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Gregory HillisNovember 02, 2022
(iStock)

We arrived at the Rogers Centre in Toronto early. The first pitch for Game 2 of the Wild Card Series between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Seattle Mariners was scheduled for 4:07, but we got to the ballpark at 1:15 at my son’s insistence. Sam, who is now 14, was only 5 years old when he made his first and last visit to the Rogers Centre, a game against the Minnesota Twins that was forgettable—the Toronto Blue Jays lost 6-0. This time, Sam and I wanted to experience everything seeing a Blue Jays playoff game had to offer. We were going to be there from the moment the doors opened to the final out of the game.

Sam inherited his Blue Jays fandom and his general love of baseball from me. I grew up in Alberta, Canada, and although hockey is the first love of most Canadians, there was something about baseball that resonated with me. Perhaps it is my American genes—my mother was American and a baseball fan. While I have fond memories of watching Hockey Night in Canada every Saturday evening with my grandparents, baseball was the sport that worked its way most deeply into my bones.

I was mesmerized by the sheer difficulty of a sport in which a pitcher throws a small round object over 90 miles per hour while a batter tries to hit it with a cylindrical bat. That a batter ever made contact at all astounded me; that a player ever made solid contact seemed nothing short of miraculous.

I learned to love the consistent cadence of nine-inning games played over a long season of 162 games.

Becoming a fan

My first experience of live baseball was in Arizona for spring training when I was 16. Here I saw Ken Griffey Jr. hit a home run with what remains the most beautiful swing I have ever seen. My first live game taught me that there is art and beauty woven into the fabric of baseball, and both are on evidence in a meaningless spring training game just as much as in a game of monumental importance.

I was then, and remain now, a fan of the Toronto Blue Jays. Fandom is a strange phenomenon. Most often we become fans of teams in our approximate geographic location, remaining fans even when we move away from that place. But I grew up in Alberta and lived more than 2,000 miles away from Toronto. By my count, there were 20 major league teams in cities closer to where I grew up than Toronto, yet I considered none of these teams as a youth. Why? Because Toronto was and is Canada’s team.

In 1992 the Blue Jays won the World Series for the first time. It was thrilling to watch, but nothing compared to their second World Series championship a year later when Joe Carter hit a walk-off home run to win it all. Canadians across the nation watched that game and most can tell you precisely where they were when Carter hit that home run.

It would be another 22 years before the Blue Jays made it to the playoffs again, but the long playoff drought didn’t dampen my fandom. Rather, the lack of meaningful baseball games allowed me to lean into and appreciate baseball’s leisurely pace, a pace about which I have written previously. I watched Jays games or listened to them on the radio not because I knew the team would be competitive but because I learned to love the consistent cadence of nine-inning games played over a long season of 162 games.

Perhaps it is strange to put it this way, but baseball came to mean something to me spiritually.

The rhythms of the game

My love grew for baseball’s contemplative dimension, what Bart Giamatti—the former commissioner of Major League Baseball—called the “deep patterns” of the game. Perhaps it is strange to put it this way, but baseball came to mean something to me spiritually. To watch or listen to a game became for me an experience of something transcendent. I am aware that such language may strike the reader as overly sentimental or even ridiculous, but there are some who will understand just what I’m talking about.

I had grown accustomed to long but delightful seasons of Blue Jay baseball without the playoffs, but in 2015 the team made the playoffs again and faced the Texas Rangers in a best-of-five opening series. I had, of course, watched the playoffs in the 22-year interim between 1993 and 2015, but it is one thing to watch other teams play in the playoffs and quite another altogether to watch your own team play games in which so much hangs on every pitch. The leisurely pace of the game doesn’t disappear in the playoffs—thankfully, baseball can never become football, no matter how hard M.L.B. executives try to make it so—but when I watched the Jays on television battle for its postseason life in 2015, I was dialed into the game with an intensity and focus that I didn’t remember possessing in 1992 or 1993.

The intensity ramped up significantly in the seventh inning of the fifth and deciding game of the series against the Rangers. With the game tied and two players on base, José Bautista belted a home run and punctuated it with a majestic bat flip that will long live in infamy for fans of the Texas Rangers. The following year, Edwin Encarnación hit another dramatic home run for the Jays in the wild card game that sent them to the next series.

Watching these games convinced me that I needed to see a playoff game in person in Toronto. That opportunity finally came this October.

The Blue Jays had a 99 percent probability of winning the game. A Game Three was a virtual certainty. And then it wasn’t.

