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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YOGI PLAYED BASEBALL, TOO….

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A few words on the late, great Lawrence Peter Berra, known to one and all, except Yankee manager Casey Stengel, as casey-yogiYogi. The Old Perfessor always referred to him as “my man” or “Mr. Berra”. It was his show of respect for the team’s catcher and long-time clean-up hitter. While others might mock and deride Berra’s squat stature, homely mug and lack of verbal sophistication, wise Casey knew just how key Berra was to the success of the Yankees in those long-ago years when they seemed to win the World Series every year. From behind the plate, he guided the team’s often far from brilliant pitching staff and was always a danger at the bat. A perennial MVP candidate during the 1950’s, Berra won the award three times. Only the dubious Barry Bonds has more.

So I am a little perturbed that so much written about Yogi since he died this month has concentrated on his malapropisms and humourous observations (“You observe a lot by watching”), some of which he may actually have said. People who wouldn’t know an intentional walk from a forced march lapped it up. Inevitable, I suppose, in this day of Google, internet lists, short attention spans and the vast reach of social media, but amid all the renewed merriment, often forgotten was how great a ballplayer Yogi Berra really was.

I haven’t forgotten. From my first moment of baseball consciousness, I hated Yogi’s team, the New York Yankees. How could anyone cheer for the Yanks, especially at World Series time, when they regularly took on the Brooklyn Dodgers? The beloved Bums had not only broken baseball’s colour line with Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe, they played in an intimate bandbox of a stadium, festooned by signs for local haberdashers and the like. They didn’t even represent a city. Brooklyn was a borough. Admirable underdogs, all the way.

The Yankees, on the other hand, held their home games in soulless, cavernous Yankee Stadium, where no one, not even Mickey Mantle or Babe Ruth managed to hit a baseball clean out of the park, they had greedy, colourless owners, and were one of the last teams in the majors to field a black player in their line-up, eight years after Robinson’s historic season. As someone once said, rooting for the Yankees was like rooting for General Motors.

They also had Yogi. There was no Yankee batter I feared more than Yogi Berra. Whenever he came up, I got nervous. Sure, Mantle might hit a homer, but he might just as easily strike out. Berra, notorious for swinging at balls so far out of the strike zone they might have been in Poughkeepsie, almost never fanned – just 414 times in 19 seasons. About once every five games. That’s insane for a power hitter. Ted Williams, perhaps the greatest hitter ever, struck out twice as often. But of course, what frightened me more was how often Berra delivered in the clutch. Mantle and Dimaggio, notwithstanding, it was Yogi who led the Yankees in RBI’s for seven straight years. In big games, he seemed nerveless. During the Yankee’s last three World Series against the Dodgers, Berra hit .429, .417 and .369. In 1956, the only Series I really remember, he knocked in 10 runs, while socking three round-trippers, including two in the do-or-die seventh game. Ugh., Berra was not some Bob Uecker-like figure of fun. He was one of the best catchers of all time.

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As much as I couldn’t stand what he did to my favourite teams, it was pretty impossible to dislike Yogi. Grudgingly, and privately, I loved the guy. He was so ordinary, down-to-earth and un-Yankeelike. Although he may have worn the team’s high-class pinstripes,  he was more like your friendly neighbourhood plumber. You wouldn’t catch Berra out partying at New York’s notorious Copacabana Club, or entertaining “baseball Mary’s”. He was married heart and soul to Carmen, a union that lasted 65 years. And when Yogi went to war at the age of 19, he was no bystander, posing for photo-ops. He was an active naval gunner, a decorated veteran of the Allies’ D-Day invasion, and a casualty, wounded during an assault on Marseille.

As for baseball, he hit a home run in his first major league game. His career total of 358 homers is the most by anyone less than 68 inches high. He also had the first pinch-hit home run in World Series history, off the ill-starred Ralph Branca in 1947. Much as it hurts, I have to acknowledge, as well, his 10 World Series rings, part of a Yankee dynasty that won those championships in a ridiculously short span of 15 years. Summed up Hall-of-Famer Mel Ott: “He seemed to be doing everything wrong, yet everything came out right. He stopped everything behind the plate and hit everything in front of it.”

