The first inkling of how Toronto Blue Jays fans will react this season to the loss of team ace David Price was delivered loud and clear early on Thursday night.
The event at Rogers Centre was the repackaged fan fest for season-ticket holders, now rechristened as “The Leadoff,” featuring a slick new presentation that unfolded on the floor of the baseball stadium.
Three giant video screens were set up in back of a large stage in shallow centre field for the guests of honour, which included Mark Shapiro, the American League club’s new president and chief executive officer, and Ross Atkins, the rookie general manager.
A gigantic black drape that was hung from the left-field stands to the right-field stands divided the playing surface in half. It helped to establish a more intimate setting for the 2,200 season-ticket holders who were eager to hear the team’s plans.
As the event got under way, highlights from the highly successful 2015 campaign were replayed when a shot of Price, who bolted the team as a free agent for the Boston Red Sox at the end of the season, filled the video screens.
“Boo,” came the immediate response from more than one in attendance. It was one of the few displays of dissatisfaction from the fans, who were getting their first up-close and personal audience with the club’s new hierarchy.
The only time things got even close to contentious was when Shapiro was speaking about the new dirt infield that the Blue Jays just announced would be installed in time for this season.
While that initiative was met with a positive response from the crowd, it led to a discussion about the possibility that a natural-grass playing surface might one day become a reality at the aging facility.
“We want grass, I get it,” Shapiro said, which only prompted many in attendance to start hollering out for the club to just go ahead and do it.
Shapiro reminded the fans that the University of Guelph is studying the feasibility of being able to grow grass in a stadium, where the roof is closed more than it is open. What the club ultimately decides will rest heavily on the findings of that report, which is expected to be delivered by spring.
“The issue isn’t whether we want grass,” Shapiro said. “It’s whether we will be able to do it.”
The only drama heading into the event was how the fans would react to the presence of Shapiro, who was viewed as public enemy No. 1 in some parts when he took over from Paul Beeston.
Beeston, a Day 1 Blue Jay employee, retired at the end of the season.
When Shapiro came on board, it forced the hand of Alex Anthopoulos, the popular general manager, who felt uncomfortable with the new leadership and spurned the club’s offer of a new contract.
But there was no show of any animosity from the fans who accorded both Shapiro and Atkins, who replaced Anthopoulos, a hearty round of applause when they took their seats on the stage.
The biggest cheer of the night was saved for Toronto manager John Gibbons, who got a standing ovation for leading the Blue Jays to their first playoff appearance in 22 years.
“What a difference a year makes,” the easy-going Texan quipped as he took his seat.
Kevin Pillar, whose circus-like catches in centre field elevated him to fan-favorite status, was the only player at the event.
“There’s no question in my mind this team could win the World Series in 2016,” Pillar said.
The first question of the night, not surprisingly, concerned Josh Donaldson, the Blue Jays’ third baseman whose stellar 2015 campaign led to his selection as the AL’s most valuable player.
Donaldson and the Blue Jays are headed toward arbitration to determine his salary for this season and Atkins was asked if there was a chance Donaldson could be signed to a long-term deal.
“Yes, absolutely,” Atkins replied. “We want him here as long as possible. We’re going to do everything we can. He is a remarkable player.”
While the loss of Price has left a huge void in the Jays’ rotation, Pillar said he is confident that Marcus Stroman, who was injured for almost all of last season, has what it takes to fill his shoes.
“There’s no amount of pressure you can put on that guy,” Pillar said. “That guy’s so self motivated, so confident in his ability. He showed what he was able to do last year, coming back from knee surgery in six months and come out there and pitch the way he did.
“I’m down there right now with him in Florida and he’s looking really good, and you couldn’t ask for a better guy to lead your staff.”Report Typo/Error
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