Friday, 6 October 2017

You Can Only Be Naive Once

(Art Credit: Aaron Dana,
The problem with time passing is you acquire a history. 

Getting older has many draw-backs; at first, frivolity is replaced by seriousness. Freedom slowly erodes into responsibility. Tiny bumps and scrapes become nagging pains that never seem to quite go away before new ones arise.

Your memories grow longer as your time grows short.

When we are young, there is always an impatience for tomorrow. None of us believe that tomorrow is going to come, even if we paradoxically understand that it will.

But in the end, the real issue is that with time, we acquire a past.

Yesterday, the 4th of October, marked a significant moment in my own past. On this date, 30 years ago, one of the seminal moments of my adolescence was punctuated by a weak, bouncing baseball that four hopped 35 feet into the glove of Frank Tanana, veteran left-hand pitcher for the Detroit Tigers.

Garth Iorg's full swing and weak tap-out was the anti-climax to what remains perhaps the greatest disappointment of my youth. 

My team, the Toronto Blue Jays that year ended their season with seven consecutive losses, three one-run defeats in the final week-end of the season. And what had just a week before seemed a certain walk into the playoffs ended with one of the most epic collapses in the history of sport. 

It's been 30 years. 

Other collapses have gotten more ink - the 1969 Mets overcoming a huge deficit in the final weeks of the season to stun the Chicago Cubs. The 1964 Phillie Phlop. 

It may simply be a reflection of a sheltered youth (more than likely the case) that was largely void of drama, but as I reflect on the early days of my life, nothing comes close. Getting cut from actual sports teams I tried out for. Nope. Unfulfilled or unrequited romances? No.

I look back on that week, if I am being honest, with more bitterness - much more bitterness - than I do thinking of college rejection. I felt more deflated with that defeat than I did when the "You're a swell guy, and I am sure you're going to be a big success whichever school you go to. It just won't be this one" letter that I got in a thin envelope from Harvard just a few months later.

Funny how that is. And now that I'm fully an adult (NB: by age in any case, even if I still snicker when I hear "Time to musk up" said for the 47th time), I don't even care at all about sports.

In 1987, I was 17 years old. In many ways, that summer was the last real time of 'youth' in some sense. I was entering my senior year of high school. College applications (and acceptances and rejections) awaited. I had not yet worked any sort of job, unless you count chores around the house - lawn cutting and the like. My first actual job came in the summer following high school graduation.

That was still a year away.

In 1985, the Blue Jays had, for the first time in their brief history, captured the American League East crown. In those days, there were only two divisions in the AL - no wild cards and no AL Central. The team took a 3-1 lead over the Kansas City Royals only to lose three straight games (none of which, as close as the scores showed). The team had never won anything prior, so the disappointment was tempered with hopefulness that better days were to come.

1987 was the "next year" in a sense. The team was not terrific, but good, and in fact never fell below .500 all season.

Just one week prior to The Game, a different narrative seemed possible. On consecutive days (Thursday and Friday night games, then Saturday), the Blue Jays had hosted the Tigers in their old derelict stadium (Exhibition Stadium, honestly a football stadium converted for baseball, and poorly) for a four-game set.

The Jays won the first three, all by one run. Friday night and Saturday were "walk-off" wins that, quite frankly, they had little business winning. Friday, for example, the same Frank Tanana who would shut them out just one week later, pitched 8 shutout innings, leaving a 2-0 lead to Mike Henneman. Henneman surrendered the game via a bases-loaded triple to Manny Lee.

Store that name for later.

No one at the time knew it, of course, but that Saturday, 10-9 walk-off would be the last game Toronto won until April of the next year.

There was trouble on the horizon. In the first game, all star shortstop Tony Fernandez was lost for the season on a somewhat dirty take-out slide by Tigers' DH Bill Madlock. Fernandez's elbow was broken. Two days later, veteran catcher Ernie Whitt was similarly lost in a DP slide when Lou Whitaker's knee broke three ribs.

