TORONTO — Eric Thames knew his return to Rogers Centre this week would bring back plenty of fond memories. He just didn't know the nostalgia would hit him before he even stepped onto the field.
Eating dinner at a downtown BBQ joint Monday night, the former Toronto outfielder noticed an autographed 2011 Blue Jays jersey hanging on one of the restaurant's walls.
"I was like 'I know that jersey!'" Thames said Tuesday afternoon before his Milwaukee Brewers played Toronto in the Blue Jays home opener.
"The whole team was on it — (J.P.) Arencibia, Casey Janssen, Johnny Mac (McDonald), (Brett) Lawrie, and then I saw my autograph. It was a very cool thing to see."
Thames posted a photo of the framed jersey on his Instagram account with the caption "Where it all began..."
After three seasons playing in South Korea, the 30-year-old is back in the stadium where he made his MLB debut in 2011, this time playing against the team that drafted him in the seventh round in 2008.
Save for Jose Bautista, the current Toronto team looks completely different from the ones Thames remembers in 2011 and 2012 before he was traded to Seattle for reliever Steve Delabar.
Rogers Centre looks different too. The turf has been updated, the dirt infield is new, and the fans, buoyed by two straight ALCS appearances, pack the seats far more than he remembers.
"When I was here before the fans loved the Jays but now it's on a whole other level," said Thames, who made his MLB debut in front of a crowd of 14,000. "You walk around the city and everybody has a Jays jersey on. It's crazy. It's awesome. I kind of miss it.
"Seeing the old clubhouse guys and the equipment manager, it hits a warm spot in my heart. I'm glad to be back."
From 2012 to 2013, Thames bounced around three different organizations before deciding he wanted a break from North America.
"I needed a change, I felt like I was being buried," Thames said. "I was with Seattle, then traded to Baltimore, then they put me on waivers and I was claimed by Houston, then Houston was going to take me off the roster and I was like, 'you know what? I have to get out of here.'
"My agent convinced me to go (to South Korea) for the change of scenery. And it all worked out."
Thames, who switched from outfield to first base, became a star in the Korean Baseball Organization, earning the league's MVP award in 2015 and batting .348 with 124 home runs and 379 runs batted in over his three seasons there.
With a look unique in South Korea — a smoothly shaved bald head with a long, thick black beard and a plethora of tattoos on his body — Thames was easily recognizable outside of the stadiums.
"I stood out a lot," he said, laughing. "After the MVP year it was bananas. It could be 4 a.m., I could have a hood on, and somebody would see me. At the end it got a little tiresome because you couldn't really go out, you couldn't go for a walk or have a beer, it was nuts."
Thames refers to his time in South Korea as a "learning experience" in more ways than one.
As a 26-year-old when he arrived, Thames had to learn his way around a new city with a new language and culture. He also had to learn a different style of baseball that focused more on the mental aspect of the game.
He took up meditation and visualization to adapt and has been using those tools in his return to MLB.
"It's about learning to not worry about the result, kind of a zen approach where you focus on doing the small things and the big things will happen," Thames said. "When I first (made the big leagues) that was my problem, I was trying to impress the fans, impress the coaches, trying to hit three home runs and I'd get strikeout, strikeout, strikeout.
"Now I'm like, 'hey, just get a good pitch to hit and put your best swing on it and whatever happens happens.' It's that zen-like approach and it's helped me a lot."
Melissa Couto, The Canadian Press