Yes, We Are Open!

Ontario Blue Jays

Episode Summary

In the season 1 Finale of ‘Yes, We Are open’, Al visits The Ontario Blue Jays, an amateur baseball organization who’s objective is to develop young baseball players and prepare them for the collegiate and pro levels. Entering their 25th season, OBJ has become an internationally recognized baseball program, but what happens when all organized sport is forced to shut down for over a year? Listen to find out. You can find out even more about The Ontario Blue Jays at https://www.objbaseball.com/

Episode Notes

In the season 1 Finale of ‘Yes, We Are open’, Al visits The Ontario Blue Jays, an amateur baseball organization who’s objective is to develop young baseball players and prepare them for the collegiate and pro levels.

Entering their 25th season, OBJ has become an internationally recognized baseball program, but what happens when all organized sport is forced to shut down for over a year? Listen to find out.

You can find out even more about The Ontario Blue Jays at https://www.objbaseball.com/

If you're the owner of a small business in Canada and you'd like us to help tell your story, email us at podcast@moneris.com.

Yes, We Are Open is a Moneris Podcast Production hosted by Al Grego.

Credits:

Episode Transcription

Al Grego:                            Hello everyone. I'm Al Grego and this is the season finale of the "Yes, We Are Open podcast".

                                             Today, I'm back in Mississauga, Ontario at a familiar building. You may recall in the first episode of this season, visiting Stephanie Wilkinson and Reed hall of the Athlete Matrix and their impressive facility, one of the main tenants in this facility is none other than the Ontario Blue Jays, an amateur baseball program geared toward preparing student athletes for the next level of baseball.

                                             How's it going?

Stephanie Wilki...:           Good. How's it going?

Al Grego:                            I'm well, thank you very much.

                                             That's Stephanie Wilkinson the owner of the Ontario Blue Jays welcoming me into the building. As I enter I'm led through a pleasant two story lobby with the staircase leading up to the second level. To my left, the entrance to a sports performance clinic and to my right, there's a gym, but Stephanie leads me past both of those and the staircase through a hallway which opens up to the most impressive part of this building. I walk onto a 60 yard running track. Beyond the track is nothing but field turf segmented by netting, into stations for batting practice, fielding and pitching to my left are more weight machines. The sound system is playing hip hop while a couple of teenagers are working out. To my right are more pitching mounds in total there's approximately 35,000 square feet of indoor space dedicated to baseball. It's any young baseball player's dream.

                                             According to their website, the Ontario blue Jay's lead Canada in college placements, MLB draft picks and signings, Canadian national team players and major league players. Entering their 25th season the Ontario blue Jay's have truly become a national brand amongst baseball programs. But as you know, the last few years haven't really been too kind to organized sport. So how did the Ontario Blue Jays fair during the pandemic? Well, we're about to find out.

                                             After my tour of the training facility, Stephanie leads me up to her office for our chat. While the training facility might have been a little quiet given that it was the middle of the day, and most kids were attending their first day of school, up in the offices of the Ontario Blue Jays there was a palpable energy. like I had just walked in on something important, turns out I was right.

                                             You see the apex of the Ontario Blue Jays calendar is their annual fall trip. It's what they work toward every year, and that trip was only a few days away. We'll learn more about that in a bit, but first here's the Ontario blue Jay's origin story.

                                             When were the Ontario Blue Jays founded?

Stephanie Wilki...:           They were founded in 1996 in Hamilton by Gary Wilson.

Al Grego:                            When did you take over?

Stephanie Wilki...:           I became involved in 2015, 2016. And then a lot more of my time, maybe in 2018.

                                             At the beginning, I was trying to figure out where I best fit. We had people doing the accounting. We had people coaching. We had people running the ship and I was trying to figure out where I fit in. I had a lot of ideas. There were a lot of great people who had those ideas with me and that would be where I found I wanted to be here every day. I wanted to be here to give the kids, the players, the athletes something to look forward to. The blue sky thinking is what I think of. Its like where can we go from here.

Joe Ellison:                         Joe Ellison and I'm the general manager.

Al Grego:                            How long have you been with the Ontario Blue Jays

Joe Ellison:                         I've been with the Ontario Blue Jays full time since 2013. I've helped several different positions with the program from low level coaching all the way up to my current position. I coached part-time in college from 2010 to 2013 and then I played the organization from 2006 to 2010. So I've really been here since 2006 or so.

Al Grego:                            So you're the perfect person to ask about those early years. I mean, before even Stephanie joined, what was it like here?

