The Best It’s Been In A Long Time

It’s about 5:00 PM yesterday afternoon, and I’m sitting on the second floor of the Imperial Pub, watching the Blue Jays in Game 5 of the ALDS. It’s a place I like going to from time to time, and really came to appreciate when I was working at the Eaton Centre. It’s got a quiet, laid-back atmosphere, it’s easy to get to, the servers are nice, the prices are right, and there’s free popcorn. 

It wasn’t particularly laid back today, though. Tensions and nerves were high, and the place was packed, to the point where I split my table with strangers. It was an atmosphere that I haven’t felt in this city since a certain day in May 2013, which nobody on this site likes to speak of very much.

But there was a certain sense of calm to the whole ordeal. These weren’t those Leafs that, as much as the city had their back once they entered the playoffs, were obviously riding on a bubble waiting to burst. This year’s Jays roster is an incredibly talented core group that, if anything, managed to cut the strap on the catapult just in time to thrust themselves into baseball’s elite class.

I’m the type of Jays fan who goes to ten or fifteen games a year as a break from the world and to support the home team, so I’m not going to bore you with attempts to sound smart. But the main point? It’s a team that you never truly felt to be out of it. When Kevin Pillar made his diving catch in the fourth inning, it was a bit of a re-assertion that there was still potential for magic yet.

I left the bar shortly after Edwin Encarnacion’s home run to meet up with a friend. We had tickets to Toronto FC’s game against Red Bull New York, which kicked off at 7 PM. Not enough time to see both games in full, sadly. On the way, I passed by St. Michael’s Hospital, where I was born in 1991.

That was fitting, in a way. I’m too young to remember the Jays and Leafs in the very early nineties. My dad swears I was in front of the screen for Gretzky’s high stick and Joe Carter’s home run, but I don’t don’t remember them. My first Leafs memory isn’t even so much a Leafs memory, as it is me being annoyed that my uncle was going to a game against the Canucks the following year, mostly because he was going to see Doug Gilmour and Pavel Bure at the same time. Sure, I have memories of 1999, the Battle of Ontario, and 2002, but for me, this had the potential to be the biggest night in Toronto sports that I could remember.

One of the great complaints that the previous generation gives about the present one is how always-connected we are, with our data-filled, camera-toting, message-swapping devices. Last night was one where you could truly appreciate them, though. We hopped on the 509 Streetcar at Union, and headed to the Exhibition, and soon as we broke free of Queens Quay / Ferry Docks, everyone was tuning into the Jays game in some way, shape or form. I didn’t have a stream and was conserving battery, so when I noticed this, I left the rest to dictate my emotions for me.

We get to Fleet Street, a stop which featured a former second home of sorts, and everyone starts cheering. I didn’t have to ask to know that the Jays were up, and to know that Jose Bautista was the man to do it.

Bautista, without this hit, is still one of the most important athletes of this generation of Toronto Sports. Like so many on this team, he was written off as a longshot to succeed early in his career, and came to Toronto as a bit of a reject. But he, like so many of this city’s cult heroes, worked his ass off to become a premier player in the game, and one who always wore his heart on his sleeve. This is a guy who has suffered along with this team through a long stretch, only questioned things when he felt that they didn’t believe enough in themselves, but ultimately stuck through it when the process became clear.

It’s probably for the best that the top of the seventh, which I didn’t actually see in full until I got home later that night happened. Jose has always been a guy who plays best when somebody angers him, and makes him feel like the underdog. The epitome of a bark back athlete. With a swing and a bat flip, he lifted up a city, a country that can’t catch foul balls, and a 509 streetcar.

We pulled into Exhibition Loop, a stop shared by BMO Field and Ricoh Coliseum, and made our way to our seats, a couple of rows behind the Toronto FC bench. A few minutes in, I saw the first tweet in my timeline declaring that the Jays were moving on and jumped up. Eighteen thousand others quickly joined me.

