By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Chase DeJong will start the opening game of the season from the mound on Thursday for the Bluefield Blue Jays.
On Tuesday afternoon, the 6-foot-4, 19-year-old product of California traded baseballs for bowling balls, and had a ball doing it.
“This is just so much fun, going back to the Team USA experience, it is similar, I got to be in baseball camps with kids in the area,” said DeJong, who was part of the Team USA 18U gold medal winning team in 2011. “We went to Miami and we got to go to the Boys and Girls Club down there, I love interacting with the people around here, it is a lot of fun.”
DeJong was joined by the rest of the Blue Jays’ players, coaching staff and support personnel for the annual “Meet the Blue Jays” function at Mountaineer Lanes, an event that was started when former Bluefield Orioles’ general manager George McGonagle approached Loretta Hammond with the idea.
“We have been doing this for about eight years,” said Hammond, the manager of Mountaineer Lanes, who said that the attendance on Tuesday was the best yet for the event. “
We always enjoy having them out here, they come out, and really associate and have fun with the Little League players and that is a really great thing.”
For two hours, the Blue Jays bowled with local boys and girls — many from area Little League programs and many wearing their uniforms — allowing the kids to get to Bluefield’s ‘boys of summer.’
“This is a great turnout, I am really pleased with the amount of people that have come out...,” Bluefield Blue Jays general manager Jeff Gray said. “It is just getting the people out and meeting the players and getting used to who we have, it is pretty exciting to have them out here.”
While professional baseball is now a job for those on the roster of the Blue Jays, they had an opportunity to become kids again while surrounded by more kids, most of whom dream of one day being in their position.
“I love it, we were all in their shoes back in the day so I think it is good to get out and give back to the community,” Bluefield infielder Matt Dean said. “Those kids look up to us big time.”
DeJong, who was a second round draft choice last summer by Toronto, has a cousin, Jordan DeJong, who took part in similar functions while also a part of the Blue Jays’ organization.
“I remember coming to things like this when he was there,” DeJong said. “It is just an awesome experience to be able to give back and to be the guy in the other shoes now.
“It is just a humbling experience actually to be looked up to like that, not just because I am 6-foot-4, but being in this position where these kids look up to you like that.”
Bluefield third-year manager Dennis Holmberg is a believer in getting his players involved in the community. For example, the clubhouse at Bowen Field may be the only one in baseball that will have a Christmas tree in it.
“This is a start, I think it is great, I think there may be a little bigger turnout than last year, a lot of kids are here, they are all involving themselves with the players,” said Holmberg, who has his players purchase a gift, place it under the tree and give it to a needy child at the end of the season. “We talked yesterday about what we are talking about now, we have got the Christmas tree inside the club house, and all the players are buying gifts throughout the summer to be there.
“We are just going to try and pay it forward on the field and off the field.”
The Blue Jays hope to their part by performing on the field, beginning on Thursday when DeJong and Bluefield will host the Greeneville Astros for the beginning of a three-game Appalachian League series.
Gray, the third general manager in the last three years for the Blue Jays, is glad to finally have his team in town.
“It is definitely fun to know the team is here and we are two days away from starting...,” Gray said. “We have a great bunch of talent, a lot of raw talent on the team. I think it is some exciting talent, just looking at the roster, I think we will have a lot speed...
“It is very competitive, especially with a bunch of local kids on the roster so that makes it even more exciting. We are really pleased with what we have been provided by the Blue Jays and we are really looking forward to getting started.”
It is through the kids that Gray hopes to reach the community, and increase the audience that occupies the seats during the 34 home games this season at Bowen Field.
“Our biggest thing is we wanted to get the kids involved...,” said Gray, whose Blue Jays have started a Kids Club program to entice more children to the park. “We are having a promotion pretty much every night, whether it is a giveaway, an appearance, different things like that.
“The sponsors support in that respect has been great and we are going to do a lot of things during the game to bring people out. Hopefully it will be a whole new atmosphere at Bowen Field, and an improved one at that.”
Good weather would help too. The rainy weather, which hampered the region all spring, continued on Tuesday, but Gray said all efforts would be made to play through whatever might happen this summer.
“We are going to get that tarp on and off as much as we can and get these games in,” Gray said. “We want people to come and see this team and see the amount of talent we have on the ball club.”
—Contact Brian Woodson