“It’s designed to break your heart,” A. Bartlett Giamatti wrote about baseball. “The game begins in the spring, when everything is new again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops, and leaves you to face the fall alone.”
Giamatti was one of those tormented Red Sox fans of the 20th century. Their autumns and winters were never warmed by the memories of a championship, only the torturous thoughts of “what if?” He died in 1989, while in office as the commissioner of Major League Baseball, a few weeks before the Red Sox swooned again in September and lost the American League East title to the Toronto Blue Jays.
Back then, the Jays and Red Sox were similar because their fans shared a sense of doom. While what Torontowent through was nowhere near the devilish grief Boston endured for 86 years, the Blue Jays had suffered monumental and historic collapses. In 1985, they led the best-of-seven American League Championship Series against the Kansas City Royals 2-0 and 3-1, but George Brett’s bat blasted the Jays into winter earlier than anyone in Canada wanted, and baseball fans in Toronto became familiar with the meaning of the term “die-hard.” The pain became more intense after the team lost its final seven games in 1987 and missed the playoffs, even though it appeared for months that Canada’s first World Series title was a certainty.
Blue Jays supporters went through a discontented winter waiting for redemption and the sense of hope that flourishes in the sport each April. But 1988 was a failure and 1989 started out terribly and the Oakland A’s had assembled a juggernaut that dispatched the Jays with ease in the playoffs. Even though the Blue Jays owned baseball’s best cumulative record over a six-season period dating to 1984, it seemed like the window of chance had closed like an umpire’s fist on a strikeout call.
The rest you know. On December 5, 1990, the Blue Jays revamped their lineup — and their identity — through trades and free-agent signings. They reached the postseason from 1991-93, and won back-to-back championships, bringing euphoria to the city, as well as an indelible source of pride for all of those who zealously followed the team from spring to fall, season after season.
Fans today may find it hard to believe, but the Blue Jays once were the most successful team in baseball, becoming the first franchise to draw 4 million fans, selling out home games at the SkyDome (now Rogers Centre) at record levels. In recent years, the same stadium has seen its attendance rank among the lowest in baseball, with the Jays averaging just 25,921 fans in their 81 home games in 2012.
As Opening Day arrives, however, change comes with it. In 2013, the Blue Jays are in a position they haven’t been for two decades: They enter the season as World Series favourites.
The addition of three elite starting pitchers — Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson — as well as All-Star position players Jose Reyes and Melky Cabrera ensure the Blue Jays will be one of the most exciting teams to watch. The offseason moves have rekindled thoughts of the feats former general manager Pat Gillick pulled off in the early 1990s. Whether this team truly can bring the glory days back to Toronto will not be revealed for months. For now, what we do know is the electricity that has been absent during the past 20 years — as the Jays have failed to come within even a warning-track flyball of the postseason — will be back. They are going to be competitive. Game days will be exciting, bars and restaurants will be full, hotels will enjoy a boost with visitors coming in to see the hottest show in town.
If you’re going to see a game, here are tips to enjoying the Blue Jays experience:
WHERE TO PARK IN TORONTO
Mass transit is still the best option for coming into Toronto. Whether it’s by a GO Train from outside the city or a TTC subway ride within it, the Rogers Centre is only a 5-minute walk from Union Station. But if you do drive, expect to pay $20 or more to park within the vicinity of the ’Dome.
You can cut that cost in half and sometimes three-quarters by parking farther away and making a longer walk or shorter subway ride to the game. Unlike cities like Seattle and Baltimore, Toronto doesn’t have a lively pre-game atmosphere for baseball but the city is safe and easy to walk, with plenty of eye-catching architecture and interesting neighbourhoods.
For a $10 flat rate, you can leave your car at the Toronto Bus Terminal parking lot on Elizabeth Street, north of Dundas Street, and walk 30 minutes to the game. In the same area, the parking lot at 38 Elm Street near the corner of Bay Street charges just $6 if you park after 6 pm and exit before 2:30 am on most nights. Check parkopedia.com for more options.
