DUNEDIN — The best, and most important, thing you could say about the Blue Jays’ historic “home” opener in Dunedin was that it looked like a baseball game.
Granted, one played in a spring training/minor-league stadium. One where the visiting Angels got dressed in a large tent and both teams walked onto the field from the outfield corners. One where attendance was just 1,348 given distancing rules within the 8,500-seat capacity venue, with fans extremely close to the action.
But, really, it was just a game, the first for the Blue Jays at their temporary home in this little north Pinellas city of about 36,000 that is suddenly big league. The DUNEDIN dateline will appear in newspaper and website roundups around the country alongside NEW YORK, LOS ANGELES, CHICAGO and, well, ST. PETERSBURG.
And a pretty darn good game at that, with big hits and flashy catches, as the Angels won 7-5 in 11 innings as David Fletcher singled in the go-ahead runs. A massive Mike Trout home run to leftfield, which may be a Friday morning souvenir for a student at the adjacent elementary school, was an earlier highlight.
The relocation was made necessary due to pandemic restrictions that prevent the Jays from returning to Toronto to play for a second season. The Jays are planning to stay at least through May, maybe longer, as they await word on if they can go home or have to shift because of the summer heat and rain to another interim stop in Buffalo, N.Y., where they played last year.
For now, the Jays are determined to make the best of it and, for the most part, they seemed to. There was some post-game chatter about the small crowd, the lights, even after the addition of four trucks for extra wattage and higher positioning, and the impact of the setting sun.
“Of course it’s not a big-league ballpark,” Jays manager Charlie Montoyo said, “but they got it as close as you can make it and I think our guys did a great job.”
Angels manager Joe Maddon was quite complimentary of the makeshift clubhouse and the overall experience, saying it felt weird at the start, but the intensity of the game normalized the situation.
“There was enough folks there, they had that little white noise going on in the background that I think kind of fooled us — there was real humans there along with fake humans,” said Maddon, the former Rays boss.
“They’ve done a wonderful job. I haven’t been here in a while — the field is 100 percent better than what it had been. Both the grass and the dirt. The lights were really good I thought. ... And the ball wasn’t carrying, the wind actually was blowing in a bit. ... So it was a fair ballpark tonight. It was fair, well groomed. So I think the Blue Jays and (Major League Baseball) have to receive a lot of credit for that.”
The players were a little more reserved — “It’s a nice little stadium,” Fletcher said — but shared no major complaints.
“Obviously, some of the major-league stadiums are a little bit brighter, but I didn’t notice any crazy difference,” Angels pitcher Griffin Canning said.
The previous stadium changes — as part of the massive makeover for the 2020 spring season, which was cut short by the pandemic shutdown — also made for substantial improvement. The Jays went further in the last few weeks to get TD Ballpark ready for the big leagues.
“They were going out here until 4 in the morning,” said Dunedin city commissioner Maureen Freaney. “They said, ‘We’re surprised you didn’t hear us out working.’ ”
There were some definite north-of-the-border touches, with Labatt among the beers at the concession stand and outfield signs for Tim Hortons donuts, Honda cars (Canadian built. Canadian driven,) and the Active Green + Ross Complete Tire & Auto Centre.
Pre-game messages on the video board included instructions to wear masks, respect distancing rules and wash hands thoroughly, suggesting doing so while singing the Okay, Blue Jays song.
Most fans were in Blue Jays gear — with a steady line at the stadium gift shop — though there were small groups of Angels fans and a few wearing Rays hats. There also were fan cutouts in some seats.
Another concern is the potential for a lot of homers to be hit given the short fences, marked at both 328 feet and 100 meters down the lines and 400/121.9 to center, though both managers said the wind may be the determining factor. Three were hit Thursday, with several balls caught on the warning track.
Overall, a good start.
“Now that the season is here and we know we have to start here, it is what it is and we’re not going to pout about it,” Jays starter Ross Stripling said. “We’re going to go out and play baseball and whether it’s 20 home games here or 60, I don’t know. It is what it is and we have to use it to our advantage.
“There’s no way the Angels rolled up to the stadium today and were like, ‘This is a big-league game?’ They were probably like ‘What the heck is this?’ So we have to use that our advantage and win as many games as we can here and hopefully move to Toronto by summertime.”
• • •
Sign up for the Rays Report weekly newsletter to get fresh perspectives on the Tampa Bay Rays and the rest of the majors from sports columnist John Romano.