Notes on a Torontonian Batflip (with apologies to Clifford Geertz)

BatflipIt is odd that while I have waited years (9 in fact) for TFC to make the MLS playoffs, on the day it finally happened I found myself (like the rest of the city) devoting my sporting attention elsewhere. While MLS’s most hapless franchise finally overcame its own history, the city of Toronto was swept up in Blue Jays fever that hasn’t really hit this level in over two decades. This itself says much about where these two sports rank in the consciousness of Torontonians, and normally I would want to be pulling (and arguing here) for the soccer team in this battle for the hearts and minds of the city, but screw it – last night was fun to watch in every way possible (unless you’re Texan).

What happened through the first six innings of the game was still a fabulous game: it was close (in fact tied after 6), two great pitching performances, home runs, and what on TV seemed a great atmosphere inside the Dome. But then the 7th inning happened and made this game a legend that will be passed down in oral histories long after the end of human civilization. The 7th inning offered agony, injustice, karma, and redemption in 53 minutes of Torontonians or any baseball fan looking for meaning in the world. If there are gods, apparently they watch baseball.

But other processes were going on in Rogers Centre that are worthy of some examination:

  • Why I hate video review. Before the 7th inning had even begun, the Umpire crew had resorted to video review, or at least a conference about calls multiple times. Sport is not perfect, nor is it always just, but the entry of video review into sport has served to undermine the ability of any official to do their job. The crew’s reliance on video review sewed seeds of doubt in the minds of both teams and fans long before there was any need for the use of video on an actually controversial decision. Once the fans, teams and umps see judgement as fallible, everything becomes questionable. This is why there is Papal Infallibility: if you can’t be wrong, nobody can argue with you. Oddly enough it works in most cases – there may be occasional bad games, but those then stand out so badly that the officials are not allowed to work that level again (ususally); injustices (real or perceived) then become part of the legends of the game (Hand of God anyone?). By the time Martin bounced a throw of Choo’s bat allowing Odor to score on the weirdest error in post season history, there was little authority left for Umpire to fall back on. Instead we were treated to multiple arguments from the two managers over whether the run should count or not, and that doubt also fed the fans anger when the (correct) call was made. The umpire messed up by calling the play dead when the ball bounced off Choo’s bat. He compounded his error by reversing his call. He further added to the mess by then going through the charade of consulting with video review and the Head Office before sticking to his decision. It was the right call made in the worst possible way.
  • Home field matters. I mean really matters. I have argued about the affective power of fans before – the ability of a large crowd to change the emotion all the way down on the field of play, but the bottom of the 7th was a more convincing case than one that I could ever make. Following the bizarre events of the Rangers at bat, the mood was by all reports hostile or even dangerous – a number of beer cans had been tossed onto the field (or worse, onto those sitting near the field). It seemed just a fraction under the potential for full scale riot (which has been seen in Canada before following painful sporting losses – looking at you Vancouver). The Jays seemed perilously close to forfeit due to crowd behaviour. Instead, the Rangers cracked and caved under that pressure – three errors in three at bats, and then a bloop over the 2nd baseman tied the game. One error can be caused by anything, but three in a row – something that has never happened in over 100 years of post season baseball – must be down to the crowd. Affect and the intensity of it in that moment matter.
  • How do we read aggression in sports? Whoa. How race, masculinity and class intersect was on full display through that inning. The edge of hooliganism provides a fascinating look at what is considered acceptable behaviour and by whom. The beer tossing as an act of aggression and the woman who sheltered her baby from the flying beer (baby was hit by beer not beer can) provided the media with a wonderful narrative about masculine aggression in that moment as a helpless woman cowers to protect her child.  As much as the Toronto prides itself on being a multicultural city, it seems pretty clear from the TV that the typical Jays audience (and perhaps moreso in the playoffs) skews white. Would there have been such tolerance for the beer throwing at a Raptors game – which has a much more diverse crowd? While there were arrests for a whole series of incidents, they were for mischief, not anything worse (thankfully). Through the whole inning my twitter feed was jammed with tweets of “Stay classy Toronto” and that is just the point – class. Those with class would not behave so viscerally, those with class would not throw $12 beer, yet the camera then focused on none other than the brother-in-law of Senator Linda Frum, who was pointed out by the Rangers bench as being one of the individuals they wanted ejected from the game – yet he managed to talk his way out of it! Class, knowing our betters and how they would behave was on full display. But that doesn’t even touch on the actual game itself and how to read Texas pitcher Dyson’s words in response to Bautista’s bat-flip seen ’round the world. Following the game Dyson said that he wishes Bautista would, “Just kind of respect the game a little more.” How to read that outside of the context of Dyson just getting posterized by Bautista is in the idea of respect – how did Bautista disrespect the game in that moment? He didn’t. He is often characterized as a hot-tempered latino player (yes, that has long been a stereotype) and therefore in such a moment his actions are read in the context of that type and his own history, but really Bautista didn’t try to pick a fight with anyone as Dyson himself did with both Encarnation and Tulowitzski after the home run.
  • Some moments are just better than any Hollywood script and wouldn’t be believable if they were in a script. That Bautista come up and cranks a three run homer to give the Jays back the lead that many thought they had wrongly lost was too perfect.