BEST PLACES TO EAT FOR BLUE JAYS GAMES
At the game: Windows restaurant above the outfield has re-opened after a decade. The windows, ironically, are gone, and patrons will be able to walk in during the game to purchase food or buy drinks, watching from a unique, open-air vantage point. Elsewhere, the Roundhouse Carvery and Bar at Section 122 serves roast beef sandwiches and a selection of beers, wines and spirits. Other spots include the Muddy York Market (Section 109) and a Quaker Steak & Lube (Section 134) that’s known in the US for its wings.
Before the game (day): For matinee games, which are usually on the weekends, you’ll want to hit Canteenat the Toronto International Film Festival Tower for brunch. Reservations are highly recommended.
After the game (nearby): Real Sports Bar, C’est What? and the Bier Markt are popular spots. None will disappoint, although the service at Real Sports is atrocious lately. It does have the largest HDTV screen in North America and was named the best sports bar on the continent in 2011 by ESPN. C’est What?, meanwhile, has outstanding microbrews and a lively atmosphere packed with locals. Although there are a couple of TVs behind the bar, it’s not a sports hangout, which can be a nice change after a game. For something upscale, hit DEQ, the outstanding patio bar at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Feel like good food with a clubby feel (re: waitresses with long legs)? Then Bloke & 4th is a hot spot in town for excellent eats and nightlife (reservations recommended).
After the game (farther afield): If you want to explore the city, try the Ballroom for the best sports-bar food in Toronto, as well as plenty of TVs and a bowling alley in the heart of the Entertainment District. For just good beer, trek to Bar Volo, on Yonge Street north of Wellington Street. For cocktails, head to the west end of the city and drop in on Boehmer, also a spot for excellent food. Keep going west and you’ll get to the Roncesvalles neighbourhood, site of two outstanding new restaurants, Barque (named the best barbecue restaurant in Ontario by Vacay.ca) and Hopgood’s Foodliner, which serves east coast-inspired fare.
For great steak, avoid overpriced places like Harbour 60 and Bardi’s, and head to Barberian’s on Elm Street, a steakhouse that’s stood in Toronto since 1959. No-nonsense and amazing. Also, Brant House off of King Street West is outstanding.
WHERE TO STAY IN TORONTO
For baseball fans, it’s hard to beat theRenaissance at the Rogers Centre. You can even get a room overlooking the field. Those suites were made famous in the stadium’s early days when exhibitionists managed to steal attention from the boys of summer on the field.
The Strathcona is the most reasonably priced hotel in walking distance to the ’Dome, but the best value may be the Novotel on the Esplanade, a fine hotel in a terrific location. It often has deals. If you’re going to end up in the west end of the city, try to get a room at the artsy Gladstone Hotel.
OTHER SIGHTS TO CATCH IN WALKING DISTANCE
Hockey Hall of Fame: Sports fans must see the hall, where interactive displays and loads of great history are offered. Fun on weekend mornings prior to the game.
CN Tower: Torontonians don’t get too excited about the tower any more. It’s been around for nearly 40 years and for most residents it serves as a directional landmark more than a place to go. But the tower — the tallest free-standing structure in Canada — is a thrill and visitors won’t be disappointed. The view in any direction you look — but especially facing southeast toward Lake Ontario and beyond — is magnificent. (Here’s a video)
Harbourfront Centre: The Harbourfront area has numerous performances, festivals and entertaining weekly events that are often worth checking out. Visit the website for the schedule when you’re in town.
GETTING BLUE JAYS TICKETS
Until Torontonians really begin to believe there’s a championship-calibre team in their midst, you’ll be able to walk up and get tickets on most game days at the Rogers Centre box office. You can purchase tickets online before you arrive or you could also take your chances with scalpers. But you’ll have to negotiate. Have a seating map handy on your smartphone so you know exactly what seats you’re purchasing from street sellers. Although scalpers have a notorious reputation for selling fraudulent tickets in many other cities, you’ll usually get a fair deal in Toronto.