Mark Kingwell's new book, Fail Better: Why Baseball Matters, has just been published
You may not consider Nick Swisher, late of the New York Yankees and a few other teams, a reliable arbiter of taste and decorum. Not knowing him personally, I will reserve judgment. But he is notorious in Toronto baseball circles for one thing: Last fall, he called us out for our lack of etiquette. Blue Jays fans, he said, are the nastiest in all of baseball.
"I would say they're the worst," Mr. Swisher told this newspaper's sports columnist, Cathal Kelly. "But I don't want to give them the credit."
Just how bad is bad? "You would not believe the things you hear out there," Mr. Swisher said. "Not just things about you. Things about your family. They'll go on the Internet and find out their names and use them. It's really unbelievable."
True, this narrative is easily dismissed as insult-swapping. Mr. Swisher, self-portrayed as a good Christian and family man, was no saint on the diamond; he was no Nice Guy Nicky. Alternatively, I have heard some Toronto fans embrace his negative judgment, as though this is all a testament to Toronto's grittiness, our tough north-of-the-border refusal of the pastoral myth-making of American baseball. Toronto versus everybody, pal.
Here's my take. The Jays' New Millennium fans seem hell-bent on the hockeyization of baseball, with the hurling of beer cans, racial insults and water bottles, directly at opposing players from the upper decks of the chaotic SkyDome – a stadium that corporate influence forces me to call, in this forum, the Rogers Centre. When the Baltimore Orioles visited late last season, they complained that playing outfield in Toronto means running a gamut of racial slurs and projectiles alike.
Alas, none of this is news if you have ever attended one of the beer-soaked bro-parties that Blue Jays night games have become. Cathal Kelly wanted to push the question. "We are, officially, the worst," he wrote. "That it's hard to argue the point has made Torontonians suddenly shy and unsure. Do we deny what's pretty plainly true? Do we embrace our new identity as the drunken cousin who ruins every family gathering? And if neither of those things suit us, whom can we blame instead?"
The answer is: nobody. This is us, the new Canada of rude, racist and often drunken behaviour.
If you're like me, whether you live in Toronto or not, whether you are a sports fan or not, you'll want to distance yourself from this image. And of course a country as big and wide as this one embraces a lot of different identities; that's part of its genius. But the perception of our failure is based in a reality we all need to recognize. We're not PolitenessLand anymore (maybe we never were). Instead, we're the Broad Street Bullies of Baseball, the continent's backward louts of lousy conduct. I used to think Boston was the rudest city I knew, trumping even London's class-based surliness and the exquisite disdain of Paris. Congratulations, Toronto – you are now a world-class contender in an undesirable category, namely, treating visitors badly.
Back in the 1990s, writing about the Blue Jays' first World Series victory, I argued – naively I guess – that our national civility, while debatable, was part of what made the achievement so great. The Jays were terrific players, then as now with significant Dominican and other international presence, and we beat the masters at their own game. It was a triumph of the colonies over the empire, the margins over the centre. I know, I know – intellectuals probably shouldn't wax too poetic about sports, for that way lies madness (and bad writing). But I actually believed all this, and I further thought that the grace and style of those Jays – and their fans – was part of what we won in '92, and then repeated in '93, for good measure.
The Jays feel like contenders this year, as they did last season and the one before that. Best five-man rotation in the league, if you ask me. Bat-flipping slugger Jose Bautista is back, though smiling Edwin Encarnacion is gone. Josh Donaldson might actually be healthy. We have a great team. It's not too much to ask that we have great fans, too.