With a Song in My Heart: O is for…

“OK Blue Jays” – Keith Hampshire and the Bat Boys, 1983.

Full disclosure:  I had originally chosen another song for this slot.  When I decided to embark on this odyssey (another O-reference!) back in March, I assembled the music first, without giving too much thought to what I would write about.  Most were obvious picks, as were the substance of the posts that would accompany them, but as I’ve gone along here plumbing the recesses of my memories, my inner editor-in-chief has wanted to ensure that the content remains varied and interesting.  So, rather than compose another brooding entry about a melancholy song, I’ve made a last-minute swap for something out of left field – literally.  “OK Blue Jays” has been the theme song of Toronto’s major league baseball team for over thirty years, with the same dance performed every seventh-inning stretch at every home game.  In the mid-1980’s and early 1990’s, tens of thousands of fans united in this upbeat, calisthenic celebration of their hometown squad.  Today, barely a few hundred can be bothered to summon the meager enthusiasm needed to detach their rears from their chairs for a purpose other than refreshing their beer.

There is a deep irony associated with the fandom for Toronto sports franchises, in that Blue Jays fans bailed after the back-to-back World Series victories in 1992 and 1993 and have never returned, while the Maple Leafs continue to draw capacity crowds despite regularly sucking and failing to make the playoffs year after year.  I can’t claim the high road here, either; the strike of 1994 tore the heart out of Toronto’s baseball fans, and it has never fully healed.  I remember feeling betrayed, disgusted, fed up, and vowing never to come back, despite Blue Jays games having been a formative part of my youth.  Carefully preserved, still, in a box in my basement is a copy of the official souvenir program from the very first Blue Jays game at Exhibition Stadium on April 7, 1977, where snow baptized the brand new artificial turf and froze the thousands who’d come to share in a piece of sports history.  In another box is the small, faded jersey that was my uniform for Jays games with my dad – with STIEB 37 stitched on the back.   From 1983 to 1986, my father would go halfsies with a friend on a season ticket package each year – section 11, row 9, seats 1 and 2, just up from the first base line.  Fortunately, since his friend knew nothing about baseball and used the tickets largely for client giveaways, Dad managed to acquire the best games.

The “Ex,” or the “Mistake by the Lake,” was a slapdash stadium that looked like it had been assembled by accident, yet it harbored a spirit that its fancy replacement SkyDome (I refuse to call it the “Rogers Centre”) has never replicated.  The scoreboard looked little better than that of a high school football team with its yellow LED’s, a few of which were usually burnt out, and the sound system scratched and popped with the voice of local radio personality Murray Eldon announcing “yourrrr To-RONTO Blue Jays!!!!”  The $15 field level seats at the Ex weren’t any more comfortable than the $1 general admission over the left field wall, the hot dogs were soggy after being steamed all day and you had a one in three chance of getting drenched and the game being rained out, but nobody cared.  The twenty to thirty-odd games Dad and I would attend each year were like family reunions, as we’d become friendly with the other season ticket holders in the surrounding seats, the concession vendors hollering out their wares (“rrrrroast beef on a kaiser!” drew a few laughs one night), even with the mustachioed security guard manning the gate separating the stands from the field.  We perfected “The Wave” in those stands; you could hear it rumbling towards you as column after column stood up and flung their arms into the air, and metal seats snapped back.  When a foul ball flew our way, gloves were brandished and bodies leaped across aisles and occasionally into guys carrying trays full of beer in order to snag a fragment of the wonder – and we would all applaud a fantastic amateur catch, even the guy who’d gotten soaked with his own four-pack of Labatt’s Blue.

The 80’s and 90’s were probably the last era for Blue Jays who would endear themselves to the fans the way classic ball players like DiMaggio and Mantle would.  At the Ex we watched Willie Upshaw, Damaso Garcia, Ernie Whitt, Buck Martinez, Rance Mulliniks, Lloyd Moseby, George Bell, Tony Fernandez, Garth Iorg, Jesse Barfield, Dave Stieb, Jim Clancy, Luis Leal and Jimmy Key bat, throw and field their way into highlight reels and hearts.  We watched other greats like Wade Boggs, Don Mattingly, Cal Ripken and George Brett take them on, managed by legends like Earl Weaver, Sparky Anderson and Billy Martin.  Later on, new favorites like Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter would carve themselves a place in Blue Jay annals.  By that time, though, the Ex was abandoned for its shinier, retractable-roof replacement, and a few short years later it would be demolished to make way for, as Joni Mitchell would appreciate, a parking lot.

They still play “OK Blue Jays” in the club’s new home, but it doesn’t sound right there.  To me that song belongs to another place, another decade.  A more innocent time, perhaps; at least, a time when I was far more innocent.  When I hoarded the glossy program from each game and spent hours copying statistics into my own comprehensive Blue Jays binder like some medieval monk attempting to chronicle the history of the world.  When that jersey still fit, and when I could be wowed by the prospect of walking onto the field to meet my heroes.  When I couldn’t wait for the seventh inning and a chance to sing that tune at the top of my lungs while flailing my arms about in a proud display of support for – in my humble opinion, of course – the greatest team to ever play the game.  Where did it go wrong?  Years of rising ticket prices and deflating player talent have tempered that devotion, and our interest is limited to maybe pausing on a televised game for a few minutes while channel surfing on a Friday night.

Yet that devotion will always be there, even if it’s been papered over by a few decades of cynicism and disinterest.  Support for a sports team is like support for a political position – ingrained, fundamentally unshakable.  It is as inflexible as one’s morals and as lasting as the greatest love.  I may not be able to afford season tickets anymore, and I may not have the time to go to 30 games a year, but the song can still remind me of the reason I first became a fan:  the sheer joy of the experience as it unfolded, the anticipation of what would happen next, and the unlimited possibilities beyond that simple phrase, “Let’s play ball.”

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