Despite the many possibilities that could cause one to rush frantically through a downtown street, it is not unreasonable to assume that the long-legged man in a chocolate brown suit, who was eyeing his wristwatch and grimacing as he side-stepped pedestrians on a busy Toronto crosswalk at 3:58 on Wednesday afternoon, was, in fact, rushing to see a baseball game.
The Blue Jays, making their first playoff appearance in 22 years, breaking the longest post-season drought in professional sports, were minutes away from a deciding game five against the Texas Rangers and it seems likely that that man, like nearly everyone else in the city, was on the hunt for a television.
At Nathan Phillip's Square, a sprawling plaza outside the doors of city hall, the game was projected onto a large outdoor screen for a few thousand fans who belted out a communal groan when Texas scored the first run about 10 minutes into the game. The groan is recognizable, well practiced, from new fans to those more accustomed to the pain. For the better part of the last half-century, Toronto’s professional sports teams have moved only in cycles of sorrow. There hasn’t been an upward trajectory. The fans know how to commiserate.
The resulting stress was held for three-and-a-half innings, until fleet-footed Ben Revere, who came to Toronto in a July trade—and after the game said, "When I got the call I was going to Toronto, I was like, 'Thank you, Jesus'"—crossed home plate on a Jose Bautista double. Toronto’s first run was on the board, but not everyone learned at the same time.
At a bar in Toronto’s Little Italy, where a crew of smokers gathered on the sidewalk, watching the game through squinted eyes and the glare of the sunset on the front window, an SUV drove by and a large man riding shotgun heaved nearly his full body out of the vehicle to shout, “What’s the score?” He got the score, plus a stream of unsolicited advice on how to use a car radio.
When Edwin Encarnacion tied the game with a solo home run in the bottom of the sixth, I was making my way through Chinatown. I knew something had happened because cyclists rode by with bells chiming, cars blasted their horns, and one fan came screaming out of a bar, shouting so loudly that he startled a woman down the street, who jumped forward and then let out a startled shout herself. The fan ran back and apologized, and then kept shouting.
Further south, outside the Rogers Centre, the Blue Jays home stadium, pockets of people gathered at every gate, their necks craned left and right, eyes peering over and around each other’s shoulders.
Inside, one of the most exciting innings in the history of the franchise was unfolding. Outside, it was 50 degrees, and we dipped our knees and bounced on our toes and skipped back and forth, fighting to keep down both the cold and our nerves.
“Tonight will be a good night, “ Anil, who is working his third season from behind the grill of a hot dog cart, reassured me. “You have to believe it.” But now it was the top of the seventh, and the Rangers had just scored the go-ahead run in circus-like fashion. The Blue Jays’ catcher had tossed the ball back to the pitcher, but it caught the bat of the Rangers’ Shin-Soo Choo, who was standing in the batter’s box; at third base, Rougned Odor, who had terrorized the Jays all series with scrappy play, broke for home. It was a strange play, but the run counted. The commentators remarked that they’d never seen anything like it. Neither had the fans. Soon groans roared down from the stands. Next came beer cans.
Outside, the police officers who lined the perimeter of the stadium stiffened slightly. A crew of eight pulled away on police-issue motorcycles, getting into position, securing various side streets. Waiting. No one knew what was coming. This is a fan base so starved for wins that, earlier in the day, a man made headlines by calling the police and asking to be arrested. He wanted to ensure he had a place to watch the game.
There were about 12 of us gathered at Gate 11, in varying states of angst. “I can’t do this anymore,” a woman standing in front of me said, before squeezing her partner's shoulders and walking in a tight circle. “I just need a break for a moment.” Then, almost immediately after she said that, the roof came off.
Bautista launched a three-run shot out of the park, and then his bat into the air, and then the fans out of their seats. At the gate, a man in a suit jumped up and down with a man who, moments before, had been holding a cardboard sign asking for spare change. Behind them, another fan ran in circles, yanking at the collar of his sweater, revealing a Blue Jays tattoo that stretched down his neck, shouting, “I didn’t get this for nothing!” Eventually, all three of them were jumping together.
That seventh inning was 53 minutes long. No one left our chilly outpost—during, or after. We were held there by what we’d just witnessed, the joy that moment had given us. We stayed because we wanted more. When 20-year-old relief pitcher Roberto Osuna gave it to us, striking out the final Texas batter, sending the Blue Jays players careening out of the dugout, literally falling over one another in celebration, all of us, watching across the city, and everywhere in the country—man, did we cheer.
The Sports Lens is a running series exploring the intersection of sports and culture.
Lead Photo: Police officers secure side streets outside the Rogers Centre. (Photo: Sam Riches)