LOOKING BACK ON BASEBALL, AS THE COLD WINDS BLOW

And so baseball winter has begun, made even harsher by the tragic death of Roy Halladay. The hopeful breezes of spring, the lazy hazy crazy days of summer and the beautifully slanted light of fall have all departed from the diamond, leaving us to bundle up and shiver through the bleak wintry months of no baseball. In that sweet, far-off time when I was a kid, the Series was always over by the second week of October, in time for the players to do their fall hunting. Now, with so many wildcard and playoff games piled on, the Series stretches into November, as ridiculous a month as ever was for the summer game. In November, you don’t think baseball, you think winter.

There was hardly a “wow” ending. The highly-anticipated seventh game of the recent Series was drearier than opening a tin of sardines. To paraphrase noted St. Louis Cardinal fan T.S. “Tommy” Eliot, “This is the way the year ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.” After two dreadful stanzas by Yu “Non-Whirling” Darvish, the Astros were up 5-0. Yet we had to endure seven more innings of tedium in front of an increasingly morose  crowd, before the Dodgers officially surrendered, 5-1, and the Houston Astros, of all teams, were World Series champions. It was a forlorn anti-climax to a Series that had been such a wonderful reminder of the kind of drama and individual heroics only baseball can deliver. There were spells of off-the-wall craziness never before witnessed on a World Series diamond. So many records were shattered, it felt like Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park in 1979. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I1CP1751wJA)

The Series even started with a record. The thermometer for Game One at Chavez Ravine hit 103 degrees on the fuddy-duddy Fahrenheit scale, nine degrees higher than the previous heat standard (baseball has statistics on everything). Then Dodger leadoff hitter Chris Taylor homered on the very first pitch his team faced. Had that ever happened? Nope. Mind you, there have only been 113 previous World Series.

Game Two was so full of extraordinary happenings it could have been the Trump White House. But in a good way. All told there were eight home runs, including a seemingly impossible five in extra innings. Both were Series firsts, with the added fillip of the Dodgers, down to their last strike in the bottom of the 10th, tying the game on a rare single, struck by a guy who hit .a measly 215 during the year.

The next two games were close, well-played contests, setting the stage for what many have called a World Series game for the ages. When home runs stopped rocketing into the bleachers, when three-run leads on both sides stopped being erased with a swing of the bat, and the last beleaguered pitcher staggered off the mound, the score was 13-12. Someone did one of those momentum charts. It went up and down like a pogo stick. The game lasted five hours and 17 minutes. Something inside me wanted it to go on forever. And after all that slugging, the game ended in the 10th inning with the puniest of baseball rallies: a two-out hit batter, a walk and a single. These few lines simply can’t do justice to the abundance of thrills that took place. But for those who want to read a fulsome write-up of the game, here’s a wild account by my favourite baseball writer these days, Jonah Keri. https://www.cbssports.com/mlb/news/astros-dodgers-world-series-game-5-the-moments-that-made-us-lose-our-damn-mind/ Even the New Yorker’s Roger Angell, the best chronicler baseball has ever had, roused himself at the age of 97 to write about it. https://www.newyorker.com/news/sporting-scene/astros-dodgers-world-series-home-runs

When the last of the Dodgers fell, befitting the team’s first World Series in its 55-year history, the young Astros naturally went wild.  Shortstop Carlos Correa was so pumped, he proposed to his girlfriend right there on the field. Live, on TV. Another Series first!

For Vancouver baseball fans, however, this was old hat. We had our championship moment in the sun weeks ago. For the fourth time in seven years, the hometown Canadians hoisted the highly-esteemed Bob Freitas Trophy, emblematic of baseball supremacy in the Single A Northwest League. We made the Everett Aquasox suck, forced the Tri-City Dust Devils to eat dust, sent the Hillsboro Hops hopping, doused the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes, polished off the Eugene Emeralds, made too much noise for Boise, and forced the Spokane Indians to change their name to the Indigenous People. It may not have been the World Series, but the exuberance and abandon of the young Canadians bouncing up and down on the field and frolicking around their championship trophy matched anything we saw in Los Angeles, albeit minus an engagement ring.

Minor league baseball is so much fun. Yes, Bull Durham had lots of other stuff going for it, but the charm of baseball’s best movie came mostly from its spot-on depiction of baseball in the minors, including the community’s loyal fan base (in the case of Annie Savoy, a bit more than “loyal”…). The movie gets it right. The way Vancouver has fallen in love with venerable Nat Bailey Stadium and its Single A Canadians, even lower on the Blue Jays’ farm team ladder than the Lansing Lugnuts, reminds one that money, hype and saturation, endlessly-analytical coverage aren’t everything in sports. Sometimes there’s just the joy of the game, itself.

