Tag Archives: Exhibition Stadium

All Aboard the Bandwagon

jays

How long can you hold a grudge in major league baseball?  It turns out in my case, it’s about 21 years.  I can recall learning about the baseball strike from the news in August of 1994 and making a snap declaration that as a fan, I was finished.  The game had been as much a part of my formative education throughout the 80’s and early 90’s, my spiritual nourishment, if you will, as math textbooks and peanut butter sandwiches, and as I pored over the announcement, a glum pallor darkening my face, it felt as though something else was being ripped away.  I took it personally, as did many others of my generation, because it was all too personal indeed.

Over the preceding couple of years, the Toronto Blue Jays, after three false starts where they had won the American League East (in ’85, ’89 and ’91 respectively) but choked and collapsed in the first round of the playoffs, had established themselves as the best team in baseball, winning back-to-back World Series in ’92 and ’93.  I have a distinct recollection of being in a high school economics class the day after Toronto dropped the first game of the ’92 ALCS to Oakland and overhearing my teacher chatting with a couple of my classmates, muttering confidently that “I don’t think they’re going to win.”  (Somehow, I recall even more distinctively the boldface emphasis on the pessimistic ‘don’t’.)  I acknowledged the possibility then that we were going to see the heartbreak we had known threefold before happen again, but I think I had more faith than anyone else I knew back then.  I’d grown up watching those guys, soaking in a few dozen games a season in person at the damp and freezing Exhibition Stadium, and the rest on television or static-wracked AM radio drifting into my ears in a dark bedroom long into the night, past the threshold of sleep.  Some of my early heroes were long off the roster by ’92.  My old Dave Stieb jersey didn’t fit anymore.  But no matter the lineup, the Blue Jays were what they’d always been:  a team that you couldn’t help but root for.  There have been MLB squads that have inspired deep contempt, and even individual, arrogant players you were happy to see humiliated, but the Jays have never been that.  Since they debuted in April 1977 in a field full of snow, they have been the perennial underdogs scratching and scraping for victory, fueled not for the veneration of egos but entirely by the cheers of their fans.

So it was in 1992 and 1993, when the SkyDome bulged with capacity crowds each night and the Blue Jays responded with play that dazzled even the cynical.  When Joe Carter hit his famous three-run walk-off home run to win the ’93 Series and leaped about the bases, for Blue Jays fans this was as good as it got.  And it would have to be, for a long time.  Carter’s blast would be a memory drawn repeatedly from the vaults and polished raw to once again feel some of its light on our faces in the years that followed, as the triumphant Toronto squad of those rosy, invincible days, their armor chinked badly by the strike of 1994, fell to tattered pieces and languished in the cellar of the A.L. East, watching once easily-dispatched rivals soar to championship berths.  People stopped going to the games.  Record highs in attendance dwindled to record lows.  New players came and went, the management tried to spruce up the team’s appearance with would-be stylish black and silver uniforms, but the response was a collective indifference, as there now stood a permanent wedge between the Blue Jays and its fans.  Unlike the embarrassing Maple Leafs, who could fail for decades on end and still draw capacity crowds, the Jays’ penance, and their road to atonement, was to be long and brutal.

I went to a few games here and there during that dry spell, if someone happened to have an extra ticket they couldn’t use that day.  As I walked into the stadium, the air smelled listless, the crackle that infused it in the 90’s merely a musty remnant that had long seeped deep beyond reach beneath the concrete pillars.  The banners hanging from the rafters above center field, commemorating old victories under the classic, abandoned bird-in-profile logo, were like relics from a forgotten century, the belongings of a different team.  Baseball is perhaps unique among sports for its ability to hold within it a special sort of melancholy, as if the best part of the game has always been the nostalgia for glories of the past.  Before me then in those later years, an interchangeable cast of well-meaning but forgettable newcomers swung their bats and circled the bases to a largely indifferent, much reduced crowd.  When everyone rose to participate in the seventh-inning stretch to the Blue Jays’ old anthem, it was with resignation, not enthusiasm.  Undoubtedly there were those who never stopped believing, who continued to wander the desert with the team and latch onto every spark of life, no matter how fleeting, but I wasn’t one of them.  The promise made in 1994 held firm, and there was no sense that it would ever be reneged.

Until now.

The Toronto Blue Jays of 2015 started their season with what promised to be another year of aspiration without realization; win-loss record bouncing about the .500 mark, fan favorites like the homegrown Brett Lawrie traded away, the always troublesome pitching blowing surefire leads and leaving the undermatched offense to struggle at catch-up until the whole enterprise struggled to a close in late September, playoff berths remaining the stuff of dreams.  As late as the end of July it felt as though we would once again be fated to watch the wealthy and hated New York Yankees walk away with the AL East from the discomforting perspective of a perennial third or fourth-place berth, myself tuning in once in a while out of nothing more than an old, much-dwindled blue flame of curiosity.  But in the tradition of the dramatic turn on which the outcome of a baseball game can hinge, the Toronto Blue Jays made key trades at the July deadline and in the process discovered who they were again; they went from middling to great.

