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Friday, July 31, 2015

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NCAA baseball beckons Toronto teens

Tags: Sports

Maxx Tissenbaum and Steven Betcherman have a lot in common. Both are 18, both are recent high school graduates and both are moving up quickly in the world of baseball.

Tissenbaum seemed destined for the sport, as baseball practically runs in his family. His grandfather, father and mother were all ball players and, almost symbolically, Tissenbaum’s first gift when he was born was a baseball glove he was small enough to sit in.

But what sealed the deal for the Toronto native was the film Back To Back, a documentary about the Blue Jays winning the World Series twice in a row in the early 1990s, which he would watch for hours on end as a kid.

It seems fitting, then, that Tissenbaum now has the chance to prove his mettle as a professional ball player with the team he admires most: the Toronto Blue Jays themselves.

Last month, the Jays picked five Canadian players in the last 10 rounds of the draft – Tissenbaum made it into the 43rd slot. He initially assumed he wasn’t going to make the draft after not hearing from the Jays for several days, so when he received a call from scouting director Kevin Briand informing him he was one of the players they were planning on negotiating a contract with, he was ecstatic.

“I was jumping out of my shoes,” he said. “I just looked over to my dad, because we were driving home from lunch at that point, and whispered to him so as not to sound too excited on the phone, ‘Oh my God, I just got drafted by the Blue Jays!’ and as soon as I got home I called half of the world to try to tell everybody to make sure I didn’t miss anybody.”

Tissenbaum just finished high school and is moving to Long Island to attend Stony Brook University, which has a NCAA Division 1 baseball team ranked in the top 50 and where he will study business management. Briand advised Tissenbaum and his fellow draft picks to spend the next few years honing their skills playing college baseball before going pro.

“They said, ‘You all have good universities to go to – it’s probably best to go to university right now and then deal with playing professional baseball three or four years down the road.’ So they picked us sort of as a nod to our talent now, and if we have a terrific summer, like absolutely off the charts, they said they’d deal with trying to sign us then,” he said.

Tissenbaum’s parents were a major influence on his decision to focus on baseball, which began when he started playing for the North York Blues, a local team, more than a decade ago. He credits his father as the driving force behind his professional direction, and he recalls how the elder Tissenbaum would hone his son’s skills through rigorous training routines after school in order to improve his game.

“My dad and I would stand out on our driveway for an hour and a half and he would just hit me 150 ground balls, back and forth and back and forth across our driveway till both of us were too tired to keep going. And then we decided it would be the same drill every single day,” he said.

The six-foot-one-and-a-half, 200-pound shortstop currently plays for the Toronto Mets, an all-star city team in the Premier Baseball League of Ontario. He is optimistic about his chances of playing for the Jays at a future date.

“What everyone has said all along is that when you get drafted in high school, your chances only get better when you go to university, because you’re playing against the next level talent pool… So, I think in the future it will probably happen again and hopefully, it’ll be a little higher, a bigger chance next time,” he said.

Like Tissenbaum, Team Ontario third baseman Steven Betcherman also has a long history in the sport, having been involved in organized baseball since he was six years old.

“I guess I always just loved the game,” he said. “Even when I was a little kid, I’d always watch the Jays games… I played all those [other] sports when I was younger, but I always loved baseball.”

Betcherman is enrolled at Rollins College in Florida, where he will begin classes next semester. It wasn’t his first choice, however. He was planning to attend the University of Vermont, until the school eliminated its baseball program in February due to funding issues.

“It was shocking,” Betcherman said of the university’s decision, “because I’m all ready to go, and three months later, they have to cancel the program. That never really happens. But I was in touch with Rollins before, and after that I called them again and they had a spot for me, so everything worked out OK.”

Betcherman is in his third year training with Team Ontario head coach Murray Marshall in sessions that take place three to four times a week, but he’s expecting his regimen to get more intensive as he enters college.

He’s also been doing quite a bit of travelling lately. The Toronto native returned to his hometown a few weeks ago after playing in Oklahoma with Team Ontario, and he’s now back in the United States again, playing in Ohio and Texas before going off to school. He says he’s made a lot of friends while playing for Team Ontario and appreciates being around people who share his enthusiasm for the sport.

“I’m really good friends with all the guys on my team, but of the ones from school, I’m pretty much the only one who plays serious baseball.”

Although his throwing game is strong, batting is the area he says he still needs the most work in.   

“Defensively, I feel I’m pretty good. That’s probably the best part of my game. If I could just work on hitting for power, that would be great.”

Betcherman is looking forward to continuing his studies in biology, his strongest subject, and is planning on majoring in sports medicine as a complement to his professional goals.

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