There is nothing quite like it. Sitting in a small ballpark, with the sun on your back and a gentle breeze to fan you. Being in the company of like-minded baseball fans, the little ones in strollers, the older folks in walkers. Feeling like a part of the community where baseball is king. Eating a hot dog. Drinking sweetened iced tea. Being so close to the action that you can hear the players talking to each other, cheering on their mates. That’s what it was like as Nagib and I went to our first spring training game in Dunedin, Florida, where the Blue Jays took on the Orioles.
This was on my bucket list of things I wanted to do, and Nagib made it possible by getting us tickets for two spring training games.
Jose Bautista is clearly the leader on the team and he very much enjoys interacting with the fans, whether in person or on his Twitter account. His appearance at the plate got the biggest reaction from the fans. Edwin Encarnacion continues to be my favourite Blue Jays player. (ICYMI, here’s my interaction with Edwin at Toronto General Hospital: Click here.) Jose Reyes has quite the pre-game workout ritual. Justin Smoak is a tall presence at first base. Mark Buehrle pitched efficiently, as he always does. I predict that Russell Martin, our new catcher – and a Canadian to boot – will be a big draw this year. The rookies — and there are so many of them this year!! — seemed to be having fun, although you could sense the nervousness in their laughter. By far, however, the fan favourite was Munenori Kawasaki, and I can see why. At the end of the game, he took a lot of time with the fans taking pictures and signing balls and jerseys. He asked a kid if he played baseball. When the kid said yes, Kawasaki responded by saying, “me too!!” When a fan was having trouble with her camera, Kawasaki said “don’t worry, take your time.” That’s classy. At one point he told the fans, “I’m sorry. I’m late. I have to go”. After which he proceeded to stay and talk to the many more fans who were lined up to see him. He also took time to teach some of the fans a few phrases in Japanese. It was beautiful to watch!
Before the game, we met Jerry Howarth, the long-time voice of the Blue Jays’ radio broadcast. It was the highlight of my day! He is so human, so down to earth, and charming to boot! We talked about the team’s chances of making it to the playoffs this year. He told us that he was from San Francisco. We remembered Tom Cheek and talked about his most famous phrase: “Touch ’em all, Joe! You will never hit a bigger home run in your life”, when Joe Carter hit the World Series-winning home run in 1993. Nagib reminded Jerry of his graciousness in allowing Tom Cheek to call the bottom of the ninth inning the previous year, in 1992, when the Jays won their first World Series in Atlanta. You see, Tom and Jerry alternated innings, and it was Jerry’s turn to call the 9th. Since Tom had broadcasted every Blue Jays game since the first ever game on April 7, 1977, and with the Jays leading 3-2 and three outs away from winning, Jerry ceded the microphone to Tom. We told Jerry that our wish is for him to call a World Series championship for the Jays this year!
I wish I would have told Jerry Howarth that, during the first year of my cancer, he — and the Blue Jays — were a lifeline to me. When I go back to that time, I remember being so sick that I had lost interest in almost everything. It was the Blue Jays – and hearing Jerry Howarth call the game (“Yes, sir! There she goes!”) that distracted me from my illness many a times. In fact, I remember a couple of times when I needed to go to Emergency because of very high fever, and I would agree to go only after the Blue Jays game was over. My family learned not to argue with me!
I’m not sure what it is about baseball that I love. Nagib took me to my first baseball game at Olympic Stadium in Montreal on our first anniversary, nearly 32 years ago. The Blue Jays were playing the Montreal Expos in the Pearson Cup – an exhibition game. From that moment on, I was hooked! Since then, we’ve been to many stadia around North America: Yankee Stadium (old and new). Tiger Stadium. Fenway Park. Dodger Stadium. Each one has a unique story. But that’s for another time.
For now, having experienced my first taste of spring training, I think I’m ready for more! I can’t believe we waited this long. The players, the staff and the fans are so relaxed. I heard from a spring training groupie (who comes to Florida every year for spring training), that one time, when Colby Rasmus was still a Blue Jay, his daughter (who would have been 2 or 3) yelled to her dad, “You can do it, Daddy!” when he came out to bat. He smiled and waved back at her! Even cuter, she was sporting a jersey that said “Little Rasmus” at the back! The ushers invite you to move to seats closer to the action if they are available. People actually talk to each other. Surprisingly I did not see anyone on their cell phones, except to take pictures.
I suppose baseball, and spring training in particular, is a reminder of simple times and simple pleasures. Like having sand in-between your feet and a sunburn on your nose.
Opening day is Monday, April 6th – Blue Jays at the New York Yankees.
OK, Blue Jays, Let’s Play Ball!