1960-Yogi-in-left-270-AStill, I’m glad to recount my most cherished fBerra moment. It came in the bottom of the ninth inning in the seventh game of the 1960 Series against Pittsburgh, with the score tied. When Bill Mazeroski hit his famous walk-off home run to slay the mighty Yankees, it was Berra, out in left field, who was closest to the ball sailing over the high outfield wall. I can hear the announcer now: “Berra’s going back. He’s looking up….and its gone!” Sorry, Yogi.

As for all those Yogi-isms, I’m so old I can remember when there were only a few of them, lovingly recounted in the Baseball Digest, which I bought every month at the local drugstore. The fact they were in the Digest, before non-baseball fans twigged to how funny Yogi could be and began piling on, makes me think he really did say those things. “I’d like to thank everyone for making this night necessary,” he told fans during Yogi Berra night in St. Louis. “Bill Dickey is learning me his experiences.” The great comment that no one goes to a certain restaurant anymore, because it’s always crowded? If memory serves, Baseball Digest reported that one in the 1960’s, referencing it to an Italian eatery in Minneapolis. So it must be true. “It ain’t over till it’s over” was uttered by Yogi during his time as manager of the New York Mets. And of course, he was right. The Mets came from nowhere to win their division.

But my favourite Yogi-ism referred to the lengthening shadows that would gradually creep over the field at Yankee Stadium, as the game went on. At some point, the pitcher’s mound would be in shadow, while the batter’s box was in sunlight, not an easy situation for a hitter. As Berra put it: “It gets late early out there.” Perfect.

Few players have given such pleasure to those who know baseball, and to those who don’t. Now, it really is over. Lawrence Peter Berra, RIP. And if you come to a fork in the road on the way to the great baseball diamond in the sky, take it.

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P.S. You never know when a Yogi-ism will pop out. At a jazz session I took in Saturday afternoon, keyboard cat Bob Murphy observed: “90 per cent of jazz is half improvisational.” And here is a small, perfect gem of a piece on Yogi Berra by the sweetest prince of all baseball writers, Roger Angell, still turning out gorgeous prose in his 90’s. newyorker.com/news/sporting-scene/postscript-yogi-berra-1925-2015

I SEE BY THE PAPERS……

E01JEC Newspaper readers in Nisch, 1914. Image shot 1914. Exact date unknown.

E01JEC Newspaper readers in Nisch, 1914. Image shot 1914. Exact date unknown.

