Blue Jays pitcher R.A. Dickey signs autographs for fans at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium in Dunedin the morning of Feb. 22.
DUNEDIN – Fans who came to Florida Auto Exchange Stadium Feb. 21 to get autographs from the Toronto Blue Jays recently acquired ace pitcher were on the verge of striking out.
A team official said it didn’t appear that last year’s National League Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey would be available that afternoon.
Seconds later, a young fan spotted Dickey as he pulled his van in front of the stadium, and they ran to get his attention. Among them were Adam and Kyle Harnig, the twin sons of Brad Harnig, who were on vacation from Long Island. The family came from Sarasota that afternoon to get baseballs signed. The wait was about three hours.
“We were here to get autographs. We love Major League Baseball. We are actually Yankee fans, but we are R.A. Dickey fans because he’s a class act,” Brad Harnig said.
David Grass arrived at the stadium at about 8 a.m. and earlier that day got autographs from second baseman Mike McCoy, catcher Henry Blanco and other players before getting Dickey’s that afternoon.
This is the third year that Grass has been coming to the area from Edmonton, Ontario. His parents live in Largo, said Grass, who grew up in Toronto and has been a Jays fan since he was a kid.
Acquisitions such as Dickey, from the New York Mets; last year’s NL All-Star game MPV Melky Cabrera, from the San Francisco Giants; and speedy shortstop Jose Reyes, from the Miami Marlins; were like an early Christmas present for Grass.
“As long as they stay healthy, we should compete,” he said.
Nearby, Joe LeCren, who is in the area for four months out of the year, said he usually sees about half dozen Blue Jays spring training games in Dunedin. He expressed cautious optimism about the Jay’s hopes of clinching the American League’s East Division.
“Promising,” he said. “You always have hope but you never know what to expect.”
Indeed, the Jays are considered a serious contender under new Manager John Gibbons with new faces such as Cabrera, who had solid numbers before being suspended for a positive testosterone test in August while with the Giants.
Veteran starting pitchers Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrie and infielder-outfielder Emilio Bonifacio, all from the Miami Marlins, are creating a buzz.
All-Star right-fielder Jose Bautista’s recovery from a left wrist injury went well, reports said, and his condition is being monitored through spring training.
Dunedin Mayor Dave Eggers, a lifelong baseball fan who was involved in umpiring and coaching in youth baseball organizations for many years, said in a telephone interview Feb. 20 the Jay’s off-season moves “have been incredible.”
“They play in a very tough division,” he said. “They should be extremely competitive. They could probably jump over a couple of teams with the depth of their pitching now and the quality of position players they obtained in the off-season. They had a pretty talented team before, but it was young and developing.”
Eggers believes the team will have plenty of leadership.
“These guys are all veterans and you are bringing them all together,” he said. “I think it could be awesome,” Eggers said.
Eggers tries to make it to Jays’ games in town, but his business and community involvement as mayor keep him busy.
“Some years I’ve been to half a dozen games. Some years for one or two. I try to get to half a dozen games. Not as often as I should. It’s tough because of all the games during the day,” Eggers said.
When the Blue Jays begin training in Dunedin “there is heightened excitement” in the community, he said. The Jays have been playing in Dunedin since 1977.
“That’s almost 36 years. If you think the city was founded officially in 1899 that’s’ a big percentage the time the city has been in existence the Blue Jays have been here,” Eggers said.
For Brad Harnig the jaunt to Dunedin was well worth the time spent because of Dickey autographing his sons’ baseballs.
“He made our trip to do that,” Harnig said. “I appreciate the fact that a guy like him is somebody who truly is what makes these kids excited about baseball – somebody who takes the time out for the kids.”
The Jays will open their 2013 spring season against the Baltimore Orioles at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, 373 Douglas Ave., on Sunday, Feb. 24.