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Opinion O Canada: Nationalism soars as Jays head into postseason glory

J.D.M. Stewart teaches Canadian history at Bishop Strachan School in Toronto

For most Canadian baseball fans in the last 22 years, the red maple leaf as a fall classic has been the preserve of trees in their autumnal splendour. But not this October.

We as a nation are about to be reminded of that little red symbol on the Toronto Blue Jays logo, during what is hopefully a full month of October baseball in the Great White North.

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The maple leaf is once more going to be the totem of a Canadian nationalism not seen since the days of Kim Campbell, Pearl Jam and season five of Seinfeld.

Whether the players are Canadian – it matters not. The Jays are Canada's only Major League Baseball team – and their incredible success over the last two months gets the nationalist blood flowing. It's a tribal instinct that makes us all feel like we belong to something bigger than ourselves.

When Josh Donaldson won the team's last home game in September with a walk-off home run, the SkyDome – ahem, Rogers Centre – physically shook. It was a tremor felt across the country, united once more by the possibility of what's to come.

Part of the reason for the current passion is the excruciating time that has elapsed between anything meaningful (read: winning) in Canadian professional sport. The last World Series and Stanley Cup wins by Canadian clubs both last occurred in 1993. The nationalists have been gnashing their teeth ever since.

We've seen this phenomenon before: I remember the overwhelming patriotism fuelled by the Blue Jays in 1985, when the team first won the American League East. Elspeth Cameron wrote in this paper that the club had done "more for Canadian nationalism than Terry Fox or Anne Murray."

A few years later, in 1992, when the team won its first of back-to-back World Series championships, the country hit peak patriotism. The only comparison journalists could draw upon for the key moment was Paul Henderson's famous goal in 1972.

The prime minister of the day, Brian Mulroney, told Jays' manager Cito Gaston: "Yours is an historic victory, one which will live on forever in Canadian sports history. You have united a nation behind you, capturing the imagination of Canadians from coast to coast."

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Today, it's 1992 redux. It has been impossible to ignore the exuberance demonstrated by baseball fans as a result of the success of this country's only major league team (R.I.P. Montreal Expos). They pop up in Cleveland and New York, Detroit and Chicago.

And they pop up, perhaps most famously, at Safeco Field, where Toronto players have likened the conditions to a home game. It got so unseemly in Seattle this summer that one local fan who had seen enough brought a sign that read: "Sit down, eh?"

Strangely, politics is never too far removed from the ballpark when it comes to this team. In 1992, Toronto's World Series victory was followed three days later by a national referendum on the Charlottetown Accord. Pundits wondered how the win might affect voting, and the city of Toronto was one of the few districts to return a "Yes" vote.

This time, we have a country whose electoral support is almost evenly split among three parties. The election could go down to the bottom of the ninth inning, and we may not know the winning pitcher until hours or days after the lights go out. God forbid that the Governor General quotes Ernie Banks later and says, "Let's play two!"

Politically divided as we may be, on October 19th, if all goes according to plan, the Jays should be playing in Game 3 of the American League Championship Series, and all Canadians will be singing from the same hymnbook.

"O Canada. We stand on guard for thee."

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