On an April night that still ached of winter, the boys of summer took the field and for a little while, at least until the top of the fifth inning, 20 years of baseball disappointment melted away, hope and renewal pushing through.
Not since Joe Carter’s historic home run lifted the Toronto Blue Jays to their second of back-to-back World Series titles at what was once the SkyDome, have baseball fans here been as excited about the first game of the season, any season in any sport.
A bitter wind and small blasts of snow put a damper on the outdoor party on Tuesday, driving the crowd – with their baseball gloves, Blue Jays jerseys, toques and winter parkas – under the closed roof where the mood was festive. The corporate boxes were jammed. All of the hotel room windows that overlooked the outfield were crowded with fans, noses and palms to glass.
And when the first pitch came, R.A. Dickey rearing back and unleashing his baffling knuckleball to begin the game, the roar from the sellout crowd of 48,857 fans rang out like a deafening shout for joy.
It was the first of a long, 162-game Major League Baseball season, a sporting season that transcends others – spring, summer and hopefully, autumn. For Jays fans, especially those in on game one, anticipation of a World Series appearance has become almost unbearably delicious in the past few months.
When the club put single game tickets on sale Feb. 15, all seats for this game against the Cleveland Indians were gone in less than an hour.
“This is the first year I’ve been a season-ticket holder,” said Jay VanPelt, a 31-year-old Toronto resident who was soaking up some of the atmosphere pregame at nearby Steam Whistle Brewing, which was doing a brisk business. “I’m a sucker for all the hype. All those off-season moves the team made it an easy decision to part with my cash.”
“Hey, it’s about time that Toronto sports fans had a team to get excited about,” added Jeremy Rhodes, 24, of Mississauga.
Once the gates opened, a jazz band greeted some of the paying customers who were steaming into the 100 level with Take Me Out to the Ballgame.
Rush frontman Geddy Lee, a long-time season-ticket holder and baseball fan, threw out the ceremonial first pitch to commemorate the start of Toronto’s 37th professional season. (And he even threw a strike, to pitcher Brandon Morrow.)
Most of the fans were on their feet during the introduction of the starting lineup, with the loudest cheers reserved for new shortstop Jose Reyes and outfielder Jose Bautista, who hopes to rediscover his home run touch after missing most of the second half of last year with a wrist injury.
“When you have these opportunities, better take advantage of them, because you never know when they’ll happen again,” said Carter, who was also at the game, adding a feeling of nostalgia and good times to the event. In 1993, Toronto had sporting swagger in spades. Even the Toronto Maple Leafs made a spirited run to the Eastern Conference final that ended in a seven-game heartbreak to the Los Angeles Kings.
Since then, without a winning team, interest in the Blue Jays has steadily faded. In 2012, the team averaged fewer than 26,000 fans per home game and suffered an injury-riddled, losing season.
Then, in November, general manager Alex Anthopoulos went to work. A 12-player trade with the Florida Marlins brought Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson, proven pitchers who have moved into the starting rotation, and four-time all-star shortstop Reyes.
Then came free-agent left fielder Melky Cabrera. And the big fish from the New York Mets, Dickey, the knuckleball specialist who is the reigning Cy Young Award winner as the National League’s top pitcher. Payroll increased to about $125-million (U.S.), a $40-million increase from last year.
And the fan interest has been building ever since, and not just in Toronto.
Tuesday in Ottawa, a Blue Jays opening day celebration was held at Berryman Pub on Bank Street, organized by David Gourlay, who is trying to convince the Blue Jays to bring a Double-A affiliate to the nation’s capital. Among the giveaways was a baseball from the 1993 World Series autographed by Paul Molitor, who was selected as the most valuable player.
“The interest in the Jays based on their retooling and Alex Anthopoulos’s work over the winter has really just revived Blue Jays baseball here in Ottawa,” Gourlay said.
And Dickey’s signature knuckleball, came Tuesday night, on and off as advertised. It proved tough enough to handle that Indians hitter Jason Kipnis lost the grip of his bat in the first inning as he chased the fluttering ball.
The bat spun over top of the Indians dugout and into the second row, where it was snagged by a fan who threw it back onto the field with indignation. The fans are ready to win, even if the Blue Jays need time to hit their stride.
By the top of the fifth inning, much of the early buzz in the stands had faded. Indians hitter Asdrubal Cabrera lifted a Dickey pitch over the wall in right field.
Two runners scored. Some of the fans booed. And 161 games remained.