As much fun as the last year's Blue Jays - Mets exhibition games in Montreal were for the fans in the stands, playing the final two spring games in a major league-sized stadium must have been a thrill for the handful of minor league players who were chosen to participate.
And they contributed too. Ricardo Nanita, a minor league journeyman with 12 professional seasons but 0 big league games under his belt, hit a game-winning walkoff single in the first game, while Blue Jays fans got their first glimpse at Aaron Sanchez in game two as he went two innings and struck out three, earning the W.
Receiving Sanchez that game was catcher Derrick Chung, the Jays' 31st-round pick from the 2012 draft. I caught up with the 26-year-old Californian in New Hampshire last August to ask him about his Montreal experience.
Chung was a bit of a surprise pick to head up north, but there's always a need for extra catching help in exhibition games and perhaps the Blue Jays wanted to award him for his solid 2013 Arizona Fall League performance. In fact, he was a bit unprepared for the news himself. The Blue Jays told him that he was going to be joining the team in Montreal just a few days before the game. Unfortunately he was getting his passport renewed, so it was still back him in California.
"I had to call my parents to send it to me," Chung explained, then added with a chuckle, "it cost them a lot of money [for express shipment] but I gotta go!"
When he entered Montreal's Olympic Stadium he made sure to let the experience all sink in. He was warming up in the outfield before the game and saw the beautiful ceremony commemorating another catcher from California, Gary Carter. Running off the field and seeing 50,000 people standing and clapping was something that really moved him.
"It just made me want it more. It made me want to work harder and get to [the major leagues] one day."
Before that, Chung had never played in front of more than 10,000 fans.
The loud crowd, amplified by the concrete and metal fold-down seats, gave the games an atmosphere more like a playoff game than one in spring training. All the players in the dugout noticed it too and certainly got them more into these games compared to the relatively lazy and laid-back affairs in Florida.
"The crowd was so into it," Chung remembered, "the fans were amazing. It wasn’t like they were sitting there watching the game, they were into every play. And so the players were all into it as well."
Chung also got to see snow for the first time since he was very young that weekend last year, but didn't walk around much beyond the downtown area because he had only brought his spring jacket and there was a snowstorm on Saturday night. There is snow forecasted for this Saturday as well so I wonder whether Roberto Osuna and Miguel Castro would do much outdoors.
Last year, Nanita, Sanchez, and Chung all knew that they would be returning to the minors after the game, but this year, the Blue Jays will have three players in Montreal who will soon stop being minor leaguers. Devon Travis, Castro, and Osuna will each get their first experience in a big league environment this weekend. It won't be like their major league debuts, but getting some of the jitters of playing in front of 50,000 fans for the first time out of the way in two meaningless games at Olympic Stadium is probably better than doing so at Yankee Stadium next week. So not only are these exhibition games fun for the fans and great for brand-building, but it could prove to be a surprisingly important part of some players' development as well.