Can It Get Uglier?

TORONTO (Sep. 15) — John Gibbons, manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, believes his club hit “rock–bottom” on Wednesday afternoon while being dismantled by the Tampa Bay Rays at Rogers Centre — a plausible claim given the 8–1 final score and 13–2 edge in base hits by the last–place team in the American League East. If, however, Gibbons’ beleaguered club is on the outside of the Major League playoff picture at season’s end in 2½ weeks, Wednesday’s “rock–bottom” will seem, by comparison, a moment of bliss.

The 2016 Blue Jays would hardly be the first Toronto sports team to collapse. Or, the first Blue Jays team to collapse. This sudden tailspin (3–9 in 12 September games) doesn’t hold a candle to the 1987 fold–up, when the Jays lost their final seven outings to spit up a 4½–game lead in the division. At the moment, however, it does outpoint the withering of two seasons ago — a six–game edge in the A.L. East on June 7 morphing into a 13–game deficit (to Baltimore). That descent was gradual and chronic. This one is piercing and acute.

Though the Blue Jays have had issues — a slow start (11–14 in April) and a bi–polar attack — the club did lots of winning through the middle of the season. A 33–18 stretch from July 2 to Aug. 31 seemed to portend a second playoff odyssey in as many years. Now, we’re not so sure. Yes, the clock still has a number of ticks. Eighteen, to be precise. But, the little and big hands are sputtering at a most–inopportune time.

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THE CARNAGE AT ROGERS CENTRE ON WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON.

Within 90 minutes of being booed off the field Wednesday, the Jays were on their way to Pearson Airport and a five–hour flight to southern–California. Seven more ticks follow at Anaheim and Seattle before the club returns to the Dome — against the Yankees — next Friday. In the interim, Toronto baseball fans will need some caffeine to watch their sputtering club. Games in SoCal begin at 10:05 p.m. EDT (twice) and 9:05 (on Saturday). Then it’s 10:10 p.m. in Seattle on Monday and Tuesday. There are late–afternoon encounters in Anaheim (3:35 p.m.) on Sunday and Seattle (3:40 p.m.) on Wednesday. Neither winning nor losing will be quite so dramatic against these West Division opponents, with only one–half game at stake in head–to–head competition. The “four–pointers” return with the New York and Baltimore home–stand, and — the Blue Jays hope — the three–game season finale at Fenway Park (Sep. 30–Oct. 2) for all the division marbles.

I was at Wednesday’s Toronto–Tampa Bay debacle with my trusty NIKON:

FROM BAD TO WORSE

The security line–ups at Rogers Centre have been a pain–in–the–butt for several years now, but the Blue Jays were simply following a Major League Baseball directive and doing a reasonably good job of moving people thru metal–detectors and into the stadium. Even late last season, when fans packed the Dome for the stretch–drive and playoffs, inconvenience was minimal. Unfortunately, that is no longer the case.

Whereas previously, fans could join one of six or seven line–ups at Gate 5 (to use a prime example) on the east side of the stadium, people are now horded into a bottleneck that has interminably slowed the process. A genius in the security department felt it necessary to put a steel gate in back of the line–ups and channel everyone through the narrow passageway before they can join a particular queue. There is virtually no movement as game–time approaches. The same scholar has chosen to squeeze fans into a single stairway before joining the masses trying to enter the Dome at Level 2. These poor souls must now climb one stair every three or four minutes before dispersing into the security lines. It has made a difficult situation hellish, as evidenced by these photos I snapped while part of the traffic–jam on Wednesday:

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THE REMARKABLE SCENE AT GATES 5 AND 6 ON THE EAST FLANK OF ROGERS CENTRE AT 12:20 P.M. ON WEDNESDAY — JUST 15 MINUTES BEFORE THE FIRST PITCH.

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FANS ATTEMPTING TO ENTER THE DOME AT LEVEL 2 ARE NOW SQUEEZED INTO A NARROW STAIRWAY (TOP–LEFT). PREVIOUSLY, THEY COULD CLIMB THE ENTIRE EXPANSE OF STAIRS BEFORE JOINING ONE OF FIVE SECURITY LINE–UPS. THE NEW METHOD IS NEEDLESS AND ABSURD.

