The Blue Jays create MLB temporary stadium fever; the Canucks and COVID19, and Henry Aaron's true legacy
Leaning into the Blue Jays' South Florida sojourn; the time crunch for the COVID19-stricken Canucks, and history repeating itself in Georgia.
Your Torontoish Blue Jays
The Toronto Blue Jays, one of the two major sports teams that rate the possessive pronoun “my” in these parts, will play in Toronto again either around the time the New York Mets are finished paying Bobby Bonilla or every single 40-something in Ontario is eligible for a COVID19 vaccine, whichever comes first.
The Jays, as you know, are playing their first 22 home games in Dunedin, Fla., at their spring training stadium. Let us do the easy jokes first. Dunedin is believed to be the smallest city to ever host MLB games on a regular basis, with the possible exception of Milwaukee. It might feel like extended spring training for the players, which right-handed starter Tanner Roark probably needed anyway after allowing 10 batted balls with an exit-velo north of 95 mph in his season debut. Thirdly, the Jays can sell up to 1,900 seats, so there is a non-zero chance they will outdraw the Miami Marlins during their South Florida engagement. Oh, and the Jays built a tent to expand the visitors’ clubhouse and accommodate social distancing.
Who says April baseball is not an in-tents experience? Hey, please come back.
Perhaps having season or home openers in odd places or circumstances is a feature, not a bug, for a true follower of the only MLB team located in Canada. The club’s first game was played in the snow, and it has become mythic. Twenty-five years ago this month, the Jays started the season in Las Vegas, and won both games, although the park factors at the Triple-A stadium means there should be an asterisk on Domingo Cedeno’s total of 15 career home runs. Twenty years ago this month, they started the season in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and won in Álex Rodríguez’s first game for Texas after he signed a then-record US$252M-contract. (A-Rod was on-brand: two hits and a run scored in an 8-1 defeat.)
The Blue Jays playing in Dunedin opens the book on a chapter of lore. Circumstances have often led to MLB teams playing home games in less than ideal circumstances:
Wrigley Field, 1961 Los Angeles Angels
Sixty years ago, the expansion Angels had to use a longtime minor-league park that had the same name as a slightly more famous ballpark in Chicago. The L.A. Wrigley Field was only 345 feet in the power alleys. It meant it was ideal for TV and movie shoots, and home run king Henry Aaron changed his approach as a batter after appearing in Home Run Derby there (“I realized there was no show called Singles Derby,” he wrote in his 1991 autobiography). A league-record 248 home runs were hit there in a single season before the Angels vamoosed to play at Dodger Stadium until they had their own park, where they still play today.
Colt Stadium, 1962-64 Houston Colt .45s
Everyone is throwing shade at the current iteration of Houston’s baseball team. Would that one could send another form of it back through time to when the club played at a park described as “shadeless, hot, and a mosquito trap.” The mosquitoes were so bad at Colt Park that players would sometimes have blood showing through their sanitary socks. So, just another reason Curt Schilling wishes he had lived a generation or two earlier.
Sick’s (or Sicks’ Stadium), 1969 Seattle Pilots
Seattle’s first MLB team, as you know, was one-and-done. The Pilots only lasted long enough to provide fodder for Jim Bouton to take notes that he and Leonard Schechter turned into the seminal Ball Four. Then they were sold and moved to Milwaukee. The 1930s-vintage venue lacked sufficient parking and the wooden seats often got soggy in overcast weather. They get a bit of that in Seattle.
Through a modern lens, the stadium also suffered from neglect as the area of Seattle where it resided became a BIPOC enclave. Eventually, it was dismantled and sold for parts.
Arlington Stadium, 1972-93 Texas Rangers
The Rangers spent two decades at an expanded Triple-A park where “the hottest points in the United States were the 43,000 seats … almost all of which were completely exposed to the sun.” Sounds great, you guys. All those fossil-fuel billionaires in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, and not one that was interested in building a sun blocker in return for naming rights and political favours?
League Park, 1937-46 Cleveland Baseball Team
During the late Depression and war years, Cleveland had two ballparks. League Park held about 22,500, and the Cleveland Baseball Team and the all-Black Cleveland Buckeyes used it. For a decade, Cleveland used League Park for weekday games which tended to have low attendance, and moved to Cleveland Stadium, AKA The Mistake By The Lake, on weekends when there was a chance for a bigger crowd.
Playing conditions in baseball nowadays are part of the collective agreement with the MLB Players’ Association. But the two-ballpark solution has a certain nostalgic appeal, especially since live game attendance was in decline prior to the COVID19 pandemic. A mid-sized northern market such as Montréal could have an intimate 25,000-seat stadium for the nice-weather months, and have Olympic Stadium as an covered option for April and October. Just a thought.
