On Thursday, I drove to Canada.
My motivation was an invitation; Kevin Kennedy asked me if I wished to take part in a Minor League baseball two-broadcaster panel with Triple-A Buffalo Bisons voice Ben Wagner.
The setting was PITCH: Talks on Baseball, created by Kevin, and described on its website as "a new speaker series about baseball," with the stated mission "to connect with the growing crowd of sophisticated baseball enthusiasts by facilitating informed and entertaining discussions on the game we love." It's a brilliant idea, and one that should spread to other baseball-loving cities as soon as possible. Get on that, Detroit.
This was the seventh and final PITCH talk of the season, with each one scheduled on a Blue Jays off day. No Jays game? Join "a very casual gathering of like-minded and very informed baseball enthusiasts" to talk baseball. (That description comes directly from Kevin's email. He could simplify it, if he chooses: Join smart, cool baseball fans just like you. This was quite the smart, cool crowd.)
The starting lineup, fittingly, featured nine speakers.
The night started unofficially at 6:30 p.m., with the first Pitch of the program at 7:00 p.m. Beverages were provided by Left Field Brewery; food was provided by Bunz.
The seamheads -- a term I use lovingly -- filed in and shmoozed.
From her initial experiences learning about baseball -- avoiding the embarrassment of pronouncing Derek Jeter' surname as if it were French -- Ruhee transitioned into an examination that (politely) neared an excoriation of those fans who recoil from novices and feel the need to lord their years of loyalty above their fellow rooters.
Two years ago, I wrote an essay for The Good Point about three groups of fanbases that are as despised as they are necessary... including the frontrunner as one of these. Ruhee countered this point: There are frontrunners, true, but there are also people who were not raised on baseball by their parents, who came to the game of their own volition later in life, and are self-motivating in their willingness to learn more about about baseball. The national pastime is as enthralling as it is complex as it is awesome. Anyone who chooses to immerse her/himself in baseball is worth welcoming rather than being scoffed at. But she has experienced/witnessed scoffing, and condescending, and worse. Her most memorable line, paraphrased, wondered if a new baseball fan was supposed to enter the national pastime with a registration form and a Houston Astros jersey.
Her poetic thesis, aimed at longtime fans: "Don't be a [jerk]."
The evening was off to a splendid start.
From Ruhee's humor -- for Canadian readers, humour -- the second session turned first insightful and then dour.
The engaging Morgan Campbell of the Toronto Star introduced his special guest, Arturo Marcano of ESPN Deportes, who used PowerPoint to teach the assemblage about the history of the so-called Winter Leagues (also called "winter ball"): the off-season leagues in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Venezuela.
But why are these leagues called the Winter Leagues, if it is not Winter in any of these four nations? Because they take place during the Winter months to us in America. This foreshadowed Arturo's central concern.
After showing lists of the greats from baseball's past who played winter ball -- Negro League legends such as Josh Gibson and Hilton Smith, MLB icons Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente, recent standouts Ryne Sandberg and Orel Hershiser -- Arturo connected winter ball on a local level for the Jays fans in attendance. The Cardenales de Lara had a special agreement worked out with the Blue Jays, and so the Jays sent their top players to Lara in order to compete each offseason. Examine this site and note those names: Willie Upshaw and Ernie Whitt, Doug Ault and Garth Iorg, and more, all of them turning the citizens of Lara into Blue Jays Nation South... or perhaps Blue Jays Nation South America.
But the exit of Pat Gillick, said Marcano, ended this affiliation. Beyond this, he added, the Winter Leagues are now all suffering from diminished MLB participation compared to decades past. A player who partakes in a certain number of games from April through September, for instance, is now prohibited from playing in Venezuela or the D.R. When asked toward specific points (causes, effects, consequences) in his post-PowerPoint Q&A session, Arturo's voice turned heavy -- he explained that the answers he would like to give would be long indeed.
I speak for the group when I say that we would have been ready to hear far more of his perspective, but it was time for an intermission before the next pair of stoic speakers.
Okay, so Ben Wagner and I were not as serious as Arturo.
It is here that I should mention the host, Jordan Strofolino. Ruhee was on stage by herself; Morgan was Arturo's liaison. With Ben and me, respectfully, I would guess that the minority of those in attendance knew who he was, and that far, far fewer than that could have picked me out of a crowd.
