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Morneau, Loewen help Baseball Canada launch another year of Winterball  
01/17/07 5:43 PM ET
By Shi Davidi / Canadian Press

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(CP) - Adam Loewen didn't need much coaxing when he first took up baseball - he saw the game, liked it and decided he wanted to play it.

A left-hander for the Baltimore Orioles these days, Loewen understands things are different now. "I got into the game through my parents signing me up when I was really young," the Surrey, B.C., native said in an interview Wednesday. "I think a lot of parents still do that, but it's just that once they get older the kids either get disinterested or it costs too much or they're playing hockey.

"You can't do everything at once."

For years that crunch hurt youth baseball registration across Canada, a worrying trend that led to the creation of a program called Winterball by Baseball Ontario, Baseball Canada and Sport Canada.

Launched in 2002-03, it introduced baseball to the physical education curriculum for students in Grades 3-6 (ages 8-12) at selected schools. It was a hit and has been taken nationally by Baseball Canada since, with the Toronto Blue Jays and Major League Baseball providing support.

So far, over 1,100 schools and 200,000 students across the country have taken part in the Winterball program. Last summer, new registrants in youth baseball increased by nearly 30 percent to 4,927, up from 3,778 in 2005, and Winterball gets part of the credit.

"We think it has been a great success," said Jim Baba, Baseball Canada's director general. "We thought it would help push the game to kids and schools. There's now a waiting list for the program."

Loewen and American League MVP Justin Morneau helped launch the 2007 version Wednesday at Richard McBride Elementary School in New Westminster, B.C. Morneau attended the school as a kid and his mother, Audra Sinclair, is a teacher there.

Richard McBride is one of about 350 new schools that will take part in the program, in which nine-week sessions that run throughout the winter and spring teach kids the basic fundamentals of the game.

Winterball provides a kit for each school that includes teaching manuals, lesson plans, soft foam bats and balls, a base that honks when stepped on, and fan guides.

The visit by Morneau and Loewen included some lessons from the big-leaguers.

"We gave them some instruction, some really simple things that kids might not know how to do," said Loewen. "I was surprised that a lot of them knew how to throw very well, we just kind of helped them a bit with their mechanics and taught them to do it the right way.

"Coming in there, hopefully we can get them interested in the game and hopefully little leaguers will start popping up everywhere."

Major League Baseball joined the program through its international arm in 2004, doubling the financial commitment made by Baseball Canada so twice as many schools could be visited. Alarmed by the sagging number of Canadian youth baseball players, MLB was looking for a solid grassroots investment up north.

"It was perfect because it gets kids playing the game," said Dominick Balsamo, MLB International's director, market development and communications. "It gave us the ability to introduce our teams and players to them and provide them with some inspiration and something to strive for."

The kids Morneau and Loewen met Wednesday were certainly eager. They swarmed the big-league stars and relished the chance to play a little ball with them.

"Seeing the kids respond the way they did and how excited they were to see me and Justin, it gave us a great feeling," said Loewen. "And it just goes to show how much kids do pay attention and even when you think they don't, they get excited."

There's one question they gets asked over and over.

"The kids really want to know what it's like to play in the big-leagues," said Loewen. "I told them it was an unbelievable feeling. I remember my first game, how emotional it was for me, how excited I was and that all the hard work had paid off at that moment. There's nothing else like it. "

And Loewen knows that each time another Canadian makes a mark in the majors, it helps plant the seeds for another down the road.

"I think it's grown a lot, especially since Justin won the MVP - that helped a lot," he said. "It brought a lot of exposure for the game and everybody saw that Canadians are doing well in the game. Everybody is excited about that, we're kind of taking over you could say.

"I think the kids really look at that as motivation and inspiration."

This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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