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  • Writer's pictureIan Hyde-Lay

Curtain Call

It seems an odd comparison, but then comparisons often are.

It is the middle of June. 1985. The Canadian Men’s Rugby team arrives in Brisbane. A long and punishing tour, one on which we traverse the entire country, nears an end. Two games remain. However, firmly ensconced among the “dirt trackers,” I know I will not feature in either.

Still, the city has much to offer. And so, I find myself downtown one evening. Quite by chance, I come across Festival Hall, an intimate auditorium of some 4,000 seats and set to host one of my favourite artists.

Joan Armatrading.

The singer-songwriter, in a memorable, two hour show, does not disappoint. An enthralled audience enjoys an eclectic mixture of pop, rock, jazz, and blues, including hit singles such as “Love and Affection,” “Me, Myself, I,” “Drop The Pilot” and “Willow.”

Far too soon, the performance ends. But not before a much-anticipated encore. A humble and grateful Armatrading then returns to the stage. Her concert finally complete, she receives a lengthy standing ovation.

Flash forward to the present. Saturday, October 8. A haunting day that will live forever in baseball infamy.

The Toronto Blue Jays look to stay alive in a best of three, wild card series. Down one game, they entertain Seattle in a must win situation. Their home stadium, the Rogers Centre, boils over with emotion. Over 47,000 fans make a racket, the noise gathering in ever growing crescendos. As a sports enthusiast, supporting the sole Canadian major league team, I am glued to the television broadcast. Caught up, to a degree, in the excitement and playoff euphoria.

Still, my knowledge of baseball is somewhat limited. I understand the basic rules, but not their intricacies. Struggle with the terminology, do not really understand the decision making and planning.

Regardless, initially all seems well. The Blue Jays quickly open up a 4-0 lead. One of its star batters belts not one, but two home runs. Both are towering blasts to left field, the replay screen soon full of baffling statistics such as the distance the ball traveled, its trajectory, its exit velocity.

Needless to say, the home support explodes with joy on both occasions. The cameras pan the equally charged up players. Smiles, fist pumps, high fives everywhere.

And then it happens. The successful hitter, fresh from an arms raised salute, less than a minute later suddenly springs back out from the dugout. He tips his cap. Basks a second time in the warmth of the crowd’s rapturous applause. And, based on the vagaries of a lifetime in sport, my stomach flips over just a little. A first flutter of uncertainty. Why such an early, overt celebration? It is only the fourth inning. Still a long way to go.

And so, I cannot relax. Even after the visitors make a further mess of things and the score balloons to 8-1 in Toronto's favour. Given that baseball's twists and turns can be so random, irrational and cruel.

The game creeps along, now top of the sixth. The visiting Mariners scrap and claw, load the bases. Yet, there are two outs and the Toronto starting pitcher remains in commanding form.

Then, momentum shifts, in stunning and dramatic fashion. For reasons unknown, certainly for me thanks to my lack of understanding of game strategies, the Blue Jays remove the starter. Gone is the flame throwing right hander, experienced and crafty, an ace of the staff. Who collects upwards of $20 million a season for situations just like this one.

The replacement is a talented but somewhat unpredictable lefty. His first offering is straight from Little League, the ball bouncing short of the plate and careening wildly to the backstop. The Seattle runner on third base trots home. 8-2. A few pitches later, a curve ball that does not curve enough is hammered over the fence. A three run homer. 8-5.

I watch the remainder of the game with morbid fascination. Toronto does tack on a run, but questionable bullpen selections once more prove costly. The Blue Jays suddenly struggle to record an out. The once handsome lead evaporates further. I can feel in my gut that disaster looms. Know, just know.

Now 9-6, bases again loaded. An innocuous looking fly ball to center field somehow finds the turf, as two Toronto fielders crash together. End up in an unsightly heap. The bases clear amidst the mayhem. 9-9.

The end is predictably painful. The Blue Jays cannot add to their run tally, leaving Seattle to register the hits required in its last at bat to secure a 10-9 victory and a series sweep.

For the Toronto sporting faithful, even those all to familiar with crushing disappointments of previous years and decades, there is stunned silence. Then a weeping and gnashing of teeth. Another monumental playoff collapse a bitter pill to swallow. A team, picked in the pre-season to reach the World Series, crashing out in such miserable circumstances.

I allow myself a wry smile. Do not know enough about baseball to accurately apportion blame for the stomach turning Toronto defeat. Yet, I cannot help but relate it back to an Australian concert hall some 37 years ago.

I recall a packed house, a simply magical event and a classy, ultra-talented musician. One who, even allowing for thunderous acclaim throughout the evening, waits until after the show to fully acknowledge the plaudits.

Alas, several Blue Jays cannot wait that long. No patience. Not professional enough, not mature enough to stay in the moment, to look ahead no farther than the next pitch, the next play.

Perhaps they crave immediate affirmation of their talent, confirmation of their supposed brilliance.

Whatever the case, the sporting gods require greater respect. In the same way that concerts do not end after a set or at intermission, games do not end in the fourth inning, or at halftime.

Indeed, the best teams and the best performers do not strut about, never take a result for granted, rather keep focus and discipline. Keep grinding right through to the end.

So ignoring the potential pitfalls of a premature curtain call.

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