Baseball and Belonging

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Bryson and me at Rogers Centre for Game 5 of American League Division Series. Oct. 14, 2015

My son Bryson and I were among the tens of thousands who congregated on Front Street after game five of the Blue Jays -Rangers division series. It was undoubtedly one of the best moments of my life.

Walking back to the parking lot, we couldn’t move more than a few steps without someone coming up to give Bryson a high five. One generous fan gave Bryson a ball he had caught at the game. Earlier, a vendor who was selling posters outside the Rogers Centre ate his costs and gave one to Bryson for free. They were strangers, but then again they weren’t. This was our tribe and Bryson was at the centre of it.

In many ways, Bryson goes through his life as an outsider. As a non-verbal 9-year-old in a wheelchair, he tends to be the quiet observer looking in from the outside. Not this time. Halfway through our walk, a jubilant Bryson let out a cheer and dozens around us joined in. Then the same amazing thing happened again. And again. For a few brief moments, Bryson wasn’t just part of the tribe, he was leading it.

Tribalism in sports tends to be viewed negatively. It can certainly lead to boorish behaviour as it did in the seventh inning when angry fans began throwing beer. But the power of sports is that it creates a sense of belonging. We are Toronto. We are Canada. We are the Blue Jays.

For four hours, the 49,000 fans at the game – and millions more watching on TV – shared a communion of emotions. Together, we were excited at returning home for a game five that seemed impossible a few days before. Together, we were worried when Texas took an early 2-0 lead. Together, we were angry when we felt the Rangers had stolen a run. Together, we were ecstatic when Jose Bautista hit his three-run home run. Together, we were concerned when Texas brought the tying run to the plate in the eighth inning. Together we were triumphant when our 20-year-old closer pummeled Texas with four strikeouts to secure victory.

Even after the game, Canadians rallied around our hero, Jose Bautista, as he became America’s villain, criticized for not playing the game the right way.

I remember an awkward teenage period where I felt like an outsider. At school, I felt depressed and lonely, but at a Blue Jays games, I was confident and optimistic. It was the late eighties and the new SkyDome was selling out game after game. I was part of it all. I belonged.

A friend of mine took his 97-year-old grandfather, a holocaust survivor, to the 14-inning playoff game earlier in this series. He’s been a fan since 1977 and never misses a game; he won’t even eat if the Jays are playing. After losing most of his family and living through unimaginable horrors as a young man in a concentration camp, the Blue Jays provided comfort. They still do.

There are no outsiders in a sports tribe. You’re in because you choose to be. This, of course, is not absolute. After a baby got hit by a thrown beer in the seventh inning, most in social media were appalled. But some blamed the parents for bringing a baby to a winner-take-all game. Babies didn’t belong in their tribe.

There are probably some who feel the same about Bryson, but for those magical moments after game 5, he felt only acceptance. Most days, Bryson has a hard time sitting in a wheelchair for a long period of time. He is scared of large crowds. And he is terrified by noise. But when I take him to Blue Jays games, none of those things bother him. A sense of calm falls over him. He is safe and secure with his tribe.

Jerry Seinfeld famously said we don’t cheer for players, we cheer for the clothes they wear.

But that’s not right. We cheer to belong.