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first person

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Illustration by Chelsea Charles

It’s easy to say that professional baseball is just a bunch of overpaid men throwing, hitting or catching a ball. It’s easy to minimize the effect baseball can have on people who really have no investment in the game.

But baseball, like any professional sport, has the power to evoke strong emotion, to create vivid memories and to mark a moment in time. When I hear the names Bautista, Donaldson, Tulowitzki, Martin, Encarnacion and Stroman, I’m taken back to the fall of 2015.

It was the year the Blue Jays had their first playoff run since their World Series win in 1993. It was the year of “the bat flip” – mention that to any fan and they’ll tell you all about it as if it was yesterday, and as if it happened to them, not Jose Bautista.

That year, baseball gave me a whole new way to connect with my nine-year-old son. He got serious about playing baseball, and we started watching the Blue Jays games together. We learned the details of how to play, the language of baseball and what each player brought to the field. So, when those playoffs came, we felt invested in the team and had so much fun cheering them on together. Except when he had to leave the room because the tension became too much for him!

As my son gets older and the higher the level of baseball he plays, the more I’ve learned about and come to love this complex game.

Even after last season, the Leafs still have a hold on me

It’s an individual sport within a team sport. It’s a game about power and athleticism, strength and flexibility. But it’s just as much about thinking and strategy and split-second decisions.

For example, what do you do if you’re trying to steal second base and the left-handed pitcher has thrown the ball to first base? Or if you’re the catcher, there are runners at first and second, no outs, and the batter swings in the dirt for a third strike?

I’m not saying I know the answers to those questions – I’m a fan, not an expert! – but once you realize how much is going on when it looks like not much is going on, you appreciate the game on a whole new level.

Over the years, my son’s baseball commitment has pretty much taken over our lives for half of each year, and our baseball community has become an important one. We’ve stayed Blue Jays fans, even taking a trip to watch them play in Seattle, where the Jays’ fans often outnumber Mariners’ fans.

Then came the pandemic. My son’s baseball was reduced to team workouts on Zoom. At first, there was no Major League Baseball. Then, when they could play, the border closure meant the Jays couldn’t play at home in Toronto.

This spring was a discouraging and low time for me. Essentially in lockdown since Christmas, my life was mostly happening online. I missed in-person connections and regular life. I was easily overwhelmed by loud or busy or fast things – traffic, music, even watching hockey.

The perfect antidote for me was watching the Blue Jays on TV. The predictable and repetitive pattern of the game was comfortable and soothing. No, you don’t know what’s going to happen, but you do know there will be three strikes, four balls and three outs. There are surprises and moments of excitement, but there’s also a steady and unique rhythm to baseball that doesn’t demand as much of you as some other sports.

And the team this year – young and eager – was so fun to watch. Their excitement for the game and clear pleasure in being together was infectious. I spent many hours lying on the couch, feeling like I could do nothing more, and being carried through it by our boys of summer.

By summer it was almost like a different world. We were back at the field a few times a week with our baseball community, watching my son’s team play. Then, double vaccinated, masked and socially distanced, I sat in the crowd with him to watch the Blue Jays play in their first home game in Toronto in almost two years. The anticipation was high, and it was the first time in a long time that I felt excited about something.

The Blue Jays did not disappoint. A home run on the first pitch! A confident young pitcher wore his special Canada cleats. A personable star in the dugout joined in with the audience in the stands during the wave. All the players connected with the crowd. And they won!

That game, that experience, lifted me up. Looking through the open roof of the Rogers Centre at the CN Tower like I’d done so many times before helped me feel like life was going back to normal. Sharing the stadium with 15,000 other Blue Jays fans helped me feel like my city was coming back to life. Singing O Canada, cheering for the Jays and feeling the positive energy of the crowd helped me feel like excitement and celebration were possible again.

So, years from now, when I hear the names from this season’s team roster – Guerrero Jr., Bichette, Springer, Gurriel Jr., Ray, Hernandez, Semien and (Canada’s own) Romano – I will always be transported back to this time. To the pandemic, to the reopening and to the pure joy of being a baseball fan.

Helen Antoniades lives in Toronto.

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