The rest of the game held the intensity of that 7th inning, and on the final out there was an collective exhale from the city. No game will measure up to that for a long time. But as a final plug for why you should also devote some attention to TFC through their October please check out their answer to Bautista’s homer with Giovinco’s golazo.

 

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Seeing Red, Seeing Stars, Seeing Bars

I was recently referred to by one of my friends as a “soccer mom” because I didn’t like his little facebook post of “Soccer players pretend they’re hurt, hockey players pretend they’re not.” I can take the kidding from him, let’s face it I drive Marcus to about 3 practices a week despite the fact that there’s several inches of snow and ice on the ground and it only recently managed to get above freezing for most of a day. But I’ll keep my kid in soccer thank you very much if it means not having to worry about concussions. What is permitted in hockey as part of the game is turning the sport into a literally bloody mess. That brings me to today’s tour of violence in the two sports and we’ll see where you want your kid afterward.

hieeeya

hieeeya

Seeing Red: First stop Manchester, for the game between Manchester United and Real Madrid. With United up 1-0, Nani (Man U) went up for a ball with his leg way out in front of him and basically ninja-kicked Arvalo Arbeloa (Real) in the chest. Nani was focused on the ball, but by leading with that leg he was judged by the ref have used “excessive force” to win the ball and so out came the red card. While many have argued the ref’s decision (including everyone in the city of Manchester), the response from Real was telling, they simply subbed Luca Modric in who almost immediately scored and then minutes later Cristiano Ronaldo put in the winner. No need to “even things up” no need to “send a message”, Nani was gone and so was Man U’s game plan. I’m going to back the ref on this one – it was excessive, whether he meant to or not is irrelevant, only that he did do it. I think what was so shocking to Sir Alex Ferguson wasn’t that it could happen, but that one of his players could receive a red at home. He was counting on the intimidation of the crowd at Old Trafford to nudge the ref to a yellow rather than the straight red.

Seeing Stars: Our travels take us now to Toronto, for the Leafs – Senators game the following day. 26 seconds into the game Frazer McLaren of the Leafs and Dave Dziurzinski of the Senators dropped gloves and had the good ol’ fashioned punch out. Suddenly, Dziurzinski was down and not just down, but out cold. McLaren needed stitches, but at least remained conscious. The consequences for the deliberate fight that had nothing to do with the play of the game: 5 minute majors for both, and then all was forgiven and McLaren went back on the ice. Oh, and there was another fight later in the first period, probably to “even things up”.

Dziurdzinski after the fight

Dziurzinski after the fight

Compare the two sports now – in one (I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt) a dangerous, but likely unintentional play ends up in a player being ejected for his conduct. In the other, two players deliberately stop the game so as to fight one another, one ends up with a concussion and the other receives only a five minute ban from the game, and this leads to a further fight soon after. The league may review McLaren’s actions, but this is largely accepted and tolerated in the sport.

I’m going to tie this back to my research now with the importance of the crowd to the teams involved. In the soccer example, Sir Alex was furious, not because there was a card, but because the ref wasn’t swayed by the emotion and intensity of the stadium (the affect, for you theory junkies) into giving a yellow, or a warning. In sending off Nani in such an unexpected way the ref did have a huge influence on the game, it rocked the management of Man U, the players and the fans. But I’m not going to say this was a negative effect, since it was the right call for a bad tackle.

On the other hand, in the hockey example the players were trying to create that emotion and intensity for their teams by starting the game with a fight, in this case it seems to have backfired as you can’t really get all riled up when someone is lying unconscious on the ice. And one has to wonder about the mentality of deliberately attempting to injure someone as a way of motivating your fans and teammates. Affect is a two-way street, rile up the fans and they’ll rile you up too, that’s the intent of this relationship – get the extra boost from the home crowd to put you over the top. But it isn’t just something that you turn on or off, it has a life of its own and can react in strange and unpredictable ways. Which brings me to…

Seeing Bars: The consequences of playing with emotions and intensity can sometimes spin off in ways that you never mean it to. Last week former youth hockey coach Martin Tremblay was sentenced to 15 days in jail for tripping a 13 year old player during the post game handshakes. I don’t think that there is any excuse for what he did, but I wonder if a sport that so strongly encourages its “toughness” aspects does not set itself up for exactly this sort of situation? It is Sarah Palin’s pitbulls with lipstick image come true.

Tremblay trips a 13 year old

Tremblay trips a 13 year old

My argument isn’t perfect, there’s a lot that goes on in a soccer crowd in some places that makes hockey fans positively tame, but the example that is set in the game itself is critical for setting the mood of the crowd around the game. How will fighting in hockey stop? When people stop watching because of the fighting. I gave up. We’ll watch the Olympics next year because there won’t be fights. The hockey will be good, but without idiocy, because as international hockey has shown, you can play without the fights.