[First draft was written in May, when the Jays were in first place! This version was published on July 18, 2009 in the Toronto Star - and the Jays are almost in last.]
When I was a child, a summer day rarely went by without the radio voices of Tom Cheek and Jerry Howarth mingling with the sizzle of a barbecue or a lawn mower’s buzz. The broadcasters delivered news of each pitch as the Blue Jays’ annual six-month fight for the pennant kept me riveted and tense.
From 1985 to ’93, I attended 10 to 40 games a year, filling out a scorecard, wearing my Dave Stieb-autographed Wilson glove, hopeful of a foul ball, even in the second deck. On Oct. 20, 1992, I stood in line for nine hours to get into the SkyDome’s Hard Rock Cafe (which charged only $15 and a two-drink minimum, perfect for a university student) to see the first World Series game played in Canada.
Blue Jays fever gripped me again this April, after 14 seasons in remission, and has maintained its hold despite the team’s recent woes.
This year, I’ve made the walk to the dome a dozen times, attending more baseball games than I have in the past 10 years combined. I had lost interest when I lived outside Toronto – and the team resided far from a playoff spot. The baseball strike in 1994 cut off my habit and my obsession never fully revived.
From 1996 to 2005, I lived in Long Island, N.Y., and for the first couple of years I would eagerly go to games when the Jays visited the Yankees. Dressing in enemy colours in the Bronx isn’t smart, and it was downright demoralizing to do it during New York’s decade of supremacy.
My attendance at any game soon became predicated on newspaper work or some guest who just had to see Yankee Stadium, an edifice I rank with the Death Star and Towers of Mordor as a bastion of evil. By the end of the Subway Series between the Mets and Yankees in 2000, I despised baseball. The season dragged, the games went on too long, my workload as a sports editor stretched beyond reason because of it, my favourite team was pathetic.
When I left New York for Vancouver, I had little reason to watch baseball at all, and I didn’t. I thought I was done with the sport.
That’s why I’m amazed to find myself caught up in the daily ritual of following the Jays again, less than a year after returning to Toronto. I don’t keep score as I used to. I don’t study the Jays’ minor-league system. I don’t pull on my Jose Cruz Jr. jersey (ever). I do, however, crave to be there, at the dome, in case something special happens for the team. Each time I walk through the turnstiles, I think for sure Roy Halladay will go all the way tonight. Or Scott Rolen will extend another hit streak. Or Adam Lind will knock one into the upper deck Fred McGriff-style.
With their talented young pitchers, these Jays may have started to build something this year and convinced some of us to come watch. For those of us coming back, we do so because we remember what Cito Gaston’s previous teams did for us and this city. Victory seemed inevitable then, youthful revelry everlasting. I root hard for the Jays, hoping to evoke that time when going to the ballpark meant watching champions and feeling like one yourself.
[The Star publishes summer rituals by other writers, too.]