Joe Ellison:                         The early years were different. It was smaller, less teams, smaller facility travel was a little bit less, but it was still the same sort of feel. It was just at that time baseball in Ontario wasn't quite at this point yet. I feel like as we've grown and as the years have gone by, we've had the opportunity to grow with the time so to speak. And as baseball has grown in Ontario, we've had that chance to keep going.

Al Grego:                            Why did you come back to the Ontario Blue Jays?

Joe Ellison:                         For me ,I think it was something I always wanted to do. Ever since I played for OBJ, I always kind of thought down the road I'd want to coach. I didn't think necessarily we'd get to the point it's at now where I have a big role in the program, but it's something I always want to do give back to the kids. People gave back to my years and I want to do the same thing for them.

Stephanie Wilki...:           It's always been trying to give graduates of our program an opportunity to continue playing at a collegiate level in the states, whether that's at a junior college, a two year junior college or a four year school or the two plus the four year school. That comes from our fall trip, which this year begins September 10th and begins in Illinois and goes through a whole bunch of different colleges and universities on their way to Jupiter, Florida which is sort of the culmination of the entire year.

Al Grego:                            So, that's your main goal every year. This is kind of the height of your calendar right now. You guys are preparing to leave for your fall trip. What does that look like?

Stephanie Wilki...:           So the fall trip is typically in the past, it's a bus trip. I mean you can't be a minor league baseball player without spending a lot of time on a bus and that's what this trip does. You go school to school, bus to bus, you eat, you sleep, you get your school work done, but you live your life as a baseball player and if you don't like this life, you're not going to like college. You're not going to like the real professional.

Al Grego:                            These are primarily 17 year olds.

Stephanie Wilki...:           These are 17, 18 year olds. These are sort of our graduating. These are the kids in grade 12 this year or their post grads. People who've already graduated, this is sort of a gap year for them.

Al Grego:                            How long's your trip?

Stephanie Wilki...:           It's a month.

Al Grego:                            It's a month. So what are they doing school wise during this trip?

Stephanie Wilki...:           Everything is better this year, everything is online.

Al Grego:                            So I guess it's easier...

Stephanie Wilki...:           It's easier to stay in touch with teachers and with your classmates, by everything being online.

Al Grego:                            Up next, the Ontario Blue Jays have become one of Canada's premier baseball developmental programs and there seems to be no slow down in sight. What happens to a business when the only source of revenue stops abruptly without warning or any clue as to when it'll return? Stay tuned to find out.

                                             You're listening to "Yes, we are open". For almost 25 years the Ontario Blue Jays have been helping young baseball players realize their dreams of playing at the college level. Some have even gone pro others, like Joe Ellison have returned to give back to the organization that gave him so much. So you can imagine their shock when the unimaginable happened and threatened to take it all away.

                                             So if we were to talk about the biggest challenge since you've been here to the Ontario Blue Jays, something that may have threatened to maybe close you to what would that be?

Stephanie Wilki...:           The big thing that could have shut us down was the pandemic. It was the immediate stop. And then the wondering how we were going to get the bills paid just like everybody else.

Joe Ellison:                         I mean, without a doubt, the pandemic has been incredibly difficult on everybody in athletics, in Ontario, across the country, and pretty much everywhere in the world. I mean, it seemed as though every step of the way athletics wasn't a priority and I understand that there's bigger things in life than playing sports, and playing baseball, and playing baseball in Canada. It was definitely a big struggle for us. Something that was heartfelt by our coaches, our staff, our players, and all the families.

Stephanie Wilki...:           What it ended up being was we stopped immediately taking payments from families. If we were as confused as everybody else, we weren't going to add to that confusion for everybody and that difficulty. So right away we stopped for three months and then over the summer we don't collect. And then last fall, everything was normal for September, October, November, and then we we're in Peel Region and we fell under the very first and the longest lockdown. So we were locked down through December through to June and again until May, when we started preparing for our summer program we didn't take money again. So there was another six months of no fees.

Joe Ellison:                         So March 2020 this whole pandemic thing happened. I was at IMG academy. I was sitting in Tampa, waiting for the bus to leave and for the trip to kind of begin and that was when they pulled, I can't remember the team off the top of my head now. The NBA game got canceled mid game.

Speaker 6:                          We begin with breaking news on this Wednesday evening. The NBA season will be suspended following tonight's games as this was a scene in Oklahoma city tonight. The jazz and thunder sent off the court just minutes before tip off.

Joe Ellison:                         And I was sitting there with another one of our employees at the time and I said holy crap, we have a really big problem here. Cause if they can't play, how the heck are we going to bring a hundred kids from Canada to Florida? So we immediately got on the phone with Stephanie and Joe and Corey, and we have the tough conversation and we must have flip flopped four times that week.

