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Jordan Romano was 14 years old when he made a bold prediction.
His family was attending a Blue Jays game at Rogers Centre when he said, "I'm going to pitch here one day," recalled his mother, Cynthia Romano.
"He was pretty determined," his father, Joe Romano, said recently at the family's home in Markham, north of Toronto. "He was going to have a career in baseball."
That determination paid off.
Now 28, Romano has had a breakout season as the Jays' closing pitcher. For fans, he serves as a rare example of homegrown talent.
"It's kind of cool," Romano said. "I can contribute to hopefully getting to the playoffs with my hometown team."
'Dream come true'
Drafted by Toronto in 2014, Romano made his Major League debut with the Jays two years ago. This season, he emerged as "one of the best ninth-inning guys in the American League," according to a recent profile in The Athletic.
On Sept. 21, the 6-foot-5-inch right-hander converted a save opportunity into a win for the 20th time in a row. He's only the seventh pitcher in club history to achieve that milestone.
It's "a dream come true," Romano told CBC News in an interview on the field ahead of the Jays' Tuesday night home game against the New York Yankees.
"I never really thought I'd be playing here," he said, wearing the blue cap and jersey of the team he's cheered for his whole life. Romano was only six years old when he first got a chance to run the bases at the stadium then known as SkyDome.
With the regular season officially coming to end on Sunday, the Jays are still hunting for a post-season berth. They overcame the Yankees, 6-5, in a virtual must-win scenario Wednesday night, thanks in no small part to Romano.
Entering the game in the ninth inning with Toronto holding a one-run lead, Romano struck out one New York batter, allowed one hit and no runs.
Before the start of play Thursday, the Jays stood two games back of the Yankees for the first American League wild-card spot. Boston held the second slot, with Seattle also narrowly ahead of Toronto.
"I'm trying to treat it like any other game," Romano said ahead of the crucial matchups with the Bronx Bombers. Romano said he would "make pitches, do my thing and hopefully we come out on top."
The last time Toronto reached — and won — the World Series was in 1993, the same year Romano was born.
Different personas on and off the field
Romano's disarming personality off the field stands in stark contrast to the warrior-like persona he embodies when he gets called in to finish off the opposing team.
"Just look at the eyes," Sportsnet baseball analyst Pat Tabler commented on Romano's appearance during a recent broadcast. "That's a guy that's ready to go to battle."
By comparison, Romano smiled throughout the brief CBC interview this week and politely offered the crew fist bumps after.
WATCH | Romano recalls running the bases as a kid:
"When I see him out there, I just think 'this is the same Jordan,' " said Mike Davidson, who served as assistant coach for the Markham Mariners, the team Romano played on as a kid.
He and head coach Robert Nasello said Romano stood out as an aggressive player on the field and a polite and friendly boy once the game was done.
"Some players love the game three times a week," said Nasello. "And if I can steal a Beatles reference, he loves the game eight days a week."
Nasello and Davidson remember Romano having several nicknames: Jordy, JR, Big Guy or just "Romano," a reflection of how well-liked he was by his team.
Davidson said that no matter what position Romano was playing on any given day, "he was always ultra competitive and always one of the best that you had out there."
Trademark moves on the mound
As Romano began taking the mound in Jays games more frequently, fans couldn't help but notice some of his signature traits: growing out his thick, dark beard for much of the season, talking to himself on the mound and wiggling his behind while looking for a sign from his catcher.
And then there was the squat.
Between pitches, Romano got into the habit of fully bending his knees — his bottom nearing the ground — as a way of separating one pitch from the next, a sort of mental reset.
Baseball watchers noticed, and so did his teammates. First baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was seen gently ribbing Romano by imitating his trademark squat during a game in Atlanta.
Now, the full squat is gone, replaced by only a gentle knee bend between pitches. So, what happened?
According to his mother, Cynthia, Romano's hips were feeling tight before a game when a trainer reminded him, "you squat 50 times a day."
"It takes up too much energy," his father, Joe, explained. Plus, he said other teams were taking those precious seconds to steal bases on Romano's watch.
"So kind of cut the squat out."
The family rarely misses a game. During the CBC crew's recent visit to the Romano home, the Jays were playing at Tampa Bay and the broadcast was playing on both the TV in the den and a tablet in the kitchen.
Nasello, Roman's old coach, described Joe and Cynthia as "ace parents."
With the Jays returning to Toronto to play home games in late July after using minor-league ballparks in the U.S. throughout the pandemic, Joe, Cynthia and Romano's siblings have finally been able to regularly watch him play Major League ball in person.
"It's great, we get to see our son again," Joe said, noting it was particularly special for Romano's grandparents, Marilyn and Arthur Torrie from Saskatchewan, to be able to see him play this summer.
While the Romanos are enjoying their son's time in Toronto, they realize it may not last forever.
Romano's fiancée, Sam Hathcoat, lives in Florida. And other than the Jays, every other team in Major League Baseball is based south of the border.
"We'll just have to wait and see how it all pans out," Cynthia said.
"We were just so excited when he came back to be a Jay."