Lauren Ash grew up in a baseball household in Belleville, Ontario, a two-hour drive from Toronto. When the Blue Jays won their first World Series in 1992, a 9-year-old Ash became a lifelong fan. She moved to town when she was 18 and sitting at the 500 level at SkyDome with friends became a ritual. Get the chance Throw out the ceremonial first place One game in 2014 was a career highlight.
“It was like winning an Oscar to my family,” Ash said with a laugh. “When I called my mother to tell her, she said, ‘This is it. That’s what you worked for. ‘”
Ash filmed the first season of their NBC comedy Superstore in 2015 when the Blue Jays returned to the postseason for the first time in 22 years. She hid her phone on set and listened to the MLB app to check for updates during the fifth game of an American League division series against the Texas Rangers. Finally, she rushed to her co-star Ben Feldman’s trailer in time to watch it Jose Bautista’s infamous bat-flip home run happen live.
SkyDome, renamed Rogers Center in 2015, hasn’t hosted a regular season game since 2019. The Jays have been baseball vagabonds since then, playing at their Class AAA member’s stadium last season before kicking off their tiny spring training facility in Florida this year.
But cozy stadiums, capacity restrictions and the closed border between the USA and Canada could not prevent Blue Jays fans like Ash – at least in two-dimensional form – from supporting the team.
Like many clubs, Toronto introduced a fan cutout program. For 60 Canadian dollars or about 45 US dollars, fans could submit a photo of themselves to be included in the stands as a photo. Part of every purchase goes to a charitable foundation owned by Blue Jays.
Some of these corrugated plastic cutouts cheered the team during the 2020 season at Buffalo’s Sahlen Field and others spent the first two months of that season in the stands at TD Ballpark in Dunedin, Florida 8,500 seat stadium in Dunedin however, it will end with the game against the Tampa Bay Rays on Monday.
The snippets, some depicting famous Canadians but most of whom are everyday fans, will find their way north as a team resumes its schedule for 2021 in Buffalo. It is not yet known if the team will be allowed to return to Canada this season.
Due to travel restrictions and the small capacity of the team’s temporary stadiums, the clippings have to be available for many fans of the team for the time being.
Ash signed up for one straight away. She went so far as to ask her boyfriend to explore places in her Los Angeles home to find good lighting for a photo shoot.
“Symbolically, I had the feeling that I had to be present in the stadium,” she said.
The cutout program offered some opportunities for fans that would otherwise have been left out.
Christina Dodge, the Jays’ treasurer, was reviewing recently cropped photos when lockdown fatigue emerged. She was starting to miss the long days in the stadium thinking about her nieces and nephews.
“I’ve found so many other kids her age have probably tried to understand what’s going on in the world right now,” she said.
Dodge raised funds to donate 14 clippings to organizations that help remove gaps in opportunity and social barriers for children.
The team’s cutout program also offered fans like Dave Capstick, who was born in Etobicoke, Ontario and currently lives in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, the opportunity to have a physical presence at the stadium that he would not have had in the past can have .
Capstick used the program to put his 10-year-old daughter Nya on the stands. “It’s good to see us at the game,” he said.
The Jays even crowdsourced fan suggestions for a celebrity franchise. Imagine the front row at a Lakers game, but Canadian – and made of corrugated cardboard.
The celebrity section at 100 level in Dunedin includes Ash and actors Ryan Reynolds and Sandra Oh; Paul Sun-Hyung Lee and Jean Yoon from the CBC network show “Kim’s Convenience”; and the cast of Canadian sitcom “Schitt’s Creek,” including Dan Levy, Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Sarah Levy, Annie Murphy, Emily Hampshire and Noah Reid.
Reid is from Toronto and has been a longtime fan. He referred to the Blue Jays as a “big distraction” on Schitt’s Creek in Goodwood, Ontario, a 45-minute drive from Toronto. Eugene Levy regularly streamed playoff games between settings during the 2015 playoff run, and assistant directors, writers and the cloakroom department kept a close eye on the team.
Reid admitted it was bittersweet to see his clipping.
“I would like to sit in these seats,” he said. “I couldn’t help but be a little jealous of my cardboard self.”
What makes it harder is how promising the Jays look this season regardless of the five straight defeats the team recorded on Monday.
Reid says he’ll find a way to Buffalo when the Blue Jays play in the World Series there.
“I have an American passport,” he said, “so I’ll line up at the border to cross the Peace Bridge.”
Right now, the team and their fans are longing for the day the Blue Jays can return to Canada.
Toronto last hosted a regular season game at the Rogers Center in September 2019 when the Blue Jays defeated the Tampa Bay Rays 8-3 in the season finale. Lesley Mak was one of the 25,738 fans in attendance, and she recalls emotionally saying goodbye to first baseman Justin Smoak, who signed with the Milwaukee Brewers in the off-season.
“I didn’t know it would be my last game,” said Mak.
She participated in around 30 Blue Jays games each season before the pandemic and this year has a clipping in the stands. Mak has organized live game views in video chats with friends over the past year, but admits that they are nothing like a warm summer day watching the team on the flight deck, a midfield area under the main video board of the stadium.
“I’m an extrovert,” said Mak. “When I see baseball players hug after a win, I miss hugging my friends.”
Jason Swaby, another ballpark regular, misses hearing “OK Blue Jays,” a staple from the seventh inning at the Rogers Center.
“I miss the ushers,” he added. “I miss speaking to them while waiting to come to my seat and ask how their families are doing.”
Ennis Esmer is still wary of large crowds – “some people just don’t know how to act” – and says he won’t be returning to the ballpark anytime soon. But Esmer, an actor known from shows like “Blindspot” and “Red Oaks”, admits that he missed the adrenaline rush to watch a closer run out of the bullpen in the ninth inning and overhear the fans in his section, who pretend to be baseball experts.
The pandemic has left many baseball fans out of their routine. Ash found a semblance of normalcy when he returned to work. Last September, the cast of “Superstore” returned to the set to film the show’s final season under strict health and safety protocols. Ash also started a podcast called “Real crime and cocktailsWith her cousin Christy Oxborrow.
But seeing the Jays at home rather than at the Rogers Center is a reminder that life hasn’t gotten back to normal yet.
She looks forward to returning to Toronto soon and hopes to fill in for her clipping at a Blue Jays game.
“I love the splendor,” said Ash. “It’s similar to a movie theater experience. There is no such thing as a bad place in the house. Even if you sit a million miles away, it’s still an experience. You still feel invested. You still feel part of it. “