The Blue Jays came to town!
Well, three of them did, anyway.
This was part of their “Winter Tour”, and although I have a vague memory of them doing this other off seasons, it is the first time they included our town on the schedule. The Blue Jays are Canada’s team. They are Canada’s team because they are Canada’s only team. But even when Canada had two teams, it was always the Blue Jays for me. No offence to the dozen or so self-identified Expos fans out there, but Expos baseball just felt…..off. Maybe it was the clown like ball caps, or the weird stylized “M” on the front that doesn’t look at all like an “M” to me. Maybe it was because it seemed like you could only get the games on the French language CBC and they called batters “frappeurs” and what not. Maybe it was the ridiculously cavernous Olympic Stadium, where you couldn’t really ever feel close to the action. A friend of ours lived in Montreal in the 1980’s, and even then The Expos had a hard time drawing a crowd. Our friend told us that they had this deal that for $5 you could get a ticket to the game and a free return trip on the Metro. He and his friends would often do that on a weeknight: not to watch the game, LORD no, they would go because apparently there was this amazing falafel place in the concourse and they would just go to eat.
It probably wasn’t The Expos fault, really. I mean, the baseball gods always had them pegged as losers. It’s no coincidence that in 1981 and 1994, two years in which The Expos were actually leading their division, both times the seasons ended in lock outs. The baseball gods were not going to take any chances. It’s comforting though to see that a mediocre team North of the border has transitioned nicely into a mediocre team South of the border. There’s something to be said for consistency.
But enough about The Expos. Let’s get back to the Jays!
We found out that three Blue Jays, pitchers Brett Cecil and Aaron Loup, and all-star outfielder and home run king José Bautista would be signing autographs at a local mall.
Although this is the first time the Jays came to town on their winter tour, I have a distinct memory of the Blue Jays coming to town when I was a kid, back in the 1980s to play some exhibition game at our old football stadium. I can’t imagine what team they would have played. Maybe some kind of national junior team, or an Olympic team or something? The weird thing is that I can’t find any evidence of said game online or anywhere else. Is it possible it was all a fevered fantasy, like something out of a W.P. Kinsella short story? It’s possible, I guess. Although I clearly remember Cecil Fielder hitting a home run and my parents and brother and me, we had to crane our necks every time a pitch was made, because we were so high up and the sight lines to home plate were so terrible.
But back to the signing:
My friend Steve, who loves baseball like I do, and I decided we had to go. Was it weird that two grown men in their late 30s would line up to get autographs from baseball players? We didn’t really think about it. We just decided to go. I mentioned it to my Mom, and she got all excited for us. She has a great sense of adventure and began to ask me what I was going to get signed. “Do you have a cap? Maybe a ball? How about a baseball card?” I DID have a cap, as it turned out. Picked up at the Rogers Centre last spring, new logo and everything! But the thing about getting clothing signed is that you have to sort of wear it gently, and I was hoping to work my new ball cap into a regular rotation in the summer. It didn’t really happen last summer, and if I got it signed, I’d feel like I’d just like to put it up high somewhere and look as it from time to time. A ball or a card would be ideal, but I didn’t really have time to sort all that out.
My Mom, the adventure lover, came by a couple of days before the signing. She had gone around to various sports collectibles places and came up with three blue jays’ stamped baseballs, a pennant(?), a José Bautista t-shirt, and the coolest thing of all, in my opinion: A Topps José Bautista baseball card!
“You won’t believe what I had to do to get that card!” she said. Before I could conjure some horrible imagery, she told me that she visited a couple of card shops but that they were all sold out of Bautistas. But one nice older man, “I think he LIKED me!” told my Mom that he had a few boxes at home and that he’d go through them that night and if he found a Bautista, he would call. Sure enough, the next day at work my Mom got a call and she bustled right on over and picked it up. My Mom gave the man a toonie for his trouble (the card was $1), but he insisted on giving correct change. I sense a LOVE CONNECTION!
I almost didn’t have the heart to tell my Mom that it was one signature per person per player. “Oh, well. Maybe I’ll go myself!” she said cheerily and off she went.
The morning of the signing, Steve picked me up. It was decided that Steve would get three signatures on one of the blue jays balls, I would get two signatures on the other blue jays ball, and get José to sign his card.
The force was strong with us that morning, because the entrance to the mall that we chose happened to be the one that was opened a half hour before all the others. There was a small crowd of people with Jays’ gear, so we knew we were in the right spot. I counted about six security guards when they opened the gates and told us the rules. “No leaving the line, no running, and no cuts. If you let someone in, you’re both gone.” Harsh, but fair, I guess.
We were ushered into line and it turned out there were only about 15 people ahead of us. A little while later, a second rush of people joined the line, then a third. I guess all the other doors were slowly being opened.
