Blue Jays continue grieving with Budzinski family amid non-stop baseball schedule

Arash Madani reports from Oakland about the tragic passing of Julia Budzinski, daughter of Blue Jays first base coach Mark Budzinski, the vigil held in her honour, and players' reactions to the news.

OAKLAND, Calif. — During the third inning Saturday evening, Cavan Biggio hit a single, arrived at first base and found Luis Hurtado coaching there instead of Mark Budzinski. What’s going on, he asked?

Not everyone knew yet at that point, but a couple of innings later word that Budzinski’s 17-year-old daughter Julia had died in a boating accident reached him and others, instant shock and heartache right along with it.

“I’m going up for my third at-bat and it was a meaningless at-bat, it felt like. I’d never had that feeling before in my life,” Biggio recalled. “It’s a big-league game, playing against a great team and not really a whole lot of baseball went through my head at that point. Definitely something like that offers a little perspective and makes you look back into your corner. My mind and heart immediately went to Mark and his family.”

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Compartmentalizing the sorrow and anguish was nearly impossible for the Toronto Blue Jays in finishing out that 11-5 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays on Saturday and it wasn’t any easier Sunday or Monday, when they opened a series against the Oakland Athletics with a listless 5-1 loss.

Baseball doesn’t stop, which can make playing games a needed escape from reality or coming to terms with the incomprehensible even harder. Charlie Montoyo learned that the hard way back when his son Alex was in hospital fighting for his life and he scrambled from Durham Bulls games to be by his side.

Some of that hit Montoyo when he learned of Julia’s death and prompted him to hand the reins over to bench coach John Schneider so he could help care for Budzinksi in the clubhouse.

“That’s what I felt the other day when I had to tell Mark to go inside so he can find out the news,” said Montoyo. “I said, ‘OK, I’m done with that game, it’s more important to be with my friend.’”

Two Sundays earlier, the Montoyo and Budzinski families had been together for morning Mass at the dome and, “Julia was actually hanging with Alex the whole day,” said Montoyo, who added the strength of Budzinski’s belief was apparent immediately after.

“Some people can say that, but then to see it when something like that happens, he is (a man of faith),” said Montoyo. “He is strong in the way how he dealt with it and writing a note to the team going through that, about keeping it going and I’ll see you soon and all that stuff, that’s unbelievable.”

The Blue Jays discussed not playing Sunday, when Montoyo said “you could tell everybody felt it,” while Monday, there were fresh reminders of the loss, as the Athletics honoured Julia with a moment of silence while the Blue Jays had her initials, JB, inscribed on their caps.

There wasn’t much energy for them, either, especially after Manoah allowed three runs in the first, one on a Stephen Vogt sacrifice fly and two more on an Elvis Andrus double just past a diving Matt Chapman at third base.

Alejandro Kirk’s RBI single in the fourth hinted at a rally, but solo shots by Ramon Laureano in the fifth and Vogt leading off the sixth pushed the game out of reach before an announced American Independence Day attendance of 24,403.

The loss was their fourth straight and third since learning of Julia’s death.

“I don’t want to make that an excuse, but we do feel it, of course, because we’re human beings and we’re a team and we care for Bud,” said Montoyo. “We do feel it. But today was more of our approach at the plate, I think.”

The five runs (four earned) against Manoah were a season-high on a night his average fastball velocity of 92.4 m.p.h. was noticeably off his season mark of 94. He didn’t have much to say about an outing he planned “to throw in the trash can, forget about and keep going,” and wasn’t sure how the recent gloom impacted the team’s play.

“Me personally, just tried to come out and give the team a spark and I wasn’t able to do that,” he said. “So on to tomorrow, bring some energy to the dugout and get this thing rolling.”

There’s no choice there because the schedule keeps running.

Biggio remembers sensing “an aura around our dugout and our clubhouse” that he described as “just heavy,” and the way “all of our minds and our hearts were immediately away from that game we were playing.”

Though Budzinksi’s role is as first base coach and his duties include working with the outfielders, he impacts players across the roster. Biggio takes extra flyballs with him as part of playing all around the diamond defensively and praised him for his preparedness and dedication to his players.

“He’s one of the best people you’ll ever meet in this game,” said Biggio. “He’s always positive and to be that positive all the time in this game, when it’s so easy to be negative, says something about the type of person he is.”

That’s the type of person others want to care for, especially in a time of immense grief like the one he and the Blue Jays are living through right now.

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