Families spring to Dunedin to bond over Blue Jays

Two Blue Jays fans holding hands

DUNEDIN, Fla. – For some, baseball is just a game, but for others it capsulizes decades of family tradition.

Two seasoned Blue Jays fans were having a bite to eat at Marguerite’s, a fan hotspot outside the Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, before the team hosted the Atlanta Braves.

[aesop_image imgwidth=”220px” img=”http://specialreports.torontoobserver.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/ForStory1-4419.jpg” credit=”Andrew Bottomley/Toronto Observer” align=”left” lightbox=”on” caption=”Jenny McKague listens on as her husband, John (not pictured) talks about how they overcame grief and created a positive 25-year-old tradition through Toronto Blue Jays’ spring training. ” captionposition=”left”]

John McKague reminisced about his ongoing tradition at Blue Jays spring training with his wife, Jenny.

“It was a sad story,” he said. “My wife’s father died and my brother died about two weeks later. We said, ‘I need a holiday, let’s get the hell out of here.’ We came down here, and we have come down here ever since.

That was 25 years ago.

Over that time, the McKague’s have rented the same condo in Miami Beach every year to catch the Blue Jays play their spring training games in preparation for the season.

After spring training, they head back up north to Toronto to cheer on the Jays in the regular season.

“We split seasons tickets with three other guys,” he said. “Twenty-one games each.”

For the most part, the McKague’s experience at spring training has been extremely wonderful, with the exception of one strange year.

“Eighteen years ago, maybe even longer, we got down and the red tide was here,” he said. “All the fish died, and they just stunk, absolutely stunk.”

McKague noticed a difference at this year’s spring training after the Blue Jays heroic playoff run.

Recently, at a team party for season ticket holders, he got the autographs of Kevin Pillar, Marco Estrada, and Blue Jay legend, Tom Henke. McKague was surprised that those big-name players were there, because in the past, it was usually the lesser known guys and the rookies who traditionally show up.

Usually all you see is rookies and a lot of the big guys don’t waste their time signing autographs.

A large smile spread across his face when the talk turned to last October. The Jays erased 22 years of playoff misery by winning the American League East title, then defeated the Texas Rangers in the American League Champion Series. It was a two-month run that captivated the McKague’s and Jays fans across Canada.

“It was out of this world,” he said. “Out of this world.”

A unique view

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Economic boom

Spring training feels familiar for businesses in Dunedin.

Marguerite’s Café and Catering, owned by Marguerite Allison, is a spring training staple in this small town near Tampa, especially for Toronto Blue Jays’ fans.

Allison sees the same customers come through her café year in and year out while they attend spring training and relishes getting to talk to and interact with all of them.

Being involved in spring training has made Allison a Blue Jays fan, she sits on the advisory board for the Florida Auto Exchange Stadium because the Jays lease is ending and the café owner wants the team to stay in Dunedin.

“The fans have been great and they’re good to me. No negative experiences only issues with parking.” said the board member “Getting to see the faces that I only get to see once a year, it’s like meeting up with your family again.”

According to the Globe and Mail, the economic impact on Dunedin from spring- training baseball and related tourism is estimated to be $50 million US each year.

The Jays, who have called Dunedin home since 1977, need to renew their lease or find a new spring training facility, but businesses are hoping they stay where they are.

Roots run deep

Blue Jays fans Rob and Carrie Witiuk came to spring training with a lot more in mind than just baseball.

Tuesday marked the one-year anniversary of the death of Carrie Witiuk’s father, Ralph Hunt, one of the biggest fans Rob and his wife knew. In Hunt’s honour they made the trek from North Bay, Ont., to Dunedin to fulfill a dream he always had.

Even though they live three hours north of Toronto, Rob and Carrie always tried to get out to a few games a season.

Only they were able to live the dream of travelling to Dunedin, but the time Rob spent with his father-in-law back home at the Rogers Centre was special for him.

“We’ve seen a few games – we’ve seen the Yankees, and two years ago when we took my father-in-law … we took him to see the Orioles play and we were seven rows up and it was kind of emotional,” Witiuk said.

“(Blue Jays spring training) is one of the things we wanted to do on our bucket list, but this is one of our tributes to (my father).” Carrie Witiuk said.

The couple’s fandom goes all the way back to the beginnings of the Blue Jays in 1977, but the current team reminds them a lot of the World Series-winning clubs of 1992 and 1993, which still stand out very clearly for Rob Witiuk.

“We were in the emergency room with my daughter when (Joe) Carter hit the home run. She had an ear infection and we’re sitting there and it was like, ‘Wow, we just won the World Series!’”

After last season’s success, the Witiuks hope it won’t be long until they see the likes of Josh Donaldson and Russell Martin celebrating a World Series victory, but that dream is secondary to what they were able to accomplish for Hunt on Monday.

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A break from real life

This is more than just a family vacation.

Paul and Cristal Hand’s youngest child, Colton, was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes just three weeks before leaving for Dunedin.

[aesop_image imgwidth=”220px” img=”http://specialreports.torontoobserver.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/03/DiabetesFamily-1200.jpg” credit=”Brendan Ferreira/Toronto Observer” align=”left” lightbox=”on” caption=”Clockwise: Cristal Hand joined by her husband, Paul, and sons, Carter and Colton, stand outside the Florida Auto Exchange Stadium in Dunedin. This trip could not have come at a better time after Colton was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes three weeks ago. ” captionposition=”left”]

The Hand family of four have always wanted to make their way down to the Blue Jays spring training. This trip couldn’t have come at a better time.

“This definitely means a lot more to us,” said Paul Hand on Monday outside Florida Auto Exchange Stadium. “We have been dealing with all that (diabetes) so much lately so it’s nice to sort of get away and have a nice family vacation. We really needed that right now.”

For the Hamilton, Ont., residents this is something that they’ve wanted to do their whole life. They consider it as being on their bucket list.

“This is real baseball,” Hand said. “This is how I remember the game. A lot of the reviews of the stadium said that it’s old-school, real baseball.”

The Hand children have not gotten a chance to visit the Rogers Centre to see the Blue Jays as they both play little league baseball in Hamilton. Hand said they were able to see the Buffalo Bisons, the Blue Jays triple-A affiliate. However, the kids are looking forward to seeing some of their favourite Blue Jays in Florida.

“I want to see Edwin (Encarnacion)” said Carter, the Hand’s eldest son. His father was looking forward to seeing R. A. Dickey pitch a couple of innings while young Colton was just excited to see any of them.

In the end, the one thing that means the most to Paul and Cristal Hand is sharing their Blue Jays’ spring training experience with their children.

“I’m glad the kids get to experience the nostalgia of baseball,” Paul Hand said. “It’s sort of a big thing for us.”

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Posted: Mar 10 2016 2:10 pm
Edition: Toronto
Filed under: Special Reports 2016 Spring Training Baseball Sports