By: Andrew Hendriks
Canadian Baseball Network
TORONTO -- If Wednesday's unseasonable temperature spike across the GTA failed to make you feel as if spring is right around the corner, Thursday’s yearly precursor to yet another season of Blue Jays baseball likely succeeded in delivering the message.
Re-branded “The Leadoff, a Season Ticket Holder Fan Forum”, 2016’s state of the union address adopted a more dramatic approach compared to years past.
Gone were the familiar faces of team president/CEO, Paul Beeston and general manager, Alex Anthopoulos, both of which were not only stalwarts of the organization, but also trusted luminaries often featured at the annual event.
In their place perched on a stage high above shallow centre field sat Mark Shapiro and Ross Atkins, Toronto’s new dynamic duo tasked with filling some rather large shoes within the front offices at 1 Blue Jays Way.
For the pair of Ohio imports, Thursday represented the first time in which either executive had met face-to-face with fans since landing in Toronto, and organizers spared no expense in making their formal introduction nothing short of grand.
Amidst a swell of excitement for the upcoming campaign, those in attendance were treated to a new look as multiple video screens, banks of stage lighting and an additional amount of seating was set up to help support the droves of freshly minted season ticket holders who flocked to Rogers Centre following the Blue Jays return to post-season baseball last fall.
Supported by slick fielding glove-man, Kevin Pillar and the teams perpetually endearing Manager, John Gibbons, the two executives boldly answered a selection of questions picked from a number of entries prior to Thursday’s event.
Moderated by club alumnus and Sportsnet personality Buck Martinez, the two hour address covered such buzz worthy topics as stadium retrofits, arbitration hearings and general roster construction.
The Q & A portion of the night led off with the pressing matter of locking up one of the Blue Jays most pivotal offensive forces.
“We want him here as long as humanly possible” admitted Atkins when asked about the likelihood of avoiding an arbitration hearing with reigning American League MVP. “He is remarkable player. You could build an organization around Mike Trout… I’d build one around Josh Donaldson.”
Other key takeaways included the fact that Toronto remains focused on improving the playing field at Rogers Centre, the closer role will “sort itself out during spring training”, injured second baseman Devon Travis remains on track to return by May and Pillar may be one of the most well-liked outfielders in team history.
“When you watch him play defence, there’s not a better outfielder in this game” explained Gibbons when asked about his centre fielder's contributions to the Blue Jays in 2015.
As an added bonus, the evening’s festivities included a reunion of sorts as Martinez and fellow broadcaster Dan Shulman kicked the event off by engaging in the type of dynamic baseball conversation that entrenched the tandem as a broadcasting powerhouse with TSN some 15 years ago.
Committing to over 30 games with Sportsnet throughout the 2016 season, Shulman, a Toronto native, will be back in the Blue Jays TV booth this summer.
In all, the Leadoff served as a means of acclimating the teams fan base to their new decision makers while, at the same time, staying true to the question and answer format that has made the yearly address a cant-miss event since debuting in the early 2000’s.
With more than double the amount of guests in 2016, those on hand Thursday night left the Dome feeling optimistic about the upcoming season.
“Given the way everything played out, I had my doubts about handing the reigns over to a couple of guys who had absolutely no affiliation with this organization prior to 2015” explained Rick Harrington, whose family has owned season tickets since the mid ‘90’s.
“Hearing (Shapiro and Atkins) speak in great detail about the passion they’ve witnessed from us fans, and how it’s only further motivated them to field a winner in Toronto, I think, has helped me come around” added Harrington. “I’m excited to see what’s in store for next season”.