TORONTO – Look: If they’re going to hate us – and it appears as if that’s the case – it might be time for Toronto to stop whining about conspiracy theories and such and simply embrace the hatred.
Seriously: You think they hate us now, just imagine what it will be like if the Toronto Blue Jays actually advance to the World Series against, say, the lovable, huggable, Chicago Cubs? There won’t be a person south of the border who won’t be cheering for the poor, star-crossed Cubbies to break their curse; and I guarantee that the knee-jerk reaction from Canadian fans, especially those just getting on the bandwagon, will be to view each borderline pitch through a nationalist lens.
So let’s embrace it.
Now, I’m not talking about throwing stuff on the field, which really is a lowbrow thing to do, not to mention a safety risk – although I do find it a bit rich that so many members of baseball’s chattering class spent so much time on Thursday tut-tutting Blue Jays fans for their reaction in the seventh inning of Game 5 of the American League Division Series, considering there are ballparks in the U.S. where a fan is in real danger of being beaten up or even shot.
But we might have started something in this city. I thought the slow artificial turf of the Rogers Centre ceased to be a storyline in, like, May. Not so, now that the post-season is here. And here is what Ken Rosenthal, Fox Sports’ excellent, authoritative baseball reporter, penned on Thursday: “… security officials from rival clubs do not agree with Coutinho (Mario, the Blue Jays vice-president of baseball operations and security) that fans in Toronto are “pretty docile” — those officials frequently tell me that the crowd in Toronto is the roughest on visiting players in the AL …”
I have never believed a crowd makes a difference at a baseball game; never believed that a fastball moved faster or a cutter cut more because of noise. I mean, I’ve been to winter ball in the Dominican Republic, seen players check into the clubhouse with handguns and bulletproof vests, and I understand the personal safety issues that can come from standing out in the open surrounded by thousands of people who hate you. It’s like doing a live hit outside the Rogers Centre with Hugh Burrill. (I kid, I kid …)
But this post-season has me thinking a little different. First, David Price suggested during an interview before the start of the AL Division Series that a big crowd might be worth an extra couple miles per hour at times. “It can turn 95 into 96,” Price said. “It can make that hitter get to that pitcher’s pitch.” Second, I wonder whether or not the Rangers’ defensive meltdown had anything to do with the atmosphere of anger in the Rogers Centre after Dale Scott’s attempts to straighten out his seventh-inning call at home plate. It shouldn’t, because the Rangers are a veteran group. Yet there was their manager, Jeff Banister, wondering after the game about his team “not being able to slow the heart rate down.”
And wouldn’t you know it: Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost has given Toronto baseball fans a gift-wrapped opportunity in naming Johnny Cueto as his Game 3 starter. And here’s what happened in Pittsburgh on Oct. 1, 2013, when the PNC Park faithful gave it to Cueto (then with the Cincinnati Reds) in the National League wild-card game.
Cueto was being roasted and, noticeably rattled, dropped the ball on the mound. His next pitch turned into a solo home run off the bat of Russell Martin, now with the Blue Jays but then with the Pirates. So, you know … you might want to bring the noise on Monday, for Game 3.
The whole hatred of Toronto thing will be easy to play up in the States, especially at a time when the Republican party, especially Donald Trump, has channelled anti-foreigner sentiment. Fear of the ‘furiner’ is a real thing in many corners of the States. I mean, think about it: If some of them want to build a wall along our border, how the hell do you think they’d react to us pilfering the World Series?
If there is a mitigating factor, it is that the Royals aren’t exactly a beloved team throughout baseball. Last season, they were the spunky underdogs managed by Yost, a skipper given to all manner of flights of strategic fancy. This season, they became – at times – a bunch of punks, led by Yordano Ventura, punctuating their brashness during a series with the Oakland Athletics that featured dugout clearing incidents in each of the three games. Suddenly, they discovered Fetty Wap and Mac Lethal; and in that series at the Rogers Centre in August, they helped sow the seeds of bitterness with the Blue Jays by spending most of their time intentionally throwing at hitters, especially Josh Donaldson.
(OK, so there’s a little top-spin there. Work with me.)
Yet don’t sell the Blue Jays short on an ability to get under opponents’ skin, either. Jose Bautista’s bat flip in Game 5 against the Rangers was a major talking point in Thursday’s pre-series news conference both by Yost and his Game 1 starter, Edinson Volquez. Marcus Stroman is still a little too smiley and bubble-blowing for the liking of some and Donaldson infused this team with a dose of brashness from the first day he arrived in spring training.
Indeed, at times it seemed as if he was an apology from the baseball gods, a kind of: ‘Look, we’re sorry for what Brett Lawrie turned into. How about giving us a re-do, eh? What if we re-created him with a baseball brain? We can do that and call him Josh Donaldson! Yes, we can do it for you! We can take all the crotch-grabbing, Red Bull guzzling, in-your-face fist pumping and combine it with an intrinsic knowledge of the subtle points of the game.’ Donaldson is beloved in Toronto; he’s considered a bit of a weirdo, elsewhere.
So there you go, Toronto. They’re not going to like us – and it’s going to reach xenophobic levels if this leads to a meeting with the Cubs. Normally, we’re used to being detested for having an overblown sense of importance when it comes to our usually inconsequential hockey team. Now, they don’t like us because our money’s funny, because we think differently … and because we’re pretty freaking good and not afraid to let the baseball world know about it. Our message to the baseball world is clear: Deal with it. Deal with us.