TORONTO BLUE JAYS, RIP. A FAN’S LAMENT

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And so it ends, as it almost does in baseball when you embrace a team, with heartache and a taste of bitterness. After a magical, three-month run that delivered such delirious thrills and joy to me and millions of others across the country, the Toronto Blue Jays are gone, leaving players and fans to agonize over what might have been.

It happens every year. Teams get so close to the final hurdle, only to falter at the finish line. If they didn’t, it wouldn’t be sports, and everyone’s team would win every year. In baseball, only one team out of 30 wins the World Series. How often is it the team you root for? The Cubs haven’t won since 1908, the Red Sox went 90 years without winning, Seattle and San Diego have never come close. Dare I mention the Expos (sigh)? Often, their losses go right to the heart.

Even this year, consider the Texas Rangers. Once a strike away from winning the World Series before collapsing, in the deciding fifth game against the Jays, they took a one-run lead into the bottom of the seventh inning. Whereupon, they committed three straight errors on routine grounders to throw the game away. And over in Houston, the young, fun-loving Astros blew a four-run lead in the eighth inning of their do-or-die showdown against, yes, Kansas City. How do you think their fans feel?

Now it’s our turn. Almost better to go down in a dispiriting 6-1 loss, than to cough it up the way the Jays did on Friday night, falling down on good old baseball fundamentals. Jose Bautista throwing to the wrong cutoff guy, as the winning run scored. Going an unforgiveable 0 for 12 with runners in scoring position. Failing to get down a bunt. The ninth inning was worst of images-2all, when the Jays appeared poised for yet another gritty comeback. Down a run, speedster Dalton Pompey stole second, then third, with none out. (As an aside, I was at the BC Lions game, amid a group of fans all following the Jays on our iPhones. The cry went up simultaneously: “Pompey stole third!”. I love this country…) But his razzle dazzle boldness on the base path went for naught. The next three Jays couldn’t deliver in the clutch, helped not at all by the umpire’s atrocious called strike on Ben Revere. Pompey was left on third, and Toronto went quietly into that good night. Losing a critical game you were so close to winning and could, should, have won, after Bautista’s heroics at the bat, leaves a real pain in ye old ticker. You could sense it in the players, too.

That’s the thing with baseball. You really have to love it to keep coming back. Truly, there is no sport like it. Hockey, football, basketball are slam-bang, fast-action affairs, ruled by a clock. There are only so many ways to score, and the team with the most points at the end of an hour’s playing time wins. Pretty basic. But in baseball, a zillion things can happen on every pitch. Often, the key play is some little tweak of brilliance that pales in grandeur to the mighty home run. And of course, as we know, there is no clock in baseball. In a big game, tension builds and builds to an almost unbearable level. As the final innings crawl by, most of the time is spent in dread, waiting, with no idea of what will happen next. After all that, when one cares as deeply as we did about the Blue Jays, losing such a tight, winnable game to an admittedly solid Kansas City club was tough to take. I spent the night tossing and turning, the game still whirling around in my head. If only this…If only that…

But man, overall, what an amazing season. The Blue Jays’ transformation into a can’t-lose, baseball powerhouse, after the acquisition of Troy Tulowitzki, Revere and David Price, was as much fun as this lifelong fan has had in a long, long time. And my screams when Bautista smashed that epic three-run homer against Texas, followed by the bat flip seen round the world….well, that’s baseball, too. An up and down escalator of emotions.

Like no other, baseball is a seasonal game. Hope in the spring, the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer, expiring in the deepening chill of fall, with a long winter to recover. I’ve been hooked since I first discovered baseball cards and the Brooklyn Dodgers. So, despite the unbearable heaviness of losing, I’ll be back next year. But it still hurts.

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TOP TEN LIST OF CONSERVATIVE DOWNERS

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Essential as election campaigns are, I’m not a fan. They always seem to bring out the worst in us: too much lazy punditry on the latest polls, too many analysts droning on and on as masters of the bleeding obvious, and leadership tours reduced to little more than orchestrated photo-ops and tightly controlled rallies. When was the last time anyone did some real reporting from the campaign trail? I’m not blaming the journalists. Everything is so packaged nowadays, what is there to report? Comment on the electoral horse race, focus on the occasional gaffe or two and that’s about it.