Stephanie Wilki...:           I was in bed early on that particular Wednesday night because I had a 6:00 AM flight. And Joe Ellison called me at 10:30 and he said that everybody just walked off the court in that basketball game. And that woke me up and that was it. We got them home two days later, we made the decision I mean, it was funny now, but we struggled so hard on that Thursday and Friday.

Joe Ellison:                         We're sending the bus, we're not sending the bus. We're going to go, we're not going to go and then finally, we actually had made the decision to send the team and then flip flopped 30 minutes later after another announcement. And I think it was the right decision. It was a hard decision at the time and there's nothing in life that prepares you to make that decision. Right? And it's what the kids look forward to, but crazy time.

Al Grego:                            So, I mean, you don't need to get specific, but how close did you guys get to closing your doors?

Stephanie Wilki...:           It's hard to say because what we had do very quickly was we had to lay everybody off. And that was self-preservation, like we had to do whatever we could to hang on to what we had while also recognizing that we couldn't take money from parents and families for a program that we had nothing to offer. So we had to do that twice and for me the first time was the worst time. The second time was like, well we've done this once I hate to have to do it again. But it lasted twice as long.

Al Grego:                            That's not easy. I mean, as a business owner, that's the last thing you want to be doing, is let people off.

Stephanie Wilki...:           I've never had to do it before in my life.

Al Grego:                            Talk about that summer. I mean, was there any hope that you might be able to resume operations in the summer or the fall.

Joe Ellison:                         That year? I think we were pretty optimistic for the most part. I mean we talk pretty much daily as an upper management and as a group and as a coaching staff and discuss okay well, maybe once we get to this color or this stage or whatever it was back then we would have that opportunity to find our way out of this and what would we do? And we probably went through a plan a month on, okay, if we start on this day, this is what's going to happen. If we start on this day, this is going to happen. And we just kept evolving with it. There was hope. I mean, we're lucky that we did get on the field a little bit, but I guess we tried to be as optimistic as we possibly could, but it wasn't easy sometimes.

Al Grego:                            Let's talk about this summer, like you said, this was the longest lockdown and did last well on to June, but then things did start opening up. Vaccination started happening. What were your initial plans? Like how did you start the machine up again?

Stephanie Wilki...:           Well, like we were saying earlier, the overall hope arc continued to ride like an ocean wave throughout the lockdown. So we kept thinking, well, if we're allowed to be back on the fields, meaning we had a permitted field in Mississauga. Well if we get permits in April, we can start practicing in April. So you start building towards that and then you hear no, no there's not going to be any permits until May. Oh, well, if there's no permits until May then how are you going to get people ready to start playing a game? So it became the only way that some of these kids were going to see any meaningful baseball. Meant that we were going to have to go south of the border.

                                             Mike and Joe and Corey called into some of their contacts in the states and tried to come up with a plan. And with that plan, we took it to the parents. Parents it's going to cost you, but here's what we're proposing.

Corey Eckstein:                 Cory Eckstein, director of player development with the Ontario Blue Jays

                                             Collectively as a group here we were getting frustrated obviously with all the lockdowns that were going on here in Ontario. We just weren't willing to have another year where our players weren't going to be able to get seen by college recruiters. So basically we sat down as a group and kind of put some ideas on the whiteboard and came up with a solution that we felt was going to put us in the right direction. We reached out to all of our contacts in the states and ultimately ended up having a very good relationship with Perfect Game. And they came up with a proposal that kind of suited our needs. Once we got that we reverted back to our parent group and basically kind of surveyed them to see what the interest level was going to be and sure enough we were on a flight down in Florida and the rest is history.

Mike Steed:                       Mike Steed, head coach, the fall collegiate roster.

Al Grego:                            Mike why don't you talk a little bit about your trip to Florida? How that went.

Mike Steed:                       Sure. After it was all said and done, I think it was one of the biggest positives the organization decided. And when we were going through this tough stretch with COVID and the restrictions last year, the organization administration made a decision for us to take 34 players down to Fort Myers for seven weeks. So that we could get them on the field every day, get them back in competition in game shape, and just be a little more visible.

Al Grego:                            Had any of the players been down there before? Was this the first for most of them?

Mike Steed:                       Some of them had, some of our older players. So our 20, 22 grads or seniors this year had traveled before COVID had hit. So they were accustomed to being on the road and working out every day with baseball. I would say probably more than half of the players though, because of last year not being able to travel, it was kind of their first experience of being on the road and going to the ballpark every day and I think that was a huge maturing step. Not only as a baseball player, but as a young man as well.

