It’s not too soon to think about baseball, is it? I mean, the Toronto Blue Jays start their spring training schedule tomorrow (March 2) against the Phillies, and the regular season is only a month away. As a Blue Jays fan, I’ve had a few months now to reflect upon that remarkable run from August to October last year, which included acquiring David Price (albeit briefly), Josh Donaldson winning the MVP, and the triumphant return of Marcus Stroman (fully recovered from a knee injury sustained in spring training). We won’t mention the Pillar/Tulowitzki collision. I’m sure Tulo’s fine, now. Right?
It was the first time the Jays made the post season since their back-to-back World Series wins in 1992/93, and it seemed that everyone was talking about it.
The Jays faced the Kansas City Royals in the American League Championship last fall, and the two public library systems of each city got into a bit of a good-natured “twitter war” using book spine titles to create “poems” that trash-talked the other city. You can read an article on it here.
Although the Jays fell to the Royals in the ALCS, we will never forget those magical few weeks leading up to the post season which culminated in that wacky game five of the American League Divisional Series against the Texas Rangers. Even casual sports fans will remember that iconic image of José Bautista’s famous bat flip.
But here we are at the beginning of a new season, where anything can happen. Let’s take a look at a couple of baseball related items to get in the proper mindset.
I know this documentary is over 20 years old now, but it is still my favourite piece of pop culture dealing with baseball. Broken into 9 parts (for 9 innings, get it?), it tells the story of baseball from its earliest incarnations right up to the mid 1990s. There is also a lovely companion book to the series, which also tells America’s story for most of the 20th century. I’ve probably watched this documentary five times already, and I’d watch it again in a second. My favourite inning, by the way, is the fifth inning, “Shadow Ball”, which deals primarily with the pre-integration “Negro Leagues” and gives players like Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige their due. This volume also talks about the early careers of future superstars Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams. If you only have time for one “inning”, I recommend the fifth. Ken Burns did a sequel a few years ago, called “The Tenth Inning“, which covers the mid 90s and the 2000’s, but so much of it deals with the steroid era, it’s kind of depressing.
Full Count by Jeff Blair
Sometimes it’s good to take a look back before looking to the future. Jeff Blair, host of the Sports talk show, “The Jeff Blair Show” took a stab at the first four decades of Blue Jays baseball. At just over 250 pages, it covers a lot of ground but does not go into a lot of depth on “behind the scenes” stories. Still, it is a very readable way to get up to speed on the history of “Canada’s Team”, (sorry, Expos fans!), and for a fan it’s fun to relive some of the great moments. I was just about to turn three years old when the Jays played their first game in 1977, so I obviously don’t remember it, but my Mom had the game on at home and my Dad was calling from work every 15 minutes or so for updates. That was back in the day when the Jays played at Exhibition Stadium and it snowed during the first game. Welcome to Canada!
Change Up: How To Make the Great Game of Baseball Even Better by Buck Martinez
This book won’t even be published for another couple of weeks, but I can’t wait to read it. Buck Martinez was a former Major League catcher, who spent some of his career with the Jays. In fact, I used to have a book written by him called “From Worst to First, the 1985 Toronto Blue Jays” or something like that. That was the year the Jays won their first division title, but went on to lose to the Kansas City Royals. What’s up with these Royals? On July 9th, in a game against Seattle, Buck Martinez was blocking home plate and was on the receiving end of a terrible collision and ended up with a broken leg and a dislocated ankle. Still, he was able to complete one of the craziest double plays I’ve ever seen. You can read more about that play here. After he retired from playing, he made his way to the broadcast booth, and even managed the Blue Jays for a brief time in 2001-02 before eventually becoming the Jays’ play-by-play commentator in 2010. I’m sure his latest book will be full of interesting insights from a guy who has been around baseball his whole life.
For a slight change of pace, you may enjoy R.A. Dickey’s memoir. He is currently part of the Jays’ starting rotation, and his journey to becoming Major League Baseball’s only active knuckleball pitcher is quite remarkable. He was originally offered a $810,000 signing bonus from the Texas Rangers as their first round draft pick in 1996, but when it was discovered that he was missing the ulnar collateral ligament in his right arm (a defect from birth), they reduced their offer to $75,000. He struggled in the early part of his career to remain at the major league level after making his debut in 2001. It wasn’t until 2005 that things started to go his way, when he decided to perfect his knuckleball pitch as a way to stand out from the crowd and extend his career. In 2012, he was selected as an All Star for the very first time, and was the first knuckleballer to ever win the Cy Young award that year. The following year, he signed with the Jays. It’s a very well written memoir, full of humour and optimism, despite his many challenges.
Opening Day isn’t all that far away, and once the season starts: ANYTHING can happen.