Thursday, August 11, 2011

Simply. Something. Special.



Seventy-two hours ago, I was sitting in a car driving home from my first trip to Chicago. My dad, my brothers and I had just finished a road trip to see the Cubs beat up on the Reds at Wrigley. I love the Cubs. If the Cubs met the Jays in the World Series - I would truly not know who to cheer for. Luckily, I could wager my first born child and still feel pretty confident that it will never happen.

That said, I think it's pretty evident that my life as a baseball fan has been consumed with losing. I was 4 years old when the Jays won their second title, and my late grandfather wasn't even born when the Cubs last won a championship. For 18 straight years I have cheered for two teams who would inevitably let me down.

There is an old axiom in sports that attendance is directly tied with winning. For years here in Toronto, fans and media alike have rationalized that if the Jays can put a winning club on the field, the fans will come. While I think this may hold true, it certainly fails to explain the attendance of the Leafs - but far more so that of the Chicago Cubs. Having never been to Wrigley, I was astounded when I was told that we better get to the game about an hour or so early. I laughed. We had bleacher seats to go watch our 5th place Cubs take on the 3rd place Reds... and we haven't won a title in 103 years, how could we possibly need to get there early?

But after taking our seats ironically in right-centrefield, I was consumed with the energy and the atmosphere at Wrigley. These were fans. Winning ballgames clearly didn't dictate whether fans came to the ballpark, it was all about the social atmosphere and the enjoyment of watching pro baseball in some beautiful weather. To our left we met a bunch of drunks from Cincinnati who were gambling dollar bills on every out, in front of us were some of the founders of thechive.com, acting fittingly as ridiculous as their site would suggest. The biggest difference though - it wasn't Roberto Alomar HOF Day, it wasn't Roy Halladay Day, nor was it Opening Day. It was just an ordinary Saturday at Wrigley - standing room only. And not once did I hear some bratty girl who had been dragged to the game by her suit-wearing boyfriend ask how many innings are there or how much longer did they have to stay.

As we started our lengthy trek back to the border, I sat in the car and wishfully hoped that one day watching a game at the Rogers Centre would be just like what I had experienced. Winning would be a great reason to experience such an atmosphere; but if nothing else the thought of watching a game in Toronto where you weren't worried about where the nearest Usher was lurking trying to find a reason to throw you out would be a dream come true.

And then yesterday happened. While I may despise Amy K Nelson and Peter Keating for the rest of my life, I will forever thank them for providing me with one of the best experiences of my fan-life. I never thought that I would appreciate and embrace tabloid-style journalism, but their report in ESPN The Magazine about the Jays stealing signs courtesy of the 'Man in White' brought about a different group of fans to the Dome last night. Sure the attendance came in at just under 20K, but if you were at the game you know that didn't matter. I've been at just about every opening day game in recent memory, and not one came close to the energy last night.

My brother (@mcjchapin) and I were back and forth all day yesterday on whether we were going to go to the game or not. We knew we wanted to be those guys in centrefield dressed head to toe in white holding signs but we weren't sure whether anyone would know what we were doing. We had both stewed over the report all day yesterday, and I tore a strip of it not once, but twice. So we made the decision. I ordered the tickets in the furthest corner of centrefield I could find on Ticketmaster. He picked up some white shirts, Bristol board and permanent markers.

After I finished up work, I hurried back to my apartment to meet my brother, and we quickly brainstormed some sign ideas. It seemed like a no-brainer. Lets not just make one sign, lets make several and try and tip Oakland's pitches. Having seen the 'spydome' story on every sports site, TV story and radio broadcast - we figured we better get there early. We walked over to the park just before 6:30 and as usual, the place was pretty dead. We took our seats out in CF and I must admit, my heart sunk a little bit. Here was a story that should piss off any Jays fan and yet 30 minutes before the game was about to start, we were the only two in the entire outfield wearing white shirts. While I was still thoroughly excited to use our signs, that high I had felt from being at Wrigley seemed so far gone.

But a few minutes later after dropping a couple hours of my salary on a beer and a hot dog, a few other guys trickled into the seats in centre wearing white shirts. Unlike most games at the dome where you rarely meet or interact with other fans, the reaction of the four of us was the exact same. Not unlike that moment in kindergarten when you meet your new best friend because he too thinks batman is the greatest superhero, the four of us started chatting about how ridiculous the ESPN story was, how awesome Brett Lawrie is, and the gas Henderson Alvarez was throwing warming up in left.

As we were chatting, I could see an older guy with a lanyard around his neck slowly walk down the aisle and take a seat beside us. While the others didn't recognize him right away, my eyes were fixed on the Baseball Writers Association of America badge hanging around his neck. A few seconds later the man introduced himself as Richard Griffin of the Toronto Star. He quipped to the four of us all dressed in white, "so are you the guys?" We sat and chatted for five minutes or so and he asked us if we were there because of the story and what we thought about it. Here's what Richard wrote in his article in today's Toronto Star.

In any case, on Wednesday as the anthems faded away, upon arrival at Cheating 101, it was discovering the motherlode. Not one but four guys were there in white shirts, all looking to help the Jays get that edge. God knows many nights they need one.

