The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

February 12, 2014

MIKE MASTOVICH | From Canada to Johnstown, ‘Play ball’

Mike Mastovich
mmastovich@tribdem.com

— The email letter circulated through The Tribune-Democrat newsroom, from an editor to a sports writer.

The text opened with a few lines about young American and European boys who dream of playing hockey. The writer, a Toronto  resident, pointed out how the most ambitious and talented of those athletes often must take their skills to Canada in hopes of joining the elite skaters in the country where the sport is king.

The calendar says we’re deep into hockey season in the NHL, minor pro, junior and college levels. High school playoffs are looming. So, the email letter’s timing made sense.

But a few paragraphs later, the writer began talking baseball.

He detailed how his Canadian son traveled south of his country’s border to capitalize on an opportunity to play baseball. The long trip brought Jake Foden to ERA Sports Inc. in Johnstown and Altoona last summer. His experience playing on ERA’s Flood City Elite travel baseball team – including a trip to a tournament in Georgia – made such an impression on the Foden family, months later his father, John, wrote a lengthy letter praising the baseball opportunities right here in our region.

“Now it’s too early to say whether ERA Sports has put their Flood City program on the global baseball map,” John Foden said in his email to The Tribune-Democrat. “Surely, the quality of coaching has the potential to make Flood City a preferred destination for aspiring international players.”

The Fodens had good timing. ERA’s Flood City 16-year-old squad encountered a rash of injuries. Jake Foden sought an opportunity to play in the states. Even though he only was 15 at the time and a native of a hockey-first country, it was a good fit.

“By opening their roster, recognizing non-local talent, and understanding the long-term benefits of nurturing young ball players regardless where they live, ERA Sports not only facilitated a once in a lifetime opportunity for my 15-year old son, but did so at a most propitious time, just when the window for our boys to prove their mettle is so cruelly small and narrow,” wrote John Foden, who is president and CEO of PresterJohn Inc., public affairs, of Toronto.

“Although Jake plays a bit of hockey here in Toronto, there are really only two seasons in our house: Christmas morning and baseball. The problem is that often our Canadian geography inhibits his baseball prospects.”

ERA Sports has become a baseball mainstay in the region, first opening a Richland Township indoor facility, which has since moved to Windber. ERA expanded to Altoona and most recently Latrobe with former minor league prospect Rick Roberts heading the program and working with hundreds of kids and young adults from western and central Pennsylvania, and even Maryland.

But a Canadian?

“We had seven kids get injured, and we had a big tournament in Georgia,” said Mike Finley, a Flood City Elite coach who is the Latrobe ERA facility manager. “We were looking for players. Jake was recommended to us. He was a great kid.

“Canada, you don’t think of being big in baseball.”

Finley was glad to see Jake get a shot to play in the states.

“With our Flood City teams, it’s 100 percent not about wins and losses, but instead it’s about developing talent and getting the kids seen,” Finley said. “It’s about helping to get the kids into college.

“He was one of our own,” Finley added. “He drove from Canada. When he came in, everybody was interested in him. I called him Maple Leaf. We didn’t want to call him Jake. We wanted to make him feel like he was part of the team.”

Jake, or, “Maple Leaf,” also played at Point Stadium.

“He was younger than most of the kids on our team but he was fundamentally sound and his hitting mechanics were pretty good,” Finley said. “I threw him into the fire in his first game. He played in a tournament in Johnstown. I started him in right field and batted him second. His first at-bat he drilled one to the left-center gap. It rolled to the monster and he got a double out of it.”

John Foden appreciated the instruction and encouragement his son received here. As he put it, regardless of onfield results, if the coaches and adults “get it right, then the kids win.”

“(Jake) also made a few friends,” John Foden said. “The hometown kids even gave him a nickname: Mape, as in Maple, as in Maple Leaf. And they still stay in touch via Facebook and Twitter. So, yeah, the kids won.”

That type of result is considered a success both north and south of the border.