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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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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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.)