In the Spirit of the Game

Those of us who grew up in major league cities (regardless of the sport) are somewhat blasé about that good fortune.

The ability to just go and see the team play, more or less at will, without having to plan a trip to do so, provides the stimulus to also connect with the regular radio or television broadcasts that “fill in” the time between visits to the stands.

It’s not, of course, that minor league, semi-pro or even teams for youth can’t do that in terms of going to see the game, but it’s the major league teams that get the columnists offering opinion, the reporters providing coverage, the regular place in the sports pages so that game reports can be perused, and so a sense of “being there” evolves such that every game becomes a part of the fabric of one’s life.

Indeed, after a while, even the games where you were not there, where you didn’t hear a broadcast, and have only the box score to count upon start to form up an image in your mind, so that, in that sense, you were there just as any other day…

I have been a baseball fan, first getting hooked on the game in the last season of the old Toronto Maple Leafs (AAA club, affiliated in that last season with the Red Sox organization) playing down by the lakeshore in the old Maple Leaf Stadium. I was playing baseball — extremely poorly — myself at the time.

We went a decade without professional ball, and then the Blue Jays franchise was admitted to the American League, and from the first Opening Day (in the snow) I was hooked.

I went from being a television and radio fan with occasional trips to Exhibition Stadium, to a shared season’s ticket holder when the SkyDome opened. A fan as with many others, I suppose, but I enjoyed the game even more than the winning and losing toward the end.

One of my most favourite memories, actually, is of game six of the 1993 World Series.

We were in France; my father-in-law phoned us there, very early in the morning, to tell us of Carter’s home run giving the Blue Jays their second Series win in a row.

He was not the fan, but he knew I was, and that it would be another full day before the International Herald Tribune would have the final box score.

Quite the gift, and right up there with the silence that lasted for what seemed an eternity when, in game seven the preceding year, Jimmy Key got the final out in the thirteenth inning to win the Series: you could hear a pin drop, and then the doors started opening. At nearly 1.00 am people went outside so as not to disturb their sleeping family members, and then the whoops of delight began.

1994, of course, was the year of the labour shutdown when the owners decided, come hell or high water, baseball would be returned to its nineteenth century ideas at any cost.

We were moving at just about that time, disrupting my attendance (it’s hard to get to games when you end up in Connecticut). Between the move and the loss of the season I just fell out of the habit.

I went a couple of times to see the AA team in New Haven, but didn’t reconnect with the sport. (Going to New York once Major League games resumed didn’t appeal to me: the Yankees were a team that, going all the way back to 1965-66, I had seen as “the enemy” [there’s a great deal of Red Sox fan in me even yet; we do tend to reach back to our origins] and I had never particularly liked the Mets, or Shea Stadium for that matter.)

Boston was just a little too far to consider — much as Seattle was when we lived in Vancouver — as a place to “drop into”; a trip must be scheduled and planned. As I spent much of the next five years travelling — and we moved across the Atlantic and back — even my radio habit died out. Baseball was gone.

It took my own son going into Little League play to reawaken the spirit of the game. I like Little League. He’s long since stopped playing, but I still enjoy watching the community games (and as an old scorekeeper noting all the little details that allow the game to be “replayed” again and again).

I’ve never made a trip to Spring Training, but I’d like to, now. While we lived on the West Coast, we’d make our annual pilgrimage to Seattle each summer for a weekend of games — we were fortunate enough to see Toronto play once, but the Cleveland, Oakland, etc. series were equally entertaining to me. We also made a few trips back to Toronto, to take in a series at the SkyDome (I still can’t give it its corporate “Rogers Centre” monicker without wincing a bit).

With moving back to Toronto at the end of 2009 the love of the game is back in full swing. Yet my years away have also made me appreciate “the game” quite as much as “the team”, and I’m equally happy to take in a tilt between two teams anywhere as opposed to merely following “my” team.

As February dawned, so too did Roger Angell, whose books on baseball are the stuff of filling in winter’s dead time, and Tom Boswell’s books as well, while counting down the days until pitchers and catchers reported this February. Once again I have been diving for the news from Arizona and Florida each morning, look longingly at the fields getting ready for a new season locally. Opening Day draws closer…

It’s a game of the mind, and can be played in the mind. I look forward to baseball again on the radio (I’ve never really enjoyed it on television, although turning the television sound off and substituting the radio play-by-play to the pictures works). I look forward again to picking up my phone, punching up the “At Bat” application, and seeing the box scores, and reconstructing the game in my mind.

Baseball is a game where you get used to losing much more than you win; where success three times out of ten is brilliance; where 999 times out of 1,000 you are flawless in your fielding and everyone remembers the one time you err. In other words, it’s an awful lot of life packed into those green diamonds. It is also something that — and let’s never forget that the reality is even Little League Majors play better than most of the people who watch them ever did or will — is still close enough to the human, in scale, player size and equipment, that we can dream of being out there, in the sun, ourselves.

It is a wonderful way to dream, amongst the murmurs of games past, plays made, options for what comes next. Play ball! Spring has come.

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