Thursday, October 22, 2015

On the Bandwagon

True confession time: I only really care about sports when there's something on the line. Spring training? Whatever. Regular season play? Unless something truly spectacular happens, like a brawl in a sport where there usually isn't any brawling (bowling, for example), I tend to skim it. The gold-medal games in the Olympics? The World Series? The Superbowl? I'll made a dent in my couch for that. But this year's Blue Jays—home of Joey Bats and Tulo, of Josh "MVP, MVP" Donaldson, of hometown boys Russel Martin and Dalton Pompey—have forced Toronto to fall in love with them. I'm no exception.

For the past few years, my dad has bought a 500-level flex pass, which lets him select a bunch of games at which he can drink eleven-dollar beer in the sky. He's been generous with the tickets—I regularly get texts asking if I want free tickets to the game—and we've been greedy in accepting them. My husband and I load our bags with Bulk Barn snacks and bottles of water, and we alternately roast in the sun or sit out under the stars. It's an outing: a bike ride to the lakeshore, a required-by-law Instagram shot of the CN Tower, and also, some sports.

I have great memories of my friends at these game, which were otherwise unremarkable. Going to a game with unrepentant Yankees fan Abe meant sitting next to him as he cheered for A-Rod (of all people) while the rest of the stadium cheerfully booed him. This was the same season that Munenori Kawasaki and Ichiro Suzuki were in regular rotation; the Japanese fans behind us hollered us for both the Jays and the Yanks that night, wildly waiving Canadian, American, and Japanese flags.

But the games? Oh, those games were not good. In 2014, there was a record-setting nineteen-inning game in which they barely beat the Tigers; in 2012, they burned through 31 different pitchers. They hadn't won more than 90 games in a regular season over a decade. They had the longest payoff drought of any professional sports team in North America. Before this summer, going to Blue Jays games were like going to a movie where, even if the ending was okay, the whole thing was kind of disappointing.

I was nine in 1993, when they won their second World Series and Joe Carter walked on the moon. I remember that series: I remember the Coke ads, and somehow winning fifty bucks in a family pool. I remember being freaked out by Phillies center fielder and noted felon/angry-looking man Lenny Dykstra. But mostly, I remember the electricity of caring. Feeling like it was something big, something that mattered. Not having a TV at our cottage, we went to my mom's cousin's house and huddled around the TV to take in October games. Mike tells me stories about being in Toronto when the Jays won, of going to Bloor Street and watching the city erupt in mad fandom, finally feeling justified to howl at the world. Some nights, when we come back from having a few too many drinks and want to feel that feeling, we'll lie in bed and watch the walk-off home run clip in bed together. Joe Carter's erumpent face, equal parts thrilled and shocked, and Tom Cheek's heart-eyed instructions to "touch 'em all, Joe," are as Canadian to us as Heritage Moments and Tim Hortons.

For twenty years, caring about the Blue Jays was Torontonian background radiation. They played, we cheered, they had heart and good players, and none of really mattered. Even my dad vacillated between two settings: "those bums" (when they lost) and a grudging "those guys" (when they won). I mostly went to games for a chance to yodel Ennnncarnaaaacion along with the PA announcer.They were good enough—all sports teams manage to win enough to keep fans from chewing the insides of their cheeks into lace—but they had not again touched greatness.

Until, unexpectedly, things shifted this year. When they the team acquired ace pitcher David Price and shortstop Troy Tulowitzski in the late-July trade deadline, they suddenly went from being good-enough to something special. People who hadn't known anything about baseball were suddenly showing up at the SkyDome (never Rogers Centre, please), cheering on a team that had put down two eleven-game winning streaks. Torontoist published a guide for bandwagoners. Then the Jays clinched the American League East, and then they beat the Rangers in a five-game series that culminated in one of the weirdest, craziest, funniest games ever played, post-season or not.

The Jays are now fighting the Kansas City Royals in a brutal seven-game series. They've forced the Royals to Game Six, after losing their first two games and getting absolutely slaughtered in the fourth. But the thing about the 2015 Jays is that they just keep going. They keep not losing crucial games. They're still in the running. It's the most bizarre thing. If they win the next two games—and they could, they really might, everyone is being cautious but nothing's really over yet—they'd be heading to the World Series for the first time in 22 years. I have to admit: imagining Toronto's crazy joy at that moment gives me a manic chill.

But still. For me, if we finish here, it will have been a good finish. The Toronto Blue Jays have finished in the bottom half of the division for the past nine years. Now, we have the batflip that spawned a thousand memes, a team that seems to play as though they care, players who regularly fly through the air to catch and throw. Watching them play now is a pleasure, because they believe again. And we believe in them, too.

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