ST. PAUL, Minn. -- For 11-year-old Antonio Rodriguez and the rest of his team, Saturday morning's baseball game wasn't about the result. It was, more importantly, a testament to just how far a group of 11- and 12-year-olds from Saskatoon, Sask., Canada, had come in only a few months.
Rodriguez was one of 12 boys from the Blue Jays Baseball Academy Rookie League Jr. RBI in Saskatoon, which is one of more than 50 sites for the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program across Canada supported by the Toronto Blue Jays. Saskatoon was chosen to represent the country in this year's Jr. RBI Classic, and the players who made the trip to the Twin Cities are all in their first year of playing organized baseball.
In fact, many of the kids had never put on a mitt until mid-March, when this year's program began.
"You take our March start date, we had nine of 12 boys who had never played on a sports team, and 12 of 12 boys who've never played baseball before," said Heidi Carl, the director of programs for the Boys & Girls Club of Saskatoon, which helps run the RBI program there. "The opportunities aren't there for them. These boys come from low-income families. We have a lot of boys on our team who lack positive male role models. The confidence that they've gained from their participation since March has been huge."
Thanks to the RBI program, kids like Rodriguez now have the opportunity to start learning the fundamentals of baseball.
"I did watch the Blue Jays for a little bit, and I saw people playing pitcher, and I liked playing pitcher a lot," said Rodriguez. "I liked today's game, because I got to pitch and I got to play all my favorite positions."
It wasn't always that easy for the Saskatoon players. Because the city's RBI program is set up as a fundamentals clinic rather than a competitive league, the players had only played three games before coming to Minnesota for the friendly tournament.
"[The] first game we played in Saskatoon in preparation for coming here, we said, 'You guys gotta all get up on that mound,'" said Carl. "I'd say quite a few of them came off in tears. Just the pressure and the courage it took for them to get up there was huge. Those three games meant so much for those boys in prep, because they'll get up there now. They're not worried. They may not do well, but the whole point of it -- I mean, they're learning and having such a fantastic time here."
The team's progress is evident in players like Dante Pilon, who had played basketball before but was also interested in baseball because his great-grandfather and his mother both used to play softball.
"My first game was pretty fun, and this was my first time pitching yesterday," Pilon said. "I was kind of nervous to come into the university [dorms] to sleep. And then I got into my room with my two friends, and I was like, 'This is kind of fun.' And then we went and played a game yesterday, and it felt pretty good."
The trip to Minnesota for All-Star Week has been a huge eye-opener for the Saskatoon kids, who were chosen for the team based on their attitude, leadership and effort. Carl estimated that about half the players had never been outside their hometown.
"It's confidence-building for these kids just to get on a diamond and play against kids from all over the United States and different parts of the world, and then just to experience FanFest and the Home Run Derby and get that experience that they otherwise wouldn't," said Todd Erskine, coordinator of baseball programs for Jays Care Foundation. "That's the biggest takeaway -- that they're gonna have a phenomenal experience and they're going to go and meet new kids, which is already happening."
The team's participation is also a step forward for the Jays Care Foundation, which is participating in the Jr. RBI Tournament for the second time. More than 370 kids are involved with Saskatoon's program, with more than 7,500 participating across Canada.
"This is sort of a culmination of the good folks of RBI to invite us again, because we came in 2012 to Kansas City and we took a group of Toronto boys," Erskine said. "The reason we chose Saskatoon is when we got the invite from RBI, we wanted to give someone else a turn. Saskatoon's been a model program for us. They're really servicing underserved kids."
Caitlin Swieca is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.