As the Blue Jays make their way into the American League Division Series, we reflect on why their victories are a win for us all.
Last Wednesday, which feels like a lifetime ago, I sat in the back of a cab on its way to the airport and watched, on my phone, the Toronto Blue Jays win the American League East. After hugging the driver, high-fiving strangers at the Air Canada check-in counter, and sharing festive congratulations in a normally sombre security line, I took in the team’s champagne-soaked celebration on multiple television screens at the airport bar. I swiped through dozens of photos of Marcus Stroman hugs, and Ben Revere Hugs, and Jose Bautista hugs. I played and replayed videos of Josh Donaldson getting beer poured down his throat. Then I shut down my phone, and left the country.
I was en route to England, a country where very few people actually care about baseball, and even less care about why it matters so much to us right now. When I arrived in the UK, jet lagged and still in the blissful euphoria of the win, I explained to anyone who would listen what the Jays had accomplished, and why people back home were weeping in joyous, elated disbelief.
There are simple, easy ways to explain why these playoffs matter so much to Torontonians. Firstly, today will mark first time since I was fourteen that I’ve watched a live baseball game in October. We’ve successfully ended the longest playoff drought in North American professional sports (sorry, Buffalo Bills). We’re also the only Canadian city with a major league baseball team (sorry, Expos), a city that’s actually known for its less than stellar sports (sorry, Maple Leafs).
Because of all that, Toronto breathed a heavy weeklong sigh of relief and lifted a glass in a way we haven’t been able to in a very long time. What’s more, the playoffs now have an overtly nationalistic tone, an entire country heaving their support behind a team from an otherwise notoriously not well-liked city. National unity and a boost to Toronto’s countrywide likability are hilarious reasons for this to matter, but there are definitely reasons this matters.
All that said, anyone who knows the Blue Jays understands this is about so much more than just unfurling a banner from the rafters of Skydome, or ticking a box on a civic or national list of things to do. It genuinely feels like this team, more than any other we’ve seen come and go, really deserves it. Yes, I’m sure that every fan of every other team (including the Texas Rangers) probably believes that for themselves, but that doesn’t make the gut feeling we collectively share any less true. These particular boys of summer—and now of fall—really are special.
So what is it exactly that makes this team so important to us, that makes us believe they should have it more than anyone else? Is it because R.A. Dickey, who lost his father this year, survived trauma and career disappointment to become a Cy Young winner, and a ring for him would mean a great deal to survivors? Is it because Russell Martin’s dad played the saxophone in the Montreal metro to support his son’s baseball hopes and dreams? Is it because young Marcus Stroman made an impossible comeback and smiled the entire time he did it? Is it because David Price formed a Blue Jays scooter gang and bought everyone matching bathrobes? Everyone has their favourite Blue Jays narrative, their own personal way into this team, and from that very first afternoon on April 6th at Yankee Stadium, this 2015 team has done a damn fine job of making us fall madly in love with them.
As we go into this series today I’m rife with montage-style memories of the 2015 baseball season. The moment I learned that David Price was one of ours, his locker full of popcorn upon arrival; Stroman tweeting his joy at the acquisition from his classroom at Duke. Josh Donaldson flying into the stands and almost crushing a child to catch a fly ball, or sliding into third with a hair flip and a flourish, or floating over home plate like a superhero. Kevin Pillar scaling the wall for a catch while wearing Jackie Robinson’s number 42. R.A. Dickey’s complete game. Mark Buehrle’s complete game shut-out. Those excruciating, terrifying match ups against the Yankees that we thought we’d never be able to get through. Standing ovations, pivotal strikeouts, bat flipping and dugout-clearing walk off home runs. 162 games of total investment. It seems excruciatingly earnest to say so, but in many ways we’ve already won.
During the week I was in the UK, the good people of Britain politely humoured me while I listed all these moments, reasons and explanations. I showed them photos and highlights, told them about all the love I have for this team and the love they have for our city. Although those I spoke to certainly couldn’t understand the very specific fervor when it came to the Blue Jays making it to the post season, they could certainly empathize with our overall fan frenzy. England is currently hosting the Rugby World Cup, and I watched them all descend into national misery during their country’s painful eliminating loss to Australia. It’s interesting how extreme fan emotions look so similar across very different sports, how I really felt for them in their loss because it’s now one of my greatest fears.
All these wonderful memories and feelings, and yet we’re all worried about one burning question: What if they lose?
I wrote the bulk of this piece while on a plane traveling across the Atlantic Ocean, coming back from a trip I deliberately scheduled around the then-distant hope that the Blue Jays would end up in the American League Division Series. Whatever happens next, I know that kind of faith doesn’t happen that often, a hope that a group of men most of us have never met will power their way to our collective happiness. I know it’s irrational and it’s naïve, but we can all agree—despite our fears—it’s totally wonderful.
Baseball has this infinite capacity to give, to make us believe in things despite cynicism and impossibility. It’s full of so many stories, large and small, and now we’re all going into the final act together. Today we’ll call in sick to work and join our fellow fans at the bar. We’ll sneak the game on our computer screens at our desks, watch it in boardrooms and lunchrooms, check the score obsessively on our phones. We’ll blow our paycheques on tickets because we want to be part of something bigger than ourselves.
As we go into game one, am I worried about disappointment? Of course I am. I’ve seen enough torturous baseball playoff games in my time to know exactly what a heartbroken fan looks like, head in hands, close to tears. I’m not even sure if I’m capable of enduring that specific kind of sadness, but I’m willing to take the risk and find out, to withstand that worry for the possibility of joy that’s to come.
If it comes it will be a joy that will belong to all of us, powered by nine men we’ve never met who we all know deserve it more than anyone else. And what a beautiful thing that is.