Blue Jays relish Canada Day homecoming three years in the making

Hazel Mae and Shi Davidi discuss the difference between last year's Canada Day where the Toronto Blue Jays had to play in Buffalo, and what the players are expecting on their first Canada Day experience at Rogers Centre.

TORONTO – As the Rogers Centre grew louder and louder during the late innings against the Boston Red Sox earlier this week, Charlie Montoyo paused to soak in all the noise.

During the fan-free pandemic summer of 2020 and the days of displacement in Dunedin and Buffalo last year, the Toronto Blue Jays could only wish for such raucous and encouraging crowds. The lengthy absence of that type of backing has given the manager a new appreciation for the support a home audience can provide.

“Oh, yeah. More than ever,” said Montoyo. “The (Tampa Bay) Rays appreciated Dunedin.”

Nearly a year removed from an emotional return to Toronto, the upheaval from their vagabond years lingers for the Blue Jays, which made the first Canada Day game at the dome since 2019 – a 9-2 win over the Tampa Bay Rays – all the more emotional Friday.

Large crowds gathered around the stadium hours before the gates opened and the building filled fast once they did. The 300-by-150-foot flag was back draping the outfield after a rousing pre-game tribute for the recently retired Russell Martin, which featured a tribute narrated by Jose Bautista. John Gibbons, Devon Travis, Jason Grilli, Kevin Pillar and Ryan Goins delivered video messages. Baseball Canada renamed its junior national team MVP award after the all-star catcher. Hits from iconic Canadian acts like Rush and The Tragically Hip were the soundtrack.

So much felt right, underlining how off the past couple of years have been.

“I think about it every time the fans are loud and there's a lot of emotion here,” said Montoyo. “I think about how different it was playing in Buffalo and Dunedin.”

On Canada Day back in 2020, you may recall, the Blue Jays were still trying to secure permission from the federal government to stage their summer camp at Rogers Centre. Last year, they spent July 1 losing 7-2 to Yusei Kikuchi and the Seattle Mariners at Buffalo’s Sahlen Field, which made for an odd introduction to the holiday for George Springer.

“Oh, it was extremely weird celebrating something that's supposed to be celebrated here in the United States. I don't really think it had the same meaning for a lot of people,” he said. “Obviously, it's still special. But now we're here in front of our fans, our home country. That's exciting.

Like Montoyo, Springer often reflects on the disruptions last year, discussing with his wife all the moves they made with a newborn in a new organization they were still acclimating to.

“And then there's the playing side of it,” he said. “You're not in your home stadium. You're in a place that you're normally not used to playing in and all that stuff. It was definitely a weird time. Obviously it was all out of our control. I try not to dwell on it, but, just like man, that was wild.

Wild is that Bo Bichette, called up at the end of July in 2019, played in his first Canada Day game in Toronto or that Trent Thornton vividly remembers the game in 2019 but has little recall of the one last year in Buffalo.

Wild is also an apt term for Martin’s most memorable Canada Day experience, when Cleveland won 2-1 in 19 innings in 2016 on a home run by Carlos Santana off Darwin Barney, the second Blue Jays position player to pitch that day.

That’s not what sticks out, though.

“The one that I got kicked out? Probably me yelling at the umpire because he was terrible,” said Martin who joined Edwin Encarnacion in getting ejected that day. “And then the crowd kind of had my back, yelling at him with me. Yeah, that was a crazy game. It was a great experience.”

The same applied every July 1.

“You feel the energy of the crowd and then the crowd gets hyped for Canada Day,” said Martin. “It's kind of special because you get the red jerseys but the crowd, you feel like you're in the playoffs. You know it's not the playoffs, but you have that you have that sense of energy that you don't get like on a regular, regular-season game.

That was the vibe on a Friday that started with roof closed and ended with it open under partly cloudy skies, the Blue Jays back in the home and native land, a crowd of 44,445 at the Rogers Centre along for the ride.

Between the pops of red in the blue stands from fans wearing his giveaway No. 4 jersey to his place as a finalist in all-star voting along with five of his teammates, it was all a reminder to Springer of the national fanbase behind them.

“You're so used to playing for a market, for a city – well, you're playing for an entire country and a country that's bigger than the United States from a land perspective,” said Springer. “It extends all the way from the East Coast to the West Coast and as far North as it could possibly go and there's only one team. You kind of, not forget, but you don't really realize it until you go to Detroit and the entire town of Windsor across the river is at the game. We know what to expect in Seattle. You learn that you're playing for a country, not just a market and it's pretty special.

Just like a Canada Day game back home in Toronto, where it belongs.

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