Pan Am Women at home under big top

Canada’s women team began preparing for the Pan Am Games competition next month in Ajax with an intra-squad game at the Rogers Centre on Monday. Outfielders, like Autumn Mills (first in line in red) were given pointers by former Gold Glove winner Devon White. Photo: Alexis Brudnicki

Canada’s women team began preparing for the Pan Am Games competition next month in Ajax with an intra-squad game at the Rogers Centre on Monday. Outfielders, like Autumn Mills (first in line in red) were given pointers by former Gold Glove winner Devon White. Photo: Alexis Brudnicki

TORONTO, Ont. – In a word, they were impressive.

With the Toronto Blue Jays on the road to face the Baltimore Orioles, the organization opened its doors on Monday to the Canadian Women’s National Team, who made an impact on a number of former major leaguers immediately in their first workout and intrasquad game at Rogers Centre during their six-day selection camp for the 2015 Pan/Parapan American Games.

“One day of watching these girls here, I’ve seen they all have baseball knowledge,” said Duane Ward, former veteran reliever for Toronto. “They all know what they want to do, now it’s just executing what they want to do.

“They know how to play the game it’s not that they don’t have good arms to throw or that they don’t have good bats – they have that. Now it’s just figuring out how to progress and get a lot better. Some of them have been around for a long time and they know the game, and I’m impressed. It’s not that they’re girls who are baseball players, they’re baseball players who just happen to be girls.”

Ward was joined by fellow Blue Jays alumnus Devon White and Roberto Alomar. The Blue Jays Hall of Famer was the catalyst in bringing out the big leaguers, after Alomar first assisted the national squad last August, before they headed to the Women’s Baseball World Cup in Japan.

Fifteen-year major-league infielder Sandy Alomar was also on hand for the day, along with Team Canada veteran backstop Chris Robinson, who made his major league debut with the San Diego Padres two season ago and also currently serves as a guest coach with the Canadian Junior National Team.

“There’s always something you can learn, especially from those guys,” women’s team manager Andre Lachance said. “We started that relationship with Roberto last year and then he brought his friends this year, which was kind of neat.

“I was back and forth with Chris also because I like Chris a lot. He’s a good guy and he has lots of knowledge. He’s a good teacher. That was really kind of him to come and spend a bit of time with the three catchers.”

The experience was especially enjoyable for Robinson, who has taken on a full-time coaching role since retiring. Along with helping Canada’s junior team, he works with a number of young players in London, Ont., at Centrefield Sports, and is the Director of Baseball Operations for the Great Lake Canadians program.

“I love it,” Robinson said of working with the national team. “I owe it to the program, and that’s not why I do it, but I definitely owe it to the program because it’s been such a big part of what I’ve had the opportunity to do. So anytime I can help, I love doing it …

“I was very impressed. It was a good baseball game and obviously a great setting, with them getting to be here at Rogers Centre.”

White had previously worked with national team members Ashley Stephenson and Autumn Mills, as well as assistant coach Sam Magalas,during camps with the Blue Jays Baseball Academy, but had never really seen them play before. Spending the most time with the outfielders on Monday, they left their mark on 17-year major league vet.

“I was impressed with how they know the game, and they catch and throw the ball well,” White said. “I knew they were good, so I’m more impressed with the hitting and pitching and just playing the game. They’re throwing the ball to the right bases and making the plays.

“I’m more impressed with that, because I’ve see young men who aren’t as good as they are. I’m looking forward to tomorrow to see them playing the boys’ teams.”

On Tuesday, the group of 32 women will head back to the home of the Blue Jays to play against two local squads before hitting the road for five games around the Toronto area. The camp will conclude with a return to Rogers Centre over the weekend, and the final roster of 18 will be announced Sunday, after an experience they are unlikely to forget.

“Some of the girls have never been in this building before in their lives,” Lachance said. “So other than seeing it on TV, they’ve never [experienced] it. When we were walking in this morning, it was exciting for them. Some of them were a bit excited, maybe sometimes a bit overexcited, but that’s why we wanted to get in a workout this morning so we could feel out the playing surface and be ready for the game in the afternoon.”

Added Mills, who grew up in London, Ont., just two hours from Toronto: “When I was a kid, my grandma had season tickets to the SkyDome and I would come here every summer. Back then, I really wasn’t thinking about being on Team Canada. And now having an opportunity to play not only at Rogers Centre but on the new turf, it’s pretty awesome. And I’m not going to lie, the lights are a lot tougher than I thought they were.”

Not only did the women enjoy their first chance at playing on a big-league surface, but the top-notch major-league assistance made the day all that much better.

“It’s amazing,” Mills said. “I was out there in the outfield for about 10 minutes with Devo and I learned things in 10 minutes that I’ve actually never heard, and I’ve been around baseball. I’ve coached, I’ve worked with them and their knowledge of the game is pretty awesome. It’s definitely a huge benefit for our team.”

Entering their first multi-sport event in the history of women’s baseball, Team Canada is looking to take advantage of every opportunity along the road to the Pan Am Games. While they are excited just to be a part of the tournament, they’re hoping to leave everyone as impressed as they did their audience on Monday.

“We’ve come a long way and the program has come a long way,” Lachance said. “It’s going to be a privilege to be a part of those games, a privilege to represent Baseball Canada, and women’s baseball keeps growing, not only here in Canada but everywhere around the world, so it’s exciting.”