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Opener evokes memories of glory days

Opener evokes memories of glory days

TORONTO -- A standing room only crowd at Rogers Centre on Monday night had everyone reminiscing about the glory days in Toronto when tickets were almost impossible to obtain.

More than 50,000 screaming fans were on hand to kick off the 31st season of Toronto Blue Jays baseball. After spending the first week of the year on the road, the Jays finally got a taste of home-field advantage, and liked what they saw from the crowd.

Second baseman Aaron Hill was only 10 years old when the Blue Jays won their first World Series title, but he remembers the reputation the fans had and believes that they underestimate the impact they can have on a game.

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"The fans have no idea how much it means," said Hill, referring to the sellout crowd inside Rogers Centre. "If we could do that every day like it was back in the early '90s, that'd be something else."

First baseman Lyle Overbay thought the crowd gave his team the boost it needed to kick off its home schedule the right way.

"It's awesome," Overbay said. "I wish it was like that every night. You know that 50,000 fans are going to cheer you on every bit of the way, so it's a good thing to get used to."

The loudest cheers of the night were reserved for starting pitcher A.J. Burnett. The 30-year-old right-hander was on the disabled list with an elbow injury during last season's opener, but he made up for that this year with an impressive home debut. Burnett left to a standing ovation in the seventh inning, tipping his cap twice to the capacity crowd.

"It was fun," Burnett said. "It's a packed house. It's Opening Day. Emotions are running high. We came out with a 'W,' and that's all that matters."

For many of the Blue Jays players, the excitement of finally playing in front of a home crowd makes all of their offseason preparation worth while.

"You can't really describe it," Hill said. "You're doing what you love to do and after going through Spring Training -- going through the hard work of the offseason -- it's like, 'All right. We're here.' Then, the fans appreciating what you're doing, we're here for them and we're here to win."

Two of the Blue Jays' biggest stars were honored prior to the start of the game for their impressive 2006 seasons. Designated hitter Frank Thomas received the Player's Choice American League Comeback Player of the Year Award for his performance with Oakland last season. After missing 128 games in 2005 because of an ankle injury, the 38-year-old slugger rebounded to hit .270 with 39 home runs and 114 RBIs.

Center fielder Vernon Wells received his third straight Rawlings Gold Glove Award. Several fans in attendance arrived with gold-painted gloves, and greeted Wells with loud chants of "Vernon!" as he accepted the trophy.

It was the type of atmosphere that Wells hopes can get his team rolling.

"It was a good home opener," Wells said. "It was a good first game back here. It's something to build on and hopefully the fans had a good time tonight and will continue to come out."

Gregor Chisholm is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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