Stacey May Fowles on how small town Dunedin provides the appropriate setting for Blue Jays spring training.
Before outfielder Dalton Pompey took his first at bat at yesterday’s game against the Boston Red Sox, he chatted through the netting with the guy in the seat next to me about how they both went to the same Mississauga high school. That, my friends, is how small Florida Auto Exchange Stadium in Dunedin, FLA actually is. Yesterday’s game was the first sellout of the season for the Blue Jays’ southern home base, meaning just over 5,000 people bought a seat to check out Marcus Stroman’s Friday start. (For some idea of scale, that’s one tenth the size of of SkyDome.)
The Florida Auto Exchange Stadium may not be the most glamorous of the Grapefruit League’s offerings, but it certainly has its back-to-basics charms. “Delightful Dunedin” is the very definition of a sleepy small town, and is officially one of the tiniest Major League Baseball uses for training purposes. Down at Dunedin’s legendary Bauser’s dive bar—a short stroll from the park—you can get “free beer with parking.” (A sketchy promise on a hand-written sign that has come to define the whole vibe for me.) If the beer doesn’t entice you, you can take advantage of locals trying make a quick buck by getting you to park in their own driveways. Dunedin really seems to be fueled by the game, with the Jays logo appearing everywhere—on welcome signs, street banners, and on the t-shirt of the nice lady who serves you your breakfast.
The stadium’s diminutive scale means the distance between you and home plate shrinks considerably. This time I splurged on front row seats behind home plate—a whole $25—meaning I was close enough to finally notice Russell Martin’s ankle guard is emblazoned with his last name. Besides the giddy fun of being starstruck, being so near to players also has the benefit of revealing their humanity in a way a huge stadium never could. It reminds you that they’re really just (highly talented, incredibly skilled, really athletic) men. In fact, when one heckler behind me loudly suggested 25-year-old utility infielder Andy Burns wouldn’t make the team, I almost turned around and told him to keep it down, just in case Burns overheard.
At every Dunedin game, an adorable child is plucked from the stands to yell a ceremonial “play ball!” Watching Marcus Stroman run out to the mound from this vantage point is a rare thing of beauty, and at the risk of hyperbole, I feel like it’s a gift to even be able to witness his work at all. From that short distance you come to better understand the sheer power of his pitches, his unshakable focus, and the complexity of his relationship with his catcher. Generally starters only do a handful of innings at a time during spring training, but Friday Stroman stuck around longer than expected. There was a moment you could see he knew that he would be pulled shortly, and he started to give everything he had to close out his performance. When he eventually made his exit, he got a standing ovation from fans above the dugout.
Friday was the perfect baseball game to catch if you have a passion for the art of pitching. You got to spend a little time with Brett Cecil’s familiar face, see 22-year-old Roberto Osuna do his signature prayer on the mound, and check out Jays newbie Drew Stroren, the reliever we rescued from the Washington Nationals. (And whom I personally have pretty high hopes for.) But the absolute highlight was seeing “submariner” Ben Rowen pitch. The unconventional right-hander throws with an incredibly distinctive style that is a quirky joy to behold.
The day’s game really drove home how wonderfully diverse our pitching staff is presently, like a glorious island of misfit baseball toys: the resurrected 5’8” wunderkind whose height doesn’t measure heart, the ambidextrous anomaly with the two-thumbed glove, the survivor knuckleballer with the missing ligament, and now the submariner with the weird and wonderful upside-down release.
That former Mississauga highschooler beside me spent the day teaching his six-year-old son about the game, fielding his endless (adorable) questions with incredible patience. “What team did Drew Storen play on before?” “Which player has been an All-Star the most times?” “Will Marcus Stroman be an All-Star this year?” “What does stealing signs mean?” I finally laughed out loud when I realized dad had started making answers up, too tired to tell his curious kid he no longer had any idea what he was talking about.
The Red Sox ended up tying the game 1-1 at the top of the ninth inning, and the umpires made the call to go into extras. (A tie is not actually uncommon during spring training, with everyone opting to go home instead of slugging it out indefinitely.) Even the most devoted of baseball fans will have a hard time recognizing the name of every player who appears in the lineup towards the end—the superstars tend to have gone to the showers, while lesser-known hopefuls play on until the last out. You would think this might be a disappointment, but instead it’s a fun and wonderful reminder of how truly magical this game really is. On Bautista and Donaldson’s day off, when Martin is already in his car, I find myself more than happy to stay on and watch a walk-off from a stranger.
The last time I saw a Blue Jays walk-off game in person was when Josh Donaldson blasted a homer out of Rogers Stadium during the last home game of the 2015 regular season, and was promptly unburdened of his jersey and doused in Powerade as a result. This tenth inning walk-off—an RBI single from minor-leaguer Jon Berti—was decidely less dramatic, but at its core, no less satisfying. In the end, it’s the game we really love—whether it’s played out in a packed, delirious, electric SkyDome during the playoffs, or here in this tiny town that gives you a free beer just for parking your car. After a really high stakes 2015 season, Dunedin has a nice way of getting you right back to baseball basics.