All is well; baseball is back

There are opening nights and then there are opening nights.

Opening night at the opera, for example, is a formal, sort of happy but stifled affair with devotees dressed in tuxedos and gowns and aficionados who may even speak the Italian in Verdi or Puccini’s tragedies and stunning orchestrations.

But opening night at the Dunedin Blue Jays game April 11 was a raucous and joyous occasion that marked the end of a long winter without the National Pastime and the beginning of a new season of Blue Jays baseball.

Unlike opera, though, baseball games are shorter than Aida, thanks to pitch clocks and other new rules designed to make the games less like a marathon and more like a sprint. The only sopranos and tenors at the game were shouting encouragement for the home team and invective at umpires’ calls against the Blue Jays.

Attendance for the game was 1,231, but it could have been 10,000 cheering a Blue Jays 5-2 victory over the Tampa Tarpons. Win or lose, for the T-shirt-and-shorts-clad, highly vocal assemblage it was a release, a feeling of relief that the previously empty TD Ballpark would be filled with friends, fellow season ticket holders and, well, baseball.

Brenda Gelber, of Dunedin, wearing a T-shirt that said, “Sorry. Can’t. Blue Jays. Baseball. Bye” said opening night was not only a chance to watch her beloved Blue Jays but also a time to see her fellow baseball nuts and season ticket holders.

“I love to see our friends, and I love the Blue Jays,” said the Alabama native. “And we love to get to know the players.”

Gelber, who attended the game with her husband, Scott, said the only thing that compares with a Blue Jays game is watching the sun set at the Dunedin Causeway.

Meanwhile on the field, Tarpons players seemed caught off guard by the fact that they would all be introduced before the game started. After a brief delay, Tampa manager Rachel Balkovec slowly strode onto the field as her seemingly confused players dribbled in behind her to be recognized if not cheered. One imagines the Tarpons had to quickly slip into their uniforms as they heard their names called.

Incidentally, Balkovec is the first woman to be named manager of a major league affiliated team, and her presence was a signal that hide-bound baseball is finally trudging into the 21st Century. 

The assembled multitude reacted indifferently to the Tarpons’ introductions, but when the “2022 Western Division Champion Blue Jays” were announced, the happy group went ape. After a long and dreary season of being stuck with watching football, basketball and hockey, the Blue Jays were playing at TD Ballpark again, and there was euphoria all around.

There was time between innings to make a few observations about the ballpark. The outfield walls were decked out with advertisers, including the nearby Bauser’s bar, the city of Dunedin, Mease Dunedin , Pizza Nova and Clear Sky Draught Haus. All of them were a reminder of advertising’s pervasiveness but they also fit in with the tradition of usually under-funded minor league teams finding ways to generate revenue.

The announcer reminded fans that Thursdays are $1 beer nights, Fridays feature buy one-get one margaritas, Saturdays are family night when kids get to run the bases — presumably not during the game — and Sundays feature $2 mimosas and $2 seltzers.

Thusly enlightened, fans carried on as the Blue Jays took a lead they would not relinquish.

As the game moved toward its denouement, an osprey who has taken up residence in one of the left-field light towers circled the field and screeched like some kind of avian gate crasher.

The bird just added to the festivities.

Even the osprey was happy.

Baseball was back.