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.


How Soccer Explains Canada

I’m currently living in what is becoming known as the city where sports go to die. Toronto has some of the least successful franchises in North America. Leafs: no playoffs since 2004, Raptors: no playoffs since 2008, Blue Jays: no playoffs since 1993, Argos: only 2 times since 2008, and then Toronto FC: never, not once, never.

This is a little painful for me. I want to cheer for TFC, I have cheered for TFC. I can’t cheer for any other sports team in this city because I grew up elsewhere in Canada, where we’re all taught to hate Toronto teams on principle. But TFC is an exception to that rule because I moved to Toronto before they were founded, so I was never trained to cheer against them. Unfortunately, they are losing me fast. Partly because of how bad they are, but also due to the arrival of another Canadian Major League Soccer (MLS) team I have been trained to cheer for: the Vancouver Whitecaps.

Soccer has a fragile hold on the country at most times, we are a nation of hockey fans. But the future of Canadian soccer is clearly headed to the West Coast. My prediction is that Vancouver will win the MLS Cup before Toronto, if Toronto ever manages to (which doesn’t seem likely at this rate). I base this on a number of factors that will tilt the balance of soccer inevitably in Vancouver’s favour. For this discussion I’m going to cut Montreal right out because while they are clearly better than Toronto for now, that isn’t saying much, don’t worry Montreal Impact you’ll get your turn.

The first factor I’ll look at is history. The Vancouver Whitecaps are not as new as one would think. They are in their current incarnation a second year MLS team, but the history and following of the Whitecaps goes back to the ’70s in the old NASL. There they were a successful team and even beyond the collapse of NASL they continued playing in whatever top flight league they could enter. This team may just be sprouting in MLS, but it has very deep local roots – something that the 6 year old TFC team cannot claim, yet. Sure there are the immigrant communities that follow soccer out here, but many of them are still attached to the old country teams, not a new team in a new land.

Another factor working for Vancouver is the importance of soccer in the local sporting system. Vancouver barely gets snow worth mentioning, and much of Southwest BC plays soccer through the winter. That is not possible in snowbound Toronto. Here, soccer is the sport that parents fill the empty spots in the hockey calendar with; in Vancouver, the soccer players may take the summer off to play baseball, but soccer dominates. It is a the key sport in a rapidly growing region of Canada. Due to the territoriality of MLS, this makes the Whitecaps Academy a much stronger contender than TFC Academy over the long run.

They win on fan support, future prospects and now the final factor: ability to sign players. Toronto is a fair city, and I’d say a fair bit better than many American cities, but its competing against Vancouver to sign talent. Following the transfers and signings in MLS this season shows a trend, and it isn’t a good one for Toronto. Vancouver is able to attract global players in a way that Toronto is not. Yes, Toronto has Frings (but how much longer can that last), and Koevermans, but who did we get mid season? Eric Hassli, a Vancouver surplus (apologies to Hassli, I actually really like his play and wish that he had some help out here but we truly are hopeless). Vancouver managed to keep drawing in and signing players and efficiently use their Designated Player spots.

Perhaps this points to another Vancouver advantage: passion to win. Toronto is now so accustomed to losing, we’re thrilled with mediocrity. I don’t think minority owner and NBA all-star Steve Nash is ever going to walk into a Whitecaps meeting and say, “Congratulations on making our business targets for the year. Too bad we didn’t make the playoffs.” Maple Leaf Sports Entertainment has so alienated many of the sports locals here that we’re now convinced that it is just bottom line that matters. Yet we stupidly fill the seats anyway.

I think we’re dreaming for the Seattle Sounders option of voting on the GM’s job. In the meantime, Vancouver can dream of that MLS Cup. It certainly looks a lot closer from out there.