Stepping Up to the Plate

October 14, 2015: An unforgettable day for Blue Jays fans.

The elevator ride up to the 11th floor felt like it took hours. There was no phone service within the metal box, and without it, the ascent felt grueling. Not only was I separated from what was taking place in Toronto, under the Rogers Centre dome on that cool fall day — I couldn’t even check the score. Although I often dreaded physics lab in room 1121, on that particular Wednesday, I would rather have been anywhere else.

I had been following the Toronto Blue Jays since I was eight years old, going to games with my father and brother, and watching the games on the television whenever attending in person was not an option. For 18 years — my entire childhood — the Blue Jays had been attempting and failing to make the playoffs. This year was the year that they had finally done it. Our professor had a strict no-phones policy, which was understandable considering the procedures that would be taking place. But today, the rule seemed illogical. Physics was just temporary, whereas baseball was forever.

In just a few months, I had forgotten what force measurement technique we learned in the lab that day. But as long as I live, I am unlikely to forget what occurred in the most important baseball game of my life: the fifth and final game of the 2015 American League Division Series between the Blue Jays and the Texas Rangers.

I entered the classroom in New York City at 6:45 in the evening, not one second early, and proceeded to my corner of the lab bench, hoping to be secluded from the rest of the class. I dropped my things, sat on a rustic blue stool, and placed my silenced phone next to the electrical outlet in front of me. Out of sight from the professor, only I could see the glow of the play-by-play lighting up the screen.

***

At 13, I was sitting on the edge of my parents’ bed watching the Blue Jays play the Boston Red Sox when I decided to do something about the boredom of a millennial with a limited attention span watching baseball. A few months earlier, my brother-in-law had started a personal finance blog to beef up his résumé as he prepared to graduate university and look for a job. His idea struck me as a brilliant one. If I started a blog, I could share my thoughts with an audience, forcing me to pay more attention to the action. I grabbed my laptop, quickly registered a domain name on Blogspot, and began to write.

First, I wrote a welcome post, telling my non-existent readers what they should expect from that space going forward. The next day, I wrote my first official blog post, a game “recap” that was riddled with typos and grammar mistakes. It required me to focus on aspects of baseball I never before appreciated, and I began to understand how the plays I saw were translated into the advanced statistics I was reading about online. I began to ask others online to look at my writing and give me feedback, and eventually I was writing articles that generated thousands of page views.

As I progressed in my baseball writing, the game stopped being just a three-hour show every evening. It became an all-day activity. I pored over the statistics websites and read books until I felt that I could walk into a room and hold my own in any conversation somebody wanted to have about baseball. Still, I felt like an imposter, self-conscious that people would discredit me and my writing because of my age and limited understanding.

***

The subject line of the email read “failing physics.” No capital letters. Whatever the message said, I was going to be in trouble. From the moment I started college, I pursued a career in dentistry, and I had a feeling that this one test was going to put my ability to attend dental school in jeopardy.

I wasn’t wrong. The text of the email was abrupt, and not the least bit encouraging. “The class average for physics was 87. You scored far below this.” The pre-health advisor wrote matter-of-factly, as if I wasn’t already aware of those two facts. She didn’t finish with words of encouragement either. “I suggest you make an appointment to see me and discuss your options.”

I had failed a test. In college. And now the pre-health advisor, the usher to the exclusive club that is recipients of committee letters necessary for attending graduate school, wanted to meet with me.

***

I rushed into my dorm room after finishing lab, an hour after the game had ended, and told my roommate that I planned to be busy. I latched my headphones comfortably onto my ears, and the archived game began to play as my eyes were glued to the screen.

On Baseball, Game Design, and Output Randomness
Considering baseball through the lens of game design.

“Bottom of the seventh in Toronto. Russell Martin, who was charged with the error that led to the go-ahead run in the top of the inning, leads off for the Blue Jays.”

The error that the Fox Sports broadcaster was referring to was incredible, a rarity almost never seen. While throwing the ball back to the pitcher, he mistakenly hit the opposing player’s bat. The ball went awry, allowing the fateful run to score.

