I never expected that I’d have to go this long between my blog posts.
Seems like yesterday spring training 2020 was underway with the promise of another exciting season.
I purchased my tickets and booked my travel for what I was expecting to be fun and exciting trips to Puerto Rico and Mexico City to see a couple of MLB matchups – one including my beloved Mets.
And then COVID came and our lives and routines as we knew them came to a halt.
I fully realize that any inconvenience I as a baseball fan and lover of travel may have experienced paled considerably compared to what countless others had to endure, but for baseball fans, it was tough to deal with the indefinite suspension of the game we love.
The initial news of opening delay being delayed by 2 weeks was upsetting. Then the delay became indefinite. Then it appeared that there may be no baseball at all for 2020. Addicts like myself had to rely on computer simulations or ‘classic games’ on MLB network.
Finally, the season resumed in late July with only cardboard cutouts allowed to fill the seats of the stadiums. Still, it was baseball, and it was back. The season had more than its share of memorable moments and a very exciting world Series. But not being able to see a game in person was a tough concession.
In the months following the end of the season, the pandemic slowly and gradually came under control and widespread restrictions were lifted, including allowing fans to attend games for the 2021 season.
In April, I finally got to attend a game in person for the first time in 19 months. It was Opening Day of the Indians vs the Royals at Progressive Field in Cleveland. Masks were mandatory and seating was limited to about 25% (with the majority of seats ‘zip-tied’ closed to prevent sitting in them. Most of the concessions were closed as well and many areas were off limits. Still, I was at a game, and I loved it!
Some restrictions are still in place. One of them being free travel across the US and Canada border. This once again means that the Blue Jays cannot play in their home stadium in Toronto. For all of 2020, the Jays called Sahlen Field in Buffalo their home. That worked mainly because the season didn’t start until late July. But in April and May, it is way to cold to play outdoor baseball in Buffalo, so for the first 2 months, the Jays will be playing their first 22 home games of the season at their Spring training facility in Dunedin, Florida.
Dunedin is a sleepy little town on the West Coast of Florida roughly a 20-minute drive from downtown Tampa with a laid back vibe but with plenty of sites and attractions. There are eight breweries located within a mile of each other! The town is also known as the home of Florida’s #1 State Park, Honeymoon Island. The waterfront area and marina are filled with restaurants serving a wide variety of cuisines, including the catch of the day! Dunedin is also known for its quality shopping.
The locals enthusiasm about the Jays not headed back up north of the border once the season started could be seen throughout the entire town with countless banners and posters supporting them. The citizens of Dunedin have also adopted the Blue Jays as their own, as the team has been an important part of their town since 1977.
Cathy and I flew into Tampa yesterday where we made base camp in a hotel on the Hillsborough River. A 20 minute drive in our rental car over the causeway got us into Dunedin. Traffic was light and parking was easy – really atypical for a baseball game. We had plenty of time to eat and walk around the town before game time.
Several enhancements were made to the ballpark to prepare for regular season games to be played here. Temporary stadium light towers rise high above the fixed stadium lights while the park’s capacity has been increased from 5,500 to 8,500. The clubhouse, restrooms and concession stands have been updated to host the big-league team and its fans while the outfield walls were plastered with Canadian advertisements to give the fans watching north of the border some sense of a local connection.
I’ve attended more MLB games in my life than I can ever possibly hope to recall, but today’s game had its share of firsts. Due to limits still in place on fan capacity and spacing, real live fans like myself were interspersed in the seats along with cardboard cutouts. In addition, crowd reaction noise (cheers and jeers) was pre-recorded and played to the occasion (kind of like on a sitcom).
The game had the intimacy of a Spring training contest with the competitiveness of a regular season game – which was a real treat. It also was a rivalry game of sorts. The Jays were taking on the Philadelphia Phillies in an interleague match-up. Yes, it was a rematch of the 1993 World Series (and most of the Florida ‘retiree’ community in attendance were more than old enough to remember that one), but it was also kind of a ‘regional rivalry’ since the Phillies Spring training facility is located only 5 miles away in Clearwater – so there were ample fans for both teams in attendance.
The Jays jumped out to an early 8-0 lead after 3 frames, but the Phillies battled back only to end up short 10-8. Robbie Ray pitched well enough to pick up the victory and Marcus Semien collected 3 hits and drove in 3 runs. There were plenty of big name starts on the field and it was a real treat to see them so close up in such an intimate venue.
The plan for us is to spend a few more days enjoying the Florida sunshine before heading back north to NJ. The next trip planed for me is – once again – to see the Jays play at home, this time in Buffalo.
Fans – B – Friendly, laid back Floridians (most of them likely northeastern transplants). I guess being surrounded by palm tress, beaches and sunshine all year long has that affect on you. But they were at times enthusiastic enough to at times to be heard above the pre-recorded crowd noise and stand out from their cardboard cutout seat neighbors.
Features – C – Spring Training facilities aren’t expected to have a lot of special features, so the bar is obviously low here. The ‘boardwalk’ was a nice touch. I guess the biggest ‘feature’ was the level of intimacy and close proximity to the players.
Location – A+ – West coast of Florida. Less than a mile from the ocean.
Food – B – Some Florida-based items on the menu include Grouper tacos, Conch Fritters, and Gator Bites. Labatt’s Blue is by far the most requested beer served at TD Ballpark, and poutine is included on the menu!
Game – B – A good matchup and a fairly exciting contest.
Overall Experience – B+ – Always great to be on the Gulf Coast of Florida. The unexpected treat of a regular season baseball game there was a great bonus. If the temps were a little cooler, it would have been even better.