Typically, at this point in the day – at this point in the week – I’d introduce a column in which I offer ten thoughts on some of the newsier items around baseball. I like doing it because, well, I really like baseball, and I really like sharing what I think about baseball. In this sense, it’s not surprising that occasionally my thoughts will admittedly drift toward becoming self-indulgent.

In fact, the whole premise of offering up my thoughts as something that others NEED to read – and promoting it through social media as “my thoughts” – has always felt a little bit too suggestive of megalomania to me. My greatest fear is that someone reads through TSTOAF and counts the number of times I used “I think …” to start a sentence. Nonetheless, the response for the weekly feature is usually pretty good, and the conversations in the comments section tend to be opinionated in the good way – respectful of the perspectives of others, while still offering insight that causes points of view to be questioned.

This is what makes the column worthwhile to me.

Today, I’m going in the opposite direction of the one toward which I’d like to move. I’m going to be self-indulgent, and it’s probably going to seem as though I think my experiences are more important than they are. I don’t feel this way. In fact, my hope is that my experiences are common. That you’ll recognize your own experiences in mine, and that you’ll be able to walk away after reading this with the ability to express something that you felt but couldn’t articulate before, or that, like our comments section does to me, you’ll question your own perspective.

I’m going to write about the ten most influential moments in my own baseball fandom.

I’m almost already regretting that declaration. For the past few months, I’ve been writing over at Fanatico about things that don’t really get much attention elsewhere on theScore website: social issues, corruption, hypocrisy, golf, etc. It’s a deliberate hodge podge of what I feel are important stories, personal essays, video clips and capsuled moments that make people smile. Through this array of subjects and styles, a single theme continues to emerge: the fan experience.

It’s fascinating to me that we can be reasonable people in so many different elements of our lives, and yet we can completely suspend that reason in order to enhance the visceral experience of being a sports fan. We embrace a very strange relationship when we cheer for a sports team, and we do it so willingly and without much consideration. It’s largely rewarding, even when it doesn’t seem to be, but there are moments of misery that come with our decision to watch sports and become active in our role as spectator.

This fascination was emphasized this week by the San Francisco Giants coming to Toronto to play the Blue Jays. I’ve recently taken to liking the Giants. So much so that my allegiance to their brand of baseball has become stronger than the one I maintain with the team I’ve supported throughout most of my life, the Blue Jays. I didn’t feel conflicted with the two teams playing against each other. I very clearly felt on the side of San Francisco.

This forced me to reflect.

September 21st, 1984

I had turned four-years-old two months earlier. I went to my first ever baseball game. The Blue Jays were playing the Milwaukee Brewers, and I only know that now because of Baseball Reference. I remember it for Dennis Lamp warming up right in front of me. I watched a young girl, a few years older than me, ask him for a baseball. When he threw one over, my dad reached in with his glove and snagged it. He gave me the ball, and when the girl complained, my dad told her he’d throw another one over, which he did, while shaking his head.

I only remember two other things. I asked the Blue Jays mascot, B.J. Birdie, to sign the baseball my dad had procured. The person in the costume complied, despite my dad loudly questioning my request, telling me that it was probably just a teenager dressed in a bird suit. I also remember that I loved being there, so much so, that going back was all that I’d ever ask of my parents for the next few years.

October 5th, 1985

My parents took me to a number of games in 1985, which seems remarkable now, considering that we lived an hour and a half away from Toronto, and we were poor. I remember realizing we were poor when the poor kid in my class – who wore overalls every day – moved into the town house unit next to ours. It was a sudden realization: “I guess we’re just as poor as Willy’s family.”

I can’t remember a single thing about any of the games I went to that year before the one on October 5th. I do recall being at exhibition stadium earlier that season when my dad bought me a framed picture of Damaso Garcia who was my favorite player. Anyway, I was there when the Blue Jays clinched their first American League East pennant. I don’t remember very much about the game, and what I do remember has since been perverted by the hundreds of times I’ve seen the replay of George Bell catching a fly ball in left field where we were sitting.

