Game 28: Rogers Centre, Toronto

O Canada!

Our home and native land!

True patriot love in all thy sons command.

With glowing hearts we see thee rise,

The True North strong and free!

From far and wide,

O Canada,
we stand on guard for thee.

God keep our land glorious and free!

O Canada,
we stand on guard for thee.

O Canada,
we stand on guard for thee.

In the early 90’s, while other kids were slicing through defenses as Bo Jackson and Walter Peyton in Tecmo Bowl, I was bunting and stealing with Tim Raines and Vince Coleman and launching home runs with Matt Nokes and Darryl Strawberry in RBI Baseball.

There were only 10 team options on the original game: California, Boston, Minnesota, St. Louis, Houston, New York Mets, Detroit, San Francisco, and the American and National League All-Stars. Those were your only options. Before each game, after you selected your teams, the game would play the first few measures of the Star-Spangled Banner. It was always somewhat annoying because I was ready to play ball and was forced to sit through the song. I would still press A repeatedly, trying my hardest to speed up the game…it never helped. But I did it anyway.

A few years later, I picked up RBI Baseball 3, which featured every MLB team with expanded current rosters, past playoff team rosters, and much thinner ballplayers. I remember being so excited to play as the entire Montreal team because Tim Raines was the only player from the original game from the Expos and he was so fast. I also had a strange affinity for Marquis Grissom, Montreal’s centerfielder.

I remember opening that game, inserting the cartridge – probably pulling it out and blowing into if a dozen times – then selecting Montreal (subbing in Grissom off the bench), sitting and listening to the Star-Spangled Banner…

…but what was this other song?!?

You mean when I play as the Expos, I’m forced to sit through two anthems? Well, so much for playing as the Expos* ever again. Ain’t nobody got time for that!

* – As this tour is drawing to a close, it’s dawning on me how disappointing it is that Montreal doesn’t have a ball club anymore. That crazy fan base deserves one. Maybe if they host another exhibition series next year I’ll make the trip up for an epilogue/bonus Chapter 31.

Unless you chose the other Canadian team to play against. Then you only had to listen to one song and could play ball sooner. Brilliant!

That team was, obviously, the Toronto Blue Jays. And while I was busy playing them in RBI Baseball, they were busy ruling the baseball world in the early 90s.

The Jays won two consecutive World Series in 1992 and 1993 with contributions from Roberto Alomar, John Olerud and his helmet, Dave Winfield, Jimmy Key, Paul Molitor, Juan Guzman and, of course, Joe Carter, who hit a walkoff HR to take home the Series in Game 6 in 1993.

Things are done a little differently north of the border. The French Canadian influence isn’t nearly as heavy in Toronto as it is in Montreal but things remain just a tiny bit different from baseball on the other side of the border.

Baseball games are liturgical. There’s an order of events that takes place at every game that the patrons are familiar with. It usually goes something like this…

Around 15 minutes before gametime, there is a ceremonial first pitch or three. After some announcements about how charitable the team is, starting lineups are announced. Then “all rise and remove your caps for the playing of our National Anthem.” Then some kid gets called upon to shout out “Play Ball!”

Fast forwarding through goofy gimmicks like the Kiss Cam, Ball Shuffle, Flex Cam, Grounds Crew Inning, Trivia Contests, the Jump Around Cam, Condiment Races*, etc., to the 7th Inning Stretch where we all stand up and sing “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and usually “God Bless America” too.

* – For those of you dying to know, Mustard won the 2014 Championship in KC. Relish led all season and then choked down the stretch. Ketchup fell on his face in the finale. You’ll get em next year, Relish,

Each team has it’s own flare to their liturgy. The Angels use the Rally Monkey. The Rays have their cowbells. The Nationals spell out N-A-T-S after each run scored. The Royals play “Kansas City” and sing “hey, hey, hey, hey!” after each home win.

But as a whole, a baseball fan from anywhere can enter a different ballpark without feeling disoriented to what’s going on. There’s an order that we’ve all learned over our years as baseball fans. And even beyond that, there’s a way for us as fans to engage in the rituals offered by the game. Chanting. Clapping. Rally caps. Throwing back home run balls. Booing Robinson Cano.

Toronto was disorienting at two major moments. The first we’ve already talked about: the Canadian National Anthem, “O Canada.”

