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Thankful Thursday II : Take Me Out To The Ballgame

This Thursday I’m thankful for baseball being back.

Yes, the boys of summer are back, with all 30 Major League clubs opening up their spring training camps by today. Mind you, not all players have to report to the camps in Florida and Phoenix until month’s end, when the first exhibition games will begin taking place and the first few days usually consist of little more than a handful of players – largely unproven ones eager to compete for a spot on the roster – doing a few stretches and jogging around the field. But still… baseball is back. With it, hints of a long, lovely summer ahead and flashbacks to generations of summers gone by. …

When I lived in Canada, Spring Training held a special place in my heart because it was something hopeful. Winter’s there were long and dark, but when baseball began revving up its engines, there was hope in the air that spring might find a way to arrive after all. It usually beat the first northward bound Robins back by about two weeks. I often aspired to, but never quite made it to, visiting Dunedin (a St. Petersburg suburb that’s training site to my beloved Blue Jays) in March to get a look at the year’s edition of the team up close with a big helping of warm sunshine on the side. This year, for the first time since I moved south, it has that very same appeal, beginning in a week where we’ve been housebound for days after 0-degree weather and two major snow and ice storms. The thought of a sunny afternoon watching a double play unfold is doubly appealing.

I’m unusual as a Canadian. As a small kid, I didn’t mind watching hockey and collected hockey cards like the rest of the boys in my neighborhood, but my heart was with the Boys of Summer. I loved playing ball when I had the chance (my friends who watched me drop ball after ball or run away from incoming flyballs probably didn’t love it as much when I did!), loved watching the few games that were televised back then and poured over the stats on the back of the cards I collected. It seemed the perfect game to me. It was best enjoyed in fine weather, in the sunlight on a grassy field. Lots of math, lots of strategy, lots of big personalities, the game playing itself out as it might without regards to a clock. It was like chess in that…and yes, little nerdy me played chess too! Of course, maybe that wasn’t so unlike other Canadian kids. Baseball trivia buffs are often surprised to find out how many times Toronto, Canada has had the highest attendance of any big league team for the year outdrawing baseball “meccas” like Boston, New York and St. Louis. Back then, for reasons hard to remember, I was a Cincinnati fan and when our family drove back from Florida and crossed the Ohio River, I looked out at the stadium like a Muslim approaching Mecca. That was the house of Pete Rose. Johnny Bench. Joe Morgan.

Of course, as I got a bit older, my hometown (approximately) got its own team and I was soon converted to a Blue Jays loyal. The first few years they were bad, but they played with heart and had cool caps. Then they got good and it got really exciting. When they finally got to the World Series in 1992, life in the city changed. Temporarily and for the better. Everyone was a fan. Everyone wanted to talk about the Jays. Wear a tie with the Blue Jays logo in to work and everyone was your friend. Customers who’d usually complain their order wasn’t ready on time or about a price increase were all smiles discussing that incredible glove of ‘Devo’ or ‘who knew Sprague was that good, eh!’. There were no Liberals or Conservatives, Whites or Blacks, there was just a city of baseball fans.

Of course, since 1993, there’ve been ups and downs for the Toronto fans…more down than up frankly… but a winning streak still has the magical power to unite the city. A lot has changed in the game too. Strategies have changed, computers have largely replaced old-fashioned scouts watching players and there’s less subtlety to the games… fewer bunts, fewer pitchers trying to pick off a runner, more big hitters swinging for the fences with no regard to just getting on base. But still, it’s baseball. America’s pastime.

Hope springs eternal they say, and in spring hope’s eternal for ball fans. Everyone’s in a first-place tie. There’s a long summer of games for that to change during; a long season of “Take Me Out To the Ballgame” being played, just as it was 50, 80 years ago. And after a year of Covid lockdowns, a winter of ice and snow, the idea of the familiar seems rather great.

The Basketball Diary

I’m Canadian but baseball’s always been “my” sport. I love watching it, love reading about it, even liked playing it years ago. My teammates back when I played on a very amateur beer league company team many summers back probably didn’t love me playing as much. I could make contact at bat reasonably well, but had a hard time driving the ball out of the infield and I couldn’t catch a darn thing – not the eye of any cute female players let alone a pop fly.

