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“Baseball has seen us through a lot of ups and downs,” my grandmother observed one evening about 20 years ago as we watched the Blue Jays game from the overstuffed pink chairs in her upstairs TV room. “It’s always just … there.”
She was reflecting on the game’s steady and predictable presence throughout her more than 50-year marriage to my grandfather, including his deployment and return from the Second World War, raising three daughters and at that time in their mid-80s, saying goodbye to so many beloved friends.
Like many Torontonians, my grandparents were (gasp) Yankees fans, before instantly and permanently switching allegiances to the Blue Jays on that snowy day in April, 1977, when the team first took the field at Exhibition Stadium. My parents, with me tagging along in utero, were at the next day’s game, both newly converted fans themselves. Since then, I have been there for many of the team’s greatest highs and lows, and as grandma predicted, they have been there for many of mine.
I was sitting on the cold aluminum bleachers at Exhibition Stadium in April, 1989, when Nelson Liriano broke up Nolan Ryan’s no-hitter with a ninth-inning triple. My husband and I were among the 49,934 fans jumping out of their seats at the 2016 American League wild-card game as Edwin Encarnacion crushed a three-run walk-off homer to seal the extra-innings victory over the Orioles. I can still hear the mounting roar as the cheers from the third-base side made their way across the stadium to meet up with ours.
I was not there, regrettably, to see Joe Carter “touch ’em all” as he leaped around the bases in celebration of his World Series winning home run in 1993. My family had tickets, but at 15 (brace yourself for deep disappointment here), I chose instead to watch the game at a party hosted by the guy with whom I was embarrassingly smitten. This comes up annually as my family rubs nearly 30 years of salt into that same wound (or wounds if you include the unrequited crush).
While those once-in-a-lifetime baseball experiences are stored permanently in my archive of memorable life events, even more valuable are the hundreds and hundreds of less-noteworthy ones in between, many of them spent listening to the soothing voices of Tom Cheek and Jerry Howarth crackling on the radio perched on my grandfather’s lap for the best reception.
And, of course, those classically tedious, otherwise forgettable games that provided a backdrop to conversation with family and friends or a welcome distraction after a demoralizing day at work – in one case a devastating interview for my dream job in my late-20s where the boss had asked me not about my professional qualifications, but if I would like to go out for dinner with him some time. Those games were also a non-judgmental companion in the dark, lonely months of early parenthood – the Jays didn’t know that my struggle to breastfeed my newborn son had me questioning my worth as a mother, or that I doubted if I would ever feel like myself again. They were just, there.
For me, it’s the two things non-ball fans often cite as the worst parts of the game – the relentlessly long season and famously slow pace – that make it so comforting. With 162 games in a regular season (nearly double the NBA and NHL’s 82), the game is always on when I need it and there is no pressure to watch if I don’t. Baseball’s easy, almost droning rhythm creates the perfect atmosphere for keeping my eyes on the game but my heart and mind in the meandering and often rewarding conversations that happen alongside it, whether I’m there at the ballpark or tuning in on the TV.
A lot has been written about sports as a metaphor for life – it ain’t over till it’s over, you win some you lose some and so on. But baseball isn’t significant to me because of the lessons it offers about character or strength or even the feeling it gives of being part of something larger, which as a follower of the team whose fan base is the entire country is admittedly very special.
No, baseball is important to me simply because it’s always there.
It was there when my dad took my sister and me, aged five and seven, to watch the beer-league slo-pitch games at the school down the street from his new house where we stayed every Wednesday and every other weekend after our parents’ divorce. And it was there in the twinkly early days of falling in love with my own husband, who took me to a game on our third date.
My life had changed forever, baseball had not.
This connection to the game played out differently for my husband and me during the first two years of the pandemic, arguably the most protracted lows of our lifetimes so far. He clung to baseball like a life raft to a more normal time, but for me it highlighted precisely how unnormal everything was. At a time when I needed things to be predictable and stable, the disruptions of the shortened season and the team’s displacement, first to Dunedin and then to Buffalo, made baseball feel, not like a consistent comfort, but another uncertainty.
This season, despite the seemingly never-ending waves of COVID, a struggling Blue Jays bullpen and the team’s unsteady hold on the last American League wild-card spot, I am not worried because I am once again able to share it all with family and friends, idly chatting about what is going on in our lives while enjoying the sport we love.
My grandfather had two rules for baseball fandom, which have made their way into the family playbook: Real fans don’t go on opening day, and you never leave a game before the end. Never. Even a 15-1 blowout.
Maybe that’s the life lesson I have learned from watching baseball, and what my grandmother meant when she talked about her marriage: There will be ups and downs, but you stick it out. You sit tight, you hope and you hang in there until the end.
Emily Waugh lives in Toronto.
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