The Vancouver Canucks season should be over. Besides, it might help the Leafs, and hurt the Oilers.
You might end up on injured reserve with strained credulity if you believe the Vancouver Canucks, who have only four players who are “not on the National Hockey League’s COVID-19 protocol list,” are going to complete their schedule.
Deadspin, which can say it since it has no client relationship with the NHL like those of the telcos in Canada, pointed out the timeline makes it impossible. The league’s best-case scenario is for Vancouver to return to play around April 16, but that seems too optimistic by half, and half again.
The Canucks players have the P-1 variant. It does not take an epidemiologist to know it will take a lot longer than eight days from now for the players to recover, pass a COVID19 test, and return to game fitness. Even if they could, the regular-season end date is May 11, although that is not a fixed date. Nineteen games in 25 days is impossible for an NHL team to handle, even a healthy one.
For anyone wondering, Vancouver’s slate of postponed or remaining games includes five against Edmonton, four apiece against Calgary, Ottawa and Toronto, and two against the Winnipeg Jets. They had completed the season series with the Montréal Canadiens.
Now, I am not-not saying one should root for the obvious weird outcome. The Oilers end up with an odd-number of total games; the Winnipeg Jets edge them by a few percentage points for a higher playoff seeding and home-ice advantage (not that it will be much of one with no fans in the seats).
And yes, all of this could have been avoided by giving the players a pro-rated portion of their 2020-21 salaries and waiting until late summer to play a full schedule. But the all-Canadian quadrant of the league was a fun follow while the good health lasted.
Sort-of a segue — 8 April
Of course, Thursday is the first time that Aaron is not present on the anniversary of his home run that gave him the career record over Babe Ruth. The less that is said about the political opportunists who are yelling “Boycott MLB!” and “Boycott Coke!”, the better. Yeah, it a real shame that MLB moved the all-star game and deprived the politicians and business leaders who benefit the most from racist voter-suppression laws in 2021 the chance to celebrate a famous ballplayer who was wounded by racism but maintained a dignity that made the white power structure feel okay about their systemic racism.
Now, on the off-chance that you encounter anyone in the wild or in a comment thread who thinks MLB made the wrong call, just provide a quick history lesson. Henry Aaron was political, but he was quiet about it. His biographer, Howard Bryant, also noted in 2011 that bringing major-league sports to Atlanta was part of a civic desire to be part of the New South.
As former Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young told Bryant:
"In Atlanta, we could've gone either way. We had a choice to make: Did we want to be Birmingham, or did we want to be something different? In places like Little Rock, they tried to desegregate from the bottom up, starting with the schools. In Atlanta, we took a top-down approach. It was the business leaders, Coca-Cola especially, that decided that it would have been to our political and economic disadvantage to fight civil rights with fire hoses and dogs and more segregation, the way they did in Birmingham. Birmingham had the infrastructure to remain the region's economic powerhouse, but instead it became isolated. It was the symbol for our business community of what not to be. And it was the business and political leaders who believed that the one way to be a world-class city was to have sports teams." (ESPN, 12 January 2011)
The response from MLB and Coca-Cola, et al., ought to be seen as a reaffirmation of the plan that came out of the first Civil Rights Movement. History might not repeat itself, but it tends to rhyme.
April 8, by the way, is a great day for Canadian baseball history.
John Hiller, the 1960s and ’70s lefthanded reliever for the Detroit Tigers, was born on this date in 1933. Hiller was a relief pitcher before they became famous, as Sam Malone once said on Cheers. He earned 30.5 Wins Above Replacement in about 1,040 career innings. That compares favourably with Bruce Sutter, who is in the hall of fame in Cooperstown. Sutter had 24.1 WAR in about 1,040 career innings.Happy 78th Birthday to inductee and Toronto native John Hiller! How good was he? - His 8.1 WAR in 1973 was the second best by a reliever in MLB history. - His 17 wins as a reliever in 1974 are tied for the most ever by an AL reliever.
By no means is that an argument that Hiller also rates a plaque in Cooperstown. Sutter was at the vanguard of the development of the modern closer and the split-finger fastball. Sutter won a Cy Young Award and was the first pitcher to earn 45 saves in a season and earn 300 in a career. But, yeah, John Hiller has more career value, and he was a one-and-done Cooperstown candidate. That 1973 season that Kevin Glew’s tweet highlights was actually Hiller’s first where he pitched exclusively as a reliever, and by then he was already 30 years old. Why short the memory of a player who probably would have been an all-time great reliever with better usage?
Timing is everything, and so much of it is out of our control. Also:
Gary Carter, arguably the best player in the history of the Montréal Expos, was born on this date in 1954. And the Expos themselves made their debut on this date in 1969. Nice.
That is enough for now. Stay at home if you reside in Ontario, since it is the law, or something.