Sill, the Jays built their lead, and in the finale Sunday, the team took a 1-0 lead to the ninth inning. Tom Henke (at the time called "The Terminator" for his ability to come in and simply blow people away) was on the mound on a cold, overcast day. Three outs, and the team would be up by 4 1/2 with just six to play. 

Kirk Gibson had other plans - this was one season before he dramatically broke Dennis Eckersly's heart with a game-ending home run.

Gibson's home run tied the game, which the Tigers won in 13.

OK - so the lead was 2 1/2 with six to play. Still looking good.

As it turns out, that 9th inning was the last appearance that Henke would make in 1987.

The Milwaukee Brewers, who had owned the season, came to town and swept the Jays away. With Detroit winning 3 of 4 in Baltimore, the lead was down to a single game, with three to play in Tiger Stadium.

What just five days earlier looked like a lead-pipe-cinch was now very much in doubt. Still, the Jays were 

  1. Still on top, albeit by a single game
  2. Needed to win only one of the three games to force a play-off
A sloppy Friday night affair in which Toronto hit into five double plays erased the last bits of the lead.

Saturday was an epic game - veteran Mike Flanagan, picked up at the trade dead-line to bolster the rotation faced Tigers' ace Jack Morris. Flanagan pitched 11 innings (and according to rumour, fought tooth and claw to come out for the 12th) despite being nearly 40. Morris battled as well, throwing close to 200 pitches of his own  over 10 innings.

The game ended in the 12th, when Alan Trammell's ground ball right at Manny Lee (see: he's back!) went under Lee's glove with the bases loaded. The infield was in, so an almost certain 6-2-3 double play instead resulted in loss number six.

Incredibly, Trammell was awarded a hit (at the time, Bob Costas actually descibed in the post-game how Manny Lee's error might not have been made by Fernandez - apparently, Costas agreed with me and not the scorer).

It goes without saying that, the final day of the year, what had been building for a week came to pass in an agonizing 1-0 loss. Frank Tanana, who as a young pitcher had paired with Nolan Ryan on the old California Angels to intimidate hitters with a nearly 100-mph fastball, had through injury and time converted to a guy whose fastball wouldn't bruise a baby's butt kept the Jays' off the scoreboard. Larry Herndon's second inning, windblown home run JUUUUST over the glove of left fielder George Bell was the only run of the game (Herndon only had six home runs all season).

Jimmy Key was the hard-luck loser that day, and finished with a 17-8 record. He lead the league in ERA that year, and I felt at the time that, had he been a 1-0 winner on the final day rather than a 1-0 loser, he had a legitimate chance at the Cy Young (NB: it was won by Roger Clemens). Key never won a Cy in his career.

I remember sitting in my parents' living room watching the entire denouement unfold, and feeling....nothing. Not shock. Not anger. Just emptiness.

With that bouncing ball, I quietly switched off the television and went to do my homework (it was a Sunday afternoon).

The Tigers went on to lose in four games to the Minnesota Twins who went on to defeat St Louis in a tight Series.

I didn't watch the Series that year - for one weekend, I was in Boston visiting colleges (and my older brother, who had just gone off to college) with my father. 

It's been 30 years, nearly to the day.

I've gone off to college. Moved from home. I lost my father, more than 20 years ago. My mother a few years ago sold the house, so it, too, is a memory. I've gotten married, bought my own home. I now have my own adolescent son.

With time, you you acquire a past.

The Blue Jays eventually did win the World Series in 1992, repeating the next year. There have been a lot of ups and downs (mostly down) for the team since, and my interest, like my youth, has faded, replaced by other things.

There is of course the famous reading from First Letter of Saint-Paul to the Corinthians:
When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things. For now we see in a mirror, darkly, but then face to face.
The American League playoffs begin tonight (no; the wild card game is still for me a bridge too far). I may tune in to see some, but I doubt it. My own son is in junior high now, and I have a parent-teacher conference. 

I've put away at least some childish things, of which sport is one.

But in 1987, I was still young. And more than the sting of any broken teen romance or failure, that moment I still hang on to.

30 years.

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