Tag Archives: Toronto Maple Leafs

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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The questionable wisdom of electing potted plants

Recently, a member of the Canadian House of Commons,  John Williamson, invoked Martin Luther King Jr. to praise the abolishment of the long-gun registry. Not to be outclassed by his northern neighbor, an American Congressman, Allen West, opined that eighty members of the opposing party were Communists. The frequency of these lapses into idiocy by elected officials in their public statements is reaching critical mass, and so disheartening to the voters of our two respective countries that stupid statements, false equivalencies and comparisons to Hitler are becoming the new normal way of going about the people’s business. But you cannot blame a puppy for making a mess on the floor if he hasn’t been housebroken. The responsibility lies with the ones who put him there. Morons are running the show because we tossed them the job and sighed, “Have at it, oh insipid masses.”

Democracy is the most precious form of government and the most capable of greatness when insightful, committed people are in charge; it is equally the most susceptible to abuse and neglect when the wrong sorts get their hands on the public purse. One of the problems with our democracy is that the mechanism by which one chooses one’s representatives – the election – has for a long time, philosophically, been not about establishing a vision and a set of tenets to guide a nation, but simply about delivering the other guy a resounding whuppin’.

I’m not the first to come up with the analogy that we are treating our politicians like athletes and supporting the parties the way one would pledge undying allegiance to a particular sports franchise. Much as we expect nothing more from athletes in their post-game interviews other than “Yeah, well, we gave a hundred and ten percent out there,” it seems acceptable for politicians to spout inanities and continue winning. In Canada, the opposition bemoans how media revelations of mismanagement, ineptitude and suspected election fraud have done little to move the polling numbers of the sitting government. Yet the Toronto Maple Leafs haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1967 and they still sell out their home games. When you abdicate the responsibility of informed citizenship and become merely a fan, of course you’re not going to care how badly your guys are doing – they’re your guys, thick and thin. The thing is, whether the Leafs win or lose a game has no bearing on your daily life. Who wins elections does.

In a properly functioning democracy, the people deserve a true debate, where points of view are considered, argued vigorously, and evaluated on their merits. I have my ideological leanings, as we all do, but if it came to a choice between a reasoned and intelligent advocate of the other side versus one of my guys brainlessly reciting talking points and breaking Godwin’s Law, I’d choose the former. I want a functioning, curious and logical brain hard at work for my community, because they truly want to make it better and not because politics comes with a sweet pension. A person of true principle, not an empty suit who only understands every third word of the legislation we’re entrusting him to vote on; a seat-filler who last had an independent thought sometime in the summer of 1985.

Every hockey coach knows that one strong forward won’t make up for a bunch of guys who can’t skate. In politics, even the best leaders need a strong bench. We need to stop filling out the ranks of our representatives with twits and thugs we wouldn’t trust to wash our cars just because we might like the guy at the head of the pack, or the team they happen to play for. We deserve better than that. Our democracy deserves better than that.

Governing is not easy. It requires the best of the best. And yet, every political party in existence has its safe ridings or districts; areas where the loyalty to a team is so entrenched that little attention is ever paid to the caliber of the individual acting as the standard bearer, nor must much of a case be mounted to ensure that loyalty. It’s said of such races that the incumbent party could run a potted plant and still win. It should come as no surprise then when the winner shows in his or her representative career the kind of reasoned and nuanced approach to governing possessed by the average fern. (No offense to ferns.) Otherwise sane parents who would not for one moment tolerate their child throwing a tantrum and calling Uncle Frank a Nazi are only too eager to install like-minded infants into elected office because of party worship. And unless that stops, unless we choose the best of us and not the loudest, we’ll never get the government our democracy needs. We’ll only get Wrestlemania in suits and ties – and last time I checked, I’m not sure The Undertaker had much of a fiscal policy.