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Baseball and Slow Travel 

You don't need me to tell you that we suddenly find ourselves living in extraordinary, unprecedented times due to the spread of COVID-19. I've certainly never experienced anything like this, and I've been around a while.

A few weeks back, I was basking in my usual spring ritual: listening to the first baseball games of spring training and eagerly awaiting the regular season, which was due to start on March 26. As of March 13, all spring training activity has ceased and MLB rather optimistically says that opening day will be "delayed." As far as I know, this is the first non-labour suspension of baseball since World War II.

For years now, I've been hoping to pull off a week-long visit to Florida for spring training. (I may be the only Canadian who's never been to Florida.) Thank God I didn't have the means to do it this year, or I'd be stuck in the Sunshine State with no games to see and a 14-day quarantine awaiting me upon return. I'm still quite excited about the trip, which has progressed well beyond dreaming into planning, but my enthusiasm is now tempered. Even if I can afford it, who knows if in a year's time anyone will be able to travel anywhere?

Nevertheless, let's envision a world where COVID-19 has done its business, moved on, and a modicum of normalcy has been reestablished. If I could take in spring training, what might that look like?

The Blue Jays train in Dunedin, a small city in the Tampa-St. Pete-Clearwater metro area. A flight from Toronto to Tampa would get me there in under three hours, and I'd be all set, right? Yes, but I dislike flying, the biggest reason for my disdain being that it's like teleportation. You don't get to see what's between here and there, and to me that's the whole point of travelling.

I don't drive, but I toyed with the idea of simulating the well-worn trek down I-75 popular with snowbirds on Greyhound. Like the road-tripper brigade, I'd take it slow and stop along the way, roughly at the end of a day's drive. I even mapped out a six-day itinerary: Toronto-Detroit-Cincinnati-Chattanooga-Macon-Orlando-Tampa. And for variety, a different route back over five days: Tampa-Jacksonville-Raleigh-Baltimore-Albany-Toronto. All well and good but for one consideration—safety. Greyhound's bus depots are often in spotty if not outright scary parts of town, and I soon realized that my fantasy of walking several blocks, in the dark, to the nearest hotel could result in a mugging or worse. And even if I made it to said inner-city hotel, it might not be the kind of place where I'd want to bed down for a night.

Plan B, which didn't last long, is the no-bed-required option, a continuous 41-hour trip on three Greyhound buses, again getting there one way (Toronto-New York-Orlando-Tampa) and returning another (Tampa-Tallahassee-Cincinnati-Detroit). The way there wasn't too severe in terms of layovers, but on the return trip a five-hour layover in Cincinnati (9:00 p.m-2:00 a.m.) didn't exactly thrill me. In any case, I've done this before, 20 years ago, when I took the Greyhound to San Francisco and back. That trip was even longer, and when I straggled back home I vowed I'd never again sleep on a bus ... because I can't sleep on a bus.

I've now landed on Plan C: Amtrak, the USA's passenger rail system. This entails one compromise: I'd have to return the same way I came, and checking the Silver Star timetable, the same part of the country (NC, SC, GA) is in darkness both ways. Boo, hiss! Also, a continuous trip from Toronto isn't possible by rail; the schedules simply don't hook up. I'd have to take the Maple Leaf to New York, stay overnight, then board the Silver Star in the morning. On the plus side, I'd have only one sleep on the train which, though not a proper bed, is far better than the bus. And if I had the cash, I could splurge for a roomette.

As for getting around the Tampa area, public transit will do the trick, though I can see from researching schedules that PSTA and HART aren't exactly the TTC. But with careful planning, one can make it from A to B. It's also dirt cheap. And lucky me, I'd have three teams' games to choose from in the metro area, with the Phillies training in Clearwater and the Yankees in Tampa proper.

The rather pokey way I like to get to and visit new places now has a name: slow travel. I'm not sure I subscribe to or follow all its tenets, but in both my preferred transportation modes and sightseeing predilections (offbeat, weird stuff), I qualify. Anyway, once COVID-19 has run its course and I've saved up sufficiently, I look forward to getting to know Amtrak, seeing a bit of Florida, and taking in some spring training baseball—something any serious fan really should do at least once in their lives.

Play Ball! 

