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The opening day magic is missing this year but the Blue Jays will return, and we will return with them

The opening day magic is missing this year but the Blue Jays will return, and we will return with them
Sports
The home opener, here in Toronto, is a part of the city’s identity. It is a feeling that blows through the concrete-canyon streets, hopefully warm and gleaming in the sun but usually cold and damp — maybe the occasional snow or ice storm. There are definitely no palm trees.

But no matter what the wayward weather brings that day, downtown bars and restaurants are crowded. Blue Jays jerseys and caps cram into streetcars and trains. Fans take the day off from work. Parents take their kids out of school.

For many people, the home opener in Toronto is as much a part of spring as winter’s bare-bone trees budding candy colours for summer’s leaves.

And I can’t wait for that day again. I can’t wait to meet you there.

Today I walk down the quiet sidewalk, past the Gate 9 Box Office, unopened. There’s no Rockin’ Rick banging the drum. Or Silver Elvis, face painted like frost, hair slicked with a rockabilly metallic pomp, street performing, spinning in circles to the sounds of the King. There’s no, “Let’s Go Blue Jays.” No buskers. No hot dogs or popcorn. There is a hush outside the Rogers Centre, still.

No beer here!

Bremner Boulevard is quiet today. And silent for tomorrow.

The home opener, like a poem, has an atmosphere, one that Canadian baseball fans have been able to experience since April 7, 1977, when the Blue Jays hosted the South Side Sox on a snowy Thursday afternoon at Exhibition Stadium. A day where winter’s white linen had to be squeegeed off the field in spring before Doug Ault could send two baseballs into an ashen sky to become the first Blue Jays hero on that frigid first day.

The revered and iconic Don Chevrier, who called the team’s first broadcast, famously said after Ault stepped on home plate for the second time: “These fans are making heroes here. Batter by batter. Pitch by Pitch.”

And, since that moment, since that day, fans have made heroes. Batter by batter. Pitch by pitch. It’s been one cool ride.

From the Drive of ’85 and that unforgettable moment when George Bell fell to his knees, cap falling off his head, after catching the shallow fly ball off the bat of Ron Hassey to Dave Stieb’s no-hitter in 1990 after always coming oh-so close. From Roberto Alomar’s remarkable home run off Dennis Eckersley in 1992 to Joe Carter’s indelible leap of 1993. Or Jose Bautista’s legendary bat flip in 2015 to all the Tony Fernandez sidearm tosses and Carlos Delgado monster home runs that sent baseballs to the moon that shone as bright as Roy Halladay every fifth day.

Baseball has been a story in our lives.

I remember the last game I went to at the Rogers Centre and looking up at the CN Tower and at the blue-ceiling September sky. The Baltimore Orioles were in town. All around me were empty plastic seats in my section. It was the end of an unmemorable 2019 season, a year of bad baseball in Toronto, an arduous season spent crossing that long, but hopeful bridge to tomorrow that has, as it seems, led to today.

But I remember that night and feeling overcome with nostalgia, as I stared at the faded SkyDome logo on the side of those hard, blue plastic seats in the aisle — the same seats from 1989. I thought about how I used to sit in those seats as a boy in the early ’90s, cheering on Fernandez, Alomar, Carter and every other Toronto baseball hero I looked up to as a child.

I fell in love with the sport up there.

But on that night, though, the final game I was at, I can’t remember who won or lost. I couldn’t tell you who pitched. Or if there were any home runs. I couldn’t tell you a single statistic. What I do remember is staring up at the glass condos and the view of Toronto’s sky from those seats. I remember seeing the CN Tower lit up, the bright stadium lights, the hard-working vendors. I remember thinking it must get tiring carrying all those drinks and snacks and beer up and down those steps. I remember that.

So now here we all are, hopeful for tomorrow, baseball season upon us, as the Blue Jays play their home opener in Florida. Not coming to Canada is the safest move today. No matter how much we want our team back in our country. It is what is right and responsible. And even though it seems as though the team won’t be in front of fans in Toronto until next season that doesn’t mean we can’t miss our favourite team at home. Or be jealous of baseball under the Florida sun. Or miss being at 1 Blue Jays Way. I realize now that what I miss more than just the game of baseball, is the people. I miss conversations with strangers.

I remind myself we will be together again. But, for now, we wait, still, practising prudence, as we pause for tomorrow — a tomorrow that we will hopefully be blessed to see.

A tomorrow where I will walk past Gate 11 and there will be families walking along Bremner Boulevard for the opener. Steel hot dog stands will gleam in the sun at every corner of the stadium. I will smell the popcorn from the vendor near Gate 6. I will see a sea of blue walking up and down the concrete steps. I will hear the scalpers bellowing, “Tickets! Got Tickets?” There will be street performers busking for a buck. Silver Elvis and his rockabilly swing. I will hear Rockin’ Rick bang the drum and sing into his headset, “Let’s Go Blue Jays!” Beat reporters will be back in the scrum. The hard plastic seats will press into our backs. Fans will squeeze into the Flight Deck. Scorecards will be filled out. A row of knitters will be intertwining yarn with big knitting needles in a section somewhere in the stands. The Rogers Centre concourse will echo with chatter and laughter. I can see me there with my mom, my family, my friends and you.
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