Speaker 12:                       May I get your name?

Sawyer Whitaker:             My name's Sawyer Whitaker.

Speaker 12:                       Sawyer Whitaker and you play for the Ontario Blue Jays.

Sawyer Whitaker:             I'm a catcher.

Speaker 12:                       So you were at this tournament in Florida?

Sawyer Whitaker:             Yeah, it was on the fall or the summer trip.

Speaker 12:                       Did you enjoy it?

Sawyer Whitaker:             Yeah, it was a lot of fun. It was life changing. Get to live. A bunch of our buddies and you know, living the dream down there.

Speaker 12:                       So what's the biggest thing you got out of it?

Sawyer Whitaker:             I think it was just independence. It was like every day you had to wake yourself up. It was like a pro college experience. It was awesome. Get to go to the stadium every day, hang out with the guys. It was a lot of fun.

Speaker 12:                       The games themselves?

Sawyer Whitaker:             High energy, competitive playing the best teams in the country. You couldn't ask for anything more.

Speaker 12:                       So what did it mean for you? I mean, being locked down for a year to be able to go play baseball again.

Sawyer Whitaker:             It was something special. I remember the first time I stepped on the field, you just take a deep breath, like right, it's back to normal. Well, it felt like it was back to normal. I don't know, it was really special.

Speaker 12:                       Thank you.

Joe Ellison:                         It was something that was in the works. I would say back in, we started talking about probably February, March that as things progressed with the pandemic and things didn't look like they were going to open up or we weren't sure. We started having serious conversations about the you know, we can't just sit back here and wait to see what happens. We got to be proactive for our kids that need to go to college and that are need to be seen. We went through three or four different ideas from going to Oklahoma, to a college that I went to, to this Florida idea and then it all kind of came full circle, ended up being a Perfect Game partnership or agreement to go down for the summer and then it all kind of just fell into place and we put it out to the parent group and they were incredibly receptive to it and it all worked out great for us in the end.

Al Grego:                             Once you got down there was the order of business?

Corey Eckstein:                 We got in. Thankfully we had beautiful weather for the most part. It does rain there quite often during the summertime, but we tend to get all of our work done during the morning time. We had access to the old Boston Red Sox stadium. So we had full access to the clubhouse, to the laundry, the stadium every day. We were pretty spoiled down there from a visibility standpoint, the tournaments that we played in. We played in four tournaments over the course of summer with a bunch of exhibition games and lots of college guys that came out and watched us. Competition was good but from a development standpoint, if we look at the kids over the course of summer that came back compared to those that didn't, I would say that they're not above and beyond the kids that didn't get a chance to go, but you could definitely see some significant differences.

Mike Steed:                       I think we held our own and we saw just a natural progression. Obviously when we, first week, week and a half, was getting back on the field, which they hadn't been on and probably over 12 months for some of them. So it was just that process of just becoming athletes again. Just getting out there and doing the baseball things that they've grown up doing and that we've had the training in the past to do. So I think they were ahead of us, the American kids, when we first started and I think by the end of the trip we were right back on par and it showed, it was a nice thing for our players to win the last event they played in down there and took the championship back in a Florida tournament. So I think that was the icing on the cake.

Al Grego:                            Any serious interests?

Corey Eckstein:                 From players as far as schools are concerned. We had one player sign with nationally ranked junior college in the planet Texas, Manny Alberto and definitely a lot of other players that have had contact from schools. Nobody else has signed as of yet. Typically late fall is when you'll start to see a lot more guys sign with schools. We were the only Canadian team across the country that ended up going south this year. [crosstalk 00:21:16] For that extent of time, I know there was a couple other teams late summer that ended up going down for some tournaments. But for the most part, they all stayed local up here in Canada.

Al Grego:                            Coming up after the break, we find out if the efforts of Stephanie and the rest of her staff at the Ontario Blue Jays paid off.

Mat Belanger:                   This podcast is sponsored by Moneris. As a business owner change comes at you fast. That's why Moneris is right by your side as you innovate and adapt so you can get paid. With solutions for businesses of all shapes and sizes, we're proud to help Canadians like you achieve their goals. From online, in-store, curbside, and pickup solutions, Moneris is there to help your business succeed every step of the way. To talk to one of our business advisors called 1866 Moneris or visit moneris.com.

Al Grego:                            Welcome back to " Yes, We Are Open". After a harrowing year of uncertainty, Stephanie Wilkinson and the rest of her staff at the Ontario Blue Jays decided to take proactive measures to make sure that their players didn't have another lost year without baseball. This wasn't just about a game, for many this was their academic future. Planning a trip with close to 40 players and coaches during a pandemic was no small feat but in the end, by all accounts, it was a great success. And now as things slowly return to normal and the Ontario Blue Jays plan to embark on their annual fall trip, all that's left to ask is, "was it worth it?".

