On a recent vacation back to the land of minus 40-degree temperatures, Saskatchewan, I had a special opportunity to attend an event in Calgary put on by my favourite sports team in the world, the Toronto Blue Jays. Some connections I had forged from my time spent in Toronto enabled me this unique opportunity to attend the Toronto Blue Jays’ Winter Tour as part of the press. Knowing well how much of a hockey town Golden is, I also know that somewhere under the snow are some true baseball fans; don’t try and hide, I saw Blue Jays apparel on many occasions. My adventure was fulfilling, entertaining and information-packed for all of us baseball fiends right here in the Kootenays.
As most of Canada remains in the tight grasp of Mother Nature’s seemingly longest season, it is difficult to think of anything relating to spring; bees buzzing, flowers sprouting, or the snap of a new baseball entering the webbing of a creaky baseball glove that has been doing nothing but collecting that basement smell from the box it has been stored in over the many winter months. The end of January is not the time that most Canadian sports fans think of Major League Baseball (MLB), especially with the National Hockey League schedule becoming more and more important with the start of every new game. But for a select few, the few that never dare put their baseball gloves into that smelly box for the winter, the baseball season never actually ends. The off-season for some baseball enthusiasts is a time to follow blogs, rehash sabermetrics, and a time to stay up-to-date with the happenings of their favourite team as trades, free agency, and arbitration take over baseball-starved brain cells. But for one professional team, the Toronto Blue Jays, the idea of spreading the warmth only a local team can bring to a community, the Blue Jays embarked on a cross-country Winter Tour to do just that…promote the team as being “Canada’s team”.
The tour, presented by Rogers Sportsnet, featured some of the youngest, most talented players that make up the Toronto Blue Jays organization; high-caliber players like starting pitcher (and potential ace for the 2011 season) Ricky Romero, starting pitcher Jesse Litsch, catcher (and potential rookie starter) J.P. Arencibia, and outfielder Travis Snider. The star-studded caravan did not just present the team’s players to the entire country, but also a couple of men from the bench that will be orchestrating the team through the gruelling 162-game season; the Jays’ new manager John Farrell and pitching coach Bruce Walton also ventured out in the harsh Canadian winter to promote the ball club. As if that list of celebrities was not enough, Rogers Sportsnet also shipped out the host of Jays Connected, Jamie Campbell and the broadcast voice of the team, Buck Martinez.
One stop on the tour had the gaggle of Jays land in Calgary at St. Rose of Lima Junior High School on January 20th. The visit to Calgary had been the first visit from the team since way back in the 1980s. In attendance were Ricky Romero, J.P. Arencibia, John Farrell, and also a surprise visit from none other than Ace, the Blue Jays overzealous mascot. The event, hosted by walking baseball statistician Jamie Campbell, was one that had the 476 Blue Jays’ toque-wearing students of St. Rose of Lima awestruck at the fact that actual MLB players were in their school, and answering their questions; the unified feeling of Canada’s team could be seen on not only the faces of the children, but clearly on the faces of Blue Jays’ staff members as well.
Children fired questions at the Blue Jays, hitting on topics that were not always baseball related. The subject of “How much do you guys make?” seemed to be one of the main interests amid the young fans. Questions such as “How long have you been playing baseball?” was also on the minds of the children; Arencibia has played since he was three, Romero since he was four, and Farrell has been involved in baseball since the age of six. “Besides baseball, what is your favourite sport?” was also hurled towards the more than welcoming Blue Jays; Arencibia mentioned he was a big basketball fan, Romero preferred football, as Manager Farrell likes to be on the long fairways of a golf course.
After the question period was complete students had a gift of their own for the members of the Toronto Blue Jays. A dance troupe had arranged for a little break dancing that spurred-on grins and much clapping from Ricky Romero and J.P. Arencibia; of course Ace tried to show up the dancers with some of his own moves, but didn’t quite have the chops to match the well-trained dancers from St. Rose of Lima.
Once the students returned to their studies, the Blue Jays stuck around for some Q & A with local media; the Golden Star was also in attendance. This was the time for some serious baseball questioning and a time to find out how the team feels about being “Canada’s team”.
“The fans across Canada have welcomed us with open arms, it has been fantastic. For me, I am more impressed with Canadian people every day. The people have been great. You realize on a personal level what kind of values and morals are around this country. It’s an honour for me to meet with the people across Canada,” Toronto Blue Jays young catcher, J.P. Arencibia said, smiling as he spoke of the country.
“It’s actually been a cool experience. We understand that we don’t just represent Toronto, but we represent all of Canada. For the Blue Jays to put this (tour) together has been great. It has been an awesome experience,” Toronto Blue Jays left-handed starting pitcher, Ricky Romero said with the slightest of Canadian accents.
“I think we are starting to feel a buzz around this team all across the country. The initial response and feedback has been nothing but positive. This is an indication that they (fans) are aware of what the team is doing. I think ultimately, our continued success on the field is going to build that trust and relationship with fans across the country,” Toronto Blue Jays new manager, John Farrell said about Canada.
One of the larger off-season moves for the organization was the acquisition of John Farrell; Farrell had been the pitching coach for the rival Boston Red Sox before coming over to Toronto. The task of taking over this young, upstart team is something he deems to be exciting. But what about following in the massive footsteps of the Blue Jays previous manager, Cito Gaston?
“His track record speaks for itself. I think when a player or coach replaces someone within an organization there are always certain expectations. But as coaches and athletes, we always have our own expectations and they are very high. As for following Cito, it doesn’t bother me because my own expectations are higher than anyone else’s,” Farrell said in an experienced demeanor.
Other big news this off-season has been the trade of last year’s number one starter, Shaun Marcum. With his departure, much more responsibility has been put on the shoulders of Ricky Romero.
“I don’t feel any added pressure. I’m going to continue to do just what I’ve been doing, and that’s leading by example…that’s all you can do. I learned from Doc Halladay…that’s how he led,” Romero explained.
With a new manager at the helm of the team, one that had been primarily focused on pitching before coming to the Blue Jays organization, the potential for assisting this young staff through the long season is a welcoming realization.
“I think we (pitchers) have the advantage. It’s like having two pitching coaches. It’s something I am looking forward to,” Romero said, thinking of the pro-hitting managerial style of Cito Gaston.
For the rest of the Toronto Blue Jays, Spring Training is just around the corner. The Jays first action in Dunedin, Florida is on February 26th versus the Detroit Tigers. Opening Day in Toronto is on April 1st when the club takes on the Minnesota Twins.