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Tournaments | Story | 7/20/2019

Toronto to the Showdown

Jack Nelson        
Photo: Evan Soules (Perfect Game)

ACWORTH, Ga. – Canadians are serious sports fans, and while your mind probably initially gravitates toward hockey, our neighbors to the north passionately root for all their pro teams. Last month, the world got a glimpse of that when the Raptors took the basketball universe by storm en route to an NBA Finals Championship. All sports are big, and that includes baseball, both on the professional stage with the Blue Jays and at the amateur level.

While many teams travel far and wide to compete in Perfect Game events, few come from outside the country. Well, the Toronto Mets have made the trip down from Ontario to compete in this week’s Perfect Game 17u Summer Showdown. The Mets are off to a 1-0 start, and were in middle of their second game Saturday morning before torrential rain postponed their matchup with the Ninth Inning Royals 17u Bartlewski.

“This is the first year we’ve had teams travel this far south,” said Mets Director of Player Personnel Honsing Leung. “We usually stay in the Midwest. We’re not one of those teams that makes long bus tours, so parents are getting here on their own. And most years our parents are very supportive. So for us, we try to strategically plan where the bigger tournaments are and then fill in around it with more games.”

The Toronto Mets have been around for about a decade, and in that time have developed into one of the premier baseball organizations in Canada. Their ultimate goal is to get the guys to the next level, whether that be college ball or the pros.

And they’ve had excellent success in doing that. They’ve sent 165 kids on to college baseball, and the list of schools they have developed a relationship with is quite impressive. Tristan Pompey and Zach Pop both went to Kentucky, and Daniel Carinci is currently at Alabama. They have also had 26 former players drafted, including 2017 second rounder, Landon Leach. Additionally, 42 have been selected to play for the Canadian Junior National Team.

The program produces legit talent, and they have proven they can compete with anyone. But Leung and coach Frank Maury admit running a travel program in Canada is a much different animal than in the U.S. There are many fundamental differences, perhaps the biggest one being the role of high school baseball in a player’s development.

“It’s essentially nonexistent,” said Maury. “There might be five high school teams in the entire province that are any good. I’m a high school teacher, and the school I work at doesn’t even have nine kids that play organized baseball.”

“I’d say 60 percent of our kids don’t even play high school baseball,” he said. “It’s just not worth their time. The competition is so low.”

While many times a college coach will check in with a player’s high school coach for information on the kids grades or his character, all of that contact is done with the travel coach in Canada. This kind of system makes the role that the Toronto Mets play all the more important.

“None of the contacts with colleges comes from high school,” Maury said. “It all comes from the elite programs.”

To compensate, organizations like the Mets will run a more expansive schedule during the school year.

“Travel baseball is year round for us,” said Leung. “We’re working out from September to November, and then we’re in the gym from late November until we can get outside in the spring. A lot of times that is not until the first or second week of May. The weather definitely shortens the playing season.”

“The weather situation is obviously tough,” Maury said. “We start outside in May, but if we get two weeks of rain that wipes out almost eight games.”

Aside from the elements, there are more unique challenges to playing baseball in Canada. Leung said that there is only one turf baseball field in the city of Toronto. Additionally, the academic calendar in Canada is different than the U.S. While American students may be off for the summer by the first week in June, Canadian kids don’t get their break until the end of the month. When you are trying to schedule which tournaments to attend, this presents another problem for Leung, Maury, and the rest of the Mets front office to overcome.

“It’s really tough just to get on fields for official practices,” Maury said. “That means our schedule is very game heavy. We don’t have our own fields, so the practice part is tricky, and we see that in some game situations like bunt defenses. We can’t simulate all that stuff indoors.”

“Another challenge is that our kids are still in school until the end of June,” Maury said. “So you have the U.S. schools finishing up earlier and tournaments get started right after. We travel through final exams, graduation ceremonies, and proms. All that madness is right in the middle of when we need to be down here.”

In the United States, you’ll often see kids as young as 9 or 10 playing upwards of 100 games for their travel team. Families are crisscrossing the country to play at tournaments. In Canada, it doesn’t work that way. The Mets don’t even have teams that young.

“Kids start out playing for their local cities, and once they get to 14u or 15u they start to come to these kinds of programs,” Maury said. “The Toronto Mets don’t exist at the 10u or 11u level. Kids start out playing locally, closer to their house. As they get older, they come to us.”

Both Leung and Maury said the opportunity to come down and play in tournaments like the Summer Showdown are invaluable for Canadian players. The duo especially noted the plethora of coaches present at the 16u WWBA National Championship. All it takes is for one kid to have a good day at the plate, or a standout performance on the mound. That’s enough to change the course of your baseball career, and in a sense, your life.

“You just don’t get this kind of exposure in Ontario,” Maury said.

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