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“You know the Jays’ biggest fan?” Wide-eyed with astonishment and unable to contain their giggles, the middle-school baseball players I teach in Toronto are suitably impressed.
“What would you like to know about her?” I ask, since they’d never guess that a grandmother in her 81st year is surely the biggest fan Toronto has ever known.
I’m a storyteller, so naturally I can’t resist telling this tale.
There is something in the air at home openers – optimism, joy, hope – and as the Blue Jays play theirs Thursday, Joyce Zweig will be in her usual seat.
Through snow, wind, sleet and sunny skies at the city’s old, intimate Exhibition Stadium to the weather-perfect conditions of SkyDome and Rogers Centre, Joyce has attended every home opener since the Jays’ inaugural year in 1977.
I tell my students that Joyce wants to go to all the home openers, “at least until I’m 100!” she often says. Joyce is a hometown girl cheering on her hometown team.
Her devotion for baseball began in the 1940s. This was the era of the Maple Leafs, Toronto’s team in the Triple A International League, and young Joyce was a big fan. If you had a note from your parents, you could miss school and take in the home opener at Maple Leaf Stadium.
Joyce’s all time favourite Toronto Maple Leaf was Elston Howard, the league’s 1954 MVP, who was later drafted by the New York Yankees. At the age of 9, Joyce saw Jackie Robinson when the Montreal Royals played the Maple Leafs in 1946. Joyce’s love of the game continued through high school, and she realized that her boyfriend Steve, a football fan, may just become her future husband when he agreed to celebrate his birthday by seeing a baseball game with Joyce.
At 16, she worked at a local radio station and was able to watch legendary play-by-play broadcaster Joe Crysdale, who was famous for his dramatizations, in action. Alone in his booth, eyes intent on the ticker-tape skimming through his fingers, Crysdale’s voice – precise, expressive, punctuated by sound effects – lent such authenticity to his descriptions; listeners were convinced he was actually at the game.
The day Toronto Blue Jays season tickets went on sale, Joyce and Steve signed up. Joyce’s favourite home opener was the first – April 7, 1977 – which was delayed because of snow. After the field was cleared – by a Zamboni borrowed from Maple Leaf Gardens – more than 44,000 fans stood as Anne Murray sang O Canada.
Typical of a Toronto snowstorm, there was a traffic jam, and many fans missed the opening pitch. But not Joyce. From her seat in the sixth row along the first baseline she saw Bill Singer deliver the first pitch in Toronto Blue Jays history to Chicago White Sox batter Ralph Garr – a high fastball which the umpire called a strike. Joyce was witnessing a dream come true: Major League Baseball in Toronto. The Blue Jays defeated the White Sox, 9-5.
Joyce has a roster of favourite Jays – Joe Carter, Paul Molitor, Devon White, Robbie Alomar – and she shares her sons’ love of statistics, but she does not consider herself the Jays’ biggest fan. That honour, she says, goes to her kids Jonathan, David and Eric. For Joyce and her family, baseball is a common bond.
They have enjoyed many roadtrips to Dunedin, Fla., to watch the team in spring training, travelled to away games, and made the pilgrimage to Cooperstown, N.Y., to see the Baseball Hall of Fame. Family loyalty to the Jays has remained strong through the highs and lows between that first home opener and Oct. 23, 1993, when the Jays won their second consecutive World Series.
In 2006, Joyce was thrilled when her name was selected in a draw that honoured those 1977 season-ticket holders who were still season-ticket holders. The team was showcasing these super-fans by putting their pictures on tickets to Monday-night home games. Since Steve had passed away, she chose to be featured with their grandchildren, Zara, Jorey and Amanda. At the game, friends and those sitting nearby offered congratulations. A ticket taker asked, “Is this you?” When Joyce said yes, he asked for her autograph.
Being a Jays fan, Joyce believes, means passing on traditions. When former Jay Roberto Alomar was inducted into Cooperstown in 2012, the family planned a road trip. But Joyce offered her place in the car to her grandson. “It was time,” she told me, “to bring someone else into the fold.”
Her three sons have big plans for Joyce (who now sits in the fifth row behind the dugout). They want her to throw the first pitch at the Jays’ 50th home opener in 2027 – Joyce’s 90th year.
When she settles into her seat for this year’s home opener, Joyce’s heart will be set on the future, even as she thinks fondly of past seasons.
As I wind up my long story, one of my students asks: “Does Joyce think the Jays have a chance this year?” Of course, I am ready for it. It’s a question on a lot of people’s minds after all.
“She believes the team is going for balance,” I report. “They’ve still got Josh Donaldson and Canadian Russell Martin on the roster. So, yes – it’s baseball – there’s always a chance.”
Diane Taylor-Sexton lives in Toronto.