Tales from the Blue Jays home opener
By: Emily (@JaysGirlEmily)
Canadian Baseball Network
I really love coincidences. They stand out to me and even when there's no significance to them whatsoever, I feel they deserve to be recognized. So you can imagine my delight when I realized that I was attending the 2016 home opener with the very same two girls that I went to the last game of 2014 with. Bookending the magical 2015 season, if you will - the last game before it, and the first (home) game after it. And what a difference a year makes.
Those same two girls - my roommates - sat in our living room with me as I yelled at the television during the 7th inning of ALDS Game 5. And then we all screamed as Jose Bautista hit his legendary home run. I cried. I can't remember if they did. (They probably didn't).
On a sunny September Sunday in 2014, we had watched the American League East Champion Baltimore Orioles shut out the Blue Jays 1-0. The crowd seemed only half-present (though not so sparse that they didn't give out all the weird giveaway winter hats before we got there) and overall had a tone of defeat, annoyance, and disappointment. We'd decided to go on a whim, and bought our tickets online roughly two weeks in advance. There had been plenty to choose from.
This time around, it was the reigning AL East champ Blue Jays who played in a packed, loud SkyDome and lost to the Boston Red Sox, again by one run. The giveaway? AL East championship rally towels, and comically large fridge magnets with the season schedule on them - we all got one of each. And if I hadn't lucked into an early-morning February pre-sale for tickets, frantically purchased as I sat in class, our chances of going would have been slim to none. The crowd was electric, screaming for anyone and everyone, until the tides turned later in the game and the Red Sox pulled ahead, anyways.
Back in September 2014, the crowd gave a standing ovation to Casey Janssen in his last game. We were saying goodbye to so many players, including those we knew were gone (Colby Rasmus, Melky Cabrera) and those we didn't know yet - Brett Lawrie, Adam Lind, and J.A. Happ. At the time, those felt like significant losses, but not so much anymore.
Now we're welcoming Happ back, saying hello to Drew Storen, and also kind of welcoming Michael Saunders, the very person for whom Happ was traded away in the first place. As you all know, Saunders spent most of last year on the DL after a freak sprinkler accident and undergoing knee surgery - he played in just a single home game in 2015. Plus we're enjoying the return of Josh Donaldson, AL MVP, and the best offence in baseball.
Whenever it's game day, as soon as I step off the GO at Union Station my heart starts beating a little faster. When I get within sight of the Dome, I start stepping a little quicker. It's strange how a place you've been less than a dozen times in your whole life can feel so much like home. Normally I hate crowds, but I know when I'm here, we all have a singular purpose. We all want the Jays to win. We're drawn together by our collective love of the team.
I've never been to a Home Opener before, and I was really excited to tick it off my bucket list. We didn't know how cold it would be outside, so we layered up, and I kind of felt like when I was a little kid and we'd go watch the Thanksgiving parade wearing every item of warm clothing I owned. With one exception - it's kinda hard to throw a toque over a ball cap, so my ears were left to the cold. Thank goodness it took less than 10 minutes in line before we were swept through the metal detectors. The staff are crazy-efficient!
The new dirt infield looked incredible, and the pre-game ceremony where George Bellcame out and presented Donaldson with his MVP award was very sweet. Even sweeter was the tribute video they played to Paul Beeston, featuring team staff, fans, Buck and Pat, and players both past and present (I see you, Mark Buehrle!) thanking him and tipping their caps. Then Beeston and his grandson came out and threw the first pitch, to a standing ovation.
I'll recap the game later this week in my series sum-up, but there were a few key moments that I wanted to touch on. Firstly, Kevin Pillar's leadoff triple was intense. As soon as the ball got past Mookie Betts in right, I knew he'd be going for second, and then when he turned for third I was hollering every step of the way. I love watching that guy run.
What I don't love is watching him get hit in the helmet with a pitch in the fourth inning. It's strange, I watched it later online and he stood up so quickly, but in person it seemed to slow down. He laid on the ground for a beat before he moved, and it was terrifying. From where we were, we also couldn't tell exactly where it had hit him.
But the bases had already been loaded, nobody was out, and the second consecutive run scored when he reached first. And then, well... Rain was brought.
Between the screaming and the hopping up and down and the cry-laughing because WOW, THIS TEAM, it felt like my lungs emptied and I never properly filled them back up again. Donaldson's walkup song had come on earlier, in the car as we were going to the train, and at the time I thought 'that's gotta be a sign'. I was right.
And yes, after that, the Jays couldn't score another run, and yes, the bullpen didn't do so hot, and Brock Holt had a grand slam (to right field, directly under us, so we couldn't even tell it went out). I was happy to sing along to 'Hooked on a Feeling', although by then the folks around us were a little deflated.
Speaking of the folks around me, when Joe Biagini came in in the 9th to make his major-league debut, the people behind us were very displeased that he wasn't Osuna, and that they didn't know who this 'Binagi' guy was. (They were drunk). I'd explained to my roommates that it was his MLB debut, so we all applauded loudly.
A loss is a loss, and a loss is always unpleasant, but what a ride that one was. There are three people I was very happy for, following the game:
1. Josh Donaldson, because he got some well-deserved love from Toronto, and proved that he's still awesome in spite of an injury.
2. Joe Biagini, because what a way to make your major league debut - in front of a sold-out home crowd, striking out Big Papi, and not allowing a base runner!
3. Me. Because I got to watch my favourite team play my favourite game, alongside two of my favourite people. Even though we didn't win, it doesn't get much better than that.