Like most 20-year-olds living at home for the summer, Justin Atkinson it happy to be in familiar surroundings. He sleeps in his own bed, eats breakfast in the kitchen and then heads out to work.
And that's where Atkinson's life veers from the ordinary. His place of work for the summer is not a dusty construction site, sweltering rooftop or company maintenance yard. Atkinson's commute takes him to Nat Bailey Stadium where he patrols the infield for the Vancouver Canadians in Class A minor league baseball.
"It's pretty cool being on the field playing in front of my family and friends," Atkinson said. "I feel like a superstar here with all the cheering. It's always been a dream of mine to play pro ball and it's pretty cool to be playing here in Vancouver."
Although barely 20 years old, Atkinson has already amassed an impressive baseball résumé.
He grew up playing little league baseball in the storied Whalley organization and was a member of two Whalley teams (2005 and 2006) to represent Canada at the storied Little League World Series in Williamsport, PA.
Atkinson represented Canada again in 2010 at the World Junior Baseball Championships in Thunder Bay He played with the Whalley Chiefs in the B.C, Premier Baseball League before moving to the Langley Blaze for his Grade 12 season. At the end of that year, he was drafted by his favourite team, the Toronto Blue Jays, in the 26th round of the 2011 amateur draft.
After graduating from North Surrey Secondary School, Atkinson immediately signed with the Blue Jays and spent the remainder of that season and all of the 2012 campaign playing for Toronto affiliate Dunedin in the Class A Gulf Coast League (rookie ball). At the end of 2012, Atkinson earned promotion to Bluefield (West Virginia) where he played three games to close out the Appalachian League season.
At the close of training camp this year, Atkinson received some good news from the Toronto management: he was going home to B.C. to play for the Canadians in the Class A (short season) Northwest League.
"I was pretty excited when they told me where I was going," he said. "Obviously I wanted to come home and play for Vancouver. I was probably speechless at first because I realized I had achieved one of my goals. It's a big honour. Not every kid gets to play in his hometown, especially for a Canadian player."
Coming home for the summer was the ideal situation for Atkinson. Not only is he living at home and playing the game he loves, the living and working conditions benefit him in other ways as well. Rookie ball features a schedule loaded with day games, meaning plenty of early mornings for the players. Now that he is in Class A, most games are in the evening, meaning more time to get into a routine and more sleep every night.
Atkinson said he did not have much problem making the jump to the minor pro ranks because of the experience he had playing on elite teams as he was growing up.
"The transition to professional baseball really wasn't that difficult for me," he said. "Playing for Team Canada, we played a lot of games against pro teams and I got a feel for what they do every day. I saw what they did and tried to learn from it and when I signed with the Blue Jays, it wasn't a big jump. The opportunities I had with Team Canada prepared me for pro ball."
In his first Class A season, Atkinson has split time at first base and third base where he has proved to be a capable fielder (a .986 field percentage at first base, .963 at third) while hitting .233 with eight doubles, one homer and two steals.
Despite growing up in the Lower Mainland, Atkinson admits Nat Bailey Stadium was not a regular destination.
"I went to a few games when I was growing up," he said. "Not a lot though - maybe five games. I went to quite a few last year though because I knew a bunch of the guys, but not a lot when I was young.
"Last year after our season was done I came home and went to a bunch of games at Nat Bailey. I sat in the bullpen and talked with the guys I knew there from rookie ball."
He was on hand to watch the 2012 Canadians roll through the Northwest League playoffs to win their second consecutive championship and would love to make it three in a row this year.
"We got off to a slow start and we're going to need a big push at the end," he said. "We have more home games than road games left and I feel that will be a big advantage for us. We have our fans behind us and we can stick to our routines without having to rush around like you do on the road. It should help us with our goal to win a third championship."
When the Canadians season ends, he could be assigned to another teams in the Blue Jays organization, perhaps followed by a couple of months of Instructional League ball in Arizona. That's in the future, however. For now, Atkinson is happy to be back home where he looks forward to heading to work.
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