Friday, September 20, 2013

Let's Play Ball!

Cheering for a professional sports team is weird. Even the idea of professional sports — grown men and women who get paid handsomely to wear strange clothes and chase balls around — can only be the product of a society that has enough leisure time and money on its hands to spend some of it in rooms large enough to seat an entire small town, paying $10 for beers they wouldn't otherwise be caught dead drinking.

I'm not going to pretend to be anything other than some Jilly-come-lately to baseball. Oh, sure, I "played" baseball as a kid: slow-pitch softball, where I was terrified all the time that someone was going to hit the ball to me and I might actually have to perform. I struck out constantly in games, which confounded my relaxed (and therefore more successful) at-bats during practices. In my worry about messing it up for everyone, I stuck myself way, way out in left field, where no ball could possibly reach me. I could never muster the graceless talent of, say, an Amish ballplayer, who plays just for the sake of playing. Needless to say, as I got older, I realized that the pressure of team sports wasn't really my thing. I played squash, danced, and ran, and those solo or semi-solo pursuits were much better for my soul.

On the other hand, I do remember the 1992 and 1993 World Series of baseball, AKA the ones where the Toronto Blue Jays won and everyone went berserk. I remember the ambient excitement in my family: watching one of the games up at the cottage, where we dropped my great-aunt's place on some bogus pretext that was discarded as soon as my dad snapped on their TV. Having a team in the playoffs was a big deal, since Canada's baseball landscape was pretty arid. Plus, the Jays are my dad's team. I remember car rides with him up to the beach, when he would tune into the dense, impenetrable chatter of radio baseball announcers; or games watched at home, him alone in the darkened TV room, letting out gusty cheers when they did well and stomping upstairs to bed when they performed poorly. Just as golf is my grandfather's sport, baseball is my father's: they're experts in the art of watching.

For me, the thrill of the game is different. It's less about standing by the team (although, since the Jays are the only professional Canadian ball team, it would feel odd and turncoat to root for an American team; at least with the Jays, I can say, "I'm from here, what's your excuse?") and more about the ritual. Going to the SkyDome —excuse, me, the Rogers Center, barf — is a process: negotiating the throngs of people massing on Front Street, climbing the endless concrete ramp up to the 500-level, then settling down into the blue plastic seats. Listening as the announcer calls out each player's name with theatrical panache, saving his heartiest readings for the home team and coolly underplaying the visitors. Grinning as the Japanese fans behind us lose their minds equally for both the Jay's Munenori Kawasaki and the Yankee's Ichiro Suzuki, team allegiances be damned because one of their own is up at bat.

The gameplay itself is long stretches of time balancing between boredom and engagement as the teams glide through inning after runless inning. The sudden snap of excitement when something, anything, starts happening: a pitch beans a player! A bat breaks! A mini-drama of a runner getting chased down the baseline by a ball-wielding third-baseman, or the sudden heartbreak of a dropped flyball. The roar of the fans as someone expectedly smacks the bejeezus out of a ball and sails it over the fence, and their slow jog around the bases to score that point. Baseball, like opera, creates an air of general theatricality without a lot of actual action. It's perfect for summer, when just complaining about the heat is its own recreational activity.

Last night, we went down the Rogers Center, sat ourselves down in the cheap seats, and watched as the Jays beat the Yankees. It was a fine game: a few laggardly moves by the Yankees and a couple nice runs by the Jays meant the game had the slow, loping pace of a large savannah animal. The Jays are doing terribly right now, and so being a fan is basically just an exercise in morale. "Next year is our year," we said to each other, ignoring the rest of the 2013 season as so much administrative work to be filed. There was a baby there, a six-month old with a button nose who was grabbing at the man in front of him's blue baseball cap, grinning like a tiny maniac. The Japanese fans waved signed with the Japanese flag on side and a maple leaf on the other (my heart!). The Yankee fan to my left clapped futilely as the rest of the stadium booed A-Rod. We ate sunflower seeds and drank beers. It was the perfect time to be a sports fan.