That’s the beauty of cheering for the home team. Minus a few people on the subway in the afternoon who told me that I had to “pick a side” with my Jays hat / TFC jersey combo (?!), there’s that emotional attachment to something you might not even totally get on an expert level, because they represent you to the outside world more so than you can yourself. At that moment, had done that for them, and it wasn’t the first time this year.

If you’re from Toronto, you’ve been riding this wave for a while now. The Pan Am Games went from an expected disaster to a multi-week party that everyone enjoyed way more than anticipated, to the point where the only reason that this city didn’t jump in and say “screw it, give us the Olympics too” was, well, the gigantic cost of doing so. “We The North” brought the Toronto Raptors from a team that people had nostalgia for within the city to one of the strongest basketball brands in the world overnight; oh, and the team is probably the best it’s been since the Vince Carter days. Even if you escape the sports world for a minute, it’s been more than a month since the top five of the Billboard Hot 100 has had fewer than three singles from Toronto-area artists.

In a pop culture-driven world, it’s hard to escape “The Six” right now, and the sports teams are leading the way. As Soccernomics points out and attempts to quantify in its chapter regarding the cost of hosting major tournaments, sports do an amazing job at bringing communities together, especially when your place of living feels like the focal point. Being a host, like in the case of the Pan Am’s does that, but playoff pushes and runs can create a similar effect. Toronto has felt that more than ever lately.

Speaking of soccer, let’s get back to BMO. The Jays were the talk of much of the town last night, but Toronto FC was also on the verge of history. This is a team that came into Major League Soccer as the first of its kind in Canada in 2007 and has done the equivalent of kicking the fans in the stomach for almost its entire history since. 

Every bad thing that the “Vito from Woodbridge” style Leafs fan would say was bad about the Blue and White was, for years, the issue with TFC. Raising ticket prices so quickly, despite losses, that season ticket sales went from waiting list to a rare occurrence? That actually happened here. Refusing to put up the money to bring in league-relative marquee talent, or at least bolster up team depth? That actually happened here. Hiring an inexperienced coach, rapidly firing him, and repeating the process? That actually happened here.

The Leafs were bad at succeeding. Toronto FC was catastrophically good at failure. Even Jermain Defoe, their supposed saviour last year, came back to haunt them in hilarious quick fashion; a few goals to light up the town, a couple of injuries to bring us back down, and a “my mom says I should go home, sell me” by the end of the season. It was like watching the Vince Carter era with the Raptors, concentrated within six months.

This year, that changed too. TFC shored up their defensive depth, effectively swapped out Defoe for Jozy Altidore, sent inconsistent striker Gilberto back to Brazil, and signed Sebastian Giovinco from Juventus. This was a huge move at the time; the first time a quality mid-aged player made the jump from Europe to the MLS. Understandably, fans weren’t ready to buy in, after everything that they had seen before.

Giovinco, fortunately, has been everything that he was advertised as, and then some. With two games left in the season, he leads the league in Goals, Assists, Shots Per Game, and Player Rating. He is fouled more frequently than any other forward, dribbles more than any forward, and is a threat whenever he touches the ball.

Like the aforementioned Bautista and the Blue Jays, the Atomic Ant came in with a chip on his shoulder. Juventus had no hope for him to be a regular starter, and the Italian National Team seemed like an impossibility. When he left for North America, the Italian media called him a quitter. He got a tattoo of a monster giving the “loser” hand gesture to remind himself of how they felt. Now, he’s the best player in North America, so much so that the Azzuri called him up twice this season.

For that reason, the team would play without him, and likely Jozy Altidore, who also just had an international game. At least, that was the plan. 

But Giovinco is relentless. After picking up an assist and a few scoring chances for Italy against Norway in a World Cup Qualifier in Rome on Wednesday, he spoke to the Italian media and told them, for what seemed like the hundredth time, that he loved Toronto and that he had no interest in heading back to Europe, even if teams like Barcelona and Liverpool were reported to be calling. From there, pulled out his phone, got a hold of TFC coach Greg Vanney, and asked him to save a spot for him.