As regular readers know by now, I remain a big fan of newspapers, despite their ever-diminishing state. Why, just this weekend, I found all sorts of goodies distributed among their varied pages. The treasures are still there. You just have to look a bit harder and be a bit more patient these days. This being both the end of B.C. Day and the end of the full moons, I thought I would share a few. rnewspapersok1. I hadn’t quite realized before that the state most affected by climate change is not media-saturated, rain-starved California, but, of course, Alaska. So far, this summer, wildfires have burned through more than 20,000 square kilometres of Alaskan forestry, a swath larger than all of Connecticut. Other bad stuff, too. An excellent story from Saturday’s Vancouver Sun, written by the Washington Post’s environment reporter, Chris Mooney. http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2015/07/26/alaskas-terrifying-wildfire-season-and-what-it-says-about-climate-change/ 2. The legendary Mark Starowicz, former editor of the McGill Daily and part of so many great things at CBC (As It Happens, Sunday Morning, The Journal, Canada: A People’s History) reflects on the Mother Corp’s decision to kill its in-house documentary unit: “There’s a sadness that comes form the realization that the institution has been totally starved. Starved. The price is extraordinary in what’s not being produced.” 3. In his newly-published autobiography, NDP leader Tom Mulcair says it took him a while to learn that “not every shot has to be a hardball to the head.” 4. North Korea has hopes of becoming an international surfing destination. 5. It’s possible to write about Nantucket without a rhyming couplet in sight. 6. Photography doesn’t get any better or more imaginative than this. Amazing series of photos by the Globe and Mail’s John Lehmann, featuring artists from B.C. Ballet in locations and poses you won’t believe. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/british-columbia/in-photos-bc-day/article25806490/ 7. The per-night price of a room at the storied Hotel Vancouver this weekend was $849. 280715-MATT-WEB_3389347b 8. Lord Sewel’s favourite bra is orange. 9. Stephen Harper once wondered out loud: “Why does nothing happen around here unless I say ‘fuck’?” 10. In the week before Sunday’s election call, the Conservative government announced nearly $4 billion worth of government projects across the country. 11. PostMedia columnist Stephen Maher reminded us that when Stephen Harper was head of the National Citizens’ Coalition, he challenged election spending limits imposed on so-called third parties all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. Now, that same Steve guy is justifying his early election call to give his party the chance to drown the country in their own ads, over fears of alleged big bucks being spent by those once-lauded third parties that might sway voters, too. images-2 copy 4Only these third parties are “big unions and corporations…staffed by former Liberal and NDP operations,” the Conservative Party warned its members last week. 12. It has taken Russell Brown less than three years to rise from law school professor to a seat on the Supreme Court of Canada. Apparently it didn’t hurt to have blogged in 2008 that he hopes Stephen Harper wins a majority, and that the Liberals “just fade away” by electing a leader who is “unspeakably awful”. 13. The word “terrorism” is now being used openly by Israeli authorities, including Benjamin Netanyahu, to describe recent attacks by extremist Jewish settlers on unarmed Palestinians. 14. The Bay Area (San Francisco et al) has two dozen transit agencies, each with its own system, funding sources and fare structure. And we complain about TransLink…. 15. Surrey’s Adam Lowen is close to a first in baseball history: going from pitcher to hitter and back to a pitcher, all in the major leagues. Story here: http://www.theprovince.com/sports/Ewen+league+pitcher+Check+Outfielder+Check+Pitcher+again+Could+happen/11261040/story.html 16. On Aug. 1, 1959, Premier W.A.C. Bennett fired a flaming arrow at a raft piled high with voided government bonds from a distance of five feet. He missed. Luckily, a well-prepared Mountie, hidden at the back of the raft, managed to light the paper bonfire, and lo, one of the province’s most outlandish political stunts, dubbed by Paul St. Pierre “the biggest thing” since the cremation of Sam McGee, became part of B.C. lore. (Thanks to John Mackie.) 17. Premier Christy Clark orders a crackdown on gun violence in B.C. That should be easy….

A spill response boat works to clean up bunker fuel leaking from the bulk carrier cargo ship Marathassa anchored on Burrard Inlet in Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday April 9, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

A spill response boat works to clean up bunker fuel leaking from the bulk carrier cargo ship Marathassa anchored on Burrard Inlet in Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday April 9, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

18. Get this. According to an independent review: When a large, toxic fuel spill began fouling English Bay last April, Canadian Coast Guard staff were unsure of their roles. What????? Then, when Port of Vancouver said they couldn’t see the spill and were taking water samples, the private sector response team thought the Port meant they were “standing down”, passed that on to the Coast Guard, who then de-escalated their alert. Further delay resulted from cellphone and computer problems. Oh yes, and once they finally did figure out what to do, there were not enough Coast Guard staff around, since a bunch of them had been busy doing something else in “Granville Channel”, wherever that is. As a result of this Comedy of Errors, which would have done Shakespeare proud, review author John Butler concluded: “The response was delayed by one hour and 49 minutes due to confusion of roles and responsibilities, miscommunications and technology issues.” This is what federal cabinet minister James Moore at the time called a “world class” response. 19. Sally Forth continues to be unfunny, and Rex Morgan, alas, unreadable. 20. Baseball in Toronto is fun again. Oh, and i’m still working my way through the Sunday New York Times. j-seward-johnsons-statue-of-newspaper-reader-at-princeton-uni-garden

MIGHTY DONALD AT THE BAT

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Earlier this week, on a beautiful night for baseball, I was at the Skydome for what hardly promised to be a classic ball game, between the struggling Blue Jays and woeful White Sox. But my friend Peter McNelly, having spent part of his boyhood in Chicago, remains a diehard Sox fan, and me, well, I love baseball at any level, so off we went. Of course, since baseball ever produces the unexpected, what transpired on the field, against all expectation, was as exciting a game as I can remember (and I remember Mazeroski’s homer!).

