If there’s an oasis of calm at Christie Pits, among the kids tearing by on their bikes or laughing at the splash park, it’s the back-to-back baseball games taking place in the northeast corner of the park. In Intercounty Baseball League action—essentially an independent version of single ‘A’ ball—the Guelph Royals are taking on the defending league champions, the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Maple Leafs, now in their 40th season since Jack and Lynne Dominico started the team in 1969, have won 20 pennants and 8 championships. There’s usually an easy joke that at least there’s one successful Maple Leafs franchise, but currently the ball team is sitting in sixth place with a losing record. Still, a Leafs game is an appealing alternative to the Blue Jays for being so unlike a trip to the Rogers Centre.
Gone is the shopping mall atmosphere; instead there’s only an ice cream truck, and a concession stand operated by an elderly woman who chats with the visiting team’s players when they stop by for hot dogs between doubleheader games. The distractions of big screen replays and mascots are replaced with the barking of dogs, kids running everywhere to shag fly balls, and chasing down autographs. Passersby, surprised to stumble across a minor league game, are quickly drawn in to become casual observers. Free admission—the only cost of attendance is the optional “coffee pot draw”—means no one is turned away. With the open-air field sunken below street-level, spectators scrounge up a patch of grassy hillside, line the sidewalk above with lawn chairs, or wander the grounds to see the game from every angle.
Some fans, in the absence of colour commentators dissecting every play, pay rapt attention to the game so they can record every pitch on a scorecard. For many, however, the laid-back atmosphere makes the baseball diamond a setting for other activities. People stretch out to suntan with the game as background noise. Others read quietly, only glancing up every so often to keep abreast of the action. Others only notice the game when a home run lands in the middle of their soccer match beyond the outfield fence. An old guy from the neighbourhood chats to anyone, but no one in particular. Fathers and sons talk about anything but the game: adopting a dog, dream vacations, and the difficulties of post-divorce arrangements.
As much as an afternoon at the park is a break from the pace of everyday life, it’s not a case of manufactured nostalgia. Nor is it about recapturing baseball’s Field of Dreams innocence lost nowadays in the big-money big leagues. Baseball has never been innocent, nor is the history of the sport at Christie Pits untainted. But the players hustle for every play, even though they’ll never feature on a sports channel’s highlight reel. Some young players are still dreaming big to be sure—and some Leafs have indeed made it to the majors—but most play because serious baseball is a welcome break from their own day-to-day work.
They’ve got egos and a competitive spirit, which is evident from a pitcher’s curses after he’s just missed the strike zone on a full count. That’s a level of atmosphere—along with the crack of the bat and the hollow thump of the catcher’s mitt—often only available in the most expensive seats at a Jays game, or through a broadcaster’s strategic placement of microphones.
And, just as baseball breeds a competitive spirit in players, it always breeds die-hard fanatics. While the lack of regular and widespread media coverage may make it tough for a casual fan to keep up on the Maple Leafs, there are always fervent fans on a first name basis with the players. They become one-man cheering sections. They cry out for the home team to rally from behind, castigate the umpire for this or that call, or compose clever nicknames so that second baseman Gamin Teague becomes “Tigger.”
The crowd, sparser than in the heat of last season’s championship run, still applauds a strikeout or the turning of a double play. On this day, the cheering intensifies as the stage is set for a dramatic comeback. The home team, down by three runs in the sixth inning of the seven inning game, steps to the plate in a bases loaded situation with two out. A strikeout brings disappointment and defeat, but the sentiments are later erased with a bottom-of-the-seventh victory in the second game of the doubleheader.
Photos by Kevin Plummer.