By Tyler King
Canadian Baseball Network
I’m sitting in the middle of a hallway on the top floor of the Clubhouse Training Centre, the new indoor training facility for the Ontario Blue Jays - one of North America's top amateur baseball programs.
My first thought is, holy **** this place is huge.
The building is still under heavy construction (hence the lack of seating), yet through all the drilling, hammering and shouting you can still make out the familiar sound of baseball-meeting-bat.
Although the facility doesn’t officially open until February, you can’t really blame the players for wanting to get a jump on training. In most parts of Canada, kids who pursue baseball have historically been burdened with a great natural disadvantage: the continental climate. The long, cold winters make it more difficult to compete with the thousands of mild-climate dwelling amateurs who have no problems playing year-round.
Personally, I’ve come to “the Clubhouse” to meet with Dan Bleiwas, a man who’s continuing his quest to ease that burden for Ontario athletes.
Bleiwas, a Major League scout and Director of Baseball Operations for the Ontario Blue Jays, has invited the Canadian Baseball Network out to Mississauga for a sneak-peak of his program’s new indoor facility - a 52,000 square foot baseball complex built with the purpose of breeding more college, national, and pro players from within the province of Ontario.
I can see Bleiwas’s office across the hall but I can’t get there. The upper foyer separating us is acting as a temporary yoga class, which I don’t particularly feel inclined to disturb (good thing too, as I would later learn that it was attended mostly by pro players and program alumni).
The heat in the room has been turned up and there is even some zen-ish background music playing for added effect. The instructor speaks softly as she directs the players into various contortions.
Meanwhile, I’m sitting 20 feet away, pretending not to listen and all the while wondering just what kind of facility I’ve walked into.
But I’d learn soon enough, it’s all part of the plan.
Moments later, Bleiwas appears and greets me, immediately apologizing for the construction and the impromptu yoga-takeover.
“Yoga’s the new ‘in’ thing,” he explains. It would be just one of many examples on the day of how baseball training philosophies are continuing to adapt and evolve.
Bleiwas invites me into an adjacent boardroom to exchange pleasantries rather than cross over to his office and disrupt the players. The large boardroom, I am told, will also double as an instructional classroom, as well as a quiet area where student-athletes can study between workouts.
Just a few short months ago this entire place was practically gutted. Now Bleiwas is eager to begin the tour and show me exactly what he and his team have been working on.
I’m quickly ushered to a large spectator balcony, which oversees the entire field and training area.
Keeping the field separate from spectators was apparently an important feature. It helps the players and coaches to remain focused on their training, shielding them from outside “distractions”. Judging from his tone, I can only assume Bleiwas is referring to the well-intentioned but potentially damaging over-eager parents.
At first glance, it appears that Bleiwas has taken the building’s “Clubhouse” nickname rather literally. With plenty of exposed wood and classic touches, the decor is a blend of traditional meets new-age - a theme that I would come to realize also mimics the program’s training philosophy.
The actual turf’d training section is impressive, even a bit surprising. Unlike the bright, pure look of the entrance foyer, the area where the athletes’ real work will be put in has a grungy, old-school gym feel, which is being helped along by the building’s original lighting and exposed roof.
You immediately get the feeling, this is a place people come to get serious about baseball.
I mean, just below us there is a 60-yard, three lane track; eight large batting cages (which can be converted to 12); a 200 foot open-turf area for long toss and field work; and a mound area, complete with five separate pitching stations.
In every batting cage there is a simulated dirt mat, finished with a painted batter’s box and home plate to replicate a game scenario as much as possible.
One of the cages is currently being used for some 1-on-1 training. I briefly watch as a coach throws a player an incredibly rapid dose of BP fastballs. The weak grounders he is eliciting seems to prompt some loud but incomprehensible instructions. The young man has barely enough time to set his feet before the next ball is on it’s way.
In the corner of the field area a few other players are working out in a small exposed weight room. Although they seem to be working out on their own, Bleiwas does not foresee the gym being used for traditional weight-lifting. Their program is not about sculpting bodies, it’s about creating better players.
“We’re all about functional training,” Bleiwas says. “The players rarely ever use the actual lifting machines. We put a turf strip through the weight room because most of [the strength training] we do is pushing sleds.”
I tell him that sounds like hell ... but then again my dreams of the big leagues sailed a long, long time ago (read: the day I was born).
We venture down from the balcony and onto the actual field, where I get to experience how the turf feels under a player’s feet. The first thing I notice is that it is a lot less spongey than I anticipated, at least when compared to the much-maligned stuff the big boys play on over at the Rogers Centre.
According to Bleiwas, this turf is a brand new product that uses cushioning on the underside instead of a rubber-pellet infill.
If you’ve watched the Toronto Blue Jays in 2015, you probably know about those rubber pellets - they’re what make ground balls an eyesore (literally) on your TV screen. There were several instances last season where it appeared that infielders, specifically Jose Reyes and later Troy Tulowitzki, were forced to call out trainers to remove field debris from their eyes.
“We were adamant [against rubber],” Bleiwas says. “Our first facility had it and we took it out five years ago and just put in the flat old-style turf. Now this is the new version.”
While testing out the speed of the field (and by the way, it is FAST), I meet the program’s Director of Player Development, Sean Travers.
He can’t talk for long, he’s busy helping a team of workers unroll large bales of turf to cover the unfinished pitching area.
“The new pitching machines we’re getting are really going to separate us,” Travers whispers, unprompted. He’s very hushed, but excited, as if letting me in on a secret. “I mean not that everything else doesn’t separate us, but that’s really going to separate us from the other facilities.”
Unfortunately, the machines are not in yet, but I’m quickly realizing that the planning of this facility was meticulous. Even minute details, down to the specific shade of blue-coloured paint on the wall, have been rigorously accounted for.
“We fought hard to get the right blue,” Bleiwas says. At this point, I half expect him to smile or laugh. “It’s not easy to get that shade ... a true royal blue,” he adds, dead serious.
Next, I’m led to an on-site medical centre, where I’m told they have hired five full-time practitioners, including a chiropractor, physiotherapist, a registered message therapist, and a psychologist who focuses on “sport-specific mental training”.
At this point, it’s hard to think of something that they may have overlooked. Even features that might typically be viewed of as afterthoughts or slightly more trivial, such as the player locker rooms, all seem to be designed for a specific purpose.
Players on all 16-and-under teams will have their own locker room upstairs, while the seniors’ room will be adjacent to the field area. And although it’s not yet complete, I’m informed that the plan is to make the senior’s room look as official as possible.
“We’re going to spend some money down there. This is what we want the kids upstairs to aspire to. It’s going to be more like a pro [room], we’re going to put in a TV, a couch...
“Everything’s aspirational,” Bleiwas continues. “You want them to aspire to be on the big team, and then graduate and go to college, get their education.”
He can’t resist adding, “Then play for team Canada.”
So that’s what this is all about ...
Well, with three program graduates receiving gold medals as members of Team Canada at last year’s Pan-Am games, and 11 players being chosen to the Junior National Team in 2015, it appears he knows what he’s talking about.
And with the opening of this new Clubhouse, he only sees that number rising.
This article represents one installment in a series showcasing amateur programs across Canada