A season of loss
Major League Baseball has limped through a pandemic-dominated season, with a bitter labour dispute as its unsettling centrepiece. As if disease and the game’s disappearance Weren’t enough. Once more, the billionaire owners tried to exploit the merely multimillionaire players with offers of pro-rated salaries and a truncated season. The fans, as usual, were the losers.
So it goes in professional sports. In May, the Globe and Mail columnist Cathal Kelley recalled a conversation from years earlier, where the likeable Blue Jay Lyle Overbay, then earning $7 million (U.S.) a year, said he considered himself poor next to his teammate Vernon Wells, earning $18 million (U.S.) at the time. This, Kelley noted, is part of “MLB’s sorry lesson in economics.” In a later column, he would add this: “There can be villains in a sports business squabble, but no heroes.” And this: “Somehow, baseball players have deluded themselves into believing that because they work for a living, that qualifies them as working class.” America’s cherished national pastime has become “a relic of a past time.”
All true. Most fans try to compartmentalize such thoughts, because we love the game. But when play is interrupted, all manner of reflection, some of it unwelcome or painful, enters the idle mind that can no longer idle at the ballpark.”
My mother died in early 2019, lonely in a hospital bed in Victoria. Through the previous fall and winter, after a stroke rendered her seriously ill, I had travelled to be with her and my father several times. Those visits full of departure lounges, hospital rooms, and their living room — a place of endless bickering and everyday troubles, like filling out tax returns, trying to divine scrawled computer passwords, or dealing with my two competing brothers — had been so dominated by small tasks that I had not, except for one moment when she was wheeled out of intensive care looking like she’d been hit by a truck, allowed time for emotion.
The hospital called me just after 4 a.m. Eastern on March 7. The man was quiet and solicitous, a calming voice from 3,500 kilometres and three time zones away. I sat on the edge of my bed with my head in my hands, the universal posture of grief and defeat. The next day, I had to teach a seminar, which I barely remember, before going straight to the airport. The days and weeks after that would bring me all the usual things one faces with the death of a parent. My brothers and their families were on vacation in Hawaii, and so I was on my own for the first days, struggling single-handedly with routine logistics and grief. My father is sight impaired and adept at the learned helplessness so frequent in men of his vintage. In his prime, he could navigate four-engine naval patrol planes across oceans. Now he could not even tell me where to find my mother’s passport so she could be declared legally dead and released from the morgue.
I was surprised to learn that, despite her fervent Roman Catholicism, my mother had willed that she be cremated. For all the years of my youth, I had repeated the words of the Apostles’ Creed, which indicated that, among other things, I believed in the resurrection of the soul and the body. But I became a philosopher, not a theologian. Maybe you can
resurrect ashes into a complete heaven-sent body? I don’t know.
I have no doubts about my mother’s soul, but what makes the body part harder is that we chose to scatter those ashes in several places that were meaningful to her. Some went into the ocean water along the harbour walk near my parents’ house. After the rather surreal scene of having the box of them queried at airport security, I took some to Jackson’s Point on Lake Simcoe, north of Toronto, where my parents had met as lovestruck youngsters at a summer camp. My father was then a monk, one of the Christian Brothers who ran the camp. He was employed as a lifeguard and swimming instructor; he was tall and good-looking, with a flashing movie-star smile. My mother was a high school girl working in the kitchen. All those years later, my wife and I sent some of her ashes swirling into the lake water one autumn afternoon, with a chunk of Ecclesiastes as benediction.
My father left the monastic order — obviously, or you wouldn’t be reading this — and when they were married a few months later, glamour shots of their wedding appeared in all the Toronto newspapers. They were indeed a handsome young couple, the world theirs to take. The Royal Canadian Air Force offered him its own kind of glamour, plus the hierarchy and order they both craved. The next quarter century of service took them, and us, to a new base every two or three years, across the country and back.