It was an old-fashioned slugfest, with more twists and turns than the Monte Carlo Grand Prix. It was a pitchers’ duel all right, as in who would get to the showers first: the Jays’ R.A. Dickey, whose knuckleball danced about as much as I did at my high school Spring Prom, or White Sox starter John Danks, whose performance was as clammy as his name suggests. Both got an early dousing after a mere five innings of terrible hurling, with the Blue Jays ahead 6-5.

The hit parade continued, enhanced by more bad pitching, poor Toronto fielding (how hard is it to catch a lazy fly ball to right field?) and failures by the hometown lads to turn the double play. As the game see-sawed back and forth, however, it sure was fun to watch. José Bautista had three doubles and five RBIs, while the Jays’ power-hitting third baseman Josh Donaldson had scored all four times up, following a homer, a double, a single and a walk.

Still, heading to the bottom of the ninth, the White Sox led 9-7. With their ace reliever David Robertson and his intimidating  0.98 ERA in the game to close out the Jays, there didn’t seem much hope. What happened next inspired me to poetry. (Apologies to Ernest Thayer’s classic Casey at the Bat, while Donald, naturally, is the heroic Josh Donaldson. ‘nuff said.)

The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Hogtown nine that day:

The score stood nine to seven, with but an inning left to play,

And when the lights-out closer strode atop the mound,

A pall-like silence fell upon the patrons of the ground.

 

Quite a few got up to leave in deep despair.

The rest hung on to hope that rises o so rare.

We thought, “If only Donald could get a whack at that—

We’d put up even money now, with Donald at the bat.”

 

But Thole preceded Donald, as did the man José,

And the former was utility, while the latter no rosé.

So upon that Blue Jay multitude grim melancholy sat,

For there seemed but little chance of Donald getting up to bat.

 

But Thole let drive a single, to the wonderment of all,

And much DL-ed José tore the cover off the ball;

And when the turf had lifted, and we saw what had occurred,

There was Reyes safe at second, and Thole hugging third.

 

Then from 10,000 throats and more there rose a lusty roar;

It rumbled through the harbour, it rattled downtown’s core.

It pounded on the Parkway and deafened where I sat,

For Donald, mighty Donald, was advancing to the bat.

 

There was ease in Donald’s manner, as he stepped up to the plate;

There was strength in Donald’s bearing and a purpose to his gait.

And when, responding to the cheers, he gave his bat a swish,

No stranger in the crowd could doubt ‘twas Donald at the dish.

 

All our eyes were on him as he took a practice swing;

So many tongues applauded, and his eyes they seemed to sting.

Then while the haughty hurler ground the ball into his glove,

Defiance flashed in Donald’s stance, from him there was no love.

 

And now the horsehide sphere came hurtling through the air,

And Donald stood a-watching it in lofty manner there.

Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped—

“That ain’t my style,” said Donald. “Ball one!” the umpire said.

 

With a smile of Blue Jay charity, great Donald’s visage shone;

He toed the batter’s box, and urged the ball game on.

He waited for the pitcher. Once more the baseball hissed;

And Donald took a mighty swing, and mighty Donald missed.

 

The yells were getting louder, we all jumped up and down;

And even the crusty skipper could not quite make a frown.

Now the moundsman holds the ball, and now he lets it go,

And now the air is shattered with the force of Donald’s blow.

 

Oh, somewhere in this blighted land, the air is full of gloom,

Nickelback plays somewhere, and somewhere there is doom;

And somewhere cranks are cursing, and somewhere change is hard,

But there is joy in Hogtown – mighty Donald had gone yard.

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THE GOOD OLD BASEBALL GAME

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One of my favourites among the many things Yogi Berra never said is: “There’s one word that describes baseball: you never know.” Like so many Berra-isms (“It gets late early out there.”), it has a wisdom all its own. For it really is one of the great things about baseball: you just never know.