Meanwhile, partisanship and emotions run high, leaving little room for anything approaching illuminating debate. Not to mention the wealth of misleading attack ads and nastiness on the hustings, this time, mostly from the party of you know who. Is this what democracy has become? An appeal to the lowest common denominator? Demonizing your opponent as if he or she were running to deliberately ruin and bankrupt Canada, just because they have different views than you do? I’m so old I can remember when politics was a relatively honourable pursuit.

This dispiriting campaign is the worst in memory. Although the three major parties have platforms sufficiently varied to give voters a decent range of options, manipulation of the democratic process and the relentless, divisive drive of the Conservatives to nudge their support up to the 39 or so per cent that produced a majority last time is enough to drive one to pee in a cup….or call up Rob Ford….or both…. It is to despair.

Thank goodness for that seventh inning and José Bautista!

Just to further jolly myself, herewith my Top Ten list of deliberate electoral shenanigans by the Conservatives that, taken together, illustrate just how much this country needs a breath of fresh air on Monday. Cast a happy vote!

(This just in: none of it worked……hehe)

  1. The three-month campaign. Shades of Bob Dylan’s never-ending tour, this is by far the longest, most expensive campaign in Canada’s modern political history. It’s a marathon no one wanted but the Conservatives. It was a calculated decision they believed would be to their advantage: more total money to spend, lots of time to overcome any gaffes or bumps on the road (Duffy, anyone?), and difficult for the opposition parties to maintain momentum. Plus, perhaps reducing the turnout by boring people to death. As for me, I’d rather be on Pluto, where campaigns last only three weeks.
  1. As Joel Gray sang in Cabaret: “Money makes ze world go round.” Not only do the Tories have a political war chest absolutely stuffed with cash, they took advantage of being in power by spending oodles of taxpayers’ money to flood us with pro-government ads in the months leading up to the campaign.
  1. Dividing Canadians. As we have learned over the years, Stephen Harper could care less about the 60 per cent of Canadians opposed to the direction he is taking the country. As long as the anti-Harper vote is split between the NDP and the Liberals, he can claim victory with less than 40% of the popular vote. He’s not the first political leader to exploit that, of course, but it’s never good for the country. We are better together, than divided.
  1. Never has a major political party been less willing to debate the issues. First, the Conservatives kiboshed the heavily-watched, English-language TV debates that have long been part of the political process. (Harper did debate on Radio-Canada — twice!–  but that was in Quebec, where les Conservateurs had nowhere to go but up.) And at the same time, Tory candidates across the land have been missing in action at most all-candidate meetings. Sure, these grassroots gatherings rarely change anyone’s views, and they can sometimes turn into partisan gong shows but they are part of the process. Turning one’s back on the public in this small way shows contempt for democracy. debate
  1. There has rarely, if ever, been a government so obsessed with controlling its message. This has carried on into the campaign, where all reporters have experienced difficulty getting access to the Prime Minister for even a brief question, along with the inevitable, brusque control of political events by security.
  1. Yes, the date of the talks were set, but did the Conservatives, representing Canada, even consider asking them to be postponed for a month or so? Maybe a naive suggestion, but negotiating a major trade deal, with profound implications for the country, in the midst of an election campaign that, conceivably, you might lose, verges on the surreal. All behind closed doors, all without involving the Canadian people, and still without disclosure of more than a few meagre details. The rest is silence. How are voters supposed to make a decision on the merits or otherwise of Trans-Pacific Partnership, the largest free trade deal ever negotiated?
  1. Like Republicans to the south of us, the Conservatives seem to believe it’s better for their chances to make voting a bit more onerous. Hence, extra ID requirements for some, and unprecedented legislative proposals to restrict the independence of Elections Canada Some of this was withdrawn after a huge public outcry. But it showed where their hearts lay: the weaker Elections Canada and the lower the turnout, the better for the Conservatives, since a greater percentage of their supporters vote than all those young people. In the meantime, past budget cuts have surely contributed to the many well-pulicized, voter list fiascos and the schmozzola at many advance polling stations. It all smacks of a two-bit democracy.