Well, not here, not yet. But soon enough: opening day is March 28. Anyway, down in Florida and Arizona, all 30 MLB teams are playing ball in what's rather oddly called spring training. I say that because the first game took place on February 21. That's winter on any calendar, no? Regardless, I relish the arrival of spring training every year because it signifies the beginning of the end of winter.

Now, up here in Toronto, we've had more snow than we know what to do with, it's bitterly cold, and winter can hang around till mid-April. That's why I said beginning of the end. But the mere fact that baseball, that quintessential summertime sport, is being played somewhere means Old Man Blizzard and his good buddies Ice Storm and Wind Chill are on their way out. Good riddance, I say.

Baseball and radio go together like peanut butter and jam, and every year at this time I celebrate the return of my favourite broadcast teams: Jon Miller and Duane Kuiper (Giants); Dan Dickerson and Jim Price (Tigers); Ed Farmer and Darrin Jackson (White Sox). As for the hometown Blue Jays crew, I miss Tom Cheek and Jerry Howarth, but Ben Wagner and Mike Wilner do a decent job and their chemistry is good.

One pet peeve, and this is not confined to Blue Jay broadcasts, is the incessant use of player-specific adjectives. Examples:

  • "Three outs, all on fly balls. Now, that's an un-Marcus-Stroman-like inning."
  • "He just flailed at it. What an un-Miguel-Cabrera-like swing that was!"
  • "He's already issued five walks, which is so un-Sam-Gaviglio-like."

I've never understood this. Why invent new words when you've got old ones that work fine? It's as though they feel they must conjure up fresh adjectives for each player, because of course un-Marcus-Stroman-like is completely different than un-Sam-Gaviglio-like.

Newsflash, boys: there's an elegant, simple word that encompasses un-Marcus-Stroman-like, un-Miguel-Cabrera-like, un-Sam-Gaviglio-like and un-Insert-Player-Here-like. That word is "uncharacteristic." If it seems unwieldy, try "unusual." And you can even use "unlike" sans player name in the middle, like so: "He's already issued five walks, which is so unlike Sam Gaviglio."

I'm happy to report that things are looking up, though. Why, on a broadcast last week Wilner said of some pitcher, "He's just not himself today." Yeah! Beautiful. See? Pithiness is next to godliness.

But whatever your quirks, all you broadcasters out there, I thank you profusely for bringing the old ball game to us season after season, 162 games a year. Baseball is the sound of summer, even in these un-baseball-like frigid temperatures.

Welcome to Siberia 

If this is spring, I want a refund.

Temperatures remain frigid—it's so bad that tomorrow's high of 2° C is below the normal low for this time of year, 4°. This weekend's ice storm was so abominable I stayed inside for two days. I'd hoped to use the downtime to catch up on a few baseball games, but that didn't work out so well. All my favourite teams were snowed out or rained out the whole weekend, including the Blue Jays in Cleveland.

Today came the ultimate indignity. Now that the ice storm had petered out to a steady, cold rain, I thought I'd take in the Jays-Royals game tonight. After all, we're so smart up here in Toronto, prepared as we are for lousy Aprils. Our stadium has a roof. No postponements here. Take that, Cleveland!

Uh ... hold that thought. This afternoon brought chunks of ice flying off the CN Tower, with police cordoning off adjacent walkways near Rogers Centre in the interest of pedestrian safety. But Ma Nature wasn't done with us yet. A fragment of ice struck the stadium roof and tore a hole in it over the right field corner. Further flying debris caused leaks in left field. They've repaired the hole, but evidently enough issues remained with the roof that tonight's game was postponed. They'll play two tomorrow, assuming (1) they can patch up the roof in time; and (2) the ice shards stop flying (given tomorrow's balmy high, they sure as hell won't melt).

MLB is on pace to set a record for April postponements. Pretty much everywhere north of the Mason-Dixon line, it's been resolutely miserable. The White Sox and Twins were set to a play a four-game series in Minneapolis starting Thursday; three of the four were snowed out. As for the games they could get in, such as in Boston (game-time temp: 34° F/1° C) and Chicago (38° F/3° C), players resorted to ski masks, sweaters and hoodies in the futile quest to stay warm. Earlier this week, games in Denver and Minneapolis were played in the 20s Fahrenheit, which is minus single digits Celsius.

I'll give the last word to Kansas City manager Ned Yost, whose team narrowly escaped their own mishap with flying ice on the ride in from Pearson Airport: "If you come to a dome and get banged, something ain't right."

