Canadians flock to Florida to get up close with Blue Jays at spring training

Katrina Clarke | March 12, 2015 | Toronto Star

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Oscar Wood, 8, with Jose Bautista.

For many Canadian families, spring break in Florida means Disney World and sandy beaches.

But for the Woods — it’s all about spring training.

Each March, thousands of Canadian families, snowbirds and avid Blue Jays fans make the migration to Dunedin, Fla., for the Jays’ pre-season activities. It’s their first opportunity of the year to see the team in action and a rare chance to get up close and personal with the top stars.

“We wanted to effectively take what we do on our weekend fun time in the season and go and take it on holiday with us,” said Benn Wood, dad to three Jay-loving kids.

He admits he did the “bad parent thing” by plucking his kids out of school in the Barrie area to fly down to Florida, but the opportunity to see their favourite team in action in the sun was irresistible.

They regularly attend Jays games at the Rogers Centre — where they occasionally feature on the Jumbotron or meet a player — but in Dunedin, chance encounters with the greats are more likely, Wood said.

“It’s a lot more laid back. You can get that much closer,” he said, adding that in Toronto, there’s a “human stampede” anytime Jose Bautista gets close to fans.

At Tuesday’s game against the Minnesota Twins, Wood’s 8-year-old son, Oscar — sporting his signature faux Bautista beard — got a picture with the slugger himself. All three of his kids also got to announce part of the game, shouting “play ball” into a microphone, and they even high-fived the players in the dugout.

“After that game, we could have easily flown back home from Florida and the whole trip would’ve been worth it,” said Wood.

The family only recently became Blue Jay fans after moving from England — where Wood grew up “romanticizing” baseball, watching movies like “Sandlot” and “Field of Dreams” — to Canada on a whim in 2009.

This is the first time they’ve been to spring training, but they plan on making it an annual March break tradition.

The annual commitment from die-hard Jays fans is a win-win for the town of Dunedin, which gets a “huge” boost in tourism from Canadians during spring training, city officials said.

“This is the height of our tourism time,” said Lynn Wargo, president of the Dunedin Chamber of Commerce, adding that all hotels are regularly booked up in March.

The city doesn’t keep statistics on the number of Canadians visitors, but the 5,500-seater Florida Auto Exchange Stadium is at least half-filled with Canadians during each Jays game, Wargo added.

As a Dunedin tourism highlight, spring training is at the “top of the list,” she said.

“It’s this little pocket of Toronto and Canadiana in Florida,” said Jim Irwin, who will be making his third trek from Aurora to Dunedin next week.

Signs into the city read, “Welcome to Dunedin, Spring Training Home of the Toronto Blue Jays,” and cars with Ontario licence plates pack the streets, he said.

Irwin said the player-fan vibe is different in Dunedin, too.

It’s a place where the best baseball players will stop their cars in stadium parking lots to sign autographs, he said.

Other Canadians are excited about initiating their kids into the inner world of the Blue Jays for the first time.

Calgary’s Steve Van Die will be cradling his 6-month-old son in his arms while he watches the Jays play next week. He doesn’t think his family will make the spring training trek each year due to the long travel time from Alberta, but he’d like to take his son down at least once every three years.

For Denis McGrath, a Torontonian and Jays season-ticket holder, the appeal is the cheaper tickets — he pays just $32 for his top-notch seats — and being the first to see up-and-coming players in action.

“You’re watching a game that might determine whether they make the team,” he said. “You could be seeing the next Jose Bautista.”

He doesn’t have kids but likes the family atmosphere at the games, different from vibe generated by tipsy 20-somethings who tend to pack the Rogers Centre in the summer.

People regularly chant, “Give it to the kid!” when a ball flies into the stands, he said.

“It makes it kind of special. It’s a much richer experience,” he said.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Steve Van Die’s name.

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About Katrina Clarke

Katrina Clarke is a Toronto- and Vancouver-based freelance reporter. Her work appears in the National Post, the Toronto Star, CBC Life and J-Source. Reach her at katrina.clarke24@gmail.com or on Twitter at @KatrinaAClarke.
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