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Young baseball fans look for autographs prior to opening day of spring training action between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Philadelphia Phillies, in Dunedin, Fla., on Feb. 24.Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

For my family, the saddest thing about the Toronto Blue Jays’ very sad exit from last year’s playoffs was not the final shutout loss, although that stung. The real drag was that we couldn’t watch our team play any more. There’d be no more visits to the Rogers Centre, no more loonie hot dogs and five-dollar Cokes.

The day after the final game, as that reality set in for my nine-year-old son, Louis, he asked me how long it would be until the Jays played again. Six months, I told him, mumbling something about how opening day would come around sooner than he thought. He didn’t buy it.

“What about spring training?” he asked, desperation in his voice. “When does that start?”

I’d never been to spring training, knew next to nothing about it, but the idea of heading down to Florida at the end of February didn’t seem like the worst idea.

Our family arrived in Dunedin, Fla., in time to watch the Jays’ third Grapefruit League matchup. We went a couple hours early to catch batting practice but just missed the Jays taking their turn. That disappointment ended up being fortuitous, though: Before leaving the field, Davis Schneider – the mustachioed second baseman who homered in his first-ever at-bat last August – approached the low fence to the side of right field where we’d perched alongside a handful of signature seekers. My wife, Bryony, was off getting our first round of ballpark dogs, and when she returned, Louis was beaming as he showed her Schneider’s name scrawled on his ball.

“Put it somewhere safe,” he told her.

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The writer’s son Louis is pictured with Ace, the Jays' mascot, at TD Ballpark.Micah Toub/The Globe and Mail

For a kid, a baseball touched by a pro, especially an instant folk hero like Schneider, is more than memorabilia. It’s a piece of magic, a talisman that, if you keep it, can imbue you with special powers.

As more fans arrived, getting signatures became less of a casual thing where you wait your turn, and more of a blood sport. I was impressed when Louis fearlessly squeezed into the crush to get near Justin Turner, but in the end I had to help get his ball into the newly acquired veteran’s hand – a moment that made my heart race like I was still a kid myself.

With a capacity of 8,500, TD Ballpark is a stadium in miniature, and the intimacy of it compared with the Rogers Centre made it feel like we were watching these demi-gods of baseball playing at the Little League diamond in Toronto’s High Park, where Louis spends much of his summer.

The human-scaled field made the players seem more human, too. Just before the first pitch, Louis spotted Alek Manoah, the embattled pitcher coming off a terrible year, leaning next to ace Kevin Gausman in the dugout. But rather than worry over whether Manoah would bounce back this year, we talked about how important it is to have a friend through tough times.

Louis can’t bear to watch the Jays lose – he’s asked to leave games early a couple times during the regular season – but he understood that during the spring training tune-up, winning isn’t important. That didn’t mean there wasn’t any dramatic tension, though. About halfway through the game, the stars were replaced by a patchwork of minor leaguers and prospects – guys fighting to make it to “the show,” for whom every at-bat is an audition.

After a 28-year-old named Brian Serven smashed a three-run home run in the sixth inning, Louis searched for his player bio in the program, but it wasn’t there. I could tell, though, that the catcher’s name had been imprinted in my son’s memory, a lesser known ballplayer with big dreams just like he has.

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Fans cheer before a game between the Philadelphia Phillies and Toronto Blue Jays at TD Ballpark on Feb. 29 in Dunedin, Fla.Nathan Ray Seebeck/Reuters

When we hatched our plan to go to spring training, I imagined we’d share the stadium mostly with Florida locals. I didn’t realize there’s a hardcore set of fans and families who make the trip south, and that Dunedin, a tiny city on the Gulf Coast about halfway up the state, turns into a Little Canada for a month.

Back at our hotel – the historic Fenway (no relation to the Boston Red Sox) – the pool was dotted with winter-pale people in Jays hats. The short walk to downtown was flanked not only by southern live oaks draped in Spanish moss, but also light-post banners of the Jays stars we’d just seen. Casa Tina, the bumping Mexican restaurant where we ate that evening, had a chalkboard out front declaring: “Welcome back Blue Jays!”

In between game days, we’d catch the 45-minute ferry to Clearwater Beach, to put in some beachtime. One evening, after playing catch on the beach, we went for dinner at a local chain called Frenchy’s – where we ate grouper sandwiches on chairs sinking into the sugar-soft sand – and then visited the tourist main drag to get beach gear.

At one shop, Louis transformed into his Florida vacation persona: Hawaiian button-up tee, bright blue shades, and shell-themed trunks. As a lifelong journalist, I had a laugh-cry at a Trumpian bumper sticker for sale that read, “The media lies, open your eyes.” Louis had a lot of questions about that – and let’s just say it was a teachable moment.

On another day we made the 40-minute drive down to the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg to see some weird art – but baseball followed us. While sitting on a folding chair inside the Dali Dome, watching melting clocks and twisted bodies drift across the screened ceiling, Louis grabbed my arm and pointed at a baseball player.

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The Dali Museum in St Petersburg, Fla.Visit Florida

It turns out Dali – surmising that baseball was a way to connect with Americans – made a short film for Walt Disney called Destino, which includes a ballerina whose head turns into a baseball that’s smacked by a ballplayer’s bat. The scene wouldn’t make a Disney film today but it’s not as violent as it sounds – cast as it is within the surrealist’s dreamlike context that also includes a lot of bicyclists balancing baguettes on their heads.

While my family are Jays fans, we’re also just fans of baseball, so we also went to a game at the Philadelphia Phillies’ stadium, a 15-minute drive away in the city of Clearwater. (The Yankees play a little further east in Tampa, but we hate the Yankees more than we love baseball so we didn’t go there.)

During the game, as we sat among thousands of Philadelphians, their third baseman – who’d blasted a homer in the first inning – tossed a ball over the netting to us, and I snagged it in my glove. I handed it to Louis, who held it tightly for a minute, then handed it to Bryony.

“Put it somewhere safe,” he told her.

Now that the regular season has finally arrived, and we can watch as the Blue Jays take on the Tampa Bay Rays on Thursday afternoon, all Louis wants to talk about is whether we can go back to spring training again next year.

If you go

Book early at, as seats get snapped up surprisingly fast once they go on sale in November. The Phillies’ and Yankees’ stadiums are also within driving distance in Florida and are worth visiting for hardcore baseball fans. There’s really no bad seats in these small stadiums, but find some near first base or third base for the best chance at getting tossed a ball.

Stay: There are many hotels and resorts along Clearwater Beach, but for baseball lovers, consider The Fenway Hotel. A jazz-era gem with an excellent on-site restaurant – HEW Parlor & Chophouse – The Fenway is a lovely 10-minute walk to both TD Ballpark and downtown Dunedin.

Downtown: You can easily spend part of a day on Dunedin’s main street, which is six charming blocks of art galleries, gift shops, beachwear stores and restaurants. For dessert, head to Strachan’s Homemade Ice Cream for their “Blue Jay” flavour featuring Cracker Jacks and salted peanuts.

Beach: From the TD Ballpark, it’s a 15-minute drive over a causeway to Clearwater Beach – although it can also take much longer in weekend traffic. Or take the Clearwater Ferry, which you can board at the Dunedin marina. Roundtrip tickets are US$16 for adults and US$12 for children.

The writer was a guest of Visit Florida. It did not review or approve the story before publication.

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