So many sports have a sameness to them, and I don’t mean that as a knock. I’m a huge hockey fan, but basically, the players go up and down the ice trying to score. It’s pretty basic. How many Kevin Bieksa-type stanchion goals are there in a season? Not so with baseball. It’s been played for more than 125 years, and you can still go the ballpark and see something that’s never happened before. Last year, at Safeco Field, I saw the left fielder throw out a runner at first (explanation available on request). On the scoreboard, it was listed as “grounded out to left field”. Surely, a first. And just a few days ago, the Pittsburgh Pirates turned, after all these years, baseball’s first ever, 4-5-4 triple play. (http://thebiglead.com/2015/05/10/the-pittsburgh-pirates-turned-the-first-4-5-4-triple-play-in-mlb-history-last-night/)

So it was last Friday night at warm and fuzzy Safeco Field in Seattle, where we journeyed to watch the hometown Mariners take on the visiting big bad Boston Bruin, er Red Sox. There was nothing as historic as the Pirates’ bizarre triple play, although the infield shift against veteran Boston slugger Big Papi (aka David Ortiz) did produce a pretty rare, 6-5-3 double play. But it was another example of how a game can lumber along, high on the snooze chart, and then, all of a sudden….well, you just never know.

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Big Papi (6’4”, 230 pounds) was a major reason we were there. One of these years will be his last in the big leagues, and maybe it’s this one. Baseball’s best ever designated hitter and an incomparable clutch hitter will be 40 in November, and the diabolical shift applied against him must take a lot of the fun out of the game. Both the shortstop and the second ortiz-red-soxbaseman crowd the infield gap between first and second, while the third baseman plays just to the right of second base, making it almost impossible for Ortiz to pull the ball through the infield for a hit. He was batting a mere .218 coming into the game.

But it’s hard to keep Big Papi’s face in a permanent frown. There he was yukking it up before the game with fellow Latino stars, Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz, who happen to play for the Mariners. Ortiz gave Cano a big bear hug before they headed to their rival dugouts. I love that stuff.

Once the game started, the Mariners made Boston starter Clay Buchholz look like pre-steroids Roger Clemens on the mound. No matter that Buchholz came into the game with a mere two wins and a bulging ERA of 5.73. He was more than enough for Seattle’s woeful banjo-hitters. Even the mighty Cruz, a one-person wrecking crew for the M’s this year, struck out all three times up against the baffling Buchholz, who was mixing pitches to perfection. His totals after eight innings: 3 hits, no walks, 11 strikeouts. Something to admire if it had been an ace like Roy Halladay or Madison Bumgarner on the mound, but against Clayton Daniel Buchholz from Nederland, Texas? Zzzzz.

In fact, he made only one bad pitch all night. Of course, baseball being baseball, some guy named Seth Smith hit it eight miles high into the centerfield bleachers in the bottom of the sixth inning to tie the game at a scintillating 1-1. That brief moment of excitement, however, failed to temper the accumulating groans, as Mighty Clay Buchholz struck out all three flailing Mariners in the seventh. As my constant companion observed of one hapless victim: “That guy couldn’t hit the nose on his face.”

With the Red Sox almost as quiet against ex-Blue Jay J.A. Happ, it was slumber-land, folks. You know it’s a snoozer when the Green Boat’s video victory in the moronic, between-innings Hydro Challenge produced the loudest cheer of the night.

Then came the last of the ninth. The scoreboard still registered a night of plate failure: seven hits for Boston, three for the hometown Mariners. Score 1-1. For some reason, the crowd woke up. All of a sudden, everyone was on their feet, cheering. With one down, Brad Miller beat out an infield grounder by the hair on his chinny chin chin.

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The slumping Cano was an easy out on a roller to first that sent Miller to second. Two out. But the crowd continued to roar. Maybe that unsettled Red Sox manager John Farrell. He pulled a rock. With first base open and Nelson Cruz, far and away Seattle’s best hitter, coming up, Farrell replaced leftie Tommy Layne with right-hander Junichi Tazawa to face the right-handed hitting Cruz. Sure, he had already fanned three times and was batting just .125 against Tazawa, but he was still the ever-dangerous Nelson Cruz, hitting .355 for the year. Why not leave Layne in the game, walk Cruz and pitch to left-hand hitting Kyle Seager and his mediocre .248 batting average? With two out, a man on second and the scored tied, a runner on first is meaningless.

