They came as first-timers in strollers and lifelong fans in wheelchairs, on school buses from suburban summer camps and commuter trains from distant towns, on bikes that zipped through a city awash in Blue Jays blue and in cars consigned to nearby parking lots where the pennant-fever prices had been jacked up to a stunning $40 flat rate.
Under normal circumstances – over the past 20-plus years of non-contending Toronto baseball – this would have been a throwaway, lazy-afternoon game, with a 12:37 start designed to let the visiting team leave town in good time while indulging the hundreds of field-tripping summer campers and the 24 war vets from Sunnybrook Hospital who all needed to get home to an early dinner.
But the 46,902 fans who thronged the Rogers Centre in a state of wonderment, joy and now serious anticipation all exuded the bracing, if barely recognizable, feeling that the ordinary has turned into the extraordinary. An August day that dawned with the Blue Jays alone in first place is a modern rarity – it hasn't happened this late in the season, since (according to statisticians of Toronto mediocrity) the glorious World Series year of 1993.
"We're number one" – even more so after the Jays beat the lowly Oakland A's 4-2 in a victory that veered entertainingly between nail-biting and inevitable. Maybe the best thing about the Jays' new breed of playoff-expectant fans is that no one bothered to shout that dumb phrase. The arrogant entitlement of the leader still seems new and strange, the result of an 11-game winning streak that's entirely explicable on paper but in reality came out of nowhere.
"Everybody's been waiting to enjoy this," said Bob Bell, a retiree from Peterborough, Ont., looking around at the all-ages crowd wearing team kit that ranged from newly printed jerseys bearing the names of recent arrivals Troy Tulowitzki and David Price to hauled-out-of-the-closet tributes to 1990s stars like Roberto Alomar, Paul Molitor and John Olerud. Mr. Bell and his wife Sharon bought tickets three months ago to what they assumed would be a relatively meaningless game. "I had no idea the Jays were going to take off," he said. "But people are in a good mood and it feels great to be in first place." His only concern, as a supporter of a suddenly dominant team, was that he'd have to do the wave. "I've been through all that before, but getting up and down is a lot harder than 20 years ago."
The fans did indeed do the wave in the seventh inning, though it looked more like a trial run than the real thing and petered out quickly. "Do people still do the wave?" asked one of the veteran press-box writers, as if to emphasize the fact that Jays fans are a bit rusty at this winning thing. Could the Macarena be next?
But the throwback feelings dissipated quickly through the game, as exciting newcomers like Josh Donaldson made brilliant fielding plays, unheralded Ryan Goins crushed the game-winning home run and a 20-year-old pitcher named Roberto Osuna, who needless to say wasn't even born the last time his team was this relevant, closed out the win with a veteran's aplomb.
As Mr. Osuna worked his magic – and at this stage it still does feel like magic – Mike and Annie Gilbert stood peacefully in the WestJet Flight Deck centre-field bar area, cradling cans of beer and keeping an eye between pitches on their slumbering 14-month-old son Jeffery, newly outfitted in a personalized Jays jersey that cost $150. They were on their way home to Trenton, Ont., from a seventh-anniversary trip to Niagara Falls and felt the need to give their son his first experience of a dominant Jays team even if it involved a lot of stroller-pushing along the Rogers Centre hallways. "We both had that winning experience as kids," said Mr. Gilbert. "And it's really exciting to be feeling it again." He used to use the televised Jays games as a way to fall asleep. Now he stays awake to savour the non-stop wins. "I have to tell him to go to sleep, he's so wound-up," Mrs. Gilbert said.
While a large part of the Blue Jay fan base is keen to relive the glory days of their younger years – this is winning baseball as rejuvenation therapy – many of those who flocked to the midday game were entirely new to the experience, and maybe more excited. "I've never felt so much a part of the city until now," said Ian Patterson, a 27-year-old photographer originally from Ottawa who biked down to the Rogers Centre from his home in Koreatown, spotting Jays jerseys all the way. "I was too young in '93 and missed out on all the craziness. In the last few weeks, it's definitely become Jays fever – it can be the middle of the week and all your friends are inviting you over to watch games. It feels really good to be riding the wave."
Midday and midweek along the crowded concourses of the Rogers Centre, in the middle of a long winning streak that seems never-ending, that wave began to feel more like a tsunami. James Yu was working the door at the Renaissance Hotel, which is built into the dome and offers an outfield view of the playing surface. But with an hour till game time, there was no room left for latecomers eager to climb on the bandwagon. "If you don't have reservations, it's tough luck," he shouted to the thronging crowds. "People have been standing there since 10 a.m."
Mr. Yu, originally from the Philippines, arrived in Toronto in 1992 and immediately found a job at the hotel just as the Jays turned into a powerhouse, winning two consecutive World Series titles. He thought that was normal, and then 22 years passed. "Now everyone gets to share the same feeling," he said. "It's wonderful to see the people so happy."