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AS THE TRAFFIC–JAM OF PEOPLE INCHED TOWARD METAL–DETECTORS AT GATE 5, A SECURITY MAN NAMED ROSS APPEARED. I’LL GIVE THE GUY CREDIT, FOR HE WAS INSTANTLY ABUSED FROM ALL SIDES. WHEN ASKED WHY FANS ARE BOTTLE–NECKED IN BOTH LOCATIONS, HE REFUSED TO ANSWER. “THE PROBLEM IS, PEOPLE SHOW UP CLOSE TO GAME–TIME,” HE SAID. NOW, THERE’S A REVELATION. IT WAS NO DIFFERENT A YEAR AGO AT THIS TIME, YET THE PROCESS WAS QUICKER AND MORE SENSIBLE.

INSIDE… FINALLY

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WHAT HAD BEEN A 15–TO–20–MINUTE PROCESS LAST YEAR AT THIS TIME, WITH THE STADIUM JAMMED TO CAPACITY, WAS A 45–MINUTE EXERCISE ON WEDNESDAY WITH 15,000 EMPTY SEATS. I MADE IT TO SEC. 527R OF THE UPPER DECK IN THE TOP OF THE SECOND INNING.

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MARCO ESTRADA WAS DEALING IN THE EARLY PART OF THE GAME, STRIKING OUT SIX OF THE FIRST NINE TAMPA BAY BATTERS. BUT, HIS AFTERNOON WENT DOWNHILL IN A HURRY.

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DESPITE THE CHAOS AND AGGRAVATION WHILE TRYING TO ENTER THE DOME, IT WAS AN ABSOLUTELY PERFECT WEATHER DAY: TEMPERATURE IN THE LOW–70’s (F) AND NO HUMIDITY.

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THE BLUE JAYS HAD NO ANSWER FOR TAMPA BAY STARTER ALEX COBB, WHO ALLOWED JUST TWO HITS AND ONE EARNED RUN IN 6 2/3 STELLAR INNINGS.

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TORONTO LED, 1–0, IN THE BOTTOM OF THE FOURTH WHEN KEVIN KIERMAIER OF THE RAYS UNLOADED A TWO–RUN HOMER TO RIGHT–FIELD OFF ESTRADA, SCORING LOGAN FORSYTHE AHEAD OF HIM. IT WAS ALL THE RUNS TAMPA WOULD NEED ON THIS DAY.

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WHAT A PERFECT AFTERNOON IT WAS TO TAN A BALD–SPOT.

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THE BLUE JAYS SEPTEMBER SWOON IS BEING FELT AT THE BOX OFFICE. YOU COULDN’T GET NEAR THE STADIUM LAST YEAR AT THIS TIME. ON WEDNESDAY, THERE WERE INNUMERABLE EMPTY SEATS IN THE UPPER DECK. ATTENDANCE WAS ANNOUNCED AT 41,001 BUT NO MORE THAN 34,000 FANS WERE IN THE PARK ON A SPECTACULAR, MID–WEEK AFTERNOON.

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ESTRADA SCUFFLED THROUGH 5 1/3 INNINGS, GIVING UP FOUR HITS AND FOUR EARNED RUNS, LOWERING HIS 2016 RECORD TO 8–9. WHEN NICK FRANKLIN (BOTTOM–LEFT) SINGLED TO RIGHT WITH ONE OUT IN THE TOP OF THE SIXTH, JOHN GIBBONS CAME OUT TO MAKE A PITCHING CHANGE.

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TORONTO INFIELDERS DEVON TRAVIS, EDWIN ENCARNACION, RYAN GOINS AND TROY TULOWITZKI COMMISERATED BEHIND THE MOUND AS MATT DERMODY WARMED UP.

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THE PITCHING CHANGE WAS FRUITLESS AS COREY DICKERSON HIT A TWO–RUN HOMER TO CENTER–FIELD ON DERMODY’S SECOND DELIVERY, SCORING FRANKLIN TO PUT THE RAYS UP BY FOUR.

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THE BIG TORONTO BATS WERE SILENT ONCE AGAIN.

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BY THE NINTH INNING, MANY BLUE JAYS FANS HAD CLEARED OUT OF ROGERS CENTRE.