However, the thing that stood out to me more than any particular play – even the catch that was only made dramatic by Bell falling to his knees – was that people went on to the field after the game was over. They went on the field, and I can still see the image in my mind of people on second base putting dirt in their jacket pockets. I didn’t understand it at the time, and I barely understand it now.

A week later, my dad would get a pair of tickets to an ALCS game between Toronto and the Kansas City Royals. He’d take his friend Boyd instead of me, and our relationship would never be the same. I cried myself to sleep that night with the game on the radio.

August 6th, 1986

It was picture day at Exhibition Stadium. My mom took me to the game to get my picture taken with Damaso Garcia. I played second base in tee-ball because of Damaso Garcia. I wore the number seven because of Damaso Garcia. I would feel nervousness over at bats involving Damaso Garcia. I would be terrified of Damaso Garcia messing up. I loved Damaso Garcia.

Picture day at Exhibition Stadium was set up so that the players sat about a dozen feet away from the wall along the third base side – at least this is how I remember it. Parents would stand at the edge and take photos, and they might have had a media relations person snapping pictures, too. I was hoisted over the wall, and I went up to Garcia who didn’t have a lineup of kids, and very clearly didn’t want to be doing what he was doing. He stood beside me, and my mom took several pictures. He didn’t smile. He didn’t do anything. Just stood there. And once my mom had finished, he walked away from me without saying anything.

I don’t know what I expected to have happen when I met Damaso Garcia, but it was more than that. I can still feel the tears starting in the back of my throat, as I looked straight at my mom and began walking toward her, focused on her face so that I wouldn’t embarrass myself with tears in front of the other players and children. That’s when Garth Iorg, who maybe had an inkling of what had just happened, hollered at me. He ignored the lineup of kids who were supposed to take a picture with him next, and he told me to come over. He picked me up, put me on his knee, and my mom snapped away. He asked me if I played baseball. He asked me what position. He told me that the most important thing was having a strong arm. He asked me to show him my muscles. And I remember flexing for him the way that six-year-olds flex their muscles. And then he told me that there were home runs in those biceps.

Garth Iorg probably saved me as a baseball fan.

October 24th, 1992

It was the first autumnal Saturday night in the history of our household that wasn’t dedicated to the Toronto Maple Leafs. My dad had invited what seemed like the entire neighborhood over to watch Game 6 of the World Series. We had two rooms with big screen televisions showing the game, a stereo system pumping the commentary from the broadcast, and half of all the beer available for purchase in the Peterborough, Ontario area in refrigerators and coolers located throughout the house.

The list of invitees wasn’t without some controversy, as my dad, never one to exclude, offered hospitality to our next door neighbors who were single-handedly driving the property value of the homes belonging to all the others assembled into the ground. Their house had it all

  • A legendary stack of unreturned beer bottles? Check.
  • An unmowed, never-raked lawn with an unmoveable Toyota Tercel ever-present? You bet.
  • A recently paroled head of the household? He’d brag about it.
  • Kids who could buy cigarettes from the corner store without a note from their mom and seemed to know more about sex than I do even now? Uh-huh.

I wasn’t quite old enough to completely comprehend the tension when everyone arrived. Learning that not only was “Bob” out of prison that week, but that they had unknowingly volunteered to spend the next three hours of their lives with him, his wife and alcohol must have caused some concern. However, I did possess a limited understanding of my dad, who had faith in very little except that the unifying power found in cheering on the same sports team.

And his faith wasn’t misplaced. Before too long, the petty neighborhood squabbles had been transported to the back of everyone’s mind and high-fives were being offered almost as frequently as Labbatt’s Blue.

When Otis Nixon hit a single off of Tom Henke in the bottom of the ninth to bring Jeff Blauser home, Bob’s repeated, angry cries of “Fuckin’ Henke,” (which was hollered in the exact same tone as he had used every day previous (when not incarcerated) to yell “Fuckin’ Rocky,” at the pitbull chained in his backyard) didn’t seem too out of place. Then when Dave Winfield doubled to left in the top of the eleventh we were all one big happy family, unified in purpose and collectively willing those final outs of the season.