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  1. The politics of fear and division. Ethnic Chinese and Punjabi voters have been targeted with specific ads in Chinese and Punjabi, making absurd claims that Justin Trudeau supports making pot accessible to kids and setting up neighbourhood brothels? Why are they the only groups targeted? Then, there are those election pamphlets suggesting ISIS would be attacking people in their bedrooms, if the Conservatives were not bombing ISIS. Tory candidate Dianne Watts, once a sensible mayor of Surrey, originally distanced herself from the messaging. She told reporters she had her own style. A day later, presumably after receiving a phone call from election headquarters, she embraced the fear-mongering.
  1. A blanketing of the airwaves with attack ads on Justin Trudeau’s economic policies during the campaign’s final few days that are even more misleading than usual. Observed Globe and Mail economics reporter David Parkinson: “They paint pictures of their opponents’ economic platforms that are about as close to reality as a Dali canvas.“
  1. The niqab. Hammering away on such an inflammatory topic in the heat of an election campaign to win votes is reprehensible. This issue brought me down more than any other. Speaking of José Batista, also thank whoever’s up there for Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi. He says it beautifully. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/divided-canada-stands-to-lose-what-makes-it-great/article26848363/

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(Cartoon by Steve Nease)

ADIOS, BUENVA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB

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It was a magical night, mixed with a heavy dose of poignancy, as the vaunted Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club made its final appearance in Vancouver. There will be no more tours. Many of the aging Cuban music stars we got to know and love from Ry Cooder’s venture to Havana in the 1990’s are no longer with us.

Only five Buena Vista originals remain, and one of them, the incomparable diva Omara Portuondo, will soon be 85. She could barely walk onto the stage at the sold-out Chan Centre. As soon as the music started up, however, her fountain of youth kicked in, transfixing us still with the haunting power of her voice and an aching ability to caress the lyrics. Spanish really is the loving tongue. For most of her short set, we were on our feet, showering her with the adulation befitting a legend who toured with Nat King Cole and began singing and dancing at the Tropicana Club way back in 1950. Legend, thy name is Omara.

The other old-timer who held centre stage for his own mini-concert was Eliades Ochoa. Although a relatively youthful 69, his strong voice now has a husky rasp to it Otherwise, he was the same endearing cowboy, clad in Johnny Cash black, with Stetson and a guitar, who was such a part of the initial group. In addition to his consummate musicianship, there is a lovely sweetness to Ochoa that just makes you smile when he’s on stage. Not only that, he shared his concern about the environment. Introducing a song about “la luna”, Ochoa noted: “Because of climate change, we may all end up living on the moon…”

(The other originals were trumpeter Manuel ‘Guajiro’ Mirabal, who stayed in the background, energetic laud player Barbarito Torres, who seemed to have aged barely a whit, and the 54-year old “kid”, Jesús ‘Aguaje’ Ramos, band director and trombonist extraordinaire.)

The now familiar saga of the Buena Vista Club remains one of my favourite feel-good stories. All those once celebrated veterans of the pre-Castro years of Cuban son living out their years, gradually forgotten as the revolution ticked on. Then, suddenly, out of nowhere, Ry Cooder drops in from some kind of music heaven, and they become world-famous. At their age!

What was going through the minds of 90-year old Compay Segundo, 79-year old Ruben González, 71-year old Ibrahim Ferrer and Omara Portuondo, as they left their modest rooms in crumbling Havana for the bright lights of New York and a concert at Carnegie Hall? On Wim Wenders’ affecting documentary, you could virtually feel them pinching themselves, staring out at the rapturous audience, their faces lit with such joy and emotion. Yet they were far from over-awed. Their swagger and aplomb from the old days remained intact.

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The day after their Vancouver appearance, we dug out the Buena Vista Social Club video (no DVD for us) and enjoyed it all over again. But this time there was the added, bittersweet reminder of the missing, so full of life back in 1998. In a nice touch, on a large, backdrop screen, the Vancouver concert ran silent profiles of members who had died, with many black Unknownand white photos from their early performing days when they were kings.

Meanwhile, their first CD remains the best-selling world album of all time. It charmed everyone, everywhere. The music is so infectious, with that rollicking Cuban beat, yet so simple -– songs about a couple going to the beach, an apartment burning down, someone heading off to the store and, of course, the enduring enchantment and mystery of love. Always sung with passion.

Many of those at the Chan were Spanish-speaking, and there’s nothing quite like an Hispanic audience. Many were soon up out of their seats and dancing wherever they could find a bit of room. It was great. Although many of the backing musicians had past connections with the original performers, organizers wisely injected some youth to the band. Singers Idania Valdés and particularly Carlos Calunga reminded us how it must have all looked and sounded at the Tropicana Club all those years ago.

All in all, it was a wonderfully satisfying night from musicians we will never see again. I couldn’t help think of the last few lines of Fern Hill by Dylan Thomas, the best poem ever written on the passage of time.

“Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,

         Time held me green and dying

     Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”

Gracias and adios, amigos.

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