The second occurs during the 7th Inning Stretch. Rather than rolling straight into “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” the Jays have their own song with choreographed calisthenics that comes first called “OK Blue Jays (Let’s Play Ball!). It goes like this…

You’ve got a diamond
You’ve got nine men
You’ve got a hat and a bat
And that’s not all
You’ve got the bleachers
Got ’em from spring ’til fall
You got a dog and a drink
And the umpire’s call
Waddaya want?
Let’s play ball!

Okay (okay)
Blue Jays (Blue Jays)
Let’s (Let’s) Play (Play) Ball!

I’m not one to typically judge cultural differences, but that song is weird and you’re throwing off the entire rhythm of the game. Just do it the way it’s supposed to be done. Sheesh. (Just kidding. Kinda.)

All that to say, it’s an obvious connection to how different communities engage in a worship gathering. What are the rhythms of baseball as a whole, but how does each team orient their practices around these rhythms. Fascinating stuff.

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The Rogers Centre was once the newest and most impressive ballpark in the game. It was built in 1989 as the SkyDome and was the first retractable that worked. The Expos’ Olympic Stadium was supposed to open up but never worked properly, but the SkyDome preceded every other working retractable roof: Houston, Arizona, Seattle, Milwaukee and Miami, It was a modern marvel: 22 million pounds that could slide open at the flip of a switch and get 90% of the seats in the sun.

It was closed last night, which was disappointing, but otherwise Toronto was a terrific host.

The place is huge and embedded among the buildings of downtown Toronto. It has the feel of a basketball or hockey arena more than a ballpark from the outside. And the proximity of the surrounding structures made it impossible to get a picture of the entire park from outside.

It’s right next to the CN Tower, the skyline’s giant space needle. When the roof is open, the Tower can be seen looming above the outfield.

There’s a hotel inside the ballpark too, which is pretty sweet. Imagine sitting i your hotel room and watching the game happen outside your window. Almost wish I’d sprung for a room but it’s hard to beat $8 tickets behind the plate.

With the roof closed, the interior is cavernous. I read somewhere that the peak of the dome is something like 300 feet above the playing field, which allows for 5 levels of seats, not that anyone was sitting up top. It holds 49,282 fans.

The other thing I noticed that was a stark contrast to American teams: it was very evident the ballpark attendants do not care at all where fans sit. Everyone was right behind the plate, myself included. Our tickets were in section 521. We sat in section 120. Nearly every fan in the place was packed in the lower level and just kinda picked whatever seat they wanted with no argument from the staff.

In nearly every other park, you can’t just waltz down to the lower level without some sort of questioning or permission from a staff person. Even at the most sparsely attended games most section attendants require the correct ticket when it comes to the lower level seats. Chalk it up to good ole Canadian passivity, probably.

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The kid in this picture was terrific the whole game. Just going crazy after every half inning. Later, the woman standing next to him won $4,300 the 50/50 Raffle. But that’s all I have to say about that.

Toronto seems likes a great city. Of what I saw of it, it felt a ton like Chicago – right on the Lake, lots of sprawling suburbs, and you can even see the city from across the lake just like you can Chicago from Gary, Indiana. It’s a big city, and s beautiful one. But what really made it a great experience was the game itself. So let’s get to that now.

Game Note:

The Blue Jays are on the verge of elimination, but they opened up a series against the Seattle Mariners last night who are right in the midst of the Wild Card race. They are currently the first team out of the AL playoff race, and last night’s game pushed them another step out of contention.

Tonight’s matchup is R.A. Dickey against Felix Hernandez. This marks the third time I’ve missed seeing King Felix pitch by a day. Instead we saw James Paxton for Seattle and J.A. Happ for Toronto. Happ was solid through 7 innings. Paxton was not solid and didn’t make it through the 3rd.

This one was a blowout.

The Blue Jays lit up the Mariners for 14 runs on 16 hits. Former Royal, Danny Valencia got them started early with a bases loaded triple in the 1st, and a 5 run 3rd made it a 9-1 game early.

Jose Bautista, aka Joey Bats, had a day: 3-3 with a HR, BB, and 3 runs scored. He also had a great day on defense. He threw out Logan Morrison from the warning track as Morrison tried to turn a single into a double, and he had a Web Gem snag diving across his body in right-centerfield.

The Jays hit two more homers – Kevin Pillar in the 6th and Anthony Gose batting for Bautista in the 7th.