I’ll never forget that turnaround, not so much in the game, but in people’s attitudes toward one another.  For those four plus hours of baseball, the characters that life had forced individuals to become were thrown by the wayside, and age, circumstance and bank balances didn’t matter. We were all Blue Jays fans, and nothing more, and we didn’t want to be anything more.

Our team had won, and in addition to maximizing baseball’s visceral experience, we had embraced each other in communion as well. This is the good that sports can do, and it’s never been better exemplified for me than in that baseball game that occurred twenty years ago today.

October 23rd, 1993

My parents separated, and then they divorced. It’s obviously a lot more complicated than that, but a year after the epic World Series party, I was a teenager with a younger brother and sister living with a single mom. Among the things that my mom didn’t have the means to provide on her own was cable television. Even as a horrible 13-year-old creature, I had enough sense not to complain about being unable to watch the World Series. Somehow, my nana must have picked up on the situation in an intuitive manner that I will always lack because she invited me over to her apartment to watch the game despite thinking sports to be among the stupider things one could possibly spend time and energy.

She got into the game, and cheered alongside me as the Toronto Blue Jays won in the most dramatic of fashions. She did so, without a doubt, as a sacrifice,  solely to enhance my own experience. After Joe Carter’s home run  I remember looking out her window, high up in downtown Peterborough, and watching cars driving around honking their horns in celebration. It was all very wonderful, not just because the Blue Jays had won again, but because I shared the moment with my nana, who selflessly thought of me at a moment in time when things were kind of rough, and potentially could have been much worse.

April 5th, 2006

The 1994 labor dispute combined with the weird cocktail of chemicals that coursed through my blood and mingled during my teenage years took me away from baseball. I still followed it, but it was never the same for me. I wasn’t obsessed with it in the same manner. I didn’t care about individual players, and the Blue Jays were consistently terrible anyway, ridding themselves of players that the fan base liked in order to create room for players that the owners liked, which just so happened to cost them significantly less.

After my parents got divorced, my grandpa and I would go to Opening Day in Toronto for several years in a row. We broke our streak in 2006, buying tickets for the second game of the season, when we expected the newly acquired A.J. Burnett to pitch. He didn’t. He was injured in Spring Training. Instead, Josh Towers pitched. If you’re familiar with Josh Towers pitching, you’ll understand that a 13-4 score line in favor of the opposition wasn’t out of the norm.

The second game of the season also marked a massive shift in dynamics. For the first time ever, I bought our tickets for the game with my hard earned money. I was incredibly lucky to fall backwards into a great job right after graduating from university. I was also fortunate enough to have no responsibilities whatsoever for which I’d have to pay anything. It was all disposable income.

Throughout university, my grandpa would help me out here and there with a few hundred dollars at a time. I remember being in high school and thinking that once I finished, I’d really find myself in university. Then in university, I remember thinking that once I graduated, I’d really find myself in my first job. Then, with my first job, I realized that you don’t ever really find yourself. There aren’t any of those moments you read about in novels or see in movies where you definitively arrive at the next stage in your life.

I think that buying baseball tickets for us was the closest I’ve ever come to a real fiction-like coming of age moment.

December 27th, 2006

I received an email from my friend Andrew Stoeten. I wasn’t alone in entering the job market. I also wasn’t alone in having a desk job with an abundance of down time. My friends and I spent every day emailing each other in an enormous email thread. We were dumb, which only made it worse that we were making money for the first time in our lives. We’d get drunk or high five times a week, obnoxiously try to pick up girls and then write each other about it the next day while at work.

Stoeten and I, in particular, would often find our conversations in the email thread drifting toward baseball. This drove the other participants to vulgar language and the questioning of our sexuality. Seriously, we were scum back then. Then, while I was working over the Christmas holidays, I received an email inviting me to participate in a blog. Stoeten had christened it Drunk Jays Fans, and we began writing about getting drunk and watching the Blue Jays, more to each other than any other audience. There were no ambitions attached to it. We just wanted a place for the two of us to talk about baseball without annoying our other friends.

