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Me and the Jays
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Here's a review of an aspect of our culture that we've never discussed before in Dilettante's Diary!

Through a family connection, I recently received an invitation to attend a Toronto Blue Jays baseball game and to view it from the private box of one of the very senior executives of the Blue Jays' organization. I hesitated to accept the invitation -- well actually I jumped at it -- but later I worried that there might be lots of people who would appreciate, indeed who deserved, such an opportunity more than I.

Not that I'm completely uninterested in baseball. I was the guy in grade three who brought his radio to class so that we could listen to the World Series. The main thing about that was the prestige of being the one chosen by the teacher to implement such a radical departure from the strict classroom routine. Then there was the time, a couple of years later, when I attended a Detroit Tigers game at Briggs stadium. It was very educational regarding the speeds of light and sound. The main thing that struck me about the game was that you'd see the batter hit the ball but you wouldn't hear the crack until a split second later. And I did once attend a Blue Jays game with my kids back when the Skydome was new but we were so high up that my main concern was nosebleeds.

It would be fair to say that these experiences do not qualify me as a diehard baseball fan. But I quelled my conscience about accepting the invitation on the grounds that the experience would not only help me to know more about popular culture; it would be enlightening for readers of Dilettante's Diary to find out what life is like in the upper echelons of Toronto society.

Information was that dinner would be served in the box. I wondered if it would be anything like Marcel Proust's descriptions of La Duchesse de Guermantes making an appearance in someone's box at the opera. Those occasions were all about who appeared in whose box, what they were wearing, who was seen talking to whom, who refused to speak to whom, and so on. All kinds of intrigues and machinations were going on in the boxes, practically without regard to what was happening on stage.

So naturally, I was very worried about what to wear. My inquiry brought the answer: slacks and a golf shirt. Now this sounds simple, but consider: in my childhood (which, let's face it, is the reference point for everything) girls wore slacks; boys wore pants, or, if they had snooty mothers, "trousers". As applied to males, slacks sound to me like something worn by an elderly gent on a cruise to the Bahamas. So they don't figure largely in my wardrobe. As for a golf shirt, I wouldn't know a golf green from a hole in the ground.

So what to do? Well, I have a beautiful blue and black striped summer shirt that was the result of impulse shopping one Saturday morning last summer after too much coffee at breakfast. It's far too expensive for me and would never have entered my collection if it wasn't for all that caffeine. For the simple reason that I don't have any good summer pants to go with it, it has remained in pristine condition. Possibly it would do, if I could find a pair of "slacks" to go with it.

The day before the game, a day of the worst smog, haze, and heat that Toronto has ever seen, I headed out for my rounds of the haberdashers. Just around the corner from our house, I passed a store that sells very stylish, up-scale shirts. I didn't think they sold pants but there was a pair in the window. I went in and asked about pants. The young proprietor asked: What size? What colour? Turns out, he has pants made up on order but he happened to have a few samples handy. He handed me a pair. They fit. They were black, which would go with the shirt. He was offering them at 50% off, no tax, just $10 to finish the cuffs. Even to as indifferent a shopper as I, that sounded pretty good. He'd have them ready next day. My shopping ordeal was done ten minutes after it started.

At home, the question came up immediately: are they washable? When I went back to pick them up at noon next day, it turned out that, not only are they not washable, they are pure wool. The store owner assured me they are lightweight, intended for spring and summer. But what Canadian boy in his right mind would wear wool in a summer like the one we're having? Oh well, maybe it would be cooler down there by the lake. Maybe the box would be air conditioned.

But when I tried the pants with the blue and black shirt, the effect was decidedly funereal. As if going to this ball game wasn't very much fun for me. I mean, you should look kind of celebratory when you're going out to watch the Jays, shouldn't you?

I had a nap and woke with a firm decision that something else was needed. Two hours before departure time, I rushed around the corner to a swish store that was having a liquidation sale. After half an hour of screeching hangers on racks and whipping shirts off and on by body, I came home with a greyish/greenish/silverish number that would go with the somewhat mouldy green pants from my one summer suit.

Shit: side by side, the shirt looked too grey and the pants too green. (The old problem: artificial store lighting.) So maybe  the greyish shirt with the black pants? Now the shirt looked too green. Suddenly an inspiration: what about that other pair of green pants, the darker ones (sort of olive)? They're not really summer pants but I was willing to endure the all-wool black ones, wasn't I? Tred the olive ones on: presto! The silvery grey shirt looked perfect with them. I even had a pullover with olive green in it, in case it got chilly.