                                             So let's talk about outlook. Let's talk about looking forward now and if you can share with us what the outlook looks like for the Ontario Blue Jays.

Stephanie Wilki...:           Well, the Ontario Blue Jays for the 21,22 season is looking great. We're just getting everybody's fee agreements and their paperwork back and we look to have a full, full, full roster this year. The fall trip is getting ready to start and it should be done, it finishes Thanksgiving weekend. And looking forward into the spring, we've got a March break trip. We've got some other of things happening in April and we're planning our summer as well.

Joe Ellison:                         I think it's really positive right now. We're talking on the first day of the next year for us. I mean, everything turns over in September. The rosters are really strong. Our families are excited to be here. Our coaches are excited to coach these kids and to be a part of this group. So we've got some big things on the horizon. Hopefully we continue to build towards both within the organization and then travel wise and, and development wise as well. So we're really excited and happy to be here and hopefully this year goes off without a hitch.

Corey Eckstein:                 No, we're excited. When I first got here a year and a half ago we had 10 teams. We scaled back down to six by design. We had a lot of good new players coming into our organization this fall. For us moving forward, I think the biggest need on our end is having a place to call home and I'm not talking indoor facility, I'm talking field and that's good discussions with surrounding cities. And our ownership group here is adamant about hopefully getting something off the ground moving forward and I think that is what's really going to take us to the next level moving forward.

Mike Steed:                       I think the organization's in a great place, I really do. It's been tough on everybody but the work that obviously our front office with Joe and Corey that I mentioned and Shawn Schaefer's one of our assistants over there as well. They've done a great job bringing new kids in, recruiting as well as all the coaches here, keeping the players, existing players, in shape and on the right path and progression wise to moving forward and obviously our end goal is to help these student athletes move forward to university in the US and hopefully obtain a scholarship.

Al Grego:                            And all of those nice folks that you had to lay off, how many of them are back?

Stephanie Wilki...:           They're all back.

Al Grego:                            Excellent.

Stephanie Wilki...:           Everybody's back. Everyone was back for the summer. We've just finished up our league championships this weekend. Two of our teams made it into the finals. We had a great summer at the end of it all and our future, we're looking to build a complex.

Al Grego:                            So you're planning growth?

Stephanie Wilki...:           We are planning growth.

Al Grego:                            That's great. Thank you so much.

                                             That's the story of the Ontario Blue Jays. When things seem out of our control, often the tendency is to throw up our hands and say, oh well, there's nothing we can do about that. But that's what separates the entrepreneur from everyone else. According to branding expert David Brier, entrepreneurs have one thing in common, they all seek survival and growth. The Ontario Blue Jays had to make some very tough decisions to survive, but in order to grow, they needed to remember their focus, the young athletes, and then they needed to get proactive and take some chances. Luckily the chances paid off and as a result, some very talented young athletes have a chance at a bright academic and athletic future.

                                             Yes, we are open as a Moneris podcast production. I'd like to thank Stephanie, Joe, Corey, and Mike for taking the time to share their story.

                                             You can learn more about the Ontario Blue Jays at objbaseball.com. Follow them on Facebook or Instagram at @objbaseball and on Twitter they're @OntarioBlueJays.

                                             For more information about this podcast, visit our site YesWeAreOpenpodcast.com. If you'd like to support us, write us on apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. If you're a Canadian small business owner or know of one with an interesting story of perseverance to tell I'd love to help tell it. You can contact me at podcast@moneris.com.

                                             And that's a wrap for season one. I hope you enjoyed it. I'd like to thank everyone on the Moneris marketing team for their help and support in putting this season together. It truly takes a village and there are too many to name so please check the show notes for their names.

                                             I'd like to also thank the amazing merchants who welcome me to their place of business and allowed me to tell their stories. Athlete Matrix, Saunders Electric, Peace Collective, Supplement World, The Grist, Valley Online, PBR Auctions, and the Ontario Blue Jays. Please support them by supporting their business.

                                             Production on season two will begin in the new year. So expect a whole new season of small Canadian businesses and their stories by spring of 2022. Keep an eye on this feed, I'll post update to season two approaches.

                                             And finally, I'd like to thank you the listener for listening, subscribing and spreading the word without you this wouldn't be possible. So on behalf of all of us at Moneris sincerely, thank you for listening to the "Yes, We Are Open" podcast. I'm Al Grego see you in season two.