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Toronto Toronto sports fans lose a friend after death of Ralph Platner

Ralph 'Ray' Platner sold Toronto Blue Jays game day programs.

Chris Young/The Globe and Mail

All Toronto knew Ralph Platner the program-seller, or so it seemed after news of his death on Oct. 9 began to spread through social media and Internet storytelling softened the unexpected loss of an eccentric savant whose talents were easily overlooked in his lifetime.

They may not have known him by the many names he responded to – Ralph, Rafe, Ray, Rayfield, Raphael, Ralphie – or been aware of what he got up to when he wasn't persuading people to part with their money at the ballpark: He loved to discuss the merits of 1950s film scores, sample the sweets at synagogue receptions, probe the minds of students at an Orthodox yeshiva, rush around the city with a newspaper-filled Mr. Sub Blue Jays giveaway bag over his shoulder or, in a rare moment of repose, soak up the sun's rays in an alleyway behind the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre.

But generations of sports fans and concertgoers recognized him as a dependable and comforting presence at the Rogers Centre and Air Canada Centre, where his never-changing 1950s haircut, bulky horn-rimmed glasses, deeply tanned skin and faded all-weather shorts made him stand out among the hawkers who help turn the spectator experience into an all-enveloping performance.

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"If you were at an event in Toronto, Ralph was part of that event," said Tony Clement, President of the Treasury Board, who traded quips and career updates with him over 35 years of urban encounters, including Conservative Party conventions – Mr. Platner was an avid political animal who delighted in contrasting John Diefenbaker with Brian Mulroney (while holding a place in his heart for Tommy Douglas) and could tell you what day of the week you were born based on the proximity of your birth date to some historical event he'd committed to his encyclopedic mind.

"He became connected to what was special and personal about the city," Mr. Clement said, "and that's why he was so precious."

That sense of preciousness has been heightened by his death at the age of 67 due to complications following a stroke. He was a shy and solitary person who cherished human contact, and couldn't help but make himself the centre of the crowd scenes he chose to inhabit. Comment boards on sports blogs like the Drunk Jays Fans site have filled up with tender eulogies for the high-energy program-seller whose memory bank could call up fine details about customers he hadn't seen for years.

"People have been really moved by his passing," said Andrew Stoeten, the blog's editor. "A lot of them are asking why we didn't think about him sooner, why we didn't acknowledge this guy more than we did."

A campaign has begun to erect a statue of Mr. Platner in full sales-pitch mode – to be truly lifelike, it would have to include a voice component where he quotes an acceptance speech from the Academy Awards or quizzes fans about the Muhammad Ali/George Chuvalo fight at Maple Leaf Gardens on March 29, 1966.

In a city that skews impersonal, his instant familiarity was a throwback to a friendlier style of village life. The surprising thing was to encounter this intimacy at a 50,000-seat concrete venue, where his primary job was flogging merchandise with a rapid-fire sales pitch, not asking about your father's engineering business or raising philosophical conundrums rarely discussed along the steep ballpark steps where he earned his hard living in an effortless rush.

"His last question for me over the past few years was, 'Why can't you have a strong military and strong social programs?'" said James Stewart, a 45-year-old history teacher at Bishop Strachan School who was introduced to Mr. Platner by his father at a ball game when he was 10. "I'd answer, "Well, Ralph, you can't have both the guns and the butter.' But he'd just say, 'I think you can.' He had these bugbears, and he wouldn't let go."

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Despite, or perhaps because of his quirky manner, Mr. Platner embodied the ideals of successful salesmanship – every transaction was pleasurably personal, never corporate and mercantile, which assured return business. But his level of engagement was so intense and his devoted following grew so large that all the joyful nattering sometimes conspired to stall the sales talk.

"He'd be entertaining the older guys, and he couldn't bring himself to tell them, 'I've got work to do," said Ritch Bremner, president of Core Media, which publishes the team programs. "He was too sweet a man."

There were times when his keen business acumen overruled his sweet side, and a packed Beyoncé concert at the ACC would take priority over his apparent obligation to work a lightly attended early-season Blue Jays game. "He'd go where the most money is," Mr. Bremner said. "He was extra work for us because retention of information was difficult for him, he could never organize money and he'd get frustrated with small things. But he was highly focused and a tireless worker with a strong local following: There were guys who would only buy from Ralph."

Toronto lawyer Stephen Turk affectionately described Mr. Platner as "a constant in my life" – and with good reason. In his 13th year, long before he made a habit of searching out his preferred program-seller at sports venues, Mr. Turk came to know Mr. Platner as Jewish Toronto's most celebrated bar mitzvah crasher.

"It wasn't a proper bar mitzvah unless Ralph was there. All your friends would have their bar mitzvah the same year, and once you started going through the circuit, you'd recognize him showing up at all these parties. Everybody else would change, but Ralph was always present – tall and gangly, with these thick glasses, oddly dressed, heading straight to the sweet table. It got to the point where he had a fan club of 13-year-old boys."

Mr. Platner was most completely at ease in Toronto's Jewish community, where his connections ran deep. His father, Israel Platner, was a Yiddish poet and journalist who had lost his parents and siblings in the Holocaust. His mother, Rae Katz Platner, was a sculptor whose works included a larger-than-life bust of Israeli prime minister Golda Meir.

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Mr. Platner remained active in Jewish political circles, had a passion for cantorial music that he indulged at an array of synagogues (especially those where his sweet tooth could be satisfied), combined his Pilates classes at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre with an old-time steam bath, and sang so enthusiastically at the Hasidic religious school he used to visit that students called him Modzitz – after a rabbinic dynasty famed for its melodic music. The manager of his apartment building had to ask him to restrain his excellent singing voice when he returned home from Blue Jays games at 1 a.m.

The teaching element in the Jewish tradition is strong, and in death, Ralph the Program Guy has emerged as an exemplar of the things people miss in their everyday encounters.

"He challenges us as a society," said Rabbi Chaim Strauchler of Shaarei Shomayim synagogue, who welcomed Mr. Platner to his Passover seder. "We see the same person 100 times and don't know their name, or fail to appreciate their deeper human qualities. This is a person who did his job very seriously, with great intensity, and there are a lot more people like him out there. Life is rich, and if we paid attention, it would do us good."

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