BUFFALO—Games in which the Blue Jays have had a crowd cheering for them have been few and far between over the past 22 months, and that fact was driven home in the last game they will play at Sahlen Field before resuming their home schedule at Toronto’s Rogers Centre.
A heavily pro-Boston crowd cheered on the Red Sox throughout the Jays’ Buffalo finale — a 7-4 Boston win — serving as a reminder of what the home team has been missing and what they’re going to finally be getting when they come home on July 30.
The nomadic Blue Jays played 26 home games in Buffalo last season, with no fans present, and another 23 this year after playing their first 21 home games in Dunedin, Fla.
They have been able to break through the Yankees and Red Sox fandom of many baseball-loving Buffalonians but, when those two perennial American League East powerhouses weren’t in town, the Blue Jays did make a lot of people want to “Shout.”
In fact, they played the Isley Brothers’ famous song, which has become a rallying cry for the NFL’s Bills, in the middle of the fifth inning Wednesday night to get the crowd up and jumping. They were already in a good mood, since the Red Sox were leading 4-1 at the time.
Even though the Jays weren’t able to turn many (if any) of the Yankees and Red Sox fans in Buffalo, they did get through to plenty of others, as could be seen by the number of Guerrero Jr., Bichette and even Donaldson jerseys strewn about the park.
“A lot of young fans have become Jays fans now,” said Mike Harrington, sports columnist for The Buffalo News and a born-and-bred Buffalonian. “The kids have really gravitated to the team, and are saying, ‘I want to go to a game in Toronto,’ and that’s awesome.”
Jays president Mark Shapiro has noticed that, too.
“I think we’ve kind of nurtured a little bit of a fan base,” said Shapiro, prior to the Buffalo finale. “It’ll be interesting to see over the years, but when I walk around town and come to the games you see a lot more young Blue Jay fans. Hopefully those folks make the trip up to see us.”
For Harrington, and those around these parts who remember the tease of Major League Baseball expansion in the early 1990s, having the Jays come to town for a year wasn’t exactly the realization of a dream, but it was close.
“It’s weird,” Harrington said. “We have an NFL team and an NHL team, but I think for people who are a little older it makes you feel like we got there, when we didn’t get there in the ’90s.”
Buffalo, with its brand-spanking new Pilot Field (now Sahlen Field) drawing over a million fans per season, lost out to Miami and Colorado when MLB added two teams in 1993, and having the Jays here has finally allowed the fans a chance to see big-leaguers in their backyard, if only for a couple of months.
Along with giving baseball fans in the Queen City a big-league experience, the Jays are leaving this place in much better shape than they found it.
“Buffalo at one point, when I was farm director with (Cleveland), was a very good Triple-A facility, but really not much had been done to the bones underneath,” Shapiro said. “We’ve gotten new cages, we’ve moved the bullpens off the field into state-of-the-art bullpens, we’ve got a clubhouse now that’s a major-league quality clubhouse and so, I think, an environment much more conducive to our highest level of player development that’s only an hour and a half down the road from Toronto.”
During the final game in their second (or third, depending on where Dunedin fits into the mix) home, the Jays played tributes to Buffalo fans from their players on the video board between innings and the entire team emerged from the dugout after the top of the third to tip their caps and salute the 14,607 in attendance. It was a little ironic that they were saying thank you to a bunch of Red Sox fans, but it’s the thought that counts.
For the entirety of the final homestand, spanning five games against Texas and Boston over six days, the tops of both dugouts were painted with “Thank You Buffalo.”
And now the long journey has ended.
On July 30, 15,000 fans will sound like 50,000 in welcoming the Jays back to Rogers Centre for their first regular-season game in almost two full calendar years, the beginning of an 11-game homestand. Players like Hyun-Jin Ryu, Marcus Semien, George Springer and Robbie Ray will get to experience their first game in Toronto as Jays.
Most importantly, Toronto will get its team back.
It hasn’t been easy for the players to not have a real home — remember, they didn’t know where they would be playing their home games last season until after they had left on their first road trip of the year — but it’s been tough on Jays fans in Toronto, too.
A playoff run in 2020, as brief as it was, was nothing like the pennant races in 2015 and 2016, when the city was abuzz and the energy of the team’s success could be felt all through the GTA. A Blue Jays game was an event in the city, and it finally will be again.
With the stadium full of fans who will actually be root, root, rooting for the home team — a welcome change.
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