On the afternoon of Saturday August 9th, 1997, the Toronto Blue Jays faced off against the Detroit Tigers in a matchup of two disappointing teams battling to stay out of the AL East cellar as they played out the dog days of August. That is to say, even at the time it was a pretty forgettable game as the Jays’ anemic offense only mustered four hits such that a three run third inning for the Tigers proved to be a decisive margin in a 3-2 win.
But for me, it was a watershed. My parents being casual baseball fans, it was not unusual for games aired on the CBC to be on in the background. But for whatever reason, on that day, for whatever reasons, I ended up not just paying attention to the game on the television, but something took hold. I watched the weekend games, and reading the sports section for the rest. I was well on my way to being, in Marty York’s inimitable phrasing, a “Jays Junkie”. And the rest, as they say is history.
For the longest time, I thought I would never know know the exact date of this game. I knew it was the Tigers, and I knew it was a weekend game in the afternoon, but of course it would be the case that the Jays played the Tigers the first two weekends of August in 1997. And while I leaned to it being a home game, I couldn’t say that with any confidence, and nor did I have any specific recollections of particular players.
All I could remember is the standings being put up at one point showing the Jays and Tigers right around each other, and some discussion between I assume Brian Williams and John Cerutti of one having passed the other recently. But they were neck-in-neck the whole time, so that didn’t narrow it down. Likewise, I was pretty sure it was a close game, but that too didn’t help as all four of those weekend Tigers games were close losses.
For most that would probably be enough, but it always bothered me not being able to pin down an actual date. A few years back, I mentioned this conundrum to Minor Leaguer, who came up with the key. He remembered that the Toronto Star published monthly TV schedules, and dug out August 1997’s from the archive:
They key is the the Sunday games were on TSN, while CBC did the Friday/Saturday games. And only the latter came in over the rabbit ears (it pains me to realize that some reading will have no idea what this is; look it up). The Friday games were of course in the evenings, as was the first Saturday game in Detroit.
And thus by elimination, that first Blue Jays game that got me hooked was August 9th, 25 years ago. Scott Sanders and Chris Carpenter (he got his first MLB win his next start after dropping to 0-5). A pair of doubles for Otis Nixon, and a home run by Benito Santiago. Despite no extra base hits for their part, the Tigers still won. The game finished out by pitchers Plesac and Quantrill (plus ça change...)
I have often thought in hindsight that the late-1990s made for a pretty unique time to have become a Jays fan. While I knew that the Jays had won two World Series recently, the culmination of a decade as a dominant force at the top of the American League, I had no tangible connection to that. The roster had been essentially entirely turned over, and in the interim the Yankees ascended in the vacuum the Jays left at the top.
It was the dawn of cable TV megadeals, and the exploding revenue and payroll inequality between the big market-haves and the small-market have-nots. The reality is the Jays should still have been closer to the former than the latter, but between poor management, disinterested foreign ownership and stadium issues, and critically the sagging Canadian dollar, and it didn’t seem unnatural that the Jays were more on the small market the way it would to someone who became a Jays fan a generation before or after. The Yankees finished first in the AL East, the Red Sox second, and the Jays third ahead of the Orioles and Devil Rays. That was just the natural order or things.
What is remarkable about most of that time is just how unfailingly mediocre the Jays were, at least until the last couple months of 2015. They had good teams that occasionally flirted with contention, but never a great team. And conversely, they had some years, but the the bottom never fell for an extended period of time. They had teams that could hit (oh, those late 1990s Green-Delgado led lineups), and teams that could pitch (the late aughts), but rarely the two together. On balance, I don’t think that’s the worst thing. Multiyear stretches of hopelessness are terrible for fandom.
The most startling thing about being a fan for 25 years is to realize that I’ve now followed the Jays for over half the team’s history, and all those first in the late summer of 1997 are now closer to that snowy day in April 1997 than to the present day. Having never been to a game at Exhibition Stadium, and having missed the Glory Years through 1993, I’ve always considered myself something of a newcomer to the Jays. But 4,000 Jays games, that’s certainly not the case anymore.
Anyway, it’s a been a fun 25 years. Here’s to hoping for 25 more.