Before and after The Bat Flip: Why I lied, and the truth heading into a new season

Oct 14, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays right fielder Jose Bautista hits a three-run home run against the Texas Rangers in the 7th inning in game five of the ALDS at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 14, 2015; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Toronto Blue Jays right fielder Jose Bautista hits a three-run home run against the Texas Rangers in the 7th inning in game five of the ALDS at Rogers Centre. Mandatory Credit: Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports /
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TOR  3          2 outs
TEX  3          1 – 1

Bottom of the 7th           

No matter your generation or taste, there is one moment in sports history that exists for each of us as a placeholder. That moment that divides a certain part of your life into “before” and “after.

From these blurred moments of celebration you can still recall exactly where you were, the people surrounding you, even the most inconsequential details about the shirt you’d worn or the unsteady legs on your bar table. It’s a moment that sticks in the off-season, and carries you through to the next. That’s part of why I’m writing this, now. But there’s something else, too: a kind of levelling with myself, and where I’ve been, before a new seasons begins with records reset to zeroes. An urge to clear out the dust and to cut a swath towards the truth.

“Where were you when…,” is a question I’ve heard dozens of times since The Bat Flip. “Do you remember where you were when Jose…”.

Like many baseball fans who have yet to reach their 30th year, my ‘moment’ came on that night of October 14th. Unlike most, though, I was not in a crowded bar, or huddled around an undersized flatscreen at a friend’s apartment, though I’ve used both of those stories countless times as comfortable cover-ups.

I lied.

As Jose Bautista stepped to the plate in the bottom of the seventh inning that night, I was standing, alone, in my living room in Toronto.

I had come to the city just as the Blue Jays were taking flight after two grounded decades, in early September of 2015 as an outsider. Not just an outsider to Toronto, but perhaps an outsider to cities in general, moving from a town of 9,000 in Nova Scotia. I found lobster boats and familiar faces replaced by rooms full of strangers who don’t say hello to each other. I felt disoriented and claustrophobic.

Within a month of my moving here, a longterm relationship ended that left me living in an unfamiliar place with no thread of familiarity.

So, on October 14th, like the weeks that had come before it, I waited for first pitch.

There was a special feeling surrounding that at-bat before a single pitch was thrown, regardless of the outcome. That was never an at-bat that would end in a ground-ball out. There would be no “agree to disagree.” This was a gladiator match, the screaming thousands hungry for blood down to a molecular level, from those within 30-feet of Bautista to those within 30-feet of the tip of the C.N. Tower.

Jose Bautista loaded his front leg and swung. There are two things I remember above all else:

1)  I did not hear the ball hit the bat, and regardless of how often I re-watch the moment of contact, this unsound is still completely foreign to me on replay. Like something I have never heard, that sets in mind a poem: “Somewhere i have never travelled / gladly beyond any experience” —

2)  The face of Ryan Goins coming down the third base line.

Why Goins? The man standing on third base, completely forgotten in one of Toronto’s greatest sports moments?

Because when Bautista made that silent contact as I watched on from a local bar or a friend’s apartment or whichever story suited me at that moment, I somehow ended up on the floor.

No soap opera fainting, no loss of consciousness or even closing of eyes, but my knees gave way without warning and I found myself ass to ground, dumbfounded at the brief moment of pure perfection I’d been lucky enough to witness.

When I looked back to the television, Ryan Goins was screaming to the sky.

“Bautista with a drive. Deep left field! No doubt about it!”

There’s an overused scene in medical dramas, one you’ll often see involving an important character in the 58th minute of an episode or during a season finale.  A patient has come in from a gunshot wound. The doctors and nurses work frantically, but as the scene plays on, one of the younger residents turns away from the table, accepting defeat.

Another 20 seconds pass, and another joins them. Then another. But one hardened doctor pumps on against the odds. And then:

Beep.

For those weeks in September and October, I came to learn that Blue Jays baseball represented to me what it had already come to mean for so many fans: A grounding. An unspeakably valuable form of “normal” in a world that suddenly lacked such a thing.

A steady signal of life.

One of the greatest privileges of working in this market is the stories I’ve heard from Blue Jays fans that are more about themselves than they are about baseball. A father, now passed, who took a daughter to her first game at Exhibition Stadium. A family of four, new to Canada, swept up in the playoff wave as their sons, point to the Blue Jays sweater draped over my shoulder bag in the elevator and say only “Bautista” while mimicking a home run swing.

These conversations are not possible without baseball. With the odd flash of brilliance blanketed in months on normalcy, baseball lets us in.

Baseball is the great novelistic sport, playing out at a 500-page length. Characters are foreshadowed over six summer months, narratives are built, and twists await at these incremental turns. The 2016 Blue Jays season will not be a story that makes sense if you open the book on July 3rd or August 17th. The characters will lack context, and you won’t know the path they took to that page.

There is also a great beauty to be found in the simplicity of baseball, the repetitive rhythm of game after game after game.

In baseball, as in life, the real story exists in the outlying 10%. The obscure, the unexpected, the once unknown.

Whether it be a nine-to-five, a chosen hobby, or a given responsibility, so much time is taken up by the expected and the known. The unsurprising. This goes for baseball, too, where the vast majority of Toronto’s games this season will result in a near-even record with few differentiating characteristics from day to day.

These 90% moments were my days leading up to The Bat Flip. A time of straight-faced quiet. A numbness. A .500 record waiting for a jolt in either direction from that other 10%.

The 2015 Toronto Blue Jays, over and over, represented that 10%. They were at times Beethoven, at times Bukowski. Bartenders nodding knowingly to the cellists while the barroom brawlers fall into an unsuspecting symphony with the violins.

So in lying about where I was for The Bat Flip, I found the truth.

In times without familiarity, something was waiting for me that I had experienced thousands of times without ever truly giving it the appreciation it deserves, and the appreciation it finds in some fan each night.

First pitch.

Beep.

That night, when Sam Dyson threw a 1-1 pitch to Jose Bautista, I found the true beauty of baseball.

Twitter:  @KeeganMatheson