Vern's Verbal Vibe

Singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist and purveyor of folk 'n' roll: spirit-filled sad songs made better.

July 15, 2009

Opening Day

For those of you who couldn't make the reading I'm posting it here, introductions and all. This piece will eventually appear as part of Season Pass, likely as the lead-up to Opening Day 2009. Enjoy!

LAURIE FREEMAN (M.C.): It gives me great pleasure to introduce Vern Nicholson, who has spent the past four years honing his mystic/autistic memoir Leilani's Gift. Now Vern is embarking on a new work, the baseball-themed Season Pass, from which he will read tonight.

VERN: Thanks, Laurie, and thank you all for coming. Good evening. [Produces the actual pass] Exhibit A: the Toronto Blue Jays Season Pass. For $95, the bearer is entitled to one seat in the upper deck for any game during the 2009 season. This lends itself to a mad quest on my part: to attend all 81 games this year. To heighten the drama, our hero was inspired to couple his rabid pursuit of baseball with one far more daunting—asking 81 women out, one for each game attended. Tonight I’d like to read an excerpt from Season Pass called “Opening Day.”

April 7, 1977: Snow blankets Toronto’s Exhibition Stadium. Forty-four thousand await the start of our first major-league baseball game. White Sox second baseman Jack Brohamer takes full advantage, skiing across the powdery infield using catcher’s pads and two baseball bats. The neophytes in the stands take little notice. Baseball in the snow… what’s wrong with that?

Labatt’s, makers of a popular beer called Blue, owned the franchise. A name-the-team contest was held the previous summer, and the squad was christened “Blue Jays” in hopes that “the Blues” would catch on as a nickname. From day one, the home nine has been known as the Jays. Yes, there is a God.

A teenage nerd, I’d handed Mom’s note to Mr. Tullo, my homeroom teacher, that morning. God forbid I should skip school for anything, least of all a sporting event. My friend Jeremy did likewise and, legit and good to go, we hopped on the Ossington bus with his older brother, Jason. This was “Opening Day” in baseball parlance, and we didn’t know what to expect. If Opening Day was special, an annual rite that dampened the darkest of winters, what did that make this, Toronto’s first? I felt like I stood at the dawn of time.

“Okay, Cyc,” Jason said with a sly grin. “Let’s test your baseball knowledge. What’s ERA?” Cyc, short for Cyclops—a sobriquet earned in ‘72 when I was whacked in the eye by a frozen tennis ball. This was Jason’s first big-league game too, but he’d followed the Expos on TV for years. He was older. He knew his stuff.

“Uh … Estimated Runs Allowed?” Jeremy cackled, though I could tell he didn’t know either. We got off at Rogers and Dufferin to wait in the cold for the 29. “Well, it’s a pitching stat. You got that at least,” Jason said. “ERA. Earned Run Average.” I stared at him blankly. “How many earned runs a pitcher allows per nine innings.”

“An earned run means the team scored with hits, not errors,” Jeremy offered, eager to impress. “Right,” Jason nodded as the bus pulled up. “Man, this is historic, and we’ll be able to say we were there.”

And I was. My ticket stub proves it: right field reserved bench (and that’s what they were—section-long, frigid aluminum benches), Section 5, Row 5, Seat 27, $3.00, enter through Gate 11. A star-crossed Texan named Doug Ault would be the first Blue Jay hero, belting two homers that day in a 9-5 Toronto win.

After Opening Day and the big victory, I was shocked to discover that the Blue Jays would play again the next day. And the next day, and the day after that, and every day that week, and then another week’s worth of away games. My sporting rhythms, attuned to the football Argonauts’ 16-game schedule, couldn’t quite grasp that these guys played 162 from now till the end of September—81 here, 81 on the road.