Jordan, in his role as emcee, had welcomed the crowd in, kept things moving, conducted a raffle -- I didn't purchase a ticket through lack of Canadian funds, but all proceeds went to support the Jays Care Foundation, another mark of how top-notch everything was -- and now he was being asked to warm the crowd up to two strangers on the stage, both of us known, if at all, for our voices.
(This is a little unfair: Ben Wagner is rightfully gaining a name for himself. His Buffalo Bisons have had several enormous games aired on the Fan 590 each of the last two seasons, and he had just appeared on the Blue Jays' airwaves the previous night, first in the third inning with Jerry Howarth, and then again during the postgame show with Mike Wilner. But I was definitely a pretty darn anonymous figure.)
Warm things up, Jordan did -- asking us about our teams, our cities, and ourselves, before turning things over to the Q&A.
I had worries, let me tell you.
I worried that the crowd would have no interest in me or the Lugnuts; I worried that I would be asked about the status of the Lugnuts' PDC; about specific prospects not measuring up to expectations; about why I wasn't wearing a nice sports jacket -- heck, I took that "very casual" dress code seriously. (I love that shirt.) There were impressive people in the crowd, too: the National Post's John Lott, the Toronto Star's Brendan Kennedy, Baseball Canada and Baseball America's Alexis Brudnicki, TSN's Natasha Staniszewski, the MLB Fan Cave's April Whitzman, Bluebird Banter's Minor Leaguer, the triad comprising the fourth (keynote) panel, and probably far more VIPs than I'd ever be able to recognize. (Also, co-creator of Around the Nest Craig Durham stopped by, which thrilled me.)
In the end, there was nothing to worry about.
Ben and I talked pranks, promotions gone wrong, life on the road, favorite ballparks, and -- man, who knows what else? The moment was a tremendously exciting blur.
When we concluded, a second intermission was held. Then the keynote panel began.
From left to right in that pic: SportsNet's Stephen Brunt, TSN host Dave Naylor, and SportsNet's Jamie Campbell. This was pure Blue Jays discourse, simultaneously blunt and honest, but also thoughtful. The consensus: They love and appreciate Jays manager John Gibbons and general manager Alex Anthopoulos (though Toronto's confidentiality alternately stymies and frustrates them), and they understand the Jays' strengths and obstacles.
Afterward, Brunt confided that he too had been worried about the questions he would be asked. He needn't have bothered; this was not a JaysTalk postgame call-in crowd, this was a gathering of, yes, sophisticated baseball aficionados, and their minds were on different matters. When asked about a dream interviewee, the conversation turned toward interviews already conducted (and also those interviews that never happened, due to Dave Stieb's boorishness and Bo Jackson's tobacco-spitting acumen).
Jamie Campbell turned introspective; he thought back with great clarity to his childhood, about the first baseball game he attended, and about the occasion that he received an autograph personally from Lyman Bostock. In this setting, surrounded by fellow baseball fans, he leaned forward and mused into his microphone. I can write with certainty that the evening meant as much to him as his words meant to those who hear them.
As for Dave Naylor, he worked in concert with his two colleagues, running his ideas past them, answering all queries with practicality and reason. And when the event concluded, he smiled and smiled. Whether he was sitting on stage with the lights upon him, or standing amid the chairs in the dim light afterward, he looked as comfortable and relaxed as a man in his living room.
If I was this impressed, as a non-Blue Jays diehard, I wonder how those sitting around me felt.
I have read two write-ups of the seventh PITCH talks so far.
The first was by Al Yellon of SB Nation's Bleed Cubbie Blue. (Key quote: "I had a great time and would love to see something like this in Chicago.")
The second was by Avry Lewis-McDougall. (Key quote: "What I saw was a very refreshing environment and topics from all over the baseball world are touched on such as the success and struggles of the Toronto Blue Jays, racial matters in baseball, the future of the game in terms of rules and umpires and other topics.")
I'll add in one final quote, from Karim Kanji via Twitter: "Best #pitchtalks of all time in the history of everything.")
Full power to you, Kevin Kennedy, and here's hoping for many more PITCH talks in the seasons to come.