TORONTO - It is less than four hours before the first pitch of another baseball season and along Bremner Blvd. there is all kinds of noise, and an uncommon sense of anticipation.
Just outside the Rogers Centre, where atmosphere has often gone to die, there are the usual hot dog vendors and ticket scalpers in the same old places, but there seems more people milling about, more wearing Blue Jays’ colours, more engaged with a team that hasn’t kept us very engaged for almost two decades.
This is another new beginning for a team that has specialized in new beginnings and not much more. But this doesn’t feel much like last year or the year before or even the year before that. This doesn’t seem like a baseball season predicated on hope and broken promises. There is a growing buzz here, a belief that this is a team we can fall in love with again, a feeling in the clubhouse, on the streets, around water coolers, that in the most dismal time in Toronto sports history, there is some reason for optimism.
It is all strangely cyclical in nature: It goes from clubhouse to field to stands, from stands to field to clubhouse, the feeling that something is happening here, something you can’t necessarily define, something worth cheering for.
“You can feel the excitement,” said Brett Lawrie, veteran of one Opening Day in Toronto. This is his first big league Opening Day at night, his first home opener. He had his own personal reason for excitement Monday night. His grandpa, Tom Lawrie, was in the stands with his own son, Brett’s father, watching his rather intense grandson play for the first time as a big leaguer. “That’s exciting,” said Lawrie. “This season is going to be a lot of fun. I was here for the World Baseball Classic. I got a sense of what this crowd can be, what this city can be for baseball. The way they cheered us. The way they got behind us. I’ll never forget that feeling. That stays with you.
“And I want that feeling back.”
It’s easy to feel giddy on Opening Day. Everything is so new, so fresh, so uninterrupted. The crowd is large and loud. The place is un-Toronto electric. Then Tuesday comes, the schedule moves on, and with it too much reality arrives.
“We want this place filled every night,” said Lawrie. “We’ve got to change the mentality here. We can do that. It’s up to us to do that.”
There is a bounce in Lawrie’s step and in his voice unlike most of those he plays with. He sounds more linebacker than third baseman. He brings an intensity to baseball that belies a game without a clock and seems all wrong for a season that is 162 games long. But here, in his first full year as a big leaguer, there is also the sense he is the heartbeat of this club, the leader, the wide-eyed optimist at a time of year made for wide-eyed optimists.
Lawrie never dreamt about Opening Day as a kid. He only dreamt of being a major league player. “Probably from the age of six,” he said. “I knew what I wanted to be. I knew I was going to do it.”
This is a Jays team brimming with confidence, from Lawrie on his first Opening Day to Omar Vizquel, almost certainly on his last. Lawrie was born in 1990. Vizquel made his major league debut a year earlier, the same season in which the Rogers Centre was born. Unlike anyone else on the Jays roster, Vizquel experienced what is was like when baseball was king in Toronto, when the Dome was filled almost every night. He was into his seventh season, his second in Cleveland, before attendance began to wane here.
Vizquel lived through the best and played through the best of Blue Jays times and through some of the worst, and now he is here to play a little, coach a little, get a great hand on Opening Day, and after batting practice scramble around like a batboy picking up loose baseballs. Whatever he is asked to do, he will do, and well. The consummate pro, here to tutor the kids on how to be pros.
“There is something about this team,” said Brian Butterfield, the coach who has been here for the past 11 seasons but never felt this optimistic on Opening Day. “The home opener is huge, even after all these years. I still get sweaty palms. I still get a feeling unlike any other day. I’m really excited. I think everybody is. The young guys. The old guys. All of us.”