‘A dream come true’: Blue Jays hire Burlington high school teacher and former national team star as 2nd-ever female coach

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From public school teacher to professional baseball coach. It’s not a jump that many educators get to make.

Of course, there aren’t many high school teachers with the sort of baseball resume that Mississauga native Ashley Stephenson has put together.

Stephenson, one of the most decorated players in the history of Canadian baseball, will join the coaching staff of the Toronto Blue Jays’ High-A affiliate Vancouver Canadians this season, becoming the second female coach in the history of the franchise.

But in doing so she’ll have to put her nearly 20-year teaching career on hold and leave her job as a physical education teacher at Dr. Frank J. Hayden Secondary School in Burlington.

Stephenson says she’ll miss teaching, but coaching for the Jays is nothing short of a dream come true.

“When I was a kid, I went to a World Series game [in Toronto], my mom and I drove around Toronto and Mississauga honking the horn. I would have been delighted to have an opportunity with any ball club, but the fact that it’s the Blue Jays, it’s like your team, right,” Stephenson said of the opportunity during an interview with CP24 this week.

“I rooted for them my whole life and to now be able to throw on the Jersey at some point, it’s just borderline unfathomable, but simply a dream come true.”

Stephenson retired as a player in 2019 after a 15-year career with team Canada, during which time she won two silver and four bronze Women’s Baseball World Cup medals, along with a silver medal from the 2015 Pan Am Games.

She then quickly jumped into a role on the team’s coaching staff, helping lead team Canada to a bronze medal at the COPABE Women’s Pan-American Championships in 2019 and becoming the first woman to manage the women’s national team when Canada played a five-game series against the U.S. in Thunder Bay last year.

She told CP24 that she knew early on during her playing career that she’d one day pursue coaching, and that her many years as a teacher and coach have prepared her for the job.

“I think one of the big things is just being able to communicate with players. Getting to know them, and getting to know what makes them tick. It’s like your students, right, every student’s different,” she said.

“Everybody has their own set of circumstances and their own things that kind of get them going, whether it’s a pat on the back or a little bit of motivation or something like that. So having experience with a lot of different kids and young adults I think will really serve me well.”

Last season, the average age of a High-A player was 22 to 23 depending on their position, according to Baseball America.

“The Pan Am games was really special because it was a multi-sport games. In my 15 year career, it was the only time I got to participate in a multi-sport games and it’s just a totally different beast,” she said.

“The Canadian Olympic Committee, after hosting the 2010 Olympics, the same group basically hosted the 2015 Pan Am Games so I have friends who had been part of the Olympic games before and they said it was as close to an Olympic Games as any [Pan Am Games] has ever been, so that was kind of the pinnacle of our career.”

Stephenson also played hockey growing up, and became a star at Wilfred Laurier University, winning four conference titles and a CIS National Championship.

She went on to play professionally in the National Women’s Hockey League and the Canadian Women’s Hockey League.

‘We’re here to stay’

Stephenson says despite the success she enjoyed throughout her long career, she’s also experienced her fair share of adversity.

“The fact that I’m female and in a predominantly male dominated sport, you know, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t experience sexism or anything like that, but I try to surround myself with really positive people who want to help me get better,” she said.

“[But] I played on all-girls teams and we played against boys during the season in order to help us hone our skills and we heard things all the time. I used to get much more irritated when I was younger, not really understanding what the big deal was, but now I look at it always from the perspective of education, and maybe that’s the teacher in me, but I truly believe if people who know better, they’ll do better.”

Stephenson says that as more women are given a chance to prove themselves in professional coaching, they’ll continue to show that they’re just as capable as their male colleagues.

“I fully expect to have to prove myself, but I just want to be given the same opportunities that any of my male counterparts are given; no more, no less,” she said.

“And so now when people ask or they say things, I just [say], ‘this is my background, this is how many years I’ve been in baseball,’ and if they still disagree with me, that’s fine. I don’t have to change everybody’s mind, but I will just politely agree to disagree that we deserve to be here and we’re here to stay.” 

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