By Bob Elliott
St. PETERSBURG, Fla. _ It does not matter your age.
You can be seven or 27, 37 or 70: opening day is like no other game of the season, save for September and post-season play.
Opening day is the reason a hitter drove through the snow to an indoor facility and stayed for extra rounds in the batting cage.
Opening day is a time when every pitcher has yet to give up a homer ... never mind a bloop single.
It is a time for fresh beginnings.
No one has gone 162-0 ... but you never know, as a player told me years ago.
For Blue Jays broadcaster Jerry Howarth his first opening day was in 1974 at Tacoma, Wash. The Tacoma Twins were facing in-state rival Spokane Indians at Cheney Stadium in the triple-A Pacific Coast League opener.
“Our Mike Adams hit one straight back early in the game, I stood, caught it and ,,, (pause) and haven’t caught another one since,” said Howarth.
It was pointed out that it might be tough for Howarth to make fielding plays from under a counter top.
The Sunday afternoon matinee was the start of Howarth’s 35th season with the Jays.
“Five years at triple-A, 35 years with the Jays, that’s more than half my life,” said Howarth, who turned 70 last month.
Let’s take a look as the curtain went up on the defending American League East Division champions in Year 40 as your Toronto Blue Jays faced the Tampa Bay Rays under the big Trop on Sunday:
7:35 AM _ WFLA News Channel 8 anchor woman Mary Maguire reports A) the home opener is sold out, B) the Rays may be moving to Tampa in a few years and C) concessions will now offer this season: a grouper Cuban sandwich.
And News Channel 8 was the only station with camera on hand as news broke Saturday that Tampa Bay Lightning captain Steven Stamkos would be lost 1-to-3 months because of a vascular issue. He undergoes surgery Monday for a blood clot near his right collarbone.
9:15 _ Jesse Chavez is the first Jay to arrive in the clubhouse.
9:19 _ Reliever Drew Storen is the second most anxious to get the season underway.
9:21 _ With the song of the spring -- ‘Think Of You’ by Chris Young and Cassadee Pope on the car jukebox -- The Trop is spotted.
9:43 _ After two circles of the building and a one-way street mix up, the geographically challenged car (and driver) find the proper parking lot with the polite attendant.
9:48 _ The first sniff of the season: a German Shephard on a leash held by someone from the local authorities gives my satchel a once over searching for explosives and typos.
9:49 _ The security man goes through my bag at the entrance. It’s different now then when Vince Naimoli owned the Rays. Front gate detectives once found three recently-purchased Diet Cokes and make me toss them into the garbage since the Trop is a Pepsi only facility. As the season begins my contraband eludes the Diet Coke detector.
10:10 _ Trainer George Poulis arrives. Usually he gets to Florida Auto Exchange Stadium at 6 a.m. On Saturday night the Jays charter from Montreal did not get the Jays to their hotel until 11:15 PM.
10:41 _ Starting pitcher Marcus Stroman and Alex Sanchez arrive together. It is a strange sighting. For once the two pals are not joined at the hip. They are three feet apart.
11:17 _ An ESPN film crew shoots B roll of everything from logos to the bases leaning to one side. Dave Fleming, Curt Schilling and Eduardo Perez, son of Hall of Famer Tony Perez worked the game. Under the Basic Agreement teams are required to have a day off before the start of the season. Of the six clubs to play Sunday: Pittsburgh, Kansas City and the Jays played the night before. The Bucs played an exhibition game Saturday against the Cincinnati Reds, the World Series champ Royals were in Phoenix and the Jays were in Quebec. TV wanted a triple header, so the Player’s Association gave them one.
11:29 _ Bullpen coach Alex Andreopoulos rubs up balls with mud before he gives them to pitchers, but for batting practice? Hitters like pearls. He dumps two cases (72 balls each) into the basket. He is using balls for batting practice with the ‘FL’ logo on it as the Jays used throughout spring training.
11:37 _ Pitching coach Pete Walker is on his way to see newly-acquired lefty Franklin Morales throw his first bullpen. Walker was impressed by lefty Shane Dawson, of Drayton Valley, Alta., who pitched in Montreal. Said Walker “he has some Mad Hungarian (Al Hrabosky) in him. He pitches with energy, grabs the throw back from the catcher, is full of enthusiasm.” A number of Jays including bullpen catcher Jason Phillips were saying how they are Canada’s team, especially visiting, Detroit, Minnesota and Seattle. Phillips told of how when he was a bullpen coach with the Mariners players didn’t like the feeling of being the visiting team. Dawson asked “you guys play Seattle this year?”
