Baseball: say that word to yourself and think about the images it conjures up. Like when you learned to play catch with your dad. Or your first Little League game. Or a trip to a big league ballpark. Or just sitting around listening to a game on the radio.
I have loved baseball for as long as I can remember. I remember going to see the Toronto Blue Jays on many occasions with my dad. I remember spending many a summer afternoon playing ball with friends and deciding who would have to climb the fence of the houses backing on to the field when one of us would inevitably hit a homer. It was usually me who got picked to climb the fence and I would scramble over it, grab the ball and then scramble back over, praying to God all the while the home owner wouldn’t see me and take my baseball away as punishment for trespassing.
I remember the time my oldest brother Kevin watched me play a Little League game and I got hit in the head with a pitch, the ball hitting my helmet, sailing over the backstop and promptly landing right at his feet. It was the only Little League game he ever came to, possibly out of fear of somehow causing me to get hit with the pitch in the first place.
I remember the glory days of my beloved Blue Jays, when the names of Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar were said around Toronto with almost reverential awe. I remember when they won the World Series in ’92 & ’93, the second time on Carter’s Series-ending home run. I feel old realizing that was twenty years ago and can’t believe how fast time as passed.
Going to a Jays game is still my preferred way of spending my birthday and there’s something that takes me back to my childhood when I spend an afternoon in late September at the ballpark. I still love raising my hands in triumph when the Jays win and throwing my hands up in despair when they lose. I love the sights and sounds of the ballpark, even if I do find myself thinking that the 10 year old in the row behind me needs to settle down because screaming “Go Jays Go!” at the top of his lungs whenever a Blue Jay gets on base isn’t necessary. And then I find myself wondering “was I ever that annoying when my dad brought me here as a little kid?” and instantly hearing that voice of wisdom in my head saying “yes, yes you were”.
If I have changed and grown up, so has the game itself. After the Blue Jays won the World Series two years in a row baseball had it’s infamous strike, sadly culminating in the cancelling of the 1994 World Series. In the years afterwards the game struggled to find its footing again, but there were bright spots, such as Cal Ripken Jr breaking the record for most consecutive games played, or the magical summer of 1998 when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa went after, and ultimately both broke, the single season home run record. But it would turn out later that things weren’t as magical as they seemed as both players became embroiled in the steroids scandal that would dominate the baseball world for the next several years.
Looking back now the steroids scandal changed the baseball landscape forever. No longer were the superstar players mythical men capable of superhuman feats. Instead many saw them with suspicion and a weary eye, questioning if they had really earned the 100 million dollar contracts that were threatening to quickly become the new salary expectation. And I, unwillingly being forced to leave my childhood and face adult responsibilities, saw the new business of baseball engulfing the purity of the game I saw as a child. The Boys of Summer had seemingly grown into men and left me behind.
Joe Carter moved on from the Blue Jays and Carlos Delgado took over as the Jays’ superstar. Eventually he gave way to Vernon Wells, who’s since given way to Jose Bautista. The Blue Jays themselves have gone through changes, being bought by Rogers Telecommunications and being re-branded as “The Jays”, black tinged uniforms replacing the familiar blue and white. Even Skydome was re-branded as the Rogers Centre, even if no one I know ever calls it that. Ticket and concession prices steadily went up to the point where seeing a game was something I could afford to do only once or twice a season, and even then I’d be up in the nosebleeds thinking to myself “I can almost make out the players from here”.
I still go if I can, spending time with friends, reacquainting myself in the process with The Grand Old Game. Maybe while I’m at it I can reacquaint myself with that little kid who my dad took to the ballpark during the glory days of the Blue Jays. He made his presence known this year when I saw a game with my best friend. It didn’t hurt that my baseball heroes are back to being called the Blue Jays and are wearing an updated version of their classic look, with not a tinge of black in sight.
I look forward to one day teaching my kids to play baseball, watching them pretend to be Babe Ruth or Ted Williams or Jose Bautista, or whoever the star player is by that point. I look forward to taking them to see the Blue Jays, even though by that point the tickets and concessions could cost so much that I might have to choose between taking them to the ballpark or sending them to college.
Former baseball commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti was right when he wrote “The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.”
That my birthday inevitably comes at the same time the season ends reminds me far too clearly that another year has passed and that I’m that much older. That spring as turned to autumn and that it’s going to be a few more months before I can break out the bat and glove.
In those months in between I thank God there’s hockey season. Even if I do inevitably finding myself cheering for the Toronto Maple Leafs.