It’s become a mantra in baseball — especially in these parts — that fans want their teams to play meaningful games. Looking ahead for the Toronto Blue Jays, it’s hard to conceive of a more meaningful week of baseball.
There are the obvious on-field and off-field considerations of the coming week, as the team plays critical games against some of its key competition for a playoff berth, and baseball’s trade deadline approaches at week’s end.
But even larger than that is the team’s long-awaited return home. To the Rogers Centre, to Toronto, and to Canada. It presents the first opportunity for many to see the Blue Jays in person in almost two years, and finally allows the team itself to settle into its true home after almost two seasons as baseball nomads.
The meaning of the homestand that begins Friday runs deeper than baseball. As we all move cautiously into a post-vaccinated phase of life under the threat of COVID-19, the ability for baseball fans to return to the ballpark will be a significant moment on the road back to whatever “normal” is now.
As individuals, it means returning to something that brings us joy, but more than that, it also brings us together for a communal moment, the likes of which we wouldn’t have experienced since our lives became consumed with social distancing and self-isolation. There are few experiences that can give us the feeling of shared passion and unlikely community as sitting amongst thousands of strangers who all feel like friends as you rise in unison to root for the home team.
Ask yourself when the last time was that you hugged or high-fived a stranger, and it was likely tied to some sort of sporting event. Though we’ll likely still be keeping to ourselves in the physical sense when in the stands for the foreseeable future, the assembly as fans itself is a step forward.
Beyond the more personal meaning of baseball’s return, having the Blue Jays come home helps to unearth the deeper roots of the team’s connection to the fans and the community. The distance that fans felt from the team last season as they were unable to cross the border, and forced to play wherever they could was hard, but looking on helplessly this year as fans returned to ballparks in the United States, and the Blue Jays were treated like visitors in their own “home” ballparks provoked a greater sense of urgency to bringing the team back to the warm embrace of their own crowds.
This year’s team is exciting, and in the nascent stages of a competitive window that should last several years as the young and exciting core come of age. When the team last played at the Rogers Centre, they were fumbling their way to a 95-loss season with a group of players who were just getting their feet wet in the big leagues, or have long since departed the team, if not the sport.
Most of this year’s roster has never stepped foot in the Rogers Centre as a member of the home team. Frankly, none of them have played there when the crowds were as fully engaged and boisterous as they are likely to be in the coming homestand.
It feels somewhat appropriate that the Kansas City Royals will provide the opposition for the first home series. Six years ago, it was a series against the Royals on the August long weekend where the Blue Jays for the first time in decades played before a packed and passionate home stadium. When the Royals hit and buzzed newfound hometown heroes Josh Donaldson and Troy Tulowitzki multiple times, the fervour of that full congregation was evident as 45,736 fans rose to their feet to register their displeasure for the opponents and support for the home team.
This new iteration of the Blue Jays has yet to feel that sort of backing behind them. And even though the crowds will be limited to a third of that size in the short term, one would imagine that the pent-up excitement to see this impressive and improving collection of new and young players will make up in zeal what they lack in volume.
This team has yet to feel that level of intensity from a home crowd, and while that alone doesn’t win games, it may help them to focus and harness their ability to rise to the next level. And as they improve and win, the intensity of the connection with the home crowd will grow even more.
At its best, sports help to connect a team to a community, and a community to each other. As baseball fans, and as human beings who have been sheltered from each other and distanced from our baseball heroes, finding those connections again will be as meaningful as anything that happens on the field.