By Keith Lacey
Seven young lads from Sudbury can testify hockey isn't the only game in town.
The seven youngsters, between the ages of 16 and 19, have been invited to join the Toronto Baseball Academy over the high school March Break in Cocoa Beach for Spring Training in Florida, 2002.
Only 30 or so of the top teenage prospects in Ontario are invited and to have seven from the Sudbury area is a testament to the skill level of young baseball players in this region, said Dan Bleiwas, a Toronto area scout for the Toronto Baseball Academy.
Heading to Florida in early March are Louis Charbonneau of Azilda, 17, who is a pitcher and outfielder; Chris Gagnon of Sudbury, 19, also a pitcher and outfielder; Ryan Mussen of Garson, 18, an infielder; Dan O'Connor of Sudbury, 17, a third baseman and catcher; Johnathan Rush of Sudbury, 18, an infielder; and Matt Braumberger of Sudbury, 16, a pitcher.
Also invited to participate, but unable to attend is catcher Tim Clark, 17, of Sudbury.
O'Connor and Braumberger attended the same camp last year and O'Connor said the experience was tremendous.
"It was a great time," he said. "Some former major leaguers act as coaches and all of the players there are very good players.
"You eat and sleep baseball for 10 days, and it really helped my game a lot."
To be invited, scouts from the Blue Jays organization have identified prospects either by first-hand scouting or by recommendation by a coach or respected baseball person.
Players from across Canada and the United States are invited to spring training. The program offers high school aged players an opportunity to train like major leaguers in a professional spring training environment at a big league facility.
The 10 days of training takes place at the Cocoa Beach Expo Sports Centre, the former spring home of the Florida Marlins and Houston Astros.
In addition to the benefits of pre-season preparation and the opportunity to enhance and develop skills, all players receive plenty of exposure to both professional scouts and college recruiters.
That's very important to the six players heading there from the Sudbury area.
"If I could get a scholarship to the States that would be fantastic," said Charbonneau.
"I play baseball for fun, but if maybe I could get my school paid for with a scholarship, that would be awesome."
O'Connor also would love to be offered an American scholarship, but has even higher goals.
"I want to go to school and then it's pro," he said. "These guys here are going to be watching me play on television one day."
Gagnon also dreams of playing college ball south of the border.
"My big goal is to try and get a scholarship and see what happens from there," he said. "This camp in Florida is a big deal because only top prospects get invited."
At their young age, the temptation might be to head to the beach and maybe party it up a little, but that's not going to happen, said Mussen.
"They kick you out if you're caught drinking or causing any trouble," said Mussen.
"This is all about baseball and we're going to be kept busy every day we're there."
One of the main features of the camp is that older players get the opportunity to play against college and university varsity teams training in the same facility.
The cost of Spring Training in Florida is just under $1,000 (US) or $1,500 Canadian.
To help finance the trip, the six Sudbury and area players are hitting the pavement asking friends, businesses and associates for a few sponsorship dollars to help pay for the trip.
The price includes lodging, three meals a day, daily practices and games, professional umpires and memories sure to last a long time.