Now it was the Blue Jays’ turn to bat. If they were going to win this game and advance to the ALCS, they needed to come back. I lay on my bed, yelling for my boys, hoping that my voice would carry them to victory, even though I had already heard the results while I was in the physics lab.

Four pitches into his at-bat, Martin hit a slow ground ball to the shortstop, and I felt a sense of dread. But, as expletives left my mouth at a mile a minute, the Rangers dropped the ball, and the at-bat that should have ended in an out resulted in a hit for the Blue Jays. They had squandered the lead with errors of their own just half an hour earlier. Now, errors were giving them hope to recover it.

***

“Listen,” I told my lab partner, Mark. “I’m going to be looking at my phone often during this lab. Just pretend like it isn’t happening.”

He nodded, his confusion apparent in his eyes, but understanding nonetheless.

As the professor droned on about Newton and his laws, I was focused on a completely different kind of force. My phone buzzed, and the notification was glorious: The Rangers had dropped another ball. The Blue Jays now had two runners on base with no one out. I couldn’t hold back my smile.

***

The subject line of the email read “National Post Blogger’s Panel.” It was from an editor with Postmedia, responsible for publishing six of Canada’s 10 largest newspapers. She wanted me, an 18-year-old, to contribute to their baseball season preview.

At that point, I had been writing articles for five years, slowly improving my writing until it read less like a high school student and more like an established journalist. My online following had steadily increased, and the National Post was hoping I would be one of the six bloggers interviewed in this special issue.

As it turned out, that email was just the first of many that would come over the year that followed. The subject of one read “Blue Jays Anthology.” It was from Keith McArthur, a publisher putting together a book that the cover described as a collection of the “Greatest Toronto Blue Jays Stories Ever Told.” He wanted an article I had written about the Blue Jays’ general manager to be featured in the book as the 21st  chapter.

The subject of another read “BP Local Initiative.” The message was from James Walsh, the president and CEO of Baseball Prospectus, the first and premier website for advanced baseball statistical analysis, which was founded in 1996, the same year I was born. He said the work my colleagues and I at the ESPN Blue Jays blog did “drew his attention.” He wanted me, a 19-year-old, to write for him as one of the editors of the brand new Baseball Prospectus Toronto website he was hoping to launch in the spring of 2016. I was elated.

***

I sat in a wooden seat across from the pre-health advisor, uncomfortable not because the leather cushions were worn, but because my future career path would likely be decided in the next 15 minutes. If she declared that I wasn’t “smart” enough to be on the pre-dental track, that would be it.

She greeted me and asked how I was doing. I said I was doing fine, but the truth was that I was anything but great. For 10 minutes, she went on about how the dental path is tough, and how my performance on this physics test was alarming. I pleaded with her and said that I had always been a terrible physics student, even in high school, when I received a 23% on my 11th-grade final examination, and that my performance in this class was not a good indicator of my overall ability.

She wasn’t buying it. College-level physics might be difficult, she told me, but it would be easier than any course I’d have to take if I were to attend dental school.

I saw her point, but I disagreed. Surely she understood that making a decision based on one simple grade would be a huge error — a miscalculation that just wasn’t fair.

***

The Blue Jays players were ecstatic. They were banging bats on the dugout walls, and clapping their hands at worrying speeds, and I, despite not playing in the game, only watching on a screen and already knowing the outcome, was out of my mind.

Three batters into the inning, and my nails didn’t last past the first two. The first two Rangers mistakes were somehow followed by another one. The Rangers’ players were among the top baseball performers on the planet, yet somehow — right at this moment, right when the Blue Jays needed it — they were unable to catch the ball. Three batters had come up to the plate, and all three had hit weak ground balls. It should have been a quick inning. Yet the bases were now loaded with no outs recorded.

The fans in Toronto were in an uproar. Alone in my quiet dorm, the noise in my ears was deafening.

***

Each message I received from my dad after the Rangers’ mistakes made me even more jealous that he was there watching it in person, while I stuck in a lab, allegedly doing an experiment, supposedly furthering my education. I was barely paying attention, although from the bits and pieces I picked up from watching Mark, it involved some type of model train and a sensor that would pick up the force of the object as it moved.

“Finally they were able to field the ball cleanly. At least they only got one out and not two,” my dad