Farrell ignored my advice from 30 rows up out in right field and decided to pitch to Cruz. The count went to 3-2. Surely now, Tazawa would put him on, or at least give him nothing decent to hit. Nope. With the crowd in a frenzy, the pitch came in across the heart of the plate. Cruz smacked it on a line to the wall in left-centre field. Miller scored easily. In a classic baseball finish, on a full count, with two out in the bottom of the ninth, the Mariners had snatched the game. After 8.5 innings of somnambulism, the crowd cheered itself hoarse, and we had an early getaway back to Vancouver, feeling good. You just never know.

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P.S. Afterwards, Farrell admitted he’d been a goof. “Terrible decision on my part,” he said, of not walking Cruz. “I own that one.’’ As has been said more than once, baseball managers don’t win many games, but they sure lose a lot.

WINLESS IN SEATTLE

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It was not your normal crowd at an American ballpark. Those streaming through the turnstiles included a guy wearing a shirt with Naslund written on the back, a couple wearing Saskatchewan Roughriders green, fans wrapped in large Canadian IMG_3104flags, Bautista jerseys galore, plus thousands and thousands of blue-capped Vancouverites. Heck, there was even someone in full Expos regalia (okay, that was me…). Yep, it was Blue Jays night at Safeco Field in Seattle, time for the annual migration of Jays fans to the Emerald City, to remind “America’s National Pastime” that, hey, Canadians are interested, too.

Seemingly half of Vancouver, including moi-même, go every year when the Jays hit town, and it’s always a fun night at ye olde ball park, particularly when hometown and visiting fans try to outshout each other with their respective chants of “Let’s Go, Blue Jays!” and “Let’s go, Mariners!”. Yes, the Yankees and Red Sox attract hordes of their die-hard rooters to Safeco, too, but Blue Jay fans are Canadians. We’re nice about it.

The good nature of the fan rivalry has been helped by the fact that both the Jays and Mariners have been so hapless in recent years, nestling at the bottom of their respective divisions. So there’s been little at stake. Win? Lose? Who really cares?

Not this year. There was an edge in the stands. Both teams have surpassed pre-season predictions and are now contending for post-season wldcards. This Jays-Mariners series actually meant something. We were there for the first game last Monday night, and the buzz from the pews was electrifying, to say nothing of the sudden bolt of lightning and thunderclap that ushered in the seventh inning to a huge roar from paying customers.

Adding to the hype was the presence of the best pitcher in the American League on the mound, the Mariners’ “King Felix” Hernandez, who’s been in the best groove of his career this summer. There was also the lingering glow from the Jays’ spine-tingling 19-inning victory just the night before against Detroit. The thrill of it all produced a crowd of 41,000, an amazing turnout for a Monday night game in Seattle, including, of course, many thousands of Jays boosters from north of the border.

We were loud right from the start, our mighty voices singing along with great lust to O Canada. Used to their own fans’ jaded silence during the U.S. National Anthem, some Mariner players seemed startled by all that patriotic noise. They looked up at us with bemused astonishment: “What the….?”

Then, when Josė Bautista rocketed a 400-foot homer on a line to left field to put the Jays ahead in the fourth inning, we cheered ourselves hoarse. Alas, that was to be our last hurrah, as they say. “King Felix” hitched up his belt, and proceeded to whiff seven of the next 12 batters. By the time he left, after seven masterful innings, the once woeful Mariners had whacked extra base hits all over Safeco Field and led by the humiliating count of 11-1. We were a sombre, disappointed bunch, all right, as the raucous Mariner fans celebrated all around us.

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Their joint was jumpin’, and we headed quietly for the exits, our initial exuberance long since deflated. Sigh.

Yet, listening to the comforting hum of the Mariners’ post-game show on our way up the I-5, I was reminded once again how so much of sports is a matter of perspective.