I loved this transient life, but it offered few of the usual anchors of childhood. Baseball, though, was always there. My father taught me how to fill out a score sheet, explained the frequently Byzantine rules, with their delicate checks and balances, and indulged in the inevitable games of backyard catch. It wasn’t until much later that I realized my mother, too, was a lifelong fan. She didn’t talk about it much, and didn’t like watching games on television (though she always laughed when that Glavine and Maddux “Chicks dig the long ball” ad came on). What she loved was going to the park, sometimes with her knitting basket, and sipping the first half of a beer before passing the glass on to my father or, later, one of us boys. She couldn’t stomach warm beer.
Also like many fans, my mother preferred minor-league ball to the increasingly raucous experience of big MLB stadiums. I once took her to a Blue Jays game at the sound-system-pounding concrete cavern then known as the SkyDome, and she hated it. She was used to the bucolic pleasures of Nat Bailey Stadium, the AA and AAA site tucked away inside a large public park in leafy Vancouver — these days, alas, another Scotiabank sponsorship hangar. She and my father also started taking annual trips to Seattle to watch the Jays, like hundreds of other West Coast Canadian fans. But she had far more interest in the outlet stores and cheap dining options, at least until the opening of Safeco Field (now T‑Mobile Park, part of the relentless corporate-branding trend that she hated). The old Kingdome, which was like a peeling, neglected house by the end of its tenure, made her feel woozy. Baseball was for the outdoors, like football, fishing, and picnics. It was a Sabbath, time out of time.
She had very little interest in the baseball literature that I grew to love, from early Sports Illustrated yarns scooped from my older brother’s room to the books of adolescence and adulthood: Mark Harris’s Bang the Drum Slowly, Bernard Malamud’s The Natural, Paul Quarrington’s rollicking Home Game, and E. R. Greenberg’s underrated The Celebrant. And in non-fiction, there was Jim Bouton’s raunchy epic, Ball Four, and everything by the Rogers Kahn and Angell. In a sui generis slot, one had John Updike’s unimprovable 1960 New Yorker essay “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu”:
Greatness necessarily attracts debunkers, but in Williams’ case the hostility has been systematic and unappeasable. His basic offense against the fans has been to wish that they weren’t there. Seeking a perfectionist’s vacuum, he has quixotically desired to sever the game from the ground of paid spectatorship and publicity that supports it. Hence his refusal to tip his cap to the crowd or turn the other cheek to newsmen.
Six decades have gone by, and Williams’s wish is now a reality: This summer in Korea, the KBO League played crowd-free matches, viewable on early morning TSN, with the NC Dinos against the Kiwoom Heroes or the Doosan Bears. In Japan, play finally resumed in June, but only cardboard cut-outs of fans could get seats. Major League Baseball, despite numerous player infections, opened a shortened, fan-free season in late July — but not in Toronto, after a ruling by the federal government sent the Blue Jays south of the border for “home” games. The perusing of baseball books rather than game-day programs used to be a winter diversion; lately, it’s the closest many of us have been able to get to the field.
The last time my mother visited me in Toronto, before she became too ill to travel much, she stayed with me in an apartment I was renting in Seaton Village. The downtown neighbourhood is a typical chunk of the city’s architectural vernacular, with rows of narrow two-storey residential buildings, most semi-detached, with little sidewalk-bound parkettes, community hockey rinks, and those corner stores that sell everything from milk, ice cream, and potato chips to surprising arrays of hardware, exotic condiments, Korean dumplings, Jamaican beef patties, and Portuguese beef sandwiches.
This area was part of my mother’s life tapestry. She went to high school six blocks from my apartment, and she lived in a small workingman’s house one subway stop further west. In between, on a route she walked every day, there is an odd sunken park, a former gravel quarry, called Christie Pits.
