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Mike Harrington: Buffalo fans downtown will take this Toronto team to heart

Mike Harrington: Buffalo fans downtown will take this Toronto team to heart

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Vladimir Guerrero Jr. runs the bases on his home run in the bottom of the third inning Tuesday at Sahlen Field.

We sure have one weird relationship with the city of Toronto. If you're like me, you love the place and can't believe you haven't been able to go there in 15 months.

Think of all the cool things you've seen up there. The CN Tower, the Ontario Science Center, Casa Loma, all the crazy food at the CNE, the memorabilia at Wayne Gretzky's now-closed restaurant. We love Loblaws and Longo's and Kensington Market and ketchup chips (OK, I don't love those, but I know tons of people who do).

We even gave Toronto former Niagara University basketball coach Jack Armstrong, who has become a national icon on the air calling Raptors games for TSN while keeping his home in Lewiston. (The coach got some air time on Sportsnet while sitting in the Sahlen Field stands Tuesday night).

Of course, there's another side to all this. Monday night, we watched the hilarity of the Leafs going down harshly in Game 7 at home against the Montreal Canadiens. Just a colossal choke and now a referendum is at hand for all that's wrong with the "Shanaplan" of president Brendan Shanahan and the analytics-driven approach of boy wonder GM Kyle Dubas.

Sabres fans hate how the Leafs' loutish fans pile across the border and take over KeyBank Center most of the time when they visit, but things are completely different in baseball.

This is still a Yankees town but it seems the Blue Jays have pushed to No. 2 on the list in the 716 (apologies to fans of the Red Sox, Indians or Mets). The Jays couldn't wait to get out of Florida and get to Buffalo. They couldn't wait to hear the cheers. Manager Charlie Montoyo said before the game he was thrilled to see all the Toronto caps in the stands. He was blown away once the game started.

We found out last summer the Blue Jays enjoy playing at Sahlen Field. We found out Tuesday night they will have a real home field in 2021.

Buffalo fans gave their full-throated support to the Jays during a 5-1 win over the Miami Marlins that opened the second summer of baseball for MLB's vagabonds. It was, however, a completely different experience. The crowd of 5,321 made a wee bit more noise than the cardboard cutouts that filled the seats here last summer.

The fans came clad in their Jays jerseys and T-shirts and caps and they were into this one all night. They pulled the two-strike rhythmic applause out for Toronto starter Robbie Ray in the first inning. They roared when Vladimir Guerrero Jr. annihilated a Sandy Alcantara pitch for a three-run homer, his Major League-leading 17th, in the third inning as part of his first career four-hit night. They cheered when Lourdes Gurriel Jr. launched a moonshot into the left-field screen in the eighth, activating the dancing routine of the new stadium lights.

And they pushed closer Jordan Romano over the top for the final out in the ninth after some nervous moments that saw him walk two and bring the tying run to the plate.

"The support of the fans here in Buffalo was great. We really needed that," Guerrero said. "We felt like we were playing home in Toronto. It was great, not just for me but for the rest of my teammates."

"To be able to get two strikes on a guy and the crowd gets fired up behind you, it gives you that extra little boost of adrenalin," Ray said. "It was a lot of fun to pitch in front of the crowd tonight."

Superfan Mark Aichinger was in the house on his birthday wearing a Blue Jays jersey. His voice pierced the crowd. Conehead was back serving, albeit in the concourse. Mayor Byron W. Brown was taking in the field and the arriving crowd before the first pitch.

"It's a tremendous environment and to be able to have fans at a major-league game in Buffalo for the first time in over 100 years," a smiling Brown told me, referring to the Federal League of 1915. "The Blue Jays will find out how the fans of Buffalo support their teams and we want to give them a great homefield advantage and help them raise their level of play."

Prescient words. Visit Buffalo Niagara tweeted good luck to the Blue Jays on Tuesday afternoon. Something tells me the Chamber of Commerce wouldn't be wishing that to the Leafs had they been sent here for a later round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

"It seems like Major League Baseball in Buffalo is being embraced," club president Mark Shapiro said before the game, referring to strong ticket sales. "For me, it's a hope that Toronto Blue Jays baseball is being embraced."

Shapiro is fretting over the closed border that keeps his team out of Toronto. Had the Leafs won, might that have put some pressure on the province of Ontario to allow the hockey teams – and thus the baseball teams – to go back and forth across? Shapiro said he never made the correlation, noting that public health officials have been consistent in their stances when dealing with professional sports teams.

The science and numbers will dictate policy. If the Blue Jays have no shot to return home, it's clear they'll be taken care of here.

"To have fans pulling for us for the first time in two years at the ballpark was great," said Montoyo. "All the players felt it too. It was pretty cool. It was awesome."

This time, you can actually come to the ballpark. It's OK to root for a Toronto team and take it up as your own. Really. And you don't even have to fret over some crazy Stanley Cup run by the Leafs at the same time because they're toast. You can make noise for the Jays. There were "M-V-P, M-V-P" chants for Guerrero on Tuesday night. Imagine hearing that for another 58 games here, if the Jays' stay goes that long.

Said Vladdy Jr: "I'm just trying to my job. It feels great. .... If they think I'm the MVP, then it's good. Thank God for that."

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