half ago he couldn’t function, because the speed of the game was too much,” Canadian head coach and director of national teams Greg Hamilton said, smiling as he talked about Shaw. “But he has the hand and the bat speed to catch up and it’s just a matter of repetition and slowing things down. He was way behind. I mean, he’s come from playing midget baseball in Manitoba – and I mean no disrespect – where the speed of the game is not even in the area code to what it is here. What he’s done in a year is remarkable.”

In the past week down here, the Canadian kids have played the Netherlands senior men’s team as well as teams composed of minor-leaguers from the Baltimore Orioles and Philadelphia Phillies. The Phillies ran out six Canadian-born pitchers against them; Tuesday, the Blue Jays brought rising prospect Michael Crouse (Port Moody, B.C.), Marcus Knecht (Toronto), Dalton Pompey – a Mississauga-born outfielder who caught major-league manager John Farrell’s eye this spring – and pitchers Trystan Magnusson and Scott Richmond.

Looking on behind the screen behind home plate was former major-leaguer Paul Quantrill, the Port Hope, Ont., product whose 17-year-old son Cal is a pitcher with the junior program – which includes a 15-year-old Toronto-born phenom named Gareth Morgan who has scouts eyeing his draft class two years down the road – and who is a national team coach as well as a coach with the Ontario Terriers organization.

The Blue Jays have put the Maple Leaf back in a prominent place on their jersey and will have 60 games telecast in French this season by Quebec’s TVA network with the redoubtable Jacques Doucet and Rodger Brulotte calling games for the first time since the Montreal Expos pulled up stakes. But Quantrill said they’ve also jacked up their commitment to the Canadian development program.

“In the past, we based the team in Orlando and played a bunch of mostly minor-league teams and some times there would be Blue Jays minor-leaguers,” said Quantrill, who has stepped away from the junior program because he wants his son to “have his own experience.”

“But the relationship has progressed in the past two years and, really, it’s been because of Alex [Anthopoulos, the Blue Jays Town of Mount Royal-born general manager.]It’s starting to work both ways, again; guys are becoming Blue Jays fans again.”

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