Meaningful Games: Hotline Bling

I don’t know what it is about Toronto. I think about this from time to time, and come up with nothing bankable. I usually arrive at something not entirely capturable by language. Its Torontoness, finally, exasperatingly; its feel and vibration and smell and the speed and angle at which the wind comes off the lake. I’m not saying any of this is good or bad. It’s both. It’s neither. You grow up somewhere else and you feel the gravity of a city like Toronto. You admire and resent it. You’re not from there, and you’re acutely aware of that. You don’t want to live there, and maybe more crucially, you don’t want to want to live there. Great place to visit, could never call it home, etc. But that doesn’t really wrap up all the feelings and thoughts you have about the place; there are too many of them. There’s only thing you feel you can say with certainty: it’s expensive.

But also it’s a place you’ve experienced so intimately, and over such a long period of time, that you can’t unravel all of that and see it as a City, a pixel on the world map, a locale. It’s instead a disorganized mash of memories and faces and fears, bands you’ve seen, friends you’ve too often failed to call, games you’ve attended, couches where you’ve crashed. It’s a trick of light. It’s a cold walk in autumn. It’s a cab ride across town.

I remember taking the train in from Oshawa on a winter afternoon, on my way to a Raptors game, the tracks hugging the lake, approaching the city from the east. I remember thinking, as we stopped at stations in just about every neighbourhood along the lakeshore, just how much it looked like a big city; like a big city you’d see in a movie. Toronto, I thought, you really are something.

As Canadians we tend to undervalue ourselves, to defer to a kind of vacuum-packed modesty, so even Toronto—sprawling and cosmopolitan as it inarguably is—must conform to this self-effacement. After all, every single one of us knows someone who lives there. How could it be such a big deal? It’s also the city most other global citizens associate with Canada, so it must be very Canadian. So goes our/my thinking, and if this is the case, then it must be humble and unimpressive. That, crudely, is the cognitive loop some/most/all of us on the outside have concerning Toronto.

But it’s not unimpressive. It’s loud and vain and strange and mutable and cultured; it’s quiet and meek and grey and unchanging and ignorant, too. It’s a lot of things at once. Mostly it’s a screen, like all big cities: loci of desire and effort and failure and reinvention. As locus, Toronto’s lack of focus is paradoxically its definition. It evinces a beautiful cultural jumble: roti up on Eglinton; a bored employee listening to dancehall while she closes up a Pizza Pizza location in Mississauga; old Italian men waiting for a bus on Yonge; a veggie dog from a cart outside the (now shuttered) Guvernment; someone’s warm perfume, jewelry a-jangle; local beer at a comatose-inducing poetry reading; the large airport through which you have sprinted; the airport parking lot in which your van died; snow; suffocating heat; small bars; large parks; the lights at the end of the night; the long drive home.

Ask me to pack all of this into one symbol, though, one signifier, and I’d panic, then probably settle on Drake. Why not? He’s made the city he’s from his flag. He takes all of those evocations I mentioned and synthesizes them into something you can dance to. Drake sounds like Toronto, but he sounds like Toronto knowingly presenting itself to the world, and actually making the world want to visit.

If you’re thinking all of this has a tenuous connection to baseball, which is the stated subject of this series of blog posts, well, you’re not wrong. But this is a blog, not a dissertation. The burden of proof is lower here. So sit tight.

Okay, here. Here’s the connection: I’m thinking of the Blue Jays as the Toronto Blue Jays, and what that geographic qualifier actually means. The Blue Jays are, in addition to a collection of monetary interests based in Toronto and proof that Toronto is a Big League city, a civic symbol, an outward face of the town on the shores of Lake Ontario. They’re the reason that a fan in Kansas City, Missouri might have an opinion of the place. But I can’t for the life of me figure out how the Blue Jays—or Toronto—appear or are interpreted by that lady in KC or, say, a baseball fan in San Diego, or Baltimore. I can’t penetrate that. I can’t ever leave behind my associations in order to understand theirs, and the inaccessibility of that experience is baffling and confounding, but normal and absolute. This is lightweight thinking, I know, pure Philosophy 101 stuff, but it’s been on my mind for whatever reason—likely the fact that the US media has said “Toronto” more times in the past few weeks, owing to the Jays’ playoff run, than they have in quite some time, or at any rate since Rob Ford’s antics reached their unfortunate nadir.

The Blue Jays feel as homey and trusted and safe to me as Jerry Howarth’s voice on my car radio as I drive the 401 between Kingston and Port Hope, or wend through cottage country, or take County Road 23 up through Buckhorn. “The Blue Jays are in flight,” he’ll say when they score their first run, or “And there she goes!” when somebody hits one out, just as he’s been saying it on every radio and in every car I’ve owned for years and years and years. How can that experience—so familiar to me, so seemingly mine—jive with the experience of the untold millions out there who’re also familiar with the team, to whatever degree? This is some real epistemological sidetracking, I know. But how can they be so many things at once? How can Toronto be so many places at once? And why can’t I get “Hotline Bling” out of my head?

Ninety-nine percent of my experience of the Toronto Blue Jays occurs outside of Toronto, in my kitchen or my family room, nowhere near Front Street. Can I remove the Toronto from Blue Jays? Are they inextricably an emblem of that city, and I’m an outsider willing myself into their sphere? Is a Yankees fan in Havana who’s never seen The Stadium still a Yankees fan, or do they require some other designation?

This, you must understand, is the sort of thing that comes to me on off-days, the cruelly long intervals between home and road playoff games. Imagine what winters are like, and be glad you don’t live with me. I’m also spending all the words here in case—I don’t want to type it—the season ends tonight, which is possible and frightening but also natural and not unjust. But once it’s over, whether tonight, or after Game 7, or at the conclusion of the World Series, I won’t have your attention anymore. So this is me, capitalizing. Hello.

Anyway, I get locked in these modes of thought, and it’s rare that I reach any sort of conclusion. Often I jet off on some other tangent, some disparate train of thought or distraction. Sometimes I’ll go in search of a small factoid and wind up watching an entire game from the 1971 World Series (YouTube is wonderful). But sometimes I arrive at something like this: the Jays are mine, but they’re not mine. They’re Toronto, but they’re also wherever I happen to be, and I love them and I resent them for all the suffering, and thank them for all the miracles, minor and major. And this: it doesn’t matter. There’s no textbook, no manual. Nobody who suggests there’s a right way to invest in a team is worth listening to, only brusquely disregarded. My connection, however tenuous, is decades old, and involves memories of Jesse Barfield and Garth Iorg, but I could have come to them in August, or last week, and it wouldn’t matter. Fandom isn’t a club, it isn’t a perk of paying taxes in a particular jurisdiction; it’s only measured in a willingness to care.

I’m going out tonight to watch the game with friends at the dingiest sports bar in Peterborough, Ontario. I’ve watched a lot of sports there, baseball, NBA Finals, the NFL, the Stanley Cup. I don’t particularly love the place, but the venue feels appropriate to the consumption of Sports! and the beer’s not too expensive, and the lattice fries are good, in their way. So I go. More than the setting, though, such outings are about the company, and about the contest we’ll watch. When we watch, we’re not weighing our connections to the teams’ addresses, we’re not competing for the title of truest fan. We’re all just investing emotionally in a drama that we’ve allowed to nestle in our hearts, for whatever the reasons, taking team logos as something akin to heraldic coats, putting joy on the line in the face of near-certain disappointment. It’s a gamble, we know. But it’s who we are, or anyway who we’ve become, shaped by things and people and places. Places real and imagined. Places we’re from, or have gone, or will never go.

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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