So much for wardrobe. (Given my tendency to fret over outfits, we can all be thankful that I'm not likely ever to be mother of the bride.) Next worry: my ignorance of the Jays. After all, if we were going to be sharing a box with top management of the organization, I didn't want to come off looking like some kind of geek whose knowledge of baseball stopped in grade three. I found the sports section of The Globe and Mail with some articles on the Jays. There was something very interesting about some marvelous new pitcher but, 30 seconds after reading the article, I'd forgotten his name. Obviously, cramming was hopeless. So I decided to present myself as tabula rasa. If the question arose, I could lie and say that this was my long-awaited introduction to baseball.

On the other hand, maybe nobody cared what I knew or didn’t know.  Maybe this event wasn't all about me? It could be that everybody else doesn't see me as royalty whose every word and gesture is worth noting. Maybe I could sit in a corner of the box and smile pleasantly, as long as I looked ok.

After a sweaty subway ride in my spiffy duds, I arrived with plenty of time to mop my brow and soak up the atmosphere outside the Dome. (Which I understand is now known as the Rogers Centre.) On the plaza, there's a lovely fountain on several levels with fish-like sculptures that I took to be dolphins frolicking in the waves, but then I realized that they were meant to be salmon struggling upstream to spawn and  die. Oh dear. But I very much enjoyed brushing off the scalpers with a condescending smile. If only they knew how I so didn't need their tickets today! A couple of older guys were stomping back from the gate to remonstrate with their scalper. They'd been told at the gate that the tickets he sold them were invalid. From a distance, I was glad to see one of the men pocketing what looked like his returned money.

With about ten minutes to the appointed meeting time, I made my way to gate three, which was obviously the VIP entrance. Very few people were entering. I enjoyed watching the hoi polloi stream past on their way to the entrances for lesser mortals. Not that this was an unkind type of snobbery on my part. I felt very benevolent towards them. They all looked pleasant, clearly looking forward to a wholesome, enjoyable evening. It gave me a sort of Normal Rockwell feeling about the common people on a beautiful summer evening. There might be some truth in the old cliché that baseball brings out the best in people. Looking at all those smiling faces, you'd never have guessed that sleazy downtown Toronto was right around the corner.

When our party of three family members and a friend had assembled, we proceeded through gate three where we were greeted by a Concierge at an elaborate desk. As far as I know, this is not standard treatment at other entrances. Then we walked rather a long way around a corridor that rings the building, and that is decorated with huge framed pictures of various historical events at the dome, until we came to the door marked "Private" with the number of our tickets on it.

We went in and a friendly hostess greeted us. I'm not sure that "hostess" is the right word, sort of a flight attendant person, if you know what I mean. She was manning a bar and small kitchen area at the back of the room, which was about the size of a master bedroom in a typical three-bedroom red brick home in North Toronto.

At the front of the room, facing the field, were four very soft and comfy leather armchairs. In front of these chairs was a glass wall that our hostess slid back. On the other side of the wall, down a step, were two rows of stadium seats, twelve in all. On one wall inside the box was an enormous tv screen tuned to what looked like a Toronto news show and there was another tv hanging over the stadium seats at the front of the box.

Snacks of chips and dips, crudités and jumbo shrimp had been set out and we were invited to help ourselves. Beer and wine were available for the asking. I'd already had my monthly half-pint of beer but it seemed that, to do this event justice, I should, for the sake of my readers, go all the way. So I persuaded myself to accept a Stella Artois. I went for that mainly because those elaborate commercials they show in theatres make great work for actors. Also, the actors are usually very good looking. In the end, I had two bottles.

Which brings us to the little washroom tucked in behind the kitchen area. In a way, it was the most elegant aspect of the whole suite, with its polished fixtures, lots of mirrors and even a lovely bouquet of flowers. Strange to say, I didn't notice whether or not the flowers were real. After the beer, I guess, it didn't matter.