It was a necessary hobby for me. A year earlier, the woman I’m now engaged to marry had broken up with me. I was a wreck because of it. Angry. Incredibly sad. And desperate to think of things other than her. I understood something important immediately following our break up: the person that you first fall in love with does a very good job of informing the characteristics that you find attractive for the rest of your life. I think they refer to this as “imprinting” in the Twilight book series. Anyway, the awful thing about it is that everyone you meet afterwards that’s the least bit interesting to you is only interesting in the feature that shadows the one that you really love.

I could never just “get back out there,” and so instead, I wrote a baseball blog, and I followed baseball obsessively, and I let that take the place of the person I loved, and partially replaced her in my life.

Eventually, people would start reading the blog, even the pieces that were little more than thinly veiled cries for help. Then more people would start reading it. Then more. And more. And more. And then, a couple of years later, I’d get asked at work about it by a boss who didn’t particularly like the idea of me writing both speeches for the government and content on a baseball blog where four-letter-words were the least vulgar things you’d read. I was given a choice at the end of a series of contracts: sign a new deal and quit the blog or keep writing the blog and not get renewed.

I chose the blog because I was familiar with what it was like to have something missing from your life . . . and because I was completely unfamiliar with unemployment.

May 18th, 2010

This is where it kind of goes dark. Well, it goes dark only by comparison to the rest of my life, which went fairly well up until this point. There were no real tragedies. Nothing beyond what people who really experience pain would roll their eyes at. Nonetheless, it was my darkness, and when it’s the darkest you know, it seems pretty dark.

I worked a series of jobs after not having my contract renewed. I eventually landed a job with a software startup that was then purchased by a big company. The big company got rid of all of us, but delivered tidy severance cheques to go along with our dismissals. While this was happening, the Blue Jays were having a terrible season.

In a way that made me feel so very common and cliched, the misery of my life mirrored their misery on the field. Just like the team, I needed to shake things up. You can see it in my writing at the time, or at least, I can see it over at Drunk Jays Fans. Things were negative, and not in the funny provocatroll way, but in a misanthropic joyless fashion that was boring and pathetic.

I used my newly found nest egg to fund a cross-country trek with the plan of eventually flying somewhere else. Anywhere else. I spent that winter in Banff, Alberta. I went skiing and snowboarding, and completely withdrew myself from most of what I’d known. Of course, the Altered Life Fund began to dwindle much faster than I expected, and so I went to Vancouver, British Columbia, and took a job with a consultancy group that specialized in government relations. I avoided my aimless misery by working hard. Incredibly hard. I spent more time working than doing anything else, all combined together.

It was a drowning. I was flailing in the water of my own sorrow, and I didn’t even have baseball to hold onto anymore. By the time I was done with work on the West Coast, the Blue Jays had already finished playing on the East Coast. Meanwhile, San Francisco Giants games were just getting started. My interest wasn’t immediate. Over the first month of the season, it was a matter of convenience and coincidence. I would go to a bar after work. They’d be playing Giants games on television.

After one particular game, the three year anniversary of which is tomorrow, I realized that the Giants were something that I could get behind. It was sweet torture. San Francisco beat the San Diego Padres 7-6 in extra innings. It was a fairly innocuous extra innings game. The Padres almost tied it back up in the bottom of the twelfth after the Giants went up by two in the top half, but the team’s weirdo closer managed to shut the opposition down. It was tense. And it caused such a wide range of emotions. After that, I was hooked.

I began to love the broadcasters, the people on Twitter who followed the team, and the bloggers who wrote about the games. It was like falling in love with baseball all over again, and it coincided with little joy from elsewhere in my life. And that’s not all that happened at the same time. As I began watching the Giants and rooting for them through their back and forth battle with the Padres in the National League West that year, I was contacted by someone at the Score, who had originally invited Stoeten and I to do the DJF Podcasts years ago. He offered me full-time employment writing about baseball on the sports network’s website.

