26th August 2017
The Toronto Blue Jays baseball team plays at the Rogers Centre – popularly known by its original name of the SkyDome – next to the famous CN Tower. This downtown location meant that, for my family and me, it was only a short walk from our hotel for one of last week’s matches against the Tampa Bay Rays. It was a safe walk too, provided that we respected the pedestrian traffic signals and avoided the automobiles, buses, streetcars, joggers and cyclists as we crossed Queens Quay West; some of the last group, in their dedicated lane, would undoubtedly give Chris Froome a run for his money.
It was our first baseball game, so why not start with the Major League, in which the Blue Jays are the sole Canadian team. They entered the match with a record of .483 (from 57 wins and 61 defeats so far this year), which placed them in fifth position (out of five) in the American League East. However, with one-third of the regular season still to play, there was still a chance of a wild-card place in the play-offs, if they could put together an impressive run from their 40-odd remaining fixtures. The Tampa Bay Rays were third in the same division with a record of 59-61 (or .492).
As the game progressed, the four baseball novices started to work out the narrative from the plethora of statistics that flashed out of the multi-coloured scoreboard – notably the numbers of balls, strikes and outs in each inning. On the far side, another board registered the mounting score. The Rays stretched out to a 6-1 lead, but a home run by the Blue Jays’ Josh Donaldson cut the deficit to 6-4 by the completion of the latter’s fifth inning – the bottom of the fifth, as we baseball experts call it (I think). It turned out that this was the final score, some impressive pitching in the closing stages by the Dominican Republic–born Alex Colome denying the Blue Jays hitters any chance of overturning the deficit.
It was a spectacle that assaulted all the senses. The sights of the action on the pitch and the general bustle in the crowd and the colour of the advertisements were complemented by the loud cheering of the Blue Jays fans whenever one of their hitters made it to first base or a catcher secured a skier in the outfield. The scoreboard’s instruction to “Make Some Noise” did seem somewhat superfluous, as the roars of over 33,000 spectators echoed around the stands. Our taste buds were satisfied by the foot-long hot dogs covered in tomato – pronounced tomato – sauce, which (for two points of information) officially come in at 860 calories each and are disconcertingly difficult to eat when one is also holding a plastic glass of beer.
The SkyDome had the distinction of being the first sports stadium in the world with a retractable roof – open on this occasion, a warm summer’s evening. High in the stands is the “Level of Excellence”, which honours some of the key personnel in the Blue Jays’ 40-year history; this select group includes not only former players but also the radio play-by-play announcer, Tom Cheek, who called every Blue Jay game from the team’s inaugural fixture in April 1977 until the beginning of June 2004. Looking down from above the hitter’s plate, “42 Jackie Robinson” recognises the shirt number that was retired by every Major League Baseball team in April 1997.
From our excellent vantage point – square to the wicket in cricket parlance, in the Field Level Bases – we got a sense of the speed of the pitchers, who hurled their missiles at up to 95 mph, as instantly recorded on the scoreboard. (I gather that over 100 mph is regularly attained in the Major League). We were also impressed by a couple of spectacular catches – even allowing for the giant mitt in the catching hand (my cricketing background betraying itself again) – and, of course, by the huge hits that produced the evening’s three home runs. I also admired the speed and accuracy of the throwing from the outfielders and by the infield custodians of each base.
In terms of cricketing analogies, I must also refer to the capacity of both sports for producing some
wonderfully obscure statistical facts. When the Ray’s Steven Souza Jr went out to bat, the scoreboard stated that his first 25 home runs had all been struck against right-handed pitchers and that he was the first “righty” to have achieved this feat since 1961. Test Match Special, eat your heart out.
About half way through the game (which lasted for just under 3¼ hours), I took a walk round the stadium on the raised concourse. On one side were the beer stalls and fast-food vendors and merchandise outlets and rest rooms and, on the other, a clear view of the continuing action on the field of play. At one point, I struck up a conversation with a young cop and asked him if he expected any trouble on an evening such as this.
His answer was firmly in the negative: there might be the occasional drunk, but such a potential felon would usually see sense “when confronted by 6 or 7 of us”. I thought back ruefully to the Carlisle United-Hartlepool United football match that I had attended last autumn (reported in Still An Ordinary Spectator) when a sizeable police presence had been required to marshal the respective tribes at a fourth-tier English soccer match. Admittedly, there were only a few Tampa Bay Ray fans at the Rogers Centre (though there were some), but that is hardly the point.
The policeman and I talked for a few minutes about Toronto and baseball (which he said he absolutely adored) and soccer (which he found a bit slow) and Niagara (which he hailed from and also loved). I wished him a quiet evening and we shook hands. It was a pleasure to meet him; he was a credit to his city.
The Blue Jays played two more fixtures at home to the Rays on the following two days, by which time we had moved on to test out (and confirm) the cop’s enthusiastic promises of Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake. The consecutive victories in these games duly raised the post-season play-off hopes. Unfortunately, the three games played over the following weekend – all against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field – were lost, as was the next match against the Rays (in Tampa), so the prospects of post-season glory have promptly receded again. The Blue Jays’ World Series titles of 1992 and 1993 edge a little further into the past.
But no matter. Our allegiances within the significant component of Americana that is Major League Baseball are secured. And we bought the tee-shirts – Let’s Go Blue Jays.