'An awesome day': Toronto's homecoming W

July 31st, 2021

TORONTO -- Pick your moment to remember.

The Blue Jays took the field on Friday night at Rogers Centre for the first time in 670 days like an NFL team storming out of a tunnel, smoke shooting into the air behind them as the home crowd roared. From an opening in the center-field wall, they ran as a team towards the infield, their path lined on each side by a hundred healthcare workers waving Blue Jays flags.

Then there was the ceremony, with the biggest Canadian flag you’ll ever see stretched from one corner to the other across the outfield. A welcome home video was played, then a tribute to the fans, and “O Canada” rang out for the first time since Sept. 29, 2019, back when we left the house without masks. Manager Charlie Montoyo called it “my best day in baseball.”

“I kind of looked down every once in a while, because otherwise you would have seen tears. I was holding tears,” Montoyo said. “That’s how much I care about Toronto and this nation, about winning and coming back after 670 days. It was just an awesome day and a great win. I’m never going to forget it.”

The players, arched along the infield and looking back at the video board in center, were doing the same. So many of them were there for the very first time. Others, like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, were finally back home after getting a fleeting taste of Toronto two years ago, and the moment hit them in the heart.

“I was looking at Vladdy, looking at Teo,” Bichette said. “Everybody was looking at each other like, ‘Man, I’ve got the chills.’ I’m holding back tears. It’s hard to explain the feeling. We’ve been trying to pretend like we had a home. It’s difficult to do for two years.”

Then there was a ballgame, a 6-4 win over the Royals. There was Teoscar Hernández, launching a 441-foot home run off the facing of the third deck in left field, flipping his wrist to spin his bat to the ground, matching the moment. In Dunedin, Fla., that ball would have sailed off the stadium property and into a vacant elementary school yard. In Buffalo, N.Y., it would have cleared the netting and bounced onto a highway, maybe rolling into a ditch. Back in Toronto, it ricocheted back down to the fans, all of them wearing Blue Jays jerseys this time.

You’ll remember Bichette, too, sliding home to score the Blue Jays’ third run of the game. Seconds after stealing second and then racing home on a Lourdes Gurriel Jr. single, Bichette slid headfirst, his helmet popping off to show his hair spilling over his head through a cloud of dust and chalk. By the time he stopped the slide, his hands were almost touching the turf on the other side of the dirt cutout.

Bichette’s next time up, with the lead cut to two runs, he scorched a two-run shot over the wall in right-center, offering a sellout crowd of 13,446 the chance to erupt and exhale. He rounded third, crossed home and wrapped his arms around Gurriel, lifting him off the ground.

It’s only fitting that the only Canadian on the roster, Jordan Romano, shut things down in the ninth. Romano recorded the second out of the inning when he covered first base on a grounder to Guerrero, receiving the throw in a full, Air Jordan-style leap before lunging to the bag. That was immediately upstaged by one of the plays of the season, though, when third baseman Santiago Espinal made an over-the-shoulder, barehanded catch on a flare into shallow left field to end the game.

It was a perfect display of a young team that can be the hottest ticket in town, and one of the Majors' most exciting teams, when everything is clicking.

“That was such a cool experience,” said starter Ross Stripling, who held the Royals to two runs over 5 1/3 innings. “I was pretty nervous going into it because I was starting to get an idea of what it meant and what it would feel like. I’m just so glad that the opportunity fell on me and it was my turn in the rotation. That will be something that I talk about forever.”

It’s as good a day as the Blue Jays have had in years. On top of the homecoming win, the Blue Jays swung a major trade earlier in the day to acquire star right-hander José Berríos from the Twins, injecting some life into their postseason chances in 2021 and beyond. There’s still a mountain to climb in the AL East and a steep hill to climb in the AL Wild Card, but Friday was the finest first step the Blue Jays could have hoped for if we use their return to Canada as the season’s final dividing line.

A decade from now, this one will show in the game logs as a win over an uncompetitive Royals team in late July, something that’s rarely worth a second thought. Everything that led up to the moment is what gave it some magic, though, and the Blue Jays hope it’s the beginning of something, not just the end of a long, homesick chapter.