It was my Mom. “Boy, I guess I sure chose the wrong entrance! I thought I could sneak through the Starbucks, but no luck. You guys sure got a good spot.”
I could almost not look my Mom in the eye. I certainly couldn’t look Steve in the eye. How could I not offer my Mom cuts? Yet if I did I would be putting our own position in jeopardy. Happily, my Mom never made any attempt to gain an advantage. “I’m way back there, but I’ve made some friends. They are such a nice group of young people. We’re all going to go out for coffee afterwards. Do you need a Sharpie?”
My Mom may very well have been Lord Baden-Powell in a previous life, because she was always ready. I’m sure they had pens up there, but I took the Sharpie anyway. Apparently her man friend, the card collector, told her that Sharpie was the way to go. She produced the third ball, and a mysterious fourth ball that didn’t seem to have any markings on it at all, and she vanished into the crowd.
We had a few minutes to survey the crowd before the Jays arrived. We didn’t feel out-of-place. There were people of all ages around, some with kids, but a lot without. There was this one dude in front of us who had an old timey leather-bound autograph book. I wondered aloud what kinds of signatures he may have had in there, and Steve was about to ask him when I got all shy and thought what if it was filled with embarrassing things like wrestlers and pornstars? “Even better!” thought Steve, but we never inquired. I sort of regret that now.
This time it was our friend Jackie, who had been at the mall for totally unrelated business and happened to spot us in line. She was mildly interested in what was going on until she saw that we would be given Jays’ toques after the signing. She debated about cutting in line, and Steve and I told her the score. “If you get caught, we don’t know you!” She mulled it over, and then chose the perfect moment.
Before long a cheer went up near the end of the line and the Jays were marched in, led by two mounties in full red serge. It was like the Queen was here!
In all the excitement, when everyone’s attention was on the Jays taking their seats, Jackie slipped under the ribbon and then two became three. We didn’t tell her til afterwards that we banished my Mom to the back of line for fear of reprisal.
I was the first one through the line. Our plan was that Steve would take pictures of me getting things signed, and then I would get pictures of him.
The first player, Brett Cecil, said, “Hey man!” He addressed my like I was just a regular guy or something. I presented my ball and he asked me if I wanted a Sharpie or blue pen? I asked him what he thought was better and he thought the Sharpie would yellow on the leather over time, so I went with pen. I don’t even remember what I said to him otherwise. Isn’t that crazy? It all happened so fast, just a few seconds really. I think I told the next player, Loup, that we were hoping to drive down to the States and see a few games this year, and I think he liked that.
Next up, Bautista! I smiled at him and slid my card across the table to him. I don’t think I even said, “Hi” or anything. A bit rude, but this wasn’t his first rodeo. He surprised me with his first comment.
“Did you rub it?”
“Did you rub it? Rub the card?”
“Um, No. Was I supposed to?”
I had no idea what José was talking about, but then I realized that the card was a little bit glossy so maybe he meant I should have roughed up the surface a bit so the marker would stick better? He reached out with his right hand and started rubbing it with his thumb. At the exact same moment my brain said, “This guy is a superstar and a future hall of famer. He shouldn’t have to rub his own cards. I should have pre-rubbed that thing. Maybe quietly at home, or maybe furtively in the car on the way here, but not out in the open like this. It’s embarrassing!” I reached out to take the card and get it nicely rubbed for him, but like I said, he had already began to rub it himself. The result was that for a moment I touched his hand with my own. It wasn’t a manly handshake, reader. It was a weird, almost tender touch. My left hand on his right hand. I’m going to go so far as to call it a “caress” but there was definitely “skin on skin” contact.
I quickly withdrew my hand and he proceeded to sign it and off I went. I’m not sure if I even said thanks. I was pretty shaken by the whole exchange. So shaken in fact that I totally forgot to take a picture of Steve with José. This blurry piece of business was the best I could muster. José isn’t even in the frame, but I can assure you that to the right and down a bit the home run king was conversing with Jackie.
I think Steve was a bit like me. Tongue tied. But Jackie, who 10 minutes before was happily shopping for an iPhone, didn’t have the baggage or the investment to get all worked up. She had a great question. She asked each player if they had any predictions for the upcoming year. Both Cecil and Loup had variations on “It’s going to be a great year, or it’s already a great year with all the off-season signings and tradings”. José, though, simply said, “I don’t make predictions.” I would like to think his mind was still on our little bit of “touching” that had just happened.
In addition to being one of the Jays’ star players, he is also a spokesperson for “Booster Juice”. In the summertime you can see billboards around town with José holding up a delicious fruity beverage and the caption says: “Bats right. Throws right. Lives right.” You can now add “RUBS right” to that list, am I right?