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Fever Pitch: The Toronto Blue Jays

The Toronto Blue Jays are marking their 30th birthday with a generous gift to their fans: a handful of high-profile off-season acquisitions. Many still get nostalgic recalling the team’s dramatic back-to-back World Series wins in 1992 and 1993, and more than a decade since of ups and downs have taught team supporters to be cautiously optimistic. But the recent signing of free agents A. J. Burnett, Bengie Molina, B. J. Ryan, along with the lineup additions of Troy Glaus and Lyle Overbay kicked-started fan fervour.

Signing the hotly pursued Florida Marlins pitcher A. J. Burnett to a five-year, $55-million deal fuelled fan chatter back in early December. The Arkansas native’s stats for 2005 are promising: Burnett recorded 198 strikeouts in 209 innings, allowing opponents only 184 hits and holding them to a .237 batting average. Burnett is poised to take on the role of Jays’ number-two pitcher under ace Roy Halladay. Further evidence of the team’s commitment to firming up the pitching staff: in November, the Jays signed Baltimore Orioles’ experienced closer B. J. Ryan to a record $47-million five-year contract.
Just 11 days before the Jays headed to Dunedin, Florida, for spring training, the team announced they had signed former Los Angeles Angels catcher Bengie Molina, a two-time American League Golden Glove winner. Molina, who was signed to a $4.5-million one-year deal, is coming off a strong year in which he set career bests in batting average (.295), on-base percentage (.336), runs (15) and walks (27).

Former Arizona Diamondback Troy Glaus is now suiting up in the team’s grey and blue, too—another cause for rejoicing. The six-foot-five, 240-pound third baseman led the American League with 47 home runs in 2000, and though he has failed to duplicate his record recently, some commentators feel he has the potential to hit his stride again this year.First basemen Lyle Overbay was scooped up in a December trade with the Milwaukee Brewers. After his signing, Overbay was reported to have put a couple of powerhouses, namely the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, on notice that Toronto is taking its race for the Eastern Division pennant seriously in 2006. The new players join such returning favourites as Vernon Wells and Roy Halladay. The team’s best-known face, Wells led the team in home runs and RBIs last year. The highlight of number 10’s season was back-to-back two-homerun games in May. After a promising start last season, hopes were crushed by an unlucky bounce that saw Roy Halladay sidelined for half the regular season with a broken bone in his shin. Sluggers beware: the six-foot-six right-handed ace returns in full force this year.

The drive for division title starts when the Blue Jays swing into the new season on April 4 at The Rogers Centre against the Minnesota Twins at 7:15 p.m. Tickets range from $2 to $205; to order, call 416-341-1234 or 1-888-OK-GO-JAY, or visit the team’s Web site at www.bluejays.com.HOME BASE IMPROVEMENTS
The Blue Jays’ roster isn’t the only thing that’s improved during the off-season. The team’s home turf, The Rogers Centre, is even more fan-friendly than when the team bought it in 2004. Last year heralded the addition of a new artificial playing surface and high-tech video display system, and the facility’s facelift continued this winter as the 100-level and 200-level seat spaces were made more spacious after a few rows were pulled up. The 200-level VIP section has been reduced to 800 seats directly behind home plate and now features deluxe amenities, including in-seat service, gourmet buffet and a wine bar.

You can get a behind-the-scenes tour on weekdays at 11 a.m., and 1 and 3 p.m. (excluding event dates). The Rogers Centre Tour Experience is about 60 minutes long and includes a film detailing the history of the site from construction to the present, as well as a tour of the grounds. Adult admission is $13.50, kids 12 to 17 pay $9.50, and children age 4 to 12 pay $8. For specific times and dates, call 416-341-2770 or see www.rogerscentre.com.—Flannery Dean

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