11:47 _ Jose Bautista leaves the Jays clubhouse headed down the tunnel to get his hair cut. “Opening day,” Bautista jokes, “have to look good.” Bautista was hitless with two walks and a fielding error.
11:49 _ A Tropicana Field security guard sees a fellow guard he has not seen since the end of 2015 and says: “I thought they fired you.”
12:12 pm _ Morales throws his to Phillips as bullpen coach Dane Johnson and Walker watch.
1:39 _ Rays broadcaster Orestes Destrade is telling the story of playing for former Jays manager Carlos Tosca at class-A Oneonta in 1982. “He’s 5-foot-7, I’m 6-foot-4 and scuffling,” Destrade said, “he’d get on his tip toes and scream ‘don’t fear failure,’ I’ve never forgotten that.” The always playful Destrade, who did radio with Storen’s father Mark Patrick, says “ask Drew if he ever played me in H-O-R-S-E.” Destrade can’t remember where or when (but guesses Storen was in grade 12 or first year at Stanford). Storen does remember the game. It was at Cooperstown “about half-way through high school.” Destrade is 25 years older than Storen.
1:45 _ Some wise acre congratulates Michael Saunders on the Jays hiring a translator who speaks Canadian. The Jays made an excellent hire in Josue Peley, who played five seasons in the Pirates and Red Sox systems, plus four of indy ball with the Quebec Capitales of the Can Am League. Peley, a native of Valencia, Ven., grew up in Montreal and speaks Spanish, French and English. Peley will translate for Latin players. There is still a vacancy for the job of translating manager John Gibbons from Texican to English.
3:24 _ So which scout in the press room has been at the most opening days? A couple of scouts say “every year since 1968.” Along comes Tom (T-Bone) Giordano, who turned 90 in October and scouts for the Atlanta Braves. Giordano’s first year was 1944, the year he graduated high school and signed with class-A Scranton Miners of the Boston Red Sox system.
“So (Hall of Famer) Heinie Manush is down at third, flashing signs, telling me what the other guy is throwing because Heinie has the catcher’s signs, right?” said Giordano, “I’m expecting a curve ball and I get hit right in the head. I didn’t go back until four years later.”
From the class-B York White Roses in 1948 until Sunday ... 68 continuous openers as a player (including the 1954 triple-A Ottawa A’s -- manager and scout.
3:56 _ B.K. Jackson played the national anthems on sax. He’s pretty good, but he’s not Russell Martin’s father ... or Junior Walker.
4:00 _ George Wendt ambles to the mound to throw out the first pitch as the theme from Cheers plays. Wendt played Norm, who liked to unwind once in a while. Chris Colabello, who grew up in Wooster, Mass. is asked his favorite TV show growing up. “Either Fresh Prince of Bel Air or Saved by the Bell,” he answers. Not Cheers? “No, guess I’m not a true Bostonian.”
4:09 _ Rays Chris Archer’s first pitch is a ball. He walked two in the first, but set a club record for opening day, fanning 12.
4:13 _ With one out in the first Josh Donaldson singles to right to grab the Jays hit lead.
4:18 _ Edwin Encarnacion who did not face major league pitching all spring (tooth, oblque) lines a 2-2 pitch from Archer to right scoring Donaldson and Jose Bautista.
5:01 _ Right about now is when I turn to my left and ask my old pal Mike Rutsey what he thinks. Except Mike Rutsey has retired. It’s one game, I miss him and his agitating ways already.
6:16 _ Ryan Goins makes a fine play to retire Hank Conger for the final out of the seventh, Ah that would be Ryan Goins your Bob Bannerman, Toronto area Chrysler Dodge Jeep RAM superstore spokesman for 2016. Goins takes over for Munenori Kawasaki, who took over for Colby Rasmus.
6:23 _ Troy Tulowitzki follows an Encarnacion single with a two-run homer to left on a 2-2 sinker (91 mph) facing reliever Ryan Webb. The shortstop had a day and a half. Besides the two-run homer he handled six chances flawlessly including a ball up the middle struck by Desmond Jennings where he spun and fired a strike to first for the our and he charged a Logan Forsythe roller and threw on the run for the out.
6:25 _ The Jays official twitter account tweets:
2016 @MLB HR counter:
Tulo 1, everyone else: 0. #OurMoment
The account now has 1.31 million followers, the second-most followed team in Major League Baseball. The Jays gained over 230,000 followers in the off season, passing the Boston Red Sox and the Philadelphia Phillies in terms of followers.
7:02 _ Representing the tying run, Conger bounces back to closer Roberto Osuna for the third out.
As Montreal Expos coach Russ Nixon used to say “You can’t win ‘em all, unless you win the first one.”