Anyhow, being from the Great White North, people usually assume I’m obsessed with hockey. I’m not, but I am passably acquainted with it. I used to collect hockey cards as a kid and I don’t mind watching a game if I’m in a room and someone else is watching. American football doesn’t do much for me and it seems pathetically slow with all the whistles and time outs but at least I have a vague understanding of it and now and again might have an exciting touchdown run. And there is the prospect of cheerleaders in the down time! Soccer was fun enough to play when little but doesn’t do much for me as a spectator sport. And then there’s basketball.

Basketball has always been my least favorite of the “major” team sports over here. They used to try and get us to play it in high school gym; I couldn’t sink a basket standing still and had no clue who I was supposed to block or cover. Watching it to me would only have appeal if I was immobilized and there were no comedies, other sports, true crime dramas or real time documentaries about paint drying on rival channels.

That said, my old town’s team is doing alright for themselves this year and I can’t quite help but be a little excited at least. The Toronto Raptors are two games away from winning their first NBA Championship and the first one ever to be won by a team from outside of the USA. Although I’m not in Ontario this summer, I can tell from the wonderful invention that is “social media” that the city is going Hoops Crazy. A team that once was an afterthought to the local media and a source of derision if anything at all to most of the populace (when they had cartoon dinosaur logos and unconventional color palettes they were an easy target for jokes) is now the toast of the town. Good for them and good for Toronto! Go Raptors!

The finals have been “marred” by an incident during the last game in California when a “fan” shoved Raptors star Kyle Lowry a little and probably mouthed off to him.It  turns out the “fan” was a co-owner of the home team Golden State Warriors named Mark Stevens, and it’s fast becoming the shove heard ’round the world. The NBA quickly banned Stevens from all games for a year, fined him half a million dollars and are deciding whether or not he should be forced to sell his part of his club. The game’s biggest star, LeBron James has reacted loudly to the event saying “swift action” was needed to reprimand Stevens and there is “absolutely no place in our beautiful game for all that.”

To me it’s much ado about nothing. Almost at least. An overblown brouhaha… but one which raises questions nonetheless. Viewing the tape of the event, it shows Lowry chasing a ball falling (or diving into) the crowd as basketball players often do, with Stevens leaning over and pushing Lowry away, ostensibly mouthing off to him all the while. He didn’t deck the player in the face, didn’t kick him, didn’t grab his arm and twist it. It was a rather benign push. Nevertheless, Stevens was clearly out of line. He should have minded his own business and unless the player landed on top of him, left well enough alone and not leaned over to push. He deserves some sort of penalty, but not the scorn and wrath of an entire nation.

To me though it raises a much bigger question that no one is asking: why in the world does basketball have fans sitting essentially on the playing surface? It’s the only popular sport in North America that has fans in such close proximity to the players and action. Seats are lined up right along the very edge of the tiny 94′ long court, with no walls, nets or buffers to protect fans from players who lose sight of where they are and run like bulls into the crowd trying to get a ball or block an opponent. Such things happen routinely. In 2015 the New York Times ran an article about it after golf star Jason Day’s wife Ellie was hospitalized with a concussion after a similar mishap in Cleveland when LeBron crashed into her and knocked over her seat chasing a ball. I’m not saying it’s LeBron’s fault. He was merely playing the game as hard as he could, trying to win, like he should. But the star is 6 foot 8, weighs in around 260… and isn’t even the biggest man on the court most nights. Who wants a guy that size crashing on to them unexpectedly?

Granted, no one’s been killed yet from such an accident unlike baseball or hockey or worse yet, car racing with flying projectiles (frozen pucks, hard-hit foul balls, wrecked cars going over 100 MPH) careening into the stands. But hockey has boards to rein in the players and plexiglass above them to try and protect fans from errant pucks. Baseball stadiums usually have a wide area of “foul territory” between the diamond and the stands and has begun putting up fish netting close to the home plate to stop balls flying at high speed into fans’ heads too quickly for a person to react. It would be absurd to have chairs on the ice for fans in hockey or to let NASCAR fans stand on the edge of the pavement as cars speed by them at 180. Baseball, with fans sitting 80 feet or more away from the action and protective netting is taking flak again this month after a small girl got hit in the head by a fly ball off the bat of a visibly distraught Albert Amonte. Come on basketball – don’t wait until some little girl gets flattened by a 300 pound player running full out, or equally frightening, for a player to be attacked by an armed and disgruntled front row fan before it gets with the program. Fans are there to see the game, not be part of it.

Oh… and by the way… Go Raptors!