No, it ain't, Ned. Welcome to Siberia.

Yes, Sir, Let's Admire That One 

If you follow baseball in Canada at all, you know who I'm talking about. The title alone gives it away. That's how deeply and ubiquitously the voice of Jerry Howarth permeated baseball culture in this country. With last week's retirement announcement, the baseball world has lost one of its golden voices.

Stephen Brunt's warm, insightful tribute, which I urge you to read, says it best: "What will summer sound like now?" For legions of Torontonians, Ontarians and Canadians, myself included, Jerry was the Voice of Summer for 36 years, especially after assuming the Jays' lead announcer role when his long-time partner Tom Cheek died in 2005.

Baseball and radio are made for each other, and as a primarily auditory person, I'm wired to lap it up. The best broadcasters keep the listener informed,  entertained and when necessary, amused. Beyond that, the cream of the crop—and Jerry is certainly one—are gifted storytellers, taking on the persona of a wise, kindly uncle who slips in a life lesson or two amidst the grand slams, gold gloves and chin music. Sometimes I think the reason I've spent so many summers with Jerry, all 162 games' worth, is more about palling around with the uncle I never had than the race for the pennant.

As we sit on the cusp of spring training and a new season of Blue Jays baseball, we don't yet know who will take the reins as lead radio voice. But we do know who we'll miss. To the man who opened every broadcast with a warm "Hello, friends," I say farewell, friend, God bless, and enjoy your well-earned retirement.

On a related note, Leo Cahill, legendary '60s and '70s coach of the Toronto Argonauts, passed away earlier this week. Flamboyant, outspoken and quick-witted, Leo was a larger-than-life personality on Argonaut teams that had more than their share of outrageous characters. I can't recall any coach or GM, save perhaps the Leafs' Harold Ballard, who so thoroughly dominated the local sports scene. Cahill's brilliance as a coach was often overlooked, and as a recruiter he had no peers. Among his many accomplishments, Leo lured Joe Theismann away from the Miami Dolphins to lead the 1971 Argonauts to the Grey Cup, a game which left quite an impression on a certain 10-year-old.

Cahill never won a Grey Cup, but as a CBC colour commentator he got to call the second half of the Argos' 1983 victory, the one that broke Toronto's 31-year championship drought. And it's somehow fitting that the Boatmen won the last Grey Cup game played during his lifetime, last November's 27-24 victory over the Calgary Stampeders, the very team that beat Leo's squad in '71. Ironically, the heavily favoured Stampeders blew the 2017 game in a manner eerily reminiscent of the 1971 Argos.

Goodbye, Leo, God bless, and thank you. We won't see your like again anytime soon, and whenever I don my Mike Eben jersey—which arrived in the mail the day you died—I'll remember you, double blue forever.

Words and Music Are Everywhere 

Now that the CD is out, I've returned to one of the things I love best: songwriting. And I'm here to tell you that songs can come from some pretty odd places.

In November I took a train trip to Cornwall, and between Via's attendants handing out Remembrance Day poppies, the music I was listening to on the way (Miles Davis Quintet, Live in Europe 1967), a piano sitting in a downtown square with jammed keys and a bit of research on the Lost Villages, I came up with a tune called "Lost Villages Wail." (It's not really about the Lost Villages—they provided me with good metaphorical meat, though.)

I generally write chords first, then melody, then words. If nothing comes spontaneously I go back to my "bits," those fragments I've recorded that on their own are little more than promising parts lasting no more than 10 seconds. If I'm lucky, I can string two or three together in the same song, but more often than not I create the music from scratch around one strong bit. And again, if I'm lucky, sometimes I get a melody so evocative that the words practically write themselves. That's what happened with December's new song, "The Lord's Glue."

This month's new song, "Let Love Strum You," springs from a truly bizarre source: a lumber outlet jingle I heard on a baseball broadcast. I pilfered the chords and melody verbatim, made it my chorus, and wrote the rest of the music around it. For the lyrics, I drew inspiration from this poem by John O'Donohue that I saw in a church bulletin. Nothing was used verbatim; I simply borrowed a few of his words, then filled in the rest. In fact, the tone of my lyrics differs considerably from that of the poem.

Words and music—they really are everywhere if you look. And all this is coming reasonably soon, I hope, on my next album, Days of Secret Seeing.