By this time, we neighbourhood kids had taken to the diamond ourselves. I couldn’t catch, run, throw, or hit, but I could be counted on to bring the radio. Day after day, I tucked my RCA transistor inside my glove so we could follow the Jays on CKFH. Tom Cheek and Early Wynn, a hall-of-fame pitcher none of us had heard of, called every game. Tom was a veteran broadcaster, a laid-back Floridian with a sonorous baritone and a dry wit. Early? Well, he may have won 300 games, but his cryptic drawl translated poorly to radio.

The same couldn’t be said for this exotic, thoroughly American pastime. Slow enough to let Tom paint a picture, a nine-inning game left plenty of room for Early’s tales from yesteryear. Baseball on the radio was like a tall glass of lemonade on a hot day: gulp it down and you miss the point.

With no intent, these upstart Blue Jays had plugged us into the way-back machine, a timeless Norman Rockwell within. Popcorn, a dog, and a drink. Bleacher bums heckling the ump. A walk-off single to send ‘em home smiling. The race for the pennant. Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, misfits and average Joes coming of age, echoing, foretelling, being. In baseball a team could never run out of time, only outs. Time-less.

Beyond the ritual lay the language, the syntax of the ol’ ball game. As Tom and Early soon taught me, statistical terms like ERA were just the launch pad. To follow the dance, I had to understand sac bunts, double plays, walk-offs and rundowns, slurves and sliders. Along the way I asked my fair share of dumb questions. (Why was there a “designated” hitter? Weren’t they all hitters?)

Once I could really tell rundowns from walk-offs, I was ready for southpaws, submariners, and suicide squeezes, nightcaps and no-nos, Texas Leaguers and Baltimore Chops. Meanwhile, Tom and Early held master class daily on CKFH. Each home stand or road trip was a university-of-the-air with your hosts, Professors Emeriti from Cooperstown U.

“And Ashby has earned himself a Golden Sombrero. Waaay out in front on that change-up.” (Ashby struck out for the fourth time, swinging at a slow pitch before it reached the plate.)

“That hot shot just handcuffed Garcia. Wise choice to eat the ball.” (Garcia had so much trouble catching a line drive he had no play at any base.)

“Whoa! Guidry was singin’ a little chin music there, Tom.” (Guidry threw at the batter’s head; in his playing days, Early was a chin-music maestro.)

To double the fun, Tom had a few Cheekisms, wry turns of phrase uniquely his own: “Seems Mr. Garvin here can’t stand prosperity” told us that pitcher Jerry Garvin had blown yet another big lead. “It’s Katie-bar-the-door” meant the opposition had loaded the bases and was threatening to tie or go ahead. And if, for instance, an opponent snagged a scorching liner that should have been the game-winning double, Tom would say, “Mercy. Now, that makes you want to go back to the clubhouse and tear all the fuzz off your T-shirts.”

The ’77 Blue Jays gave us ample opportunities to ravage our clothing. Our heroes were zeroes, luminaries of the diamond like Otto “The Swatto” Vélez, Tim Nordbrook, Sam Ewing, and Jeff Byrd, who went 2-13 in his first and only season in the majors. Oh, and a 6.18 ERA. The team finished 54-107, 45½ games behind the first-place New York Yankees. Race for the pennant … ¿qué?

Jeremy, Jason, and I didn’t care—baseball had come to the Ex! Little did it matter that Exasperation Stadium was the majors’ worst venue, the only ballpark where a game has ever been called due to wind (April 30/84 vs. Texas; 6’4” hurler Jim Clancy was blown off the mound, somehow managing six pitches before the umpires shut it down).

Thirty-two years from that blustery Thursday in ‘77, I’m a middle-aged nerd, my Blue Jays wear black, a soccer field sits atop a levelled Exhibition Stadium, and Tom Cheek—who called 4,306 games before brain cancer got him—lies in a simple plot in Clearwater, Florida. These days the boys play at Rogers Centre, a concrete behemoth with a roof … great for snowy days like this April 6th, 2009.

So ditch the skis, Jack Brohamer, and bar the door, Katie, wherever you are. It’s Opening Day, the Tigers are in town, and I’ve signed up for all 81 games. Halladay winds and it’s time to play ball!

All 81? Mercy.

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