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Philadelphia story: A cautionary tale for Blue Jays fans – and their critics

The ticket to Game 1 of the 1964 World Series that sits in the author's my desk drawer - an upper-stand reserved seat at Connie Mack Stadium, Section 4, row 14 (price: $8).

It's a fading ticket to a phantom game at a bygone stadium, yet somehow it matters still.

And it's at the heart of this cautionary tale, this cease-and-desist request to talk-radio types now in amplified high dudgeon, badgering Torontonians to get their reluctant butts into Rogers Centre seats, even without bobblehead bribes.

The knock is that Blue Jays fans, while stoked by the team's sudden ascent to the top of the standing, and tuning in Jays broadcasts in soaring numbers, are simply not going to the games – that my adopted and skittish home city is suffering from a fear of commitment.

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Well, maybe so, but with good reason. Fandom has its own perfect logic, its own instinct for self-preservation. People remember the fool's gold of 2013. They remember the Maple Leafs' crashes of the past few years, and they're waiting for the Jays to provide convincing evidence they won't be inflicting pain again. It's as normal as ducking a fastball at your head.

Believe me, I know: Any hurt the Jays have occasioned in the past – the swoon of '87 comes to mind – is but mild discomfort beside the agonizing demise of my hometown Philadelphia Phillies in 1964.

Fifty years: that's how long it's been. Fifty years since the Phillies – perennial bottom-feeders who'd never won a World Series, never even sniffed one in my lifetime – seemed headed for the National League pennant, only to suffer what history records as one of the most epic sports collapses ever.

Fifty years – a half century. Get over it, right? Pain passes, scars heal, life goes on and yet … true fans will understand.

Memory coughs up the awful numbers: 6 1/2-game lead, just 12 left to play. The Phillies, in that pre-playoff era, printed World Series tickets. I have one in my desk drawer now, the red lettering sketchy but legible – an upper-stand reserved seat for Game 1 at Connie Mack Stadium, Section 4, row 14 (price: $8).

I was 12 that summer, the sort of kid who hates math but happily calculates batting averages. I didn't just idolize the players – the names Callison, Allen, Gonzalez, Bunning, Covington, Rojas et al contained a kind of music – but projected everything onto their destiny: my own future, the fate of all that was right and good.

Then came the Phillie Phold, as local headline writers had it. I'll spare you the depressing details, but suffice it to say the once-Phlying Phils were suddenly pitching-poor, hitting-challenged, manager-panicked (Gene Mauch, later bench boss of the Montreal Expos), and the run of Phutility stretched to an excruciating 10 games.

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The skid was so unthinkable that even a pitcher for the streaking St. Louis Cardinals – who would go on to win not only the league but the World Series – said he felt for the Phillies, hoped it never happened to his team. "It would stay with you the rest of your life," Curt Simmons said.

Yes it would. "Excruciating" is just a word, insufficient, the way Pearl Harbor was "devastating."

The collapse, writes Frank Fitzpatrick, a Philadelphia Inquirer columnist, informed the city's "sports narrative for the second half of the 20th century and beyond." By Fitzpatrick's reckoning, the stereotype of the "negative, profane, cynical" Philly fan was born in '64, the "darkness we carried inside" convincing us that "the higher our hopes soared, the more cruelly they'd crash. So whenever we sensed a looming disappointment, no matter how insignificant, we short-circuited it with a boo."

This is sports as apocalypse, a maimer of minds. And as Jerry Seinfeld has noted, loyalty to a team is hard to justify – the players are always changing so you're actually rooting for the clothes: "You are standing and cheering and yelling for your clothes to beat the clothes from another city. Fans will be so in love with a player but if he goes to another team, they boo him. This is the same human being in a different shirt, they hate him now. Boo! Different shirt!"

Funny bit, and fair enough. But it misses the vital C-words: community, constancy, continuity. Note the number of talk-radio callers with heavy accents – fandom can be about embracing a new city, a new country. I know: For all my enduring ties to my hometown, I rooted for the Jays over the Phillies in the '93 World Series (though not without guilt, imagining a grandstand full of enraged Philadelphians, booing me).

No one said it was easy. So take your time, Toronto fans; you're entitled to your skepticism, your caution, never mind an aversion to the soulless dome or break-the-bank beer and nachos. Go when you're ready. But go eventually – because, on balance, as Lord Tennyson almost said, 'tis better to have loved a team that lost than never to have loved at all.

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With the proviso that, let's face it, you might get scarred for life. It dawns on me: Somewhere there's a man who was a 12-year-old boy in St. Louis in 1964 and counts that season's Cardinals among his most treasured memories. Good for him; I'm glad he has them. But I've never met this guy and, all things considered, I'd rather not.

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