For all us Jays fans who thought the game a dismal disaster, there were so many more Mariner supporters who hailed the night as the most enjoyable of the year.

Felix Hernandez, his team-mates, the Mariners’ marvellous manager Lloyd McLendon, and the commentators all talked about what a good time the game was. “I think that was the best crowd and the most excitement at Safeco Field all year,” said one of the radio guys. The loud presence of so many Blue Jay rooters created a true festive atmosphere and rooting rivalry in the stands, and, of course, as mentioned, the game was important to the two teams. You knew the evening was special, when Hernandez stuck around after his 7th inning departure, watching the rest of the game from the front railing of the dugout, while gesturing and kibitzing with the hometown fans. Amid my envy, I couldn’t help feeling happy for the long-suffering Mariners, a team I like a lot this year.

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   (Felix Hernandez yukking it up with his team-mates and fans, after leaving the game with an 11-1 lead.)

The next two games in Seattle were not much better for the faltering Jays. They dropped the pair of them, 6-3 and 2-0, managing a grand total of just four runs in their three games against a Mariners’ pitching staff that may be the best in the league.

As for the unsung Mariners, they have been on a tear, winning 12 of their past 15 games, to catapult them into the second wild card spot. This was a team that few expected to be far from another last-place finish. Yet here they are, 11 games over .500. It’s astonishing what timely hitting and lights-out pitching will do. To heck with the Blue Jays. This team’s fun. Plus, they have two Canadians on their roster (Victoria’s Michael Saunders and Ladner’s James Paxton) and one o the few former Expos left in the bigs, Endy Chavez. “Let’s Go, Mariners!”

(The Vancouver Sun’s Iain MacIntyre has a good piece on Paxton in today’s paper: http://www.vancouversun.com/sports/Greatness+written+over+James+Paxton/10126216/story.html And here’s my blog item on the young Fraser Valley phenom’s first major league start last September. https://mickleblog.wordpress.com/2013/09/09/kid-from-ladner-hits-the-big-time/ )

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      (Young diehard Jays fan celebrates the team’s third and last hit of the game, a late single by Rasmus.)

GLORY DAYS

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(free-form, artistic photo by Mickle. Focus, schmocus!)

Memorable moments from Monday night at Nat Bailey Stadium, when the Single A Vancouver Canadians, improbably, won their third straight Northwest League Championship, before a rollicking, capacity crowd:

  1. Some cruel wag yelling “Hit the ball to Buckner!”, in recognition of the infamous World Series error by Bill Buckner, now hitting coach for the visiting Boise Hawks. Ok, it was me. Sorry, Bill.

2. First groundball to Boise shortstop Danny Lockhart results in a throw that sails over the firstbaseman’s head. Second groundball to Boise shortstop Danny Lockhart results in a throw that sails over the first baseman’s head. Third groundball to Boise shortshop Danny Lockhart doesn’t result in a throw that sails over the first baseman’s head. Instead, he drops the ball.

3. Harmless grounder by the C’s Dawel Lugo hits the bag at first and caroms into short right field for a double. Only in baseball. “Looks like a line drive in the box score,” I yell.

4. Hero of the evening, C’s pitcher Tom Robson, another stellar product from the Langley/Ladner baseball system, exits the game in the seventh inning to a prolonged standing ovation, after blanking the Hawks on three hits.

5. Sweeping curve balls from Boise’s crafty, pint-sized lefty Mark Iannazzo have hometown hitters tied up in knots, reminding this grizzled old vet of famed reliever Elroy Face.

6. At the end, with the pumped crowd in an uproar, the young Vancouver Canadian players go wild, tossing their caps in the air, embracing and jumping up and down like, well, the kids they still are. Don’t tell them the Freitas Cup is some meaningless trophy for a Single A championship, light years from the World Series. “I couldn’t sleep well. I had the jitters all day,” says catcher Mike Reeves from Peterborough.

7. In the most heart-tugging moment of the night, the players – almost all Americans and Latinos – serenade the crowd with an off-key, raucous rendition of O Canada.

Canuckleheads, schmuckleheads!