Up close and personal

The Blue Jays made it to the playoffs this year as a wild-card team, but unlike in previous years, wild-card teams had to play a best-of-three playoff series this year to go on to the next round. Toronto’s regular season record meant that they would host all games for this best-of-three series against the Seattle Mariners. I immediately snatched up seats for the second game.

It took us about 11 hours to drive from Louisville to Toronto to attend the game. We didn’t care. Such a distance seemed a small price to pay to see our team in the playoffs. We listened to Game One as we drove, a game Toronto lost 4-0. If the Blue Jays were going to win the series, they were going to have to win Game Two.

When the doors opened at 1:30 on Game Day, we first walked down to the field to watch batting practice and then passed the time by walking the concourse. To be honest, the Rogers Centre is not a beautiful ballpark, nor is it a great place to watch a ballgame. Built in 1989 as the only stadium in baseball with a retractable roof, the Rogers Centre is functional for a city with long winters. It is also an architectural monstrosity, a concrete behemoth whose sole redeeming feature is that it is, at least, unique. As a baseball stadium, it is subpar.

But for all its flaws, I’ve seen more major league baseball at the Rogers Centre than anywhere else, both in person and on television. I attended my first-ever major league game in Toronto in 1997, and I have been to many since then (even catching my first-ever foul ball off the bat of Harold Baines), but they were all regular season games. As Sam and I walked around the concourse, I could tell that this was going to be a very different experience. Even hours before the first pitch, the concourse was packed and the energy level was extraordinary.

From the moment the ball came off the bat, the entire crowd knew it was gone.

Exuberance

When the Blue Jays took the field, the crowd was electric. I’m used to games during which fans grab a beer and a hot dog, find their seats and have conversations as the game plays out on the field. But during this game, such conversations weren’t possible, not simply because of the noise—it was so loud—but because the crowd was focused on every pitch, every swing, every play. The reality is that we were collectively nervous. The Blue Jays had had a remarkable season, winning 92 games, their best record in years. We did not want to see our team get bounced from the playoffs in only two games.

When the first Mariner batter flew out to left field, the crowd was boisterous. And when another batter struck out to the end the half-inning, we were exuberant.

But that exuberance was nothing compared to what was to come. In the bottom of the second inning, Teoscar Hernández, the Blue Jays’ right fielder, hit a 2-1 slider up in the zone deep over the left field wall, giving the Jays a 2-0 lead. It was a majestic strike, and from the moment the ball came off the bat, the entire crowd knew it was gone, erupting with an ebullience that must have registered on seismometers. We were all on our feet, all waving rally towels, all experiencing both joy and relief that the Blue Jays might possibly survive another day.

That joy only increased as the game continued. Hernández hit another home run in the fourth inning, and in the fifth, the Blue Jays exploded for four runs, giving them an 8-1 lead. The crowd was in ecstasy. This was the team we expected them to be. This was the team that was going to take the series to a third and final game and proceed from there to the next series.

Our collective optimism was warranted. Two prominent baseball websites provide statistics regarding a team’s win probability during a game, and both FanGraphs and Baseball Reference calculated that, after the fifth inning, the Blue Jays had a 99 percent probability of winning the game. A Game Three was a virtual certainty.

And then it wasn’t.

The final drama

The Mariners scored four runs in the sixth inning, but the Jays scored another run in the seventh. It was 9-5 going into the eighth inning, and the Jays still possessed a 96.9 percent win probability. But the Jays gave up four runs in the eighth, the last three occurring when two fielders collided in shallow center field.

Suddenly it was 9-9.

Something about this historic comeback made us all realize that the game was over. Sure, the game was tied, but whatever wind had been powering the Blue Jays’ sails was gone, and the crowd knew it. As we watched the two fielders laid out on the field after their collision, the stadium was silent. When the Mariners scored the go-ahead run in the ninth, I don’t think any of us were surprised.

Sam and I watched the Mariners celebrate on the field in silence before finally making our way out of the stadium. We were of course disappointed, but as we talked about the game on the way to the streetcar stop, both of us realized that we had experienced one of the most incredible games we may ever see in person. It was a game filled with the kind of raw emotions that make playoff matchups so much fun but also a game that was so dramatic that we couldn’t but be grateful for what we had just witnessed.

When the 2023 season begins, I will settle once again into the rhythm of the leisurely pace of regular-season baseball. I’ll go to minor league games here in Louisville, I’ll watch the Blue Jays games religiously, and I’ll relax into the contemplative pleasure that baseball provides. But I will remember my experience of playoff baseball, its ecstasy and its agony, and if the Blue Jays once again make the playoffs next October, I’ll be first in line for tickets.

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