But none was the real cheat.

Brothers Matt and Chris Chapin, in fact, had just met Colin Kibjis and Dana Barrett — like twosomes that meet as a foursome on the first tee — but for these guys the commonality was not the golf tee, but their white tees. They had seen the news of the day, of the Jays’ alleged cheating ways earlier in the day and were here to help out. First thought? The catcher’s crotch and fingers seem so far away.

Strategy? Being not quite as subtle as the man in white, the Chapin brothers had signs: #SpyDome; Explosive Fastball; Cunning Curveball; 12-6 Curveball and, finally, I’m Joey Bats. On many midweek nights these seats go unoccupied, but the boys said they bought these specifically for this game. This was being made a way bigger event than it needed to be, funny nonetheless. (via @RGriffinStar)

The park quickly filled up and as soon as Rajai Davis stepped up to the plate in the bottom of the first, the rest was history. My brother and I raised up the "Explosive Fastball" sign for the first pitch and section 101 went crazy when the first pitch was a 93 MPH two-seam fastball for a called ball. We had successfully tipped our first pitch and Rajai actually laid off it. We continued our illegal relaying the whole inning, consulting our fellow men in white as well as other fans in the section making sure we as a collective made the right call. It couldn't have been more fun. As we had joked with Griffin before the game started, there wasn't a chance we could see a sign over 400 feet away - it didn't matter. We were successfully tipping at least 80% of pitches correctly.

Through two innings the Athletics had already had a mound visit, Gio Gonzales had thrown 60 pitches, and most importantly to us - we had successfully tipped Adam Lind that he was about to get a fastball which he subsequently ripped to open up the scoring. The best laughs in our section likely came in the first when Aaron Hill came up to bat - one of the men in white asked if we had a sign that said 'bunt.' We quickly wished we had made one just for him that said 'K.'

It didn't take long until the 6 of us dressed in white were being bombarded on our phones from friends and family. Buck and Pat were talking about us, Wilner was tweeting about us and friends sitting elsewhere in the Dome were sending us messages informing us that we were on the Jumbotron. Sure there were only 6 of us, and it would have been amazing if the whole right side of the outfield had chosen to clad themselves head to toe in white, but it really didn't matter. What meant the most is that even though just a few of us chose to reveal ourselves as the man in white, our entire section knew why we were there and what we were doing. It was social. It didn't matter when we fell behind in the fourth inning. Everyone in section 101 was joining in and having fun. Had the game ended with the Jays losing, it still would be remembered as something special.

The best part of it though came in the fifth and sixth innings. A young kid sitting to the right of us had come with his dad and brought a pair of binoculars. We never established whether it was done because of the story or because you really do need them in straight away centrefield. But they certainly came in handy. The young kid would stare in at what we could only assume was the catcher's signals, and he would relay them over to us with the signs. He shouted fastball, we threw up the sign, he was right. He said fastball again, he was right again. While the 6 of us were the ones dressed in white, we all started laughing when this kid strung off about ten pitch calls in a row where he was right on nine of them. That's it.

The man in white wasn't a man in white, it was a ten year old boy wearing black. When Lawrie came up to bat in the sixth with the bases juiced, Anthopoulos's secret ten-year old weapon relayed to us that he thought it would be a first pitch fastball - he was right, second pitch fastball - right again. While the group of us in our twenties quickly realized that Breslow had thrown about ten pitches so far and all but one was a fastball, it really didn't matter. We were having fun, and so was this kid and the rest of the fans around us. He relayed to us that it would be another heater, I threw up the FAST BALL sign and the rest was history. The Stadium erupted and our section went nuts.

We had been a part of something special. There were only 6 of us in white, less than 20 thousand fans in the stadium but it really didn't matter. Fans came together and brought signs in defence of our team. We got to watch the most exciting Jays prospect in decades knock a grand slam for his first hit at home in his career, we saw the benches clear and we were all about to be replayed on sports stations and newspapers across the country.

This morning I woke up with my phone barraged with text messages from friends - my brother and I had made it on the front cover of the Toronto Star. Our signs had been mentioned in an article by the Toronto Sun and my friend from New York text me to to say that he caught us on Sportscentre on ESPN. Surreal barely begins to tell the whole story. Sure it was our own quick fifteen seconds of fame, but what mattered most to me is that the story was for once written about how awesome our fans are. It wasn't a picture of some drunk brawl in the 500 level or about some idiot who hopped on the field. It was a front cover of Jays fans who came to the defence of their team and stood up for something they truly cared about.

I left Chicago wishing that one day I would leave the Dome feeling the same way. Last night when the last out was recorded, our whole section exchanged high fives and I left feeling that way. It was simply something special.

Photo Credit to Andrew Francis Wallace/Toronto Star

3 comments:

  1. I love it. Your signs were the perfect response to that idiotic ESPN article.

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  2. Congrats sir, job well done. I liked how you guys had multiple signs to rotate throughout the game. It seemed like every time the cameras panned over to you guys, Buck and Pat absolutely lost it.

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  3. Haha yeah we had at least 6 or 7 to start the game and then made a few more with a marker we brought during the 5th because we figured we needed some new material.

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