Sebastian Giovinco landed at Pearson Airport at 3:45 PM. He was on the bench, ready to play before kickoff. Altidore was there too, but minutes after the crowd’s Jays celebration, he received a red card from the bench for cursing out a referee. You just knew something big was going to happen, so for the second half, we moved into the supporters section.

Six minutes into the second half, Hercules Gomez, an aging US National who had been recently playing in Mexico and was claimed to have “lost his touch”, took advantage of a Ronald Zubar error much like the dropped balls of the Texas Rangers infielders and scored his first goal for Toronto. The crowd, for the first time, felt that something could happen. Twenty minutes later, he was subbed off, and in came Giovinco.

You knew exactly what was going to happen when that moment came. Especially after what had just transpired down the street, it was a given that another generational moment was about to happen. Eight minutes later…

The part of me that’s trying to establish myself as a member of the hockey media has become a bit “desensitized” to the game. I follow the Leafs because they represent Toronto, not because I have the same connection I had to them in my youth. Goals don’t get me out of my seat the way that they used to. Soccer is the escape that I’ve made for myself to enjoy sports, but even then, I can keep a generally even keel.

I don’t think I’ve ever screamed louder at anything than I did this goal. If the Jays cracked open the dam to restore the stream of removed frustration in Toronto sports just two hours before, this goal was that stream crashing down the waterfall. Personal bias aside (as a Juventus fan, I’ve followed him for quite a few years now), this is a should probably be playing at a much higher level, who fell in love with a place completely foreign to him, and decided that he had to be there to make sure everything went to plan. 

Twenty-seven hours prior, he was on the pitch in Rome. Four hours prior, he was walking out of Terminal 3. In the 79th minute, he was stirring the pot as an ode to the Jays, after scoring the league’s best goal of the season, and the team’s best and most important goal in its history. Like the Bautista bomb, it couldn’t have ended any other way. TFC conceded a goal before the final whistle because they have below replacement level goaltending and not so great defensive schemes, but held on for the win. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the supporters corner go as nuts as they were, particularly when local boy Jonathan Osorio came over to help lead the chants. After years of absolutely futility, would’ve hated myself if I didn’t make it to that game.

These are two unforgettable moments in the history of Toronto sports. Ones that we’ll look back on in 10, 20, 30 years, and point at as moments that brought together a city of millions, that encouraged local kids to chase their dreams. As hinted at before, it doesn’t seem like the rest of the scene is far behind them. 

A nationwide emotional attachment to the Raptors is fostering, and that team seems to be getting better by the year as Masai Ujiri’s blueprint fully unfolds. The Leafs aren’t poised to be very successful this year, but for the first time in decades, the team is undergoing a top-down refurbishing of player and management assets, and coming out with some bright and emerging talents. If this group of staff can do what so few before have, and not interrupt their plan the moment they see a window of opportunity, their next glimpse at success will last years rather than weeks. Even the fringe teams, like the Argos and Rock, seem to be trending towards successful seasons with (asset-relative) plans in place for consistency.

Moreover, for the first time, players want to be here. Nobody knows if David Price is going to stick around once this season is done, but he’s far from unhappy. Rumours have swirled regarding the likes of Kevin Durant and Steven Stamkos for years due to their childhood fandoms, and while they’re still long shots, they feel like more of a possibility than ever. We’ve gone from seeing misery or mediocrity in every direction you tilted your head, to having every Toronto team either pushing towards success or at very least, being on the right track. It’s unprecedented in this city.

On the way home last night, I ran into a couple of guys yelling down Bathurst Street, begging for directions to the Air Canada Centre. As someone who would hate to be lost, I showed them where to go. One of them gave me a hug and said “We’re not from here, and where we’re from, people ignore us like we’re crazy. This is the coolest city in the world.”

I’m not about to make declarations based on the opinions of a guy who was probably drunk, but, even if it’s just for a moment, the vibe in this town matches the description. Yes, there’s more to us than sports, and there always will be, but the current generation of athletes are selling us to the world as outgoing, emotional underdogs who will stop at nothing to make each other proud of where we came from and where we stand.

It’s possible to not like the games they play, but you can’t hate the message they’re sending to the seven billion people surrounding us.