Meaningful Games: Everything is Beautiful and Nothing Makes Sense

Sam Dyson, the Texas reliever who surrendered what going forward will likely be viewed as the second-most important home run in Blue Jays’ team lore, reacted to José Bautista’s defiant, celebratory bat flip, and to the Blue Jays’ exuberance in general, by saying “If they want to act like that, it’s whatever.” We’ll have to infer for ourselves what he might have meant by “whatever,” and though I hate to inject words in the mouth of another, I feel pretty safe saying he meant “undignified,” or some synonym thereof.

But I’d also suggest that Bautista’s was the most justified bat toss in history. It’s true that jettisoning lumber in that way violates baseball’s old, musty, unofficial code of behaviour, but we’ve seen recently just what hewing closely to that code can result in; namely, broken bones and physical violence. So maybe it ought to be tossed aside, too.

Besides, when I look at replay after replay after replay (I can’t help myself) of that home run, and Bautista’s reaction to it, I don’t see anything undignified. I see instead the profound dignity of a human being who has just seen his years of labour and frustration and anonymity result in something amazing. I see someone whose erratic and uncertain career path, whose failure and subsequent reinvention, whose role as a losing team’s long- and steady-beating heart, was all suddenly vulcanized in the heat of that single moment. I see a player who was once shuttled among four different organizations in a single season. I see a player whose diligence and success was often ignored by the rest of baseball because he toiled north of the border, tucked away in a market that’s treated as provincial and remote by the game’s establishment. I see the figurehead of a team that had been down two games to none, and fought back. I see a city’s grief, twenty-two years of it, as well as the soft pain of a whole nation, lifting away as quickly as that ball traveled. That home run was all of those things at once, and the bat flip expressed all of it in a succinct, memorable and, yes, defiant instant.

It was immediately iconic and at once about both the individual responsible and all of us witnessing it. It was statement and declaration. It was Bautista’s opportunity to transcend, from stalwart and fixture, to legend. There are so few moments in baseball now, home runs especially, that succeed in breaking through the noise and the GIF churn, and threaten to join moments like Bobby Thompson’s dinger in that timeless strata of epochal events. Bautista’s did. It was, as poet and editor Andrew Faulkner wrote me in a dazed postgame email, as breathless and amazing and important as the first 75 pages of Underworld.

It wouldn’t have been nearly as charged a moment, though, had it not come during that seventh inning–that baffling, grueling, perplexing, painful, and joyous seventh inning. Even in looking over the game log, I can’t now begin to make head nor tails of it. It unfurled with the liquid logic of a dream, making little sense in the moment, threatening at several points to tip into nightmare. In retrospect, it’s a river of flickering images seemingly unrelated to one another.

In 1908, the Giants lost the National League pennant when Fred Merkle failed to touch second base, and was later forced out to end what should have been a New York victory. They called it “Merkle’s Boner.” Last night, in the top of the 7th, Toronto catcher Russell Martin casually tossed a ball back to pitcher Aaron Sanchez, only to have the ball glance off Ranger Shin-Soo Choo’s bat and dribble up the third base line. Rougned Odor, on third, sprinted home, even while the home plate ump waved time. Odor touched the plate, the sizeable umpiring crew convened, had a chat with mission control in New York, and correctly ruled that the run counted. The Rangers were up by one, and the Dome suddenly got ugly, debris raining onto the turf. It looked like a hockey game. It looked like Philadelphia. John Gibbons lodged a protest, and I readied myself to write a piece called “Martin’s Boner.”

But the Jays got out of that half inning, came up in the bottom of the seventh, and the Rangers forgot how to catch a ball. They booted three of them. With the bases loaded and nobody out, pinch runner Dalton Pompey was forced at home on a grounder to first by Ben Revere, but took out catcher Chris Gimenez’s legs, preventing a double play. The umpiring conference and review that followed nearly caused a riot on Blue Jays Way. Donaldson hit a squeaker just over Odor’s head, a run scored, and Bautista came up with runners on the corners.

That’s the point at which the most vivid memory will begin, as the years pile up and we look back on that game. Just like a Jays fan need only say to another “Carter,” and the whole “Touch ‘em all, Joe” scene spools out in the mind, “Bautista” is now the callword for the feeling of unqualified joy, the water-in-a-desert feeling, the “Finally!” sensation that moment sparked in millions of us last night. For twenty-two years we’ve had Joe Carter reaching for that Mitch Williams pitch, the way it snuck over the wall in left, the way Carter leapt and skipped as he made his way down toward first, the way he was lifted onto his teammates’ shoulders when he arrived home. That’s matched now by the memory of Bautista’s murderous swing, the quick scowl, the toss of the bat high into the air, and the cellphone video of that boy, dressed as Bautista, way up in the 500s, who mimed the shot as it happened. These are our new images, and they’ll all be evoked just by saying the man’s name.

Game 1 of the ALCS goes Friday, which is a quick and rude reminder that there’s more baseball to be played, though there’s a temptation just to luxuriate in this feeling for a long while. But the Jays will attempt to avenge their seven-game defeat to Kansas City in 1985. Baseball’s memory is long like that, accommodating both the slights and the triumphs.

Nothing is guaranteed, of course, and the possibility that all of this will only result in more pain sometime in the next week or so is a real one. Baseball’s timeline is measured in seconds and decades; deep troughs of pain interspersed with dazzling moments of excitement. But if Game 5 of the ALDS didn’t fill you with a desire to risk that pain for the potential rewards this game offers, I don’t know what to tell you. You have to risk something to get something. The cards are on the table and the ante is your heart. The feelings you experienced last night–both when it looked as though things were hopeless for the Blue Jays, and when you lost your voice screaming as Bautista rounded the bases–were baseball’s reminder that things needn’t be believable to be true.

A pennant-race dispatch from Invisible author Andrew Forbes (What You Need). In April 2016 we’ll be releasing The Utility of Boredom, a collection of Forbes’s baseball essays.

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