THE THRILL IS GONE
IT WAS WHILE listening to the Toronto Blue Jays lose a game recently that I experienced my annual baseball existential crisis. Why do I bother following this club anymore? Every year, it’s the same damn thing: early season promise fades to mid-season mediocrity, and by early August, they’re out of contention, reduced to playing out a string of meaningless games in a depressing, half-filled stadium.
Injuries were an issue this year, no doubt, but that’s true of many teams. The real problem with this franchise is its payroll – until the wealthy corporate owners begin spending with the big boys (Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees), this club will perpetually be on the outside looking in. It hasn’t always been this way for fans of Canadian baseball. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, there was plenty to cheer about. The Montreal Expos never got a taste of the World Series, but they always seemed to field an exciting team. And this October marks the 20th anniversary of the Jays’ first World Series title. The players were the toast of the town in 1992, good seats were impossible to get and the owners – Labatt’s – were willing to use their beer profits to sign big league talent, like World Series hero Dave Winfield.
I remember watching the deciding game of that first World Series at a local watering hole. The ground floor was too jammed to get in so we squeezed in upstairs and successfully executed a perilous balancing act: watching the game and drinking our beer, without toppling down the stairs or spilling a drop. There was great excitement all over the city that day. After many near misses, the Jays were one game away from winning their first championship against the Atlanta Braves, helmed by former Blue Jays manager Bobby Cox.
A lot of close calls over the years – losing to the Kansas City Royals in 1985 after building a 3-1 games lead; the feeble stretch run in 1987 that saw the Jays lose their last seven and blow the division lead; and the numbing playoff loss to Oakland’s steroid-fuelled Bash Brothers, José Canseco and Mark McGwire – had earned them the dreaded label of “choker.” (Ask a current Vancouver Canucks fan to describe how that feels.)
Game six was tense all the way through and grew more so in the ninth, when the Jays’ slim lead was erased.Dave Winfield’s double gave Toronto a two-run lead in the 11th but in the bottom of that inning, with Braves’ owner Ted Turner and his then video-exercising wife, Jane Fonda, doing the Tomahawk Chop, Atlanta scored one to halve the lead. Manager Cito Gaston brought in Mike Timlin to pitch to Otis Nixon with the tying run at third. Nixon bunted, Timlin fired to first baseman Joe Carter and the Jays were champs.
Across the city, bars erupted, and people streamed out on the streets downtown for an all-night celebration. And, thanks to Joe Carter’s dramatic World Series home run against the Philadelphia Phillies the following year, everyone did it all over again. For baseball fans, times were good. Unfortunately, since those heady years, Canadian baseball has been rather quiet. The Expos departed for Washington in 2004, and the Jays have become a mediocre outfit, their glory years buried in the past. Two decades is an awfully long time for a sports fan to wait. Mind you, when you put it up against the 45 years Toronto Maple Leaf hockey followers have waited in vain for championship glory, it doesn’t seem quite so bad. I suppose baseball fans should be grateful.