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Former MLB star Ryan Dempster treats young B.C. ball players to a day at Nat Bailey Stadium

Click to play video 'Big league day: amateur baseball takes over Nat Bailey Stadium' Big league day: amateur baseball takes over Nat Bailey Stadium
Big league day: amateur baseball takes over Nat Bailey Stadium

A group of young B.C. baseball players got a big-league experience on Saturday, after a former pro bought them a ‘day at the Nat.’

Youth from West Vancouver and the Sunshine Coast were invited to face off in their first competitive game in the COVID-19-truncated season at Vancouver’s iconic Nat Bailey Stadium — thanks to a generous donation from former MLB player and All-Star Ryan Dempster.

Read more: Nat Bailey Stadium, home of the Vancouver Canadians, available to rent

Home to the Vancouver Canadians, a minor-league affiliate of the Toronto Blue Jays, the stadium has been largely vacant this year after the Northwest League cancelled its season due to the virus.

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Vancouver’s Nat Bailey Stadium available for rent

“To have this come along, and to be able to send these kids out to play on the field at Nat Bailey Stadium, it’s just a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Andrew Appleton, president of the Sunshine Coast Baseball Association.

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Read more: B.C. little leaguers are Canadian champs, headed to World Series in Williamsport, Penn.

After the spring season was cancelled, kids were invited to sign up for summer — with the expectation that it would be a season of drills and scrimmages, but no real competition, he said.

“To me, that doesn’t really sound like very much fun. So we tried to get some games going,” said Appleton.

“Ryan Dempster heard what we were doing, and he decided to pay the whole bill to come to Nat Bailey Stadium for a real big-league experience.”

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B.C. born MLB pitcher Ryan Dempster looks back at his career

Dempster originally hails from Gibsons, B.C., and Appleton said the former pro has retained his connection to the Sunshine Coast community.

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“He’s exactly how you would want a local baseball hero to be; he gives back to the community, he does clinics back in Gibsons whenever he can,” he said.

“Last year, he came and played with our men’s hardball league in Gibsons and the whole town came out.”

Coach Fred Beitler with West Vancouver’s minor baseball program said the sport has been a lifeline to his young players during the pandemic.

The West Vancouver kids have been practicing between four and five times a week since June.

Read more: B.C.’s Ryan Dempster retires with Chicago Cubs

“The kids have missed structure in their lives, when the middle of March came around and everything shut down. It wasn’t just sports, you’re looking at churches …. school itself,” he said.

“Some of these kids have not been in a routine.”

Hitting the field has been an important opportunity to get their physical and mental health back on track, he said.

But with few other teams operating on the North Shore during the pandemic, Beitler said his players were also expecting a summer of non-competitive play.

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“To come out today and play and see a different opponent … is exciting for our kids because we’re not just playing ourselves,” he said.

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B.C. begins phase 3 of amateur sports restart

Twelve-year-old Sam lives in Gibsons and has played baseball since he was four.

The young player said trying to get the season going this year has been “just crazy.”

“We started up and we’ve been taking precautions,” he said.

As for the chance to play at the Nat?

“I’m really excited.”