One of the iconic images from the Toronto Raptors’ run through the NBA Finals featured Fred VanVleet sporting a chipped-tooth grin, with gauze and a large bandage sitting just under his right eye.
The point guard posted it to Instagram following Game 4, when he took an elbow from Golden State’s Shaun Livingston that left VanVleet bloodied on the court, requiring seven stitches and a future trip to the dentist.
The playoff battle scars worn by championship players are never forgotten. Just ask Todd Stottlemyre, who helped the Blue Jays to World Series victories in 1992 and ’93.
He’s still reminded about his bloody chin whenever he visits Toronto.
"It’s all I hear about," says Stottlemyre with a laugh. "I would say VanVleet’s injury was more admired, though. Mine was self-induced with a bad slide. His was from going to war on the court."
Stottlemyre earned his scar in Game 4 of the ’93 Series, when the pitcher was thrown out trying to go from first to third base on a single up the middle. He slid awkwardly into third, his jaw scraping the dirt, then took the mound at the bottom of the inning with a big, red mark on his chin.
"I can think of a million things that I’d probably rather be remembered for, but it’s the one thing," says Stottlemyre.
However, embarrassment from the play is long gone for the retired pitcher. It’s since been replaced by the satisfaction of being forever remembered in Toronto for his contributions to championship teams. Sure, when fans think of the ’92 and ’93 World Series wins, they recall Roberto Alomar’s home run against Oakland or Joe Carter’s against Philadelphia. But most players on those rosters receive the hero treatment when they return to the city.
That’s something members of the 2018-19 Raptors will soon learn.
"Their lives will change," says Pat Hentgen, whose strong showing on the mound led the Blue Jays to a Game 3 win in the ’93 Fall Classic. "The difference with the Raptors is there’s only five-to-seven guys who play a whole lot, whereas in baseball, you got 25 guys. So, I think it’s going to be even more intensified for the Raptors players."
The Raptors have been feted across the country since their 114-110 victory in Game 6 over the Warriors on Thursday. Along with the Blue Jays teams from the early 90s, it represented just the third time in the past 52 years that a Toronto franchise from the Big Three sports even reached a championship round. (The Maple Leafs last played in the Stanley Cup Final in 1967.)
There’s an added significance to being a member of a team that brought a nation its first ring in a sport. Stottlemyre sees similarities between his Blue Jays and the Raptors in that regard and the fact they were both "the team in the North" that no one in the U.S. wanted to win.
"That’s the part that we took so much pride in," he says. "It was almost as if we became Canadian. To be able to take that championship trophy back to not just a city or organization, but an entire country. To this day, when I go back, I feel like I’m at home.
"There’s just something so special about it that will be the thread of who we are forever."
Ed Sprague was an infielder on both Blue Jays World Series teams and says that even now when he returns to the city, people approach him at restaurants. When he makes public appearances or does signings, fans who were young adults in the ’90s will bring their own children — who have no understanding of what happened two-and-a-half decades ago — to meet Sprague.
They’ll usually share a memory of where they were when he hit his World Series-altering homer in Game 2 against Atlanta in ’92, or let Sprague know what happened after the Blue Jays became the first team outside the U.S. to secure the Commissioner’s Trophy.
"‘I was on Yonge street when you guys won it. I was here, there,’" recalls Sprague. "You get it all across Canada, you don’t just get it in Toronto. You get it in Vancouver or wherever else you go. When you win for the city of Toronto, you really win for the entire country."
Both Hentgen and Stottlemyre speak fondly of the love they receive across Canada. It gives players from those Blue Jays teams the feeling of having a foreign country seem like a home away from home, says Stottlemyre.
He remembers a story from a few years ago, when he was walking in downtown Toronto with his wife. They popped into a store that sold Blue Jays memorabilia and Stottlemyre was instantly identified by the owner.
"I don’t know how she recognized me but the next thing you know, I’m signing all the Blue Jays T-shirts and dolls and everything else," he says. "I was like, ‘Yeah this is great. Hey listen, if you want my signature, I’m happy to give it to you. I’m humbled and grateful.’
"I always feel that way when I’m back in the city. I feel at home. The people, they just offer the greatest amount of respect."
It’s a respect that Raptors players are going to be seeing more of, beginning right now and likely lasting forever.