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YOU’VE GOT TO WONDER IF THE JAYS WILL HAVE ANOTHER “MOMENT” IN 2016.

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IT WAS A BEAUTIFUL DAY TO GLANCE UPWARD — EVEN AT A STRAY CLOUD.

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TAMPA BAY HAD RUNNERS–ON–BASE MOST OF THE AFTERNOON. AS SHADOWS CREPT TOWARD THE INFIELD LATE IN THE GAME, THE VISITORS HAD MEN AT FIRST AND THIRD.

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IT WAS ALSO RATHER PRETTY OUTSIDE THE STADIUM AFTER THE GAME.

2017 BLUE JAYS SCHEDULE

While the Jays were being thumped by Tampa on Wednesday, the club released its schedule for next season. In an unusual twist, the home opener — Apr. 11 — will be an intra–league affair against the Milwaukee Brewers. It follows a season–opening road swing through Baltimore and Tampa Bay.

Other intra–league series in 2017 include: Toronto at St. Louis (Apr. 25–27); Atlanta at Toronto (May 15–16); Toronto at Atlanta (May 17–18); Toronto at Milwaukee (May 23–24); Cincinnati at Toronto (May 29–31); Pittsburgh at Toronto (Aug. 11–13) and Toronto at Chicago Cubs (Aug. 18–20).

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CINCINNATI AND MILWAUKEE WILL BE AMONG THE INTRA–LEAGUE VISITORS TO TORONTO IN 2017.

The Blue Jays longest home–stand (vs. New York Yankees, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay) is 10 games (Aug. 8–17). The longest road trip is also a 10–gamer, following the All–Star break (July 14–23), with visits to Detroit, Boston and Cleveland. The schedule concludes with a home–stand against Kansas City and the Yankees (Sep. 19–24); then a road swing through Boston and New York (Sep. 25–Oct. 1).

The Blue Jays will again play at home on Canada Day (July 1) vs. Boston (1:07 p.m. start). The Canada Day encounter this season turned into the longest game in club history — a 19–inning marathon during which Cleveland prevailed, 2–1, at Rogers Centre.

COLLECTOR’S CORNER

A random selection from my assortment of memorabilia:

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STILL SEALED IN PLASTIC: A PROGRAM FROM THE LAST NHL GAME AT MAPLE LEAF GARDENS.

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UNSEALED: PROGRAMS FROM THE LAST GAME AT MLG AND THE FIRST AT AIR CANADA CENTRE.

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FROM 52 YEARS AGO: A POCKET–BOOK–SIZED NHL PLAYER REGISTER.

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CFL RECORD MANUAL AND TEAM LOGOS FROM 50 YEARS AGO THIS SEASON.

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STANLEY CUP PLAYOFF RECORDS FOR 1967–68 — FIRST YEAR OF THE EXPANDED, 12–TEAM NHL.

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A WONDERFUL MAGAZINE PUBLISHED AT THE START OF THE 1957–58 NHL SEASON.

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POCKET BOOKS PUBLISHED IN 1950 AND 1953 — WRITTEN BY ED FITKIN, WHO WORKED IN THE LEAFS’ PUBLICITY DEPARTMENT. WHEN THE NHL DOUBLED TO 12 TEAMS FOR 1967–68, TORONTO MAGNATE JACK KENT COOKE HIRED FITKIN AS THE FIRST P.R. DIRECTOR OF HIS LOS ANGELES KINGS. ED ALSO HANDLED COLOR–COMMENTARY FOR THE KINGS’ RADIO BROADCASTS IN THEIR FIRST TWO SEASONS, ALONGSIDE PLAY–CALLER (AND ORILLIA, ONT. NATIVE) KENNY (JIGGS) McDONALD.

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PUNCH IMLACH’S FIRST OF TWO MEMOIRS — PUBLISHED IN 1969.

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MY FIRST EDITION OF AN ANNUAL MAGAZINE THAT PUBLISHED THROUGH THE EARLY–2000’s.

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SAN DIEGO AND MONTREAL JOINED THE NATIONAL LEAGUE FOR THE 1969 BASEBALL SEASON.

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AMONG THE SEVERAL MUHAMMAD ALI TRIBUTES SINCE HIS DEATH ON JUNE 10th OF THIS YEAR.

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EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

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