On October 14, 1992, Juan Guzman pitches the Jays to victory over the Oakland A’s, 9-2, to win the 1992 American League Championship Series. Robbie Alomar is the series MVP. And for the first time in history, there will be a World Series game played outside of the United States.
Darla McKeen of the Toronto Blue Jays asked if we, Marine Corps Recruiting Station, Buffalo, would be available to do the color guard for the World Series. Does Pinocchio have a wooden nose?
Game 1. Atlanta. The Braves win the first game 3-1.
Game 2. Atlanta. The Jays win the second game, 5-4. But, in what comes to be called “The Flag Flap,” the Atlanta Marine Corps Color Guard marched out with the Canadian flag hanging upside down on the staff.
The President is apologizing to the Prime Minister. Major League Baseball is talking to the Jays and the Marine Corps. It is unknown if we will do the detail, but we head up to Toronto, just to be ready. I have to liaison with a colonel in Washington when I get to Toronto.
On game day, Oct 20, 1992, we load up the van and head for Toronto. At the Peace Bridge, the customs guy asks if we had anything to declare.
Well, we are the Color Guard for the Blue Jays game tonight and we have two rifles in the van, but they are ceremonial and the barrels are filled with lead. “Can I see them?” he asks.
We open the gun cases. He looks down the barrels and says “Okay. So what happened in Atlanta?” No attitude, just conversational, like he’s interested.
“We don’t know for sure. That’s another Color Guard. We heard the Army gave them the flag and when they hit the field it was upside down.”
“So, that wasn’t you guys, eh?”
“No, we work in Buffalo.”
“Okay then, well, good luck and enjoy the game. Go Jays.”
An hour and a half later, we arrive at the hotel. We check in and the staff says “Oh, you are the flag team for the game tonight. So, what happened in Atlanta?” Again, just sounded interested, like later they would tell their friends, “Yeah, we talked to those guys and they told us…”
We tell them, we are a different team.
“Well, good luck tonight and if there is anything you need, do not hesitate to let us know.”
We play cards and call down for room service; we order four Reubens and eight Labatts. In about 15 minutes there is a knock on the door. But when the food arrives, the staff person brings in a 12-pack, and then tells us that the entire meal is complimentary. “We want to make sure you know you are welcome in our country,” he says.
I guess we are on our third beer when the phone rings; it’s the colonel in Washington. “The agreement is that you are going to carry the Canadian flag and they will carry our flag,” he says.
“Huh? And the Mounties know about this, sir?”
He muffles the phone and speaks to someone. “I am assured that they do.”
“Aye, Aye, we’ll make it happen, sir.”
“Carry on, Gunny.”
“Aye, Aye Sir. Sir? Do I need to call you when we’re done?”
“Only if you screw this up.”
“Then it’s been nice talking to you, sir.”
“And you too Gunny. Semper fi.”
“Semper fi, sir.”
As we pull around the stadium, dressed in civvies, we see people selling and wearing T-shirts that show the Canadian flag, and underneath are the words – upside down – “No hard feelings, eh.”
We meet up with the Mounties. They ask whether we want to exchange flags, or leave them on the staff and use each other’s flag and staff. Not a chance! The last thing I want to do is swap flags and tie them anew. Since the Mounties have our flag, they are going to march out first and post themselves between first and second base. I didn’t realize that we were going to post ourselves between second and third base, but it was way easier. The Mounties say to give them about a 50-foot headstart and then we would both get to our posts at about the same time. Corporal Jim Hillyard of the RCMP asks if there is anything else they can do for us. I tell him no and he says, “Good luck, now go show them how this is supposed to be done.”
Darla is talking into the radio and says, “They’re ready.” She says to us, “Good luck, boys.”
We line up and get ready to march out. Then we hear this announcement: “The Commandant of the United States Marine Corps regrets the incident that occurred in Atlanta and offers his apology. To correct this unfortunate error and show their true respect for the Canadian people, the Marine Guard has requested the privilege of again carrying the flag of Canada and has requested that the Stars and Stripes be carried by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.”
The Mounties march out and the place erupts with cheers. We give them 50 feet and we head out. The noise is like standing behind a jet engine.
What I am about to tell you, only four people in the world knew until now – we were one second away from another international incident.
Present arms (and flags) is a two-part command: a preparatory command, a one-second pause and then a command of execution. In this case, “Present.” Pause. “Arms.”
Jon Secada comes out, and when he starts singing “Oh say can you see,” which is usually my cue, I give the preparatory command “Present” and Staff Sergeant Mickey Aviles says “Gunny, we got the Canadian Flag.” I said, “As you were.” That’s “never mind” in civilian talk. I don’t know if we would have made it out alive if we had saluted the Canadian Colors to the American national anthem.
The crowd sings along to the American national anthem, and cheers when it is done. No boos, nothing disrespectful. As a lifelong Yankees fan, I am somewhat disoriented by this reaction.
And then Anne Murray comes out. You would have thought the Queen had walked on the field. I didn’t realize she was that big of a deal in Canada. It was as if Elvis had risen from the dead and appeared to sing the American national anthem. I am ready this time.
When she sings “O,” I give the command, “Present Arms,” the rifles salute and Mickey presents the Marine Colors. My flag, the national colors, is never dipped. I probably have the easiest job out there.
“Our home and native land!”
And then, as one, the whole stadium sings in that low rumbling sound that only 50,000 people can make.
“True patriot love in all thy sons command
With glowing hearts we see thee rise,
The True North strong and free!
From far and wide
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee
God keep our land glorious and free!
O Canada we stand on guard for thee.”
And they sing with her, to the world, for Canada. True patriots indeed, they stood guard for Canada that night. I don’t think anyone in the stadium was sitting. You couldn’t. You knew something was happening. Even if you weren’t Canadian, you had to stand. There was something in the way they were singing. I heard a deep love of country. They were letting everyone know how they felt. And I was honoured to have been there. It was one proud and glorious voice, the voice of Canada. But the thing I remember most is, what class these people have.
And the last line, it sounded twice as loud. I know they were sound waves, but it felt like waves of patriotism as they sang that last line.
“O Canada, we stand on guard…for…thee.”
If you’ve never seen or heard it you should check it out. It is an amazing performance, and a powerful moment. And then Anne Murray walked off to the loudest cheers I have ever heard.
Back in the hall, the Mounties and U.S. teams congratulated each other and returned our respective flags.
The Jays won the game, 3-2. You may remember it as the game where Devon White made that stunning catch against the wall and nearly started a triple play. The Jays went on to win the Series. They won again the next year, but I think the second year they were just showing off. And yes, we also worked those games.
Gunnery Sergeant John Wallace spent 20 years in the Marine Corps, including three years with the Color Guard.
Special to The Globe and Mail