Happ got into a bit of trouble in the first and allows Austin Jackson to score before working around runners on 1st and 3rd with 1 out. The Mariners hit two solo HRs late in the game – Seagar off of Happ in the 6th, but the other off the bullpen in the 9th by Denorfia – and scored another in the 8th to make it less embarrassing, but the Jays hit the ball hard all night and won 14-4. The Jays side of my scorecard was very busy.

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The Mariners fell further behind the Royals, Athletics and Tigers for the wild card spots. Either the Royals or Tigers will win the AL Central, and two of the other three will take the WC spots. Seattle is beginning to look like the team left out.

On the road back to the United States now. See you soon, Detroit.

Twenty-eight down. Two to go.

Up next: Detroit Tigers.

-apc.

The Florida-Lake Erie Tour

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It’s the grand finale.  The home stretch. It’s the final countdown.

This six-game stretch marks the final six games of Ballpark Tour 2014. I can’t believe this crazy experience is almost over. This has been one of the most insane experiences of my life, and I’m really excited to take these posts, stories and experiences and compile them into a book to share with you all!

First up are the two Florida teams – the Rays and Marlins – on Wednesday and Thursday night.

Then the following Sunday, I’m flying up to Pittsburgh, renting a car and circumventing Lake Erie over the next four days. Pirates, Blue Jays, Tigers and Indians. Here are the projected matchups…

  • 9/17 – New York Yankees @ Tampa Bay (McCarthy vs Karns/Cobb)
  • 9/18 – Washington @ Miami (Fister vs Hand)
  • 9/21 – Milwaukee @ Pittsburgh (Peralta vs Worley)
  • 9/22 – Seattle @ Toronto (Paxton vs Happ)
  • 9/23 – Chicago White Sox @ Detroit (??? vs Price)
  • 9/24 – Kansas City @ Cleveland (Guthrie vs Salazar)

September baseball is awesome, and it’s going to be so cool to be in these ballparks in the midst of some intense playoff races. The Florida games aren’t nearly as thrilling as the games up north – The Yankees are a fringe Wild Card team, but barring a giant push they’re basically out of it, and the Rays (my preseason pick to win the division) are toast. I was most excited to get to see Giancarlo Stanton in Miami, but he got hit in the face with a fastball on Friday night in Milwaukee and is done for the season. He was a legitimate MVP candidate on a team that had a lot of hope moving into next year. Hopefully it doesn’t effect him long term – absolutely devastating to see happen.

But the Lake Erie games – oh man. While the Cardinals seem to have the NL Central all locked up, the Pirates and Brewers are both in the hunt for Wild Card spots so that Pittsburgh game will be intense – the Peralta/Worley matchup is a good one too. Toronto is a fringe Wild Card team too but they’ve been on a tear lately. They’re playing Seattle who is right in the thick of the race along with the Royals, Tigers and Athletics. (As a Royals fan, it should be real easy to root for the Jays to beat the M’s.)

Less easy to do: root for the Tigers in any capacity. This might be the first time I blatantly root against the home team when my favorite teams aren’t the visitors. Who knows? Maybe the Royals will sweep the Tigers over the weekend and completely change the narrative. Anything can happen in a week in this game.

Kind of a strange pitcher carousel happening: during the offseason the Tigers traded Doug Fister to the Nationals whom I’ll see pitch against the Marlins on Thursday. The Nationals traded Nate Karns to the Rays during the offseason, who I’ll see Wednesday (although they may throw Cobb instead). Then this season at the trade deadline the Tigers traded for David Price from the Rays, and I’ll see him pitch on Tuesday in Detroit.

To recap: Fister DET to DC; Karns DC to TB; Price TB to DET.

I end my tour in Cleveland, where I get to see my Royals one more time! I’m hoping the Royals will adjust the pitching rotation which would make Vargas start instead of Guthrie, but regardless, this is going to be a blast. In a perfect world, the Royals would clench a playoff spot while we’re in Cleveland and we can celebrate there. I’ll be the one hoisting Lorenzo Cain up on my shoulders after he steals home to win the game. Probably dreaming. It’s looking like it’ll come down to the final series in Chicago instead. Phooey.

Then I drive the two hours back to Pittsburgh and fly back to KC. Tour over.

Keep an eye out for post game blogs next weekend. It’s going to be near impossible to balance the Tour with the Royals season. Thankfuily, it all collides for Game 30 in Cleveland. Oh man it’s going to be nuts.

Thanks for following along everyone. Stay tuned for writing updates over the offseason! Aaaahhhh!!

-apc.

Photo cred: Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail.