DUNEDIN, Fla. -- He was six. His mother had let him and his two brothers stay up past a momentous midnight in Canada. Fuzzily he remembers that they sat in the kitchen waiting for their father to come home. "Something big had happened, but I did not really understand what it was," he said.
Nowadays he's 26. He lives in downtown Toronto, and he can earn and find his own food! If he wants, he can choose a tall, thick beer at the little bar beyond left field at Pittsburgh's spring-training stadium in Bradenton while the Blue Jays play the Pirates.
So that's one way to explain it. Those who were six and waiting for their pop to return from the SkyDome after Joe Carter hit that home run at 11:39 p.m. on Oct. 23, 1993, have become 26 and in functioning adulthood and on a first foray to spring training -- with Dad -- in what seems the Toronto Blue Jays' next major crescendo, a generation later.
Hello from Blue Jays winter on the Gulf Coast, from amid that strange phenomenon you might call Blue Jays buzz, from the off-season when the Blue Jays got people thinking about the Blue Jays after 19 turgid seasons you might label a whole lot of so-so -- never too horrible (.490, all told), seldom above third place (once), seldom finishing within single-digit games behind (once), never accessing the real October, just lukewarm enough that you could forget they existed.
The 12-player trade with Miami, the import of Jose Reyes and Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle, the trade to get R.A. Dickey, the splurge up north, and boom, it feels different from any other winter of late. "The feel, yeah, for sure," said Jeff Minicola, 53, the father who came home that night from the SkyDome.
"I immediately went and bought tickets," said Matt Minicola, the erstwhile 26-year-old. "All my friends immediately went and bought tickets. Friends trying to get tickets were angry because they waited a bit too long."
People of all nationalities, it seems, love winning so much that they also love the thought of winning, so the Blue Jays fans who stuck true all along, who knew well those Tuesday nights of crowds announced at 11,000, the nights they just knew those announcements seemed fudged, have found their way back to a moment -- one they might share with those who stopped caring.
"You see more people getting on board in the city," said Shawn Taplin, a 29-year-old baseball devotee from Mississauga, Ontario. "You see people who don't even like baseball for the most part, they're talking more about it, buying more tickets. A lot of people in Toronto have Yankees hats, Red Sox hats, but now you see more Jays hats, sweaters, toques . . .
"They're getting back into it. You're hearing it on all the sports radio stations, people saying they haven't bought tickets since this time and that, people who were really put off by the strike. Now they're saying they're getting back in. Since Rogers [the ownership company] spent the money, now they're going to spend the money, too, to go back."
Alongside Taplin, Kathryn Hill pointed out that the NHL Maple Leafs and NBA Raptors have added to the dearth and fueled the hunger, the hunger greeting a team that stands 0-0.
"It's exciting. Every day," said John Gibbons, the manager brought back for a second tenure after steering Toronto from 2004-08. "There's some energy in the air. A lot's expected out of us. There's more of you guys [reporters] here than we normally get. But you want to be in the focus. You want the spotlight to be on you because everybody expects a lot out of you. Hopefully we can deliver."
Jose Bautista, the slugging outfielder who wished to play for a contender, approaches his fifth full Toronto season fresh, ready for a pleasant surprise. Emilio Bonifacio, the second baseman among the five shipped from Miami, said, "First of all, it's exciting to be part of a good team that everybody is talking about." Buehrle, whose tenure with the White Sox helped people learn the proper order of the consonants in his name, pointed to a compelling American League East in which, he said, "There's no team that you can say, 'This team's going to be the bad team this year.'"
The concourse of the weathered-but-charming little Florida Auto Exchange Park on the corner of Douglas and Beltrees is ringed with banners unimaginable last spring, with big photos of Reyes, Dickey, Johnson, Buehrle. It's harder to get tickets, with some hopefuls turned away. "We actually have a lot of guests coming in from Canada, and they seem so excited about this year," said Cindy Phillips, owner of the Home Plate restaurant just across Douglas. Dunedin shares the anticipation, she said, and business has thrived, "and it's because of the Blue Jays' popularity."
The murmur reportedly carries even all the way down into the Caribbean. "Even in the Dominican Republic, everybody wore the hat, and everybody was talking about the Blue Jays," Bonifacio said of "winter" in his homeland. Dominican fans tend to have a varying carousel of favorite teams, he said, and as the Blue Jays' lineup might end up 55-percent Dominican on some nights given Bautista, Reyes, Edwin Encarnacion, Melky Cabrera and Bonifacio, the Blue Jays ought to be pretty much a regular series on Dominican TV.
Now all they must do is go win about three of every five.
In the great on-paper hall of fame, that can be dicey, but here they go. For now, they're a bit scattered, with Reyes and Encarnacion and Dickey and catcher J.P. Arencibia among those in the World Baseball Classic. And the five-man starting rotation grew so impenetrable with the help of the benevolent Marlins that being No. 6 could be a downer, so that J.A. Happ, the Rookie of the Year runner-up with Philadelphia in 2009, fields the question about starting out in AAA Buffalo: "I'm a major-league starting pitcher," he said last Sunday. "I guess I'll have to leave it at that for now. We'll have to let it play out."
Said Mark DeRosa, the 37-year-old multi-purpose veteran in from Washington, "We'll forge our own identity in here as we come together and get ready to head north. I think it's going to play out fine. I really do.
"I think the names on the backs of the jerseys say it should play out fine."
Buehrle called it "too early and we don't hang out and socialize," with most players among their families, but said, "Guys are coming together, we're having fun, laughing. We're having as much fun as we can." DeRosa: "We're getting to know each other."
And from that WBC, in a press conference, Dickey chimed in about Reyes: "I played with him in New York as a Met, and I can't think of a better teammate that I've ever had. He's that good. In the clubhouse he's always smiling, and it's not fake, it's not manufactured. That's just an overflow of who he is and it's fun. Not everybody is like that, and it's a commodity to have that on a team for sure."
So of all things in the life, here's a Blue Jays winter, courtesy of Rogers and general manager Alex Anthopoulos. Some fans remember the promise of 2007 (Vernon Wells, Lyle Overbay, Frank Thomas et al), and that wasn't horrible (83-79), but this feels better, sturdier, more evocative.
When Carter's three-run homer zoomed out and his helmet flew off around first base and the stadium found bedlam at 21 minutes to 12 on a Saturday night in 1993, fans started grabbing the red, white and blue World Series bunting. Jeff Minicola still has some of that bunting in a frame with an autographed photo of Carter. That frame nears 20 years old, only six years fewer than Minicola's son, whose fandom has remained sound enough that he attended two of the three games of the Blue Jays' closing series against Minnesota.
That ending dumped Toronto to 73-89, only one loss shy of only a second 90-loss season since 11:39 on 10/23/93, but Matt Minicola got to sit closer than ever to home plate. "Never saw it that close and it was amazing," he said, but not so amazing as November, when the Blue Jays started dealing, the fans started buying and the seats of the dome started bracing.