There were about 1400 early-bird purchasers, but only about 800 took them up on the free trip.
By Peter Mandich / Special to MLB.com
03/03/2003 2:53 pm ET
Blue Jays, fans get closer
Season-ticket holders escape cold for a day with team
Roy Halladay takes a break from serving beer to sign an autograph. (Peter Mandich/Blue Jays)
DUNEDIN, Fla. -- The evening was growing unseasonably cool, but about 800 Blue Jays season-ticket holders weren't complaining.
Earlier in the day, they'd watched in relief as the rain-soaked skies turned to overcast, then to clear and sunny, as the Blue Jays defeated the Phillies to mark the spring's first game at Grant Field. Then, for more than two hours, they enjoyed a chicken barbecue dinner served by the players on the practice diamond next to the left field bullpen. They chatted with the Blue Jays, collected autographs and posed for pictures with smiling players.
Now, as the sun began to set, many still sat at the paper-covered tables, talking about the old days (many had cheered for the Jays since their beginning in 1977) and their fond hopes for the new Jays. Just before leaving, one fan approached general manager J.P. Ricciardi, shook his hand and said: "Thanks for making baseball fun again."
Jays paid fans' airfare
Part of the fun for this group was flying from Toronto to Florida on the Blue Jays' tab. The free round-trip airfare was their reward for buying their season tickets before the early-bird deadline of Dec. 2.
About 1,400 purchased tickets early, and more than half took advantage of the club's offer to combine a little baseball with a welcome vacation from the bone-chilling temperatures back home.
"It's a great chance to bring the whole family down," said Greg Harris, who was on hand with his wife, Dottie, and their three sons: Spencer, 7, Parker, 6, and Connor, 3. "Our young guys got to see the Blue Jays up close."
They'd just filed past the autograph table, which still had a long lineup. Asked whose autographs he'd collected, Parker replied with a grin: "Everybody's."
"This is class"
Jays broadcaster Tom Cheek finished the Billy Martin story he was telling Mike and Lorraine Favalaro of Burlington, Ontario, then took his leave to chat with some friends nearby.
"This is class," Lorraine Favalaro said, looking out over the gathering. "It took a lot of work to bring all these people here."
The Favalaros have been season-ticket holders since the team's inception. Standing with the family not far away was an icon from that beginning, Doug Ault, who hit two homers in the Jays' snow-capped debut in 1977.
Back then, few fans knew the players, and the Favalaros felt a little that way when they joined the barbeque assembly.
"It's exciting to see these new players," Lorraine said. "I didn't recognize a lot of players, but you feel different after you meet them. It's exciting when you see someone you have met personally develop into a good player.
"There will be a lot of support for the team this year, I think."
Forty-fifth anniversary present
Among the supporters will be Kevin and Kathleen O'Gorman, who don't get to Toronto often because it's a five-hour drive from their home northwest of Ottawa. But they're long-time fans, which is the reason their son-in-law bought season tickets and gave them the trip for their 45th wedding anniversary.
"There seems to be a whole new life in the team," Kevin O'Gorman said. "There are a lot of new faces and a lot more enthusiasm. All the good is coming."
When Jack Leslie of Kitchener, Ontario, heard about the early-bird special, "I jumped right at it," he said. A season-ticket holder for four years, he echoed the O'Gormans' confidence in the Ricciardi regime.
"It's coming," he said. "It's a young, aggressive team with a new direction. They're going to be more competitive."
Ross and Georgina Robinson of Toronto were the lucky beneficiaries when Ross's company, Bellshire Ltd., purchased early season tickets. They were also naturals to get the trip. Both have been fans since 1977. Georgina worked as a ticket-taker at Exhibition Stadium that season. Ross is such a fan that he used to go to games in St. Catharines, Ontario, when the city had a Blue Jays' farm club. Now he and his friends go to Buffalo when Syracuse, Toronto's Triple-A affiliate, comes to town.
"This team has a good core," Ross said. "They just need a little more pitching."
"We're becoming great fans now"
Felicia and Franca Raffa, sisters from Toronto, didn't know a pitcher from a foul pole before making this trip, but they certainly were having a good time meeting and greeting Blue Jays at the barbeque.
Felicia works for Dimock Stratton Clarizio, a Toronto law firm that bought season tickets and planned to donate the trip to the Children's Wish Foundation. After discovering a technicality that prevented the donation, the company held a drawing among its employees. Felicia won. Her husband couldn't go, so she invited Franca.
"It was totally spur of the moment, and we thought, 'We'll become baseball fans,'" Felicia said.
"And we wanted some sun," added Franca.
Each was carrying a baseball nearly covered with autographs.
"Years ago we met some hockey players, and when you meet them you become interested [in the sport], so this is really good," Felicia said. "The players are really friendly. They come up to you, they don't mind taking pictures with you. We're becoming great fans now. The Blue Jays should do this more often."
Closing the gap between fans, players
Club president Paul Godfrey said the Blue Jays just might do it more often. He was delighted with the turnout and the feedback, and said team officials are discussing several ideas to make the team more interactive with the fans.
He called the promotion "a huge success" and expressed amazement that the team's cost-cutting roster moves have met with such approval from fans.
"I'm really impressed with the feedback that I've gotten today," Godfrey said. "The fans love the contact with the players. It really proves to me that the fans of Toronto want to have more interactivity with the players."
Economics have helped weaken the traditional bond between professional athletes and ordinary fans, Godfrey said.
"The gap has also been closed, to an extent, by an event like this," he said.
At that point, a fan walked up and extended his hand. "I want to shake your hand," he said to Godfrey, "and the next time I do it, in a year or two, I hope we'll have another championship."
Out of the cold
For Ricciardi, the occasion of the team's first home exhibition game was an old-fashioned thrill, enhanced by the fans' response at the barbeque.
"For them, it was just like it is for me -- the first day, the crack of the bat," he said. "There's nothing like it. It's a win for me. It was great to meet so many people from Toronto and to have a chance to thank them for their support.
"It was also nice to get them out of the cold."
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.
© 2003 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.