The Pits has a multi-layered baseball resonance. In mid-August 1933, five years before my mother was born at a nearby hospital, a six-hour riot broke out there in the aftermath of a bitterly contested game. At the time, it was called Willowvale Park (Christie Pits being considered a little too coarse). On one side of the park’s baseball diamond was the Harbord Playground squad, composed mainly of Italian and Jewish boys from the surrounding blue-collar neighbourhoods, populated to this day by families whose first forebears arrived in Canada during successive immigration waves before and after the First World War. Opposite them, the St. Peter’s Club nine were sponsored by a Catholic church that still stands about four blocks from my old place. Both were local teams, but St. Peter’s was Anglo Catholic rather than Italian Catholic or (perceived to be worse) European Jewish.
Ethnic and political tensions were high that summer. Adolf Hitler had seized power in Germany just six months before, and Toronto’s economic fault lines were being ruthlessly exposed by straitened Depression-era conditions. When, during the first of two quarter-final games, a flag bearing a swastika was raised in the crowd, there were angry boos answered by shouts of “Heil Hitler.” Two nights later, just as the final out was recorded, a swastika was again displayed, on a blanket this time, and the inevitable fight was unleashed.
The punching and kicking started on the diamond, but it spread in increasingly violent running skirmishes involving some 10,000 residents who had gathered to watch. No one was killed, but dozens were hurt and hospitalized. The fracas was not even close to the Haymarket affair, still less to widespread coordinated atrocities like Kristallnacht. But it’s still something that’s hard to reconcile with Toronto’s projected image of easygoing — if not self-satisfied — diversity and civility.
Christie Pits has been peaceful for many decades since, to the point where it is almost impossible to imagine a melee involving thousands anywhere near it. This is a quiet, if not quite bucolic, corner of the city. The primitive landscaping of the park itself features long sloping walkways at opposite corners, with ramps down to the little collection of amenities. There, below street level, you can find a small wading pool, a soccer field, a playground, and, in the northeast corner of the expanse, a gravel-covered baseball diamond.
You can’t really call it a “ballpark,” though the outfield is grass and there is a short cyclone fence to make home runs feel real. The backstop and dugouts are steel tubing and chain-link metal mesh. Behind each foul line is a sad three-tiered bleacher with backless bench seats for about ten people. When games are played here, most fans sit on the steep grass hillsides. Choice vantages are at the very top of the incline, where the ground is level, and on a little flat hump of land on the first-base side, where early birds set up aluminum lawn chairs on the miniature plateau. A Mister Softee truck comes to every game, and there is a little concession stand behind centre field, where you can buy popcorn and soft drinks.
The whole set-up is more reminiscent of The Bad News Bears than of even the most basic Cape Cod, A‑Ball, or NCAA field. I once attended a graduation ceremony at Bard College, in upstate New York, and that school, not exactly a Division I powerhouse, has a baseball stadium that makes Christie Pits look like a sandlot. Thousands of American high schools have better facilities. But, but: on summer Sundays, always at 2 p.m., the hometown Toronto Maple Leafs (not to be confused with the hockey team of the same name) dig into the gravel against opponents in the Ontario Intercounty Baseball League. The Barrie Baycats, the Guelph Royals, the Welland Jackfish, and several others all take turns making the short bus ride to the city. This is semi-pro ball, a few amateur players just possibly on their way up, some former pros definitely on their way down, and a bunch of just-there players with talent well above average but not well enough to make it anywhere else.
The Vancouver Canadians, who play in that beautiful Nat Bailey Stadium my mother liked (named after the first successful drive-in restaurateur in Canada), are currently the only MLB-affiliated minor-league team in Canada. Once classified as Triple A, they are now the Class A Short Season affiliate of the Blue Jays. Other teams in various towns and cities across the country belong to independent leagues, collegiate leagues, or semi-pro outfits. In Toronto, the closest MLB-affiliated team is the Buffalo Bisons, on the other side of the usually busy but currently closed border. So the baseball choices in my town tip precipitously from the two-time World Series champion big show right down to this Podunk neighbourhood park with no seats, no admission fees, and a harried owner who runs up the hill to retrieve any foul ball sent into the gathered few. Christie Pits makes for pretty good baseball, but, more to the point, it makes for excellent entertainment.
