Canadians invaded South Florida on my eighth and final day of this Grapefruit League tour.
Our neighbors to the north came out victorious.
I doubled dipped again Friday, starting the day in Kissimmee watching the host Houston Astros beat the Washington Nationals 5-1 at Osceola County Stadium before traveling back south to Port Charlotte, where the Toronto Blue Jays rallied to beat the host Tampa Bay Rays, 7-5.
The Blue Jays play north of Tampa in Dunedin, but I was pleased to see a couple Ontario license plates upon my late arrival to Charlotte Sports Park. (Hey, Florida, it’s spring break. Save construction for winter and summer.)
As I made my way up 20 rows between home plate and third base in the bottom of the first, Rays infielder Jeff Keppinger knocked in a run with a single.
As soon as I get comfortable in a seat with the shortest leg room of any stadium I’ve ever been to, Toronto third baseman Edwin Encarnacion blasts a shot over the center field fence for a home run.
All of a sudden, I’m engulfed in a sea of Blue Jays fans, many wearing the patriotic maple leaf on some sorts of golf shirts and what not. They are hootin’, hollerin’ and high-fivin’ each other as Encarnacion plates the tying run. A run that made it 1-1 in the top of the second of an exhibition game that would eventually be finished by minor league ball players.
Because Tampa is less than a two-hour drive from Port Charlotte, I had to turn to the clapping fella to my left and ask why there were so many Canucks in attendance. He said Florida is a hot spot for Canadian vacationers and retirees who, like my fellow Michiganders, flock to Sunshine State for the winter.
I don’t know if it was because it a was night game, a matchup of American League East Division rivals or all the vocal cheers from both sides but my final game down here had the taste of a late, regular-season contest.
Toronto’s faithful keep a steady “Let’s go Blue Jays” chant going, but an older Rays fan in the second row would turn around and taunt them in good fun.
If a Toronto player watched the third strike go by, the Rays fan would stand up, turn around and pantomime a bat on his shoulder with a “Duh” dumb look on his face. The Canadians just chuckled.
It was good banter back and forth as the Rays built a 4-1 lead and a 5-3 lead heading into the top of the ninth inning. Early in the ninth, a foul ball bounced high and eventually made its way to the animated Rays fan. The Blue Jays fans cheered loudly for the guy.
As the Blue Jays had no runners on base and two out in the ninth, I had already made my way to the standing room area down the first-base line. But with several minor league players on the field, Toronto rallied for four runs and didn’t allow a run in the bottom of the ninth for the win.
A lot of Rays fans left the park scratching their heads, surely thinking “Oh … Canada.”
Idle thoughts (from Kissimmee)
- I prefer the Astros spring training home in Kissimmee to their neighbors down the road — the Atlanta Braves. The Braves play their games near Disney World, loaded with youngsters and high school athletes at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex. It’s easily the most commercialized spring training site in Florida and likely would claim that title at the Cactus League. Houston plays at modest Osceola County Stadium, the smallest venue in the Grapefruit League at 5,300 seats. Old school enough that the ticket-taker actually rips the stub off the ticket instead of that fancy laser the other parks use.
- While this game was overshadowed by my Jays-Rays experience, it was exciting. Houston pitchers Bud Norris and Lucas Harrell each pitched three innings of hitless ball and Chris Johnson hit his third homer of the spring. Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth broke up the collective no-hit bid with a slow roller up the middle.
- I sat in the fourth row behind home plate — the spot where all the MLB scouts reside. The advantage of sitting by them is you get access to their radar and how fast the pitchers are throwing.
- There are not many shady spots at Osceola County Stadium and the ushers won’t let you mill around in tunnel entrances. I started to get very lethargic under that sun until I got up and drank an ice cold Arnold Palmer mix of lemonade and ice tea.
- I had a few friendly Nationals fans behind me. One guy was pretty funny with his rhymes. He used “C’mon Nats, swing those bats.” And when Ryan Zimmerman batted, he yells “C’mon Ryan, don’t leave us cryin’.”
- All those clouds in the sky and not one of them can find their way to cut off the sun.
- Sweat, sunblock and eyeballs are not a good mix.
- They still play the Macarena at stadiums. And a smattering of people still remember the dance. In fact, they’ve even passed this magic on to the next generation as I witnessed an elementary-aged kid pull it off.
- I’ve seen a few fans come to games with long-range camera lenses. The few that I’ve talked with aren’t working for anyone. They enjoy photography and they are taking advantage of these up-close seats to snap pictures of their favorite players. The guy next to me definitely has a memory card full of Jayson Werth.
Idle thoughts (From Port Charlotte)
- I finally found shaded seats for a game here at Charlotte Sports Park. Unfortunately, it’s a night game.
- Canadians wear a lot of cologne and perfume. I sneezed a few times from all the different scents up there. I’m not complaining though. It probably covered up my smell after a long, hot day of baseball and commuting.
- Had a woman sitting in my seat when I arrived and she was sitting next to her husband. Needing just one seat, I sat behind them and didn’t say anything. I’ll never understand why people get all huffy-puffy when they find someone in their seat. If anything, they got the seat warm for you.
- I sure am glad I didn’t pick today to wear my “Canadians are Eh’holes” t-shirt.
- I wonder how good Carlos Pena and Matt Joyce would be if they were still Tigers.
- Apparently water costs $1.25 more in Port Charlotte than in Kissimmee. I guess 150 miles is a pretty long distance.
- The Rays have the biggest bat boy I’ve ever seen. I’m not one to talk about weight, but this kid has to be 6-foot-2 and 275 pounds. He’s living the dream for us big guys.
- Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” is played over the loudspeakers in the fourth inning. That’s right, we got “Rick Roll’d.”
- Canadians in my row can’t sit still. Every half inning — sometimes before the inning is over — one of them is heading for the restroom or to get some food. I think the guy sitting at the other end of the aisle keeps coming my way.
- I heard an elder, Canadian guy tell a woman after being asked how he was doing: “I’m terribly lovely.” These guys are kooky.
- Another thing about Canadians is they sing. This was the loudest rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” I’ve heard this week.
It’s been a great week of baseball for me. Thanks for following along. I’ll send a wrap-up story, complete with statistics, about the trip when I have a chance.