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Jays’ stark challenge for 2014: Win or lose fan interest

Fans waves towels as the Toronto Blue Jays play the New York Yankees in their American League home opener baseball game in Toronto.

Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

Toronto baseball fans will get their first opportunity to pass judgment in person on the 2014 edition of the Blue Jays Friday night, when they play their regular-season home opener against the New York Yankees at sold-out Rogers Centre.

After a disappointing 2013 campaign, in which the retooled Blue Jays missed the playoffs for the 20th consecutive season, the club is under intense pressure to field a winning product or risk alienating a generation of supporters who have yet to see the team perform in the postseason.

"I'm worried," Paul Beeston, the Blue Jays president and chief executive officer, conceded on Thursday when asked how another losing season might affect the team's fan base.

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Beeston said he is not losing sleep over it yet, insisting he has complete confidence in the abilities of the Blue Jays this year. But he knows continued public support will inevitably start to wane if the team stumbles through another season of despair.

"I think the fans saw what we did last year, I think they know we played some entertaining baseball last year," Beeston continued. "But the fact of the matter is, you have to win, and we owe it to the fans, if we're going to keep them, to actually win."

As usual, the promise of a new season has the city's baseball fans hungering for the action to begin, and it certainly doesn't hurt that the Yankees, Toronto's long-time rivals and one of the biggest draws, are providing the opposition for the first three games.

Both Friday and Saturday's games have been sold out (approximately 48,000) with another 35,000 expected to be on hand for the series finale on Sunday.

It will also give spectators the chance to bid farewell to Derek Jeter, the pinstripers' iconic shortstop, who has said he will retire at the year's end, his 20th MLB season. The Blue Jays said they will put off honouring Jeter's fabulous career until a date later in the season when the Yankees return to Toronto.

"It's a great way to open with the Yankees in town," said Stephen Brooks, the baseball club's senior vice-president, business operations. "It's against a divisional rival, it's at home, and it's a Friday-Saturday-Sunday affair.

"It's a good way to kick-start."

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The real test of fan loyalty will begin in earnest on Tuesday, when the not-so-popular Houston Astros will be in Toronto to begin a three-game series.

Not since 1993, when the Blue Jays last won the World Series, has the team had even a sniff of the playoffs.

Many felt that would come last year after an industrious off-season by Blue Jays general manger Alex Anthopoulos, who orchestrated a series of jaw-dropping personnel moves in hopes of maximizing Toronto's chances of playing meaningful baseball late into the regular season and beyond.

But a series of catastrophic injuries, combined with inept starting pitching and generally apathetic play, torpedoed any hopes the team had. And the Blue Jays went from World Series favourite to American League afterthought, finishing dead last in the East with an unappetizing record of 74-88.

"We got knocked down, we were on the mat," Beeston said. "We can either stay on the mat or we can get up, and I believe in these guys and I think that they'll get up, I think they'll want to show the professionals that they are. I'm looking forward to a very good season."

A year after bringing in the likes of pitchers R.A Dickey, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson along with shortstop Jose Reyes and outfielder Melky Cabrera, Anthopoulos' off-season heading into 2014 was relatively benign.

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After an atrocious injury-filled year, Johnson (2-8, 6.20 earned run average) was cut loose and Anthopoulos said that landing another front-line starting pitcher was his prime objective over the winter.

After failing in that regard, Anthopoulos's biggest off-season move was to sign veteran free-agent catcher Dioner Navarro as a replacement for J.P. Arencibia, who took his talents to the Texas Rangers after batting .194 with 148 strikeouts for Toronto in 2013.

The Blue Jays are gambling that Drew Hutchison, who is coming off ligament-replacement surgery to his right throwing elbow, and Dustin McGowan, who has endured a multitude of physical setbacks over the past few seasons, will help bolster the starting staff.

Hutchison got off on the right foot on Tuesday in Toronto's second game of the season in Tampa, allowing no runs off three hits while striking out four over 5.1 innings as the Blue Jays beat the Rays 4-2.

McGowan will put his oft-surgically repaired right shoulder through its first big test Friday night as he gets the start in the home opener against the Yankees. New York will counter with prized Japanese import Masahiro Tanaka, who signed a 7-year, $155-million (U.S.) deal with the Bronx Bombers in January.

"I'll be jacked up, I'm excited," said McGowan, who won 12 games as a Blue Jays starter back in 2007 but has less than 50 innings pitched at the big-league level over the past five seasons. "I keep thinking about it every day. I'm already just ready to go. I know that day when it gets here, it's going to be special."

The 32-year-old was asked if it was extra special because the opponents were the Yankees.

"Nah, extra special because I'll be back out there," came the reply.

With a report from Sean Gordon in St. Petersburg, Fla.



Friday's game will mark the first time that the Yankees have provided the opposition for the Blue Jays regular-season home opener since 2003, when Roger Clemens pitched New York to an 8-4 win over Toronto.

Toronto's record in home openers is 26-11, including 16-8 at Rogers Centre.

On April 1, 1991, the Blue Jays opened the season as the home team against the Texas Rangers in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Toronto won, 8-1.

The largest crowd for a home opener in Toronto was 50,560 on April 8, 2005, to see the Boston Red Sox beat Toronto 6-5.

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