Toronto-born Blue Jays bullpen catcher knows playoffs is a big deal

Blue Jays bullpen catcher and Toronto native Alex Andreopoulos (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty)

TORONTO – They know it’s a big deal. Every time they look up at the rows upon rows of once-empty seats and see an ocean of blue and white, roaring like it’s Game 7 every game since early August, they get a sense for what’s going on.

Toronto Blue Jays starter R.A. Dickey was pumping gas near his home in Mississauga on Wednesday when a guy pulled up to the pump beside him and unleashed a geyser of joy.

“He was just beside himself about how happy he was and he hadn’t been that excited since 92-93,” said Dickey. “It’s a bit surreal because of the magnitude of coverage that you get … the city, it’s not just our city, it’s the country, you feel it [everywhere]. People are beside themselves with jubilation.”

Dalton Pompey kind of gets it. The 22-year-old has had a roller-coaster season, from being named the starting centre fielder on Opening Day to being demoted to triple-A and then double-A before fighting his way back up the depth chart and earning a spot on the 25-man playoff roster for the ALDS which opens (in case you have been under a general anaesthetic for about a week) on Thursday when the Blue Jays take on the Texas Rangers, the first MLB playoff game of any kind played at Rogers Centre since Joe Carter’s homerun in 1993.

Growing up playing baseball in Toronto, those teams were like myths. He believed them, just like you believe that dinosaurs roamed the earth, but he never saw it with his own eyes.

“My friends and family are excited and I’m excited just as much as they are and I get to be part of it, which is even better,” said Pompey.

But you get the sense that he doesn’t quite realize he and his teammates are on the cusp of history, that they have a chance to become conversation pieces that knit together generations in a simple short-form: George Bell falling to his knees in ’85, Manny Lee breaking hearts in ’87, or “touch ‘em all Joe” and on and on.

“You talk to people older than me and they always talk about it like it was yesterday,” says Pompey. “And I have no idea what that was like.”

The one guy who knows – who really knows – what living and dying with the Toronto Blue Jays is like is Alex Andreopoulos: Just to be clear, we’re talking about the Jays long-time bullpen catcher, not the superstar general manager who – in any case – grew up an Expos fan.

The 43-year-old grew up around Christie Pits, played his baseball at High Park and can’t remember for a second not being a Blue Jays fan, something that didn’t change over eight minor pro seasons with three different MLB organizations and certainly not since he’s been warming up Jays pitchers and throwing batting practice with the big club since 2003.

He was an all-star catcher at Seton Hall University in New Jersey when the Blue Jays won the World Series in 1992 and he remembers it well.

“I was in my dorm room and they won and I remember sprinting up and down the hall, using language I can’t say,” he says. “I was the only Canadian there and everyone was telling me to shut up. It was a lot of fun.”

Since 2002 he’s worked for the Blue Jays, a job he got into upon his retirement. Now he’s got a uniform and locker a few stalls down from Dickey and Russell Martin and Jose Bautista, but at heart he’s still the 10-year-old who’d score two-dollar grandstand tickets at the old CNE stadium, get on the Bathurst street car and watch Lloyd Moseby patrol centre field.

“The Blue Jays were everything to me,” he was saying to me after rubbing up a tray of pearl white baseballs with red clay to be used in the bullpen. “I tried to watch as much as I could, my dad would take us much as he could. I’m a huge fan, always been a fan and putting the uniform on doesn’t change anything.

“I tell people all the time, I’m so lucky man, I get to put the uniform on and be a fan and cheer in the bullpen, and I have the best seat in the house. I can’t wait [for the playoffs to start] it’s going to awesome.”

His enthusiasm has been noted. For someone like Dickey, who has been with the franchise for three years, through more lows than highs and is just now getting a feel for what a winning Blue Jays team means to a city or a country, Andreopoulos – known simply as ‘Drop’ – is a portal into the psyche of a fan base.

“He’s poured himself into this team,” says Dickey, who threw to Andreopoulos in a seven-inning simulated game on Tuesday. “He lives and dies with us. I know he’s not a player on the roster, but we all consider him a player, really. And he has a little bit of the backstory some of us don’t, having grown up in Toronto as fan.

“If you could have seen his face when we won the division, it was like seeing my nine year-old boy walk into a Star Wars store. He was so elated.”

So yes, Andreopoulos gets it.

“For me if we win it, I just want to see the city enjoy it. It’s been such a long time for this city and that makes me happy,” he said. “To see all the fans in the stands here, it’s packed, loud, crazy. I love it.

“And a ring would be nice, of course.”

Andreopoulos is also happy for his Dad, Dimitri, who lives in the same house he always has and loves to talk baseball with his oldest son who grew up playing in the park, made it as a pro and now works for the Blue Jays and wears the uniform everyday.

“I can’t call the house without my Dad busting my balls: ‘Why’d we do this or why’d we do that?’ It’s unbelievable,” says Andreopoulos. “He watches every game and he’s older now, so he’s got strong opinions about things.

“I just go with the flow, I like talking to him about it. He still relives all the memories of me playing and all the way through and now there’s this.”

His Dad stopped going to games when his sons were old enough to go on their own, and now, at 75, he doesn’t leave the neighbourhood very often unless he has to.

“Since I’ve been doing this he’s maybe come to one game in 13 years,” says Andreopoulos. “He’s at home, watching it on the TV, or he’s at the café, hanging out with his buddies playing cards. That’s his life. He wears his Jays cap, I get him those.”

But Thursday will be different. Thursday is the first Blue Jays playoff game in 22 years. For a Toronto son like Andreopoulos that means a lot.

How big a deal is this? His Dad will be at Game 1, his son got him a ticket. Just one face in a sea of blue-and-white, each poised for new memories to call their own.

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