I can’t remember having a bad time at Nat Bailey. It’s a place for families and kids, lifelong baseball fans, couples on a date, “bros” who just want to suck back a brew or two in the sun and, well, just about everyone. The entire park is a no-lout zone. This past summer was particularly splendid. Not only did the Canadians qualify for the playoffs before sell-out crowds, they won it all. I took in two of the games, including the one that brought the C’s their league championship in glorious September.

Both were tight, 2-1 victories, but the mood in the stands was anything but tense. During Game One, half a dozen women sitting behind me were having a grand time, chatting away and watching the game, too. (“Can you imagine trying to hit 94 mph?….Their pitcher looks 12….”) When a dude photo-bombed their selfie, they killed themselves laughing. As for my lonely guy self, I was able to muse once again on that baseball imponderable: why are there coaching boxes if the coaches are never in them? I also noticed with delight that a coach for the visitors was a fellow named Turtle Thomas.

The game went into the eighth inning, still scoreless, when the C’s Logan Warmoth, who had only one homer all year and whose older brother is a morning TV news anchor in Florida, unexpectedly lined the ball into the left-field stands for a two-run dinger, and we all went crazy. After a nerve-wracking ninth, the players ran onto the field, celebrating as if this really was the World Series.

The good times continued on the night Vancouver claimed the trophy. Three infectiously happy young Latina women in the next row kept up a steady din of cheering in Spanish, standing up to dance every time there was a hint of music. They really lit up whenever the C’s young Venezuelan third baseman Dieferson Barreto came to bat. “Number 5. He’s the best,” one told me. Sister, friend, partner? Who cares?

You knew it was going to be a special evening when perennial also-ran Wasabi won the Sushi Mascot Race. Once again, Logan Warmoth was the hero. The Canadians had only two hits all night, but Warmoth’s two-run single was one of them, and the home team held on to win. As the final batter went down on strikes, the players hurled their gloves into the air and rushed into each other’s arm. It was a joyous sight. No matter this was Single A, no matter the trophy was named after someone they had never heard of and no matter they were playing for a city in a foreign country with a Queen, the metric system and weird coins called loonies, they could not have been happier. Nor could we in the stands. No one wanted to leave.

 

(Photo by Megan Stewart)

 

 

 

 

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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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‘I CAN’T BELIEVE WHAT I JUST SAW”

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In 1975, Red Sox catcher Carlton Fisk hit one of the most famous home runs in World Series history, standing at home plate, waving the ball fair – by inches—as it hurtled through the Fenway night. His homer came in the bottom of the 12th inning of a do-or-die game for the Sox against the powerful Cincinnati Reds.

For years afterwards, Fisk refused to watch replays of his heart-stopping blow. He wanted to remember the moment, exactly how he felt and what he saw during those magical few seconds that catapulted him into baseball lore.

The more you watch a replay, Fisk felt, the more it blurs the actual event in one’s mind. Instead of what really happened, one remembers the ubiquitous replay.

That’s how I feel right now about Saturday night’s unforgettable ending to the game between those same Sox and the hometown St. Louis Cardinals. A walkoff obstruction call. Who’s ever heard of such a thing? Certainly, nothing like it had ever happened before in the 110-year history of the World Series.

I want to remember how it was to watch that sizzling series of events unfold in little more than a twinkling of an eye. Rooting for the Red Sox, I was already on the edge of the couch, with the game tied 4-4 in the last of the ninth, runners on second and third and only one out, as Uehara pitched to Jon Jay (why didn’t they walk him?)…..Shades of Casey at the Bat: Jimmy safe at second and Blake a-hugging third….

In a flash, Jay hits the ball hard, Pedroia dives full out, snares it, scrambles to his feet and throws home,  as tattooed Molina lumbers towards the plate. My first quick thought: would the catcher, with the unlikely name of Jarrod Saltalamacchia, make the tag? Yes! O joy!

Then, what the heck!? Saltalamacchia immediately throws to third in a risky attempt to nail the ailing Craig, already sliding for the base. The ball sails into foul territory. That’s it, the game is over. But wait. Somehow, Craig trips, Nava hustles after the wayward baseball, throws home, and it’s actually going to be close. He got him! Craig is surely out!  Extra innings. More joy!

But wait, again. What’s that weird signal from the home plate umpire? He’s not calling safe or out. He’s waving his arms, as if it’s over. Leaping, chirping Cards are suddenly swarming the field. What on earth is going on?

All this drama unfolded in just a few fleeting  seconds.

Let the debate continue into the next Millennium on the right and wrong of the obstruction call at third, allowing  Craig to score the winning run on as bizarre a play as you will ever see.  By an ump named James Joyce, too. (“Yes,” he thought. “Yes, I will make that call. Yes.”)

As for me, I will try to retain instead those precious moments when all hell broke loose, with the game on the line, the ending uncertain, and my emotions racing up and down like an out-of-control roller coaster.

For the umpteenth time, I give thanks to the great Umpire upstairs who made me a baseball fan.