From Hometown Kid to Closer for the Blue Jays

Courtesy of Kaitlyn McGrath (The Athletic)

Joe and Cynthia Romano have been dedicated Blue Jays fans for a long time.

After the Blue Jays first arrived in Toronto in 1977, Joe attended games at old Exhibition Stadium, sitting among the bleacher creatures, as they were affectionately known. When he wasn’t at the games, he was a devoted listener to the Blue Jays radio broadcast with Jerry Howarth and the late Tom Cheek. “Wherever I went, it was on,” he said. They even attended the highly anticipated grand opening of the SkyDome on June 3, 1989.

But for the last few seasons, they’ve had even more incentive to go to the Rogers Centre to root for the home team.

“I still have to pinch myself,” Joe said. “I come home from work, I pick up Cynthia and (say), ‘Let’s go downtown to watch our kid.'”

Their kid is, of course, Jordan Romano, the Blue Jays closer. Romano has emerged this season as one of the best ninth-inning guys in the American League with a 2.41 ERA in 56 games. On Wednesday, the 28-year-old shut down the Tampa Bay Rays in the ninth, earning his 18th save this season in a 6-3 win that keeps them in the thick of the AL wild-card race.

As a hometown boy, who grew up in nearby Markham, Ont., it’s not lost on Romano how special his situation is: Closing out games for the team he grew up cheering for, often with his parents — and sometimes other family members, like his older brother Chris and younger sisters Julia and Cassandra — sitting in the stands.

“I really try to make an effort when I come to the field to just embrace it and be really grateful because not a lot of people get to do this,” Romano said. “And I’m grateful for every day that I’m here, and it really doesn’t wear off. Like every time coming to the park, it’s a special experience.”

“You can understand why it means a little bit more to him when he’s in there closing down a game in front of that crowd,” Blue Jays bullpen coach Matt Buschmann said. “That can be a lot, weighing on someone, and he takes it and uses it for good and he uses it as more drive ... that can go so many different ways, but he just handles it so well. It just feels right that he’s in the game and he’s from the hometown, and he’s taken to that role so well.”

Before Romano was shutting down games for the Blue Jays to the sound of thousands of cheering fans, he was just a kid from Markham who used to run the bases at the Rogers Centre with his three siblings on Jr. Jays days and brag to his friends about it.

“I’d tell them at school, ‘I was on the field running the bases, they’re trying to sign me,'” he recalled recently, laughing.

His family knew all along was that Romano had a deep passion for baseball, ever since he took up T-ball as a 5-year-old.

“It was like my parents would have to drag me to hockey practice, and with baseball, they kind of had to drag me off the field,” he said.

When Romano was in grade nine, he was asked by his guidance counsellor what he wanted to do for a living, so he could map out the high school courses that he would need for post-secondary education. He said he wanted to be a professional baseball player. When the guidance counsellor couldn’t get him to budge on that career path, the principal called his mom and asked her to come to the school.

“I guess they were concerned that he wasn’t picking something that they thought was realistic,” Cynthia said. “It was very realistic to him, but obviously not to them.”

She knew her son wouldn’t waver on his decision and told the principal as such: “I said, ‘There’s really no point trying to talk him out of it because I just don’t think you’re going to do that.'”

Growing up, Romano loved to watch Blue Jays pitchers like Roy Halladay, Ricky Romero and Casey Janssen. But, during his early days in baseball, Jordan was actually a catcher who would frequently throw out baserunners from behind the plate with his wicked arm. “I don’t know how many people he threw out a second, but he could always throw quite hard,” Cynthia said.

Often at the end of some long tournaments, his Markham Mariners coaches would ask him to pitch in the final game after all the team’s pitchers had hit their pitch limits. On one of these occasions, Cynthia remembered Romano approaching his catcher before his outing to go over the signs. Romano, who was about 10 at the time, had two simple instructions.

“Hold up one finger for my fastball and two fingers for my gas ball,” Jordan told his catcher. His catcher, confused, asked, “What is your gas ball?”

“That’s when I throw my fastball even harder,” Cynthia recalled Jordan saying.

Perhaps he was onto something then because Jordan could indeed throw gas, so eventually, he was steered to pitching. In grade 10, he broke his foot and the resulting soreness made it difficult to catch, leading him to start pitching full time. He pitched for the Ontario Blue Jays, one of the top travel ball teams in the Greater Toronto Area, and through his time with them, he gained an opportunity with the Canadian national junior program.

It was around this time that Romano’s parents started to realize his preferred career path might actually be attainable. Out of high school, Romano went to Connors State, a junior college in Oklahoma where his older brother had played, for two seasons before transferring to Oral Roberts University for the 2014 season. There, he got a taste of being a closer, earning 12 saves in 29 relief appearances with 49

strikeouts in 40 2/3 innings. That summer, the Blue Jays selected him in the 10th round of the 2014 MLB Draft. The family was ecstatic to learn that not only was Jordan going to get a chance to play professional baseball but also that he would do it with the only Canadian team.

Romano’s route through the Toronto organization was a winding one. It included a year (2015) missed to Tommy John surgery, a few seasons working as a starter in the minor leagues, and even a brief period with the Chicago White Sox after being selected in the Rule 5 draft in 2018 before being flipped to the Texas Rangers. “We were like, ‘Oh no, we have to have another favourite team,'” Cynthia said of Jordan’s brief tenure with the Rangers.

But Romano was returned to the Blue Jays before the 2019 season and thereafter, he transitioned to a full-time relief role. By 2020, he had established himself as one of the best late-inning weapons the Blue Jays have, with a fastball that’s been averaging a career-best 97 mph this season and has maxed out at 101 mph.

Although there was some early season talk of a closer-by-committee, for a while now, Romano has owned the job after his run of consistently dominant outings. Cynthia describes her son’s demeanour off the field as easygoing, personable and kind, but she also recognizes Jordan possesses a unique focus on the mound that’s suited for ninth-inning duties.

“I always thought that Jordan was meant to be a closer,” she said. “He just loves the intensity. He seems to be able to harness the emotion of the late innings. And I just think that that’s his spot.”

When Toronto’s bullpen swings gate opens in the ninth and Romano starts his slow jog toward the mound, that’s when Joe heads for the ballpark concourse.

“I just can’t sit in the stands. I have to go up on the concourse and pace,” said Joe, who must have passed this trait onto his son who notably can’t ever sit still in the bullpen. “I can half-watch. I’ll peek. I don’t know what it is. I just can’t sit there in the seat. I have to pace and look over once in a while. And when I know the end result, we’ll come home and watch the replay when I’m more calm.”

Mom, however, stays parked in her seat typically in a section behind home plate.“I just feel like I don’t want to miss anything,” she said.

Cynthia especially loves the montage that plays on the video board before Jordan’s outings, which overlays a red maple leaf atop of highlights of his past strikeouts.

“I think to myself, ‘That it’s just so cool, these segments of Jordan,'” she said. “I feel like when he gets on the mound, he’s just where he’s supposed to be.”

Meanwhile, when he’s on the mound for the ninth, Romano said his focus is usually so tunnelled to the task at hand, he doesn’t even hear the cheers rising as the tension builds toward to final out. Once the game ends, however, he said he can soak it all in and appreciate the two people who helped him get to this point.

“They did a lot for me and my siblings growing up, driving us across the city, even across the country, just sacrificing their time, and it’s nice that just after the games when I pitch, just go out there and embrace them after,” he said. “They’re super proud.”