Not even considering what the salary might be, I agreed. I knew that something was still missing from my life, and it wasn’t being fulfilled – even with the Giants playing well – in my current state. I returned to Toronto, and then, the Giants won the World Series. The parallels of misery that I had experienced with the Blue Jays had transformed into parallels of happiness with San Francisco. I had a job writing about baseball. I was living in Toronto again. This team that I really liked had won the World Series, and I had even reconnected with the woman I loved, who broke my heart years ago. It all happened on the Giants’ watch.

Whether it’s reasonable or not, I associated the good things that happened in my life – the positive turn – with a change in the club I followed, and the team for which I cheered.

October 28th, 2012

These feelings were all reinforced in 2012, when I began to be seen as a representative of sorts for the Giants among Getting Blanked readers and DJF Podcast listeners. Until then, I hadn’t really thought about why an interest in one team would lessen my allegiance to another. It happened though. As 2012 progressed, and I began taking more of an interest in the success of the Giants, and less of an interest in the failures of the Blue Jays, a switch occurred. Cementing that switch was San Francisco’s playoff run, and the World Series victory in late October.

My mother had me when she was very young. My understanding is that she was a fairly typical person, back then. She drank and smoked and lived like I assume the majority of people do in their early twenties. In her early thirties, as a single mom with three kids, she found Jesus. She credits this discovery for altering her life from one that hung around bars and did things that damaged her body to one that didn’t, one that adopted more mature values.

As an unbeliever, I’ve always dismissed this change in her life as merely her growing up, getting older. However, I understand why she’d associate this change with the introduction to religion. In a similar sense, good things started happening to me when I started cheering for San Francisco. This, too, occurred at a similar point in my life as the one when she found Christianity.

It’s therefore kind of humorous that on October 28th, 2012, a couple of hours before Game Four of the World Series was set to begin, I got hit by a car while walking across the street with my fiance and our two dogs. It was a slow moving car, wrapping itself around a stop sign. I wasn’t badly hurt. But it was frightening for what it might have meant.

For the first time in my life, I realized how much I loved my life, and how much I wanted to continue living it. Of course, this has little to do with the San Francisco Giants, and a whole lot to do with having someone I love very much wanting to spend the rest of their life with me, and having a job that allows me to express myself in long, and self-indulgent ways like this, and growing older to the point of understanding what you like in life, and the importance of surrounding yourself with those things.

Once again, watching my favorite baseball team win the World Series that night, even as my right knee swelled up, wasn’t the source of my overall happiness, but it was as much of a representative of it as anything else, and that association was something to celebrate.

Tuesday and Wednesday

I thought about these things a lot this week, when the Giants came to Toronto, and played a two-game set against the Blue Jays. San Francisco was destroyed by a combined score of 21-9. I went to both games and cheered on the Giants’ losing efforts, without much conflict or drama. I still hope for the Blue Jays when they’re not playing the Giants. I still cross my fingers for their success. It’s not nearly as important as it once was to me. But I still feel that urge.

Canadian author Hugh MacLennan wrote in The Watch That Ends The Night:

There is no simple explanation for anything important any of us do, and that the human tragedy, or the human irony, consists in the necessity of living with the consequences of actions performed under the pressure of compulsions so obscure we do not and cannot understand them.

I’m a different person, now. And as much as I like my life, I also like the alteration that led to it. This, to me, is sports at its best. The vicarious experience is a measuring stick of sorts, a way to remember how far you’ve come. My life needed an alteration, and if part of that was prodded along by finding a different team and cheering for it, then that’s okay. Sports, or more specifically the Giants, have helped me to understand this transition – from a timid child whose dad steals a baseball to someone in their early thirties about to get married to the love of his life – in a way I’m not sure would otherwise be possible.

Sometimes, sports let’s us understand ourselves.