My mother loved this place. After she and my father moved to Vancouver Island, she returned to Toronto only a few times: a high school reunion, the funeral of a friend, a serious tax issue. Each time, if we could arrange it, we would head over to the Pits on the Sunday afternoon and sit on the hill, letting the familiar rhythms of ball and strike, out and inning, pass the time for us. I would get us Popsicles from the nearby corner store. There was no beer, warm or cold, but there was always Coke or coffee.
My mother was often described as difficult or judgmental or strict. She was all of these things, not least, I think, because she had to raise three rambunctious sons pretty much single-handedly while my flyboy father winged his way from the Azores to the Arctic. She was also loving, loyal, and often sad. Baseball brought her peace. Those infrequent afternoons at Christie Pits, afternoons that could go on forever without the strictures of a game clock, were rare hours we spent alone together. I never saw her as happy anywhere else.
When I got back to Toronto last year, ashes in my carry-on bag, I made a couple of resolutions. The scattering on Lake Simcoe was one. The other was this: on opening day of the 2020 baseball season, when, as we all know, time begins — and stops — I would take the subway over to Christie Pits and surreptitiously scatter a couple of handfuls over her favourite diamond. This would constitute a municipal by‑law infraction, I knew, but I was prepared to take the rap if anyone cared to notice.
But then everything changed. Opening day never came. Our transit system became a petri dish. The Intercounty League postponed its season. Baseball was gone from us, except in forms I found increasingly depressing: fantasy games run by a newspaper, pitting different eras of Blue Jays against each other; sports channels reliving glory days by offering “rewind” broadcasts of classic games. But classic games are memorable because we remember them. A large part of sport’s appeal is watching contests as they unfold, knowing there is no script, knowing the result has yet to be determined. Highlights are great, but baseball, in particular, is about the lived experience in the moment, the way time really does change when your biggest decision might be whether to have another hot dog or a second beer.
What I miss about baseball is, of course, everything. But what I miss above all is the altered time spent together with other fans — friends and strangers — all of us sharing something so simple that it is surpassingly beautiful, sublime, irreplaceable. I can’t get my mother back, and I can’t ever watch another game with her. It is still not clear when anyone will be able to watch a game with other devotees, in the great democratic proximity of ballparks everywhere. But those memories of Sunday afternoons at the Pits, watching the players scratch out their small paycheques — paycheques that could never cover their bills — because they just love to play the game, bring me back to that mysterious combination of the ordinary and the elevated that has no name other than magic.
It is a cliché in the baseball world to say, after a failure, “Wait ’til next year.” (I know at least two baseball books of that title, and there are probably more.) Of course, if I wanted to, I could even now take the long walk to Christie Pits, from my new home on the other side of town, observing correct social distancing along the way, and scatter the ashes. But I choose to wait until next year, when, we all hope, baseball will grace our summertime again. Meanwhile, the little box is next to me as I write this.
And I think I’ll keep some of it with me forever. Cricket fans know that the idiosyncratic trophy for Test contests between England and Australia is an urn of ashes, allegedly of a burned wicket bail. The origin story is complicated: When the Australia eleven bested the England side in an 1882 contest at the Oval, in London, the Sporting Times printed a sardonic obituary for all of English cricket, noting that “the body will be cremated and the ashes sent to Australia.” When England travelled to Australia in a quest to regain the notional ashes the next year, and prevailed, a group of Melbourne women presented the English captain, Ivo Bligh, with the urn. Bligh later married one of them, the euphoniously named Florence Morphy.
The Ashes are quintessentially cricket, but they have also endured because they are a potent symbol of friendly contests, victory and defeat, and the good-humoured year-after-year wonder of sports. Baseball has been taken from us this plague year, but its remains are safe and cherished. That is what the game means to me, yesterday, today, and forever. The game, and its fans, will eventually be resurrected — in body as well as soul.
The flesh is weak, after all. It craves a cold beer now and then, and maybe that proverbial ballpark hot dog that Humphrey Bogart considered “better than roast beef at the Ritz.” Any heaven without those plain, exquisite pleasures isn’t for me — or for my mother.