For about half an hour, there were only the four of us and the hostess on hand. We had been told to show up an hour before the game but the hostess told us dinner would be served just before the game began. Eventually, another man arrived, a relative of our hosts, and introduced himself. Then the hosts themselves, who were very cordial in a casual, laid-back way. Another group of guests soon showed up -- officials connected with an international waterpolo match that was taking place somewhere  nearby. They mostly seemed to be from South America. A little boy related to one of them arrived later. By the end, there were about twenty of us, not to mention a very beautiful, large brown dog (about three and a half feet tall). He nosed his way among the guests very quietly, seeming very much at home. Now and then, he would settle on his haunches and stare placidly at the field but I couldn't tell whether he was a really keen baseball fan or just well-mannered (like me).

The game was underway before I realized that dinner was served, buffet style. On one side of the room were caesar salad and a salad with strips of chicken breast; on the other side was a warming oven with huge wieners and pizza. Dessert, brought around by the hostess later, turned out to be various kinds of ice cream bars.

It was something like Proust's description of the boxes at the opera. People were milling around, moving from one seat to another, getting up to help themselves to food, using the bathroom. There was family gossip, business and national news in the air. But, for the most part, the focus was on the game. Whenever you're watching a sports event, there are always some know-it-alls sounding off about the proceedings. (Usually overheard by me from another room.) It was rather a different matter, in this case, to be hearing a running commentary on the game -- mostly statistics and dollar figures -- by the people responsible for the players' salaries.

Speaking of commentary, I was a bit bothered by media overload. Besides the tv screens on the wall of the box and hanging over the seats, there was the jumbotron. What was playing on the jumbotron wasn't always what was on the tv. So I was never sure where to look: the field, or one of the screens, and which screen? Inside the box, you couldn't hear the announcements in the stadium but you could when you sat in one of the stadium seats in front of the box. What really drove me nuts was when the jumbotron kept scanning the crowd to show something happening in some far-flung corner of the stadium and I couldn't figure out where the picture was coming from. Is was sort of like: is this picture on the screen for real? is this really happening? am I here or am I not here?

By the way, the cameras never noticed us. Our box might as well have been a little slit in a bunker in Normandy for all that the cameras –- or the public -- cared. Our box certainly was positioned well, it would seem to me, in that we were just over the Jay's dugout, a little to the left (our left) of home plate. Certainly a good vantage point to see everything that was happening on the field. But we were rather higher up than I expected. You couldn't see the players' faces. As you know, I like to be able to have a clear view of performers' mugs in order to get the best of their expressions when I'm attending any kind of show. So it was a little disappointing to find that we were too far away to really get the feeling of knowing any of the players. From what I could see of their pictures on the jumbotron, however, they all looked like nice guys.

The dome had been closed when we arrived but, soon after, it began to open. It was nice to be able to catch a corner of the summer sky behind the high rise office buildings. Eventually, as the sky faded to dark, a cool breeze came up and I was perfectly cozy, curled up in my corner of the box with my cardigan with the olive green accents.

And what about the game? My ancient knowledge of baseball started coming back, to the point that I could enjoy the game and even get excited occasionally. I remembered the stuff about three strikes, four balls, three out, and all that. Some of the finer points eluded me but some of the other guys were disputing them with each other. I knew enough to clap in the right places or, more importantly, I didn't clap in any wrong places (as far as I know). The question of my relative ignorance of the sport never arose. In fact, I was a whiz compared to some of the Brazilian water polo guys. Various attempts were made to explain the basics but nobody could get to first base with them.

The Jays didn't win but I thought they were all very good. They sure could whack that ball; throw it too, same with catching. Which raises a question about the whole endeavor. People are always saying what a player should or shouldn't have done. The players are all doing the best they can, it seems to me. A ball's coming at you and you have a split second to decide what to do. So you do something but it doesn't work out the way you wanted. So what? Does that put you in the wrong? If it had worked out for you, it wouldn't have worked out for the other guy. Does that make him wrong?

It's only a game, after all. You can't control everything that happens. It's not like an opera where you know what notes the soprano is supposed to sing, so you wince when she misses. Or a Shakespearean play where you know exactly what words the actor is supposed to say. It’s not as if some God on high has clear plan of what’s supposed to happen.

And if your team doesn't win, does that mean anything? I mean, somebody's got to win. If it wasn't the other guys, it'd be you. So, no matter what, you nearly won. Maybe next time it will be you. Does that prove anything? Not that I can see. What does it matter about all the millions that are riding on whether or not you hit the ball? Forget about them. I would.

Which may be why my baseball career ended in grade three.

You can respond to: patrick@dilettantesdiary.com