Losing the error-prone Jose Reyes and a handful of mediocre pitching prospects to secure the services of Troy Tulowitzki, Ben Revere and David Price seems, in very short hindsight, to be the stuff of brilliance.  What cannot be acquired through trades, however, is the sort of spirit that the 2015 Blue Jays version 2.0 have built over the past month.  This is a team in every sense of the word; even from the benches and from the living room you can tell that this is a group of guys who genuinely like each other and love baseball even more.  Last Tuesday, when the unlikely Ryan Goins blasted a two-run home run to secure a walk-off victory in the tenth inning against the Cleveland Indians, his teammates mobbed him as he circled to home plate as though they had just won the division.  These guys are all in and all for one, and that drive has spread to the city of Toronto and indeed the entire country as the people have come pouring back, the remainder of the Jays’ home schedule abruptly sold out.  In the middle of the 11-game August winning streak that took them from seven games back to the top of the AL East, the Blue Jays held a ceremony inviting back the members of the 1985 squad, the heroes I had watched on those cold aluminum Exhibition Stadium chairs as they posted a franchise-record 99 wins, and the comparison to this year’s crew was obvious and deserved.  Those old Blue Jays played to win for the love of the game, and we loved them for it.  The same goes for the new Blue Jays.  They make us remember why we loved the game in the first place, and why we can continue to love it and cling to the edges of our collective seats, holding our breath and waiting as the pitch is loosed, for the signature crack of ball against bat and the absolute eruption of the masses as it finds the seats over the left-field wall.

There is a month to go and so much still can happen.  Perhaps we will look back in another 20 years having elevated Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, R.A. Dickey, Roberto Osuna, Russell Martin, Kevin Pillar and the others to the same echelon we’ve reserved for George Bell, Jesse Barfield, Willie Upshaw, Roberto Alomar, Devon White, Joe Carter and their hallowed brethren.  Despite what happens now, the 2015 Blue Jays have accomplished one thing that may not matter in the record books or the history of the sport, but has made a great difference in the life of one specific person:  they’ve made me a fan again.  You might think of it as climbing aboard a suddenly animated bandwagon, but my relationship with the Blue Jays runs far deeper than that.  The funny thing about bandwagons is that they attract followers because the seats are comfortable.  In my case, I’ve reconnected with a part of myself that has been slumbering for over twenty years, and I can look back now and recall the fortunate time I once stood in the middle of center field and gazed into the enormity of the stadium and felt that this was somewhere I truly belonged.  It was never my destiny to be a player, so I’ll take the next best thing, and cheer for a team that has proven that it deserves to be counted among the best ever to play the game.  That’s a bandwagon I think anyone would be happy to ride in.

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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.”

Fathers, sons and the great game

The Natural was on last night.  Like The King’s Speech in my previous post, it’s a movie that if stumbled upon compels me to watch it in its entirety – no matter how chopped up for commercials the version being aired might be.  Every few years I revise my Top Ten Movies of All Time list – some drop off, some new entries sneak their way inside, but The Natural’s berth is secure.  Online, you can find plenty of great reviews both amateur and professional of this classic Robert Redford movie about the mythic power of baseball; one that I read nailed it when it said that the movie feels like it was made decades before it actually was.  (It was released in 1984.)  The Natural depicts an idyllic 1939, untouched by depression or the fog of looming war, when the only thing that mattered was the game, and the larger-than-life heroes who played it.  Men who were couch potatoes by today’s standards of athletics but still managed to inspire enduring legends.  Babe Ruth.  Ted Williams.  Lou Gehrig.  Jackie Robinson.  Mickey Mantle.  And The Natural’s Roy Hobbs.  “The best there ever was in this game.”

My father and I bonded over baseball.  He shared seasons’ tickets with a friend, and because he knew more about baseball than said friend, managed to score all the best games.  In the summer you would find us on the cold metal seats of Exhibition Stadium, nine rows up from first base, a couple of times a week, bonding with our fellow fans as we cheered for Dave Stieb, George Bell, Damaso Garcia, Willie Upshaw and Jesse Barfield; as we screamed at umpires for bad calls, kept the score meticulously in the glossy $5 program, sang along to “OK Blue Jays” and did the ritual passing of the hot dogs and beer down the row to the guy ten seats in.  My father was part of an amateur slow-pitch team, the Honda Hawks, and I was with him for every game, keeping score, managing the equipment and making sure the beers were cold.  Discussion of statistics, standings, games back, trades, runs batted in and earned run averages was impenetrable to the other half of our family.  Baseball was our thing, mine and his.  I can recall how frustrated he was the night the two of us went out to see The Natural, and couldn’t find a theatre that carried it – we had to settle for Phar LapThe Natural had to wait until its home video release a year later (back in the bad old days when it really was a year between theatre and tape).  And it seems the perfect movie for a father and son to watch together, as we did, on our uppity Betamax VCR that spat the tape out seven times before giving in and playing it.

For all its reference to classical myth, at its heart The Natural is truly about fathers and sons, and the relationship that they forge with each other through the game of baseball.  Roy Hobbs makes his famous bat Wonderboy from a tree on his farm that is split open by lightning the night his father dies.  Throughout his life we see him in search of father figures – the scout who pits him against The Whammer, coach Red Blow, New York Knights manager Pop Fisher, even, in a dark and twisted way, the sinister figures of gambler Gus Sands and corrupt Knights owner The Judge.  It is only at the end when Roy reconnects with childhood love Iris Gaines and discovers that her son is also his, that he finds the elusive father he has been searching for – in himself, leading to the triumphant, explosive home run at the finale that showers Knights Field with rain of pure light, accompanied by the famous Randy Newman fanfare that cannot fail to bring a tear to the eye of every grown man who ever played catch with his dad.  As Roy rounds the bases after that final blast, I can sense my father’s proud arm around my shoulders, and the warmth of the smile coming from his face.  He’s been gone over twenty years, but I can still feel a little part of his soul whenever I watch The Natural – perhaps even more than I do looking at his photograph.  He loved baseball, he loved the movie, and his sharing it with me was a gift that I continue to treasure – and can live again whenever I happen across the incredible tale of Roy Hobbs.  And like Roy, as I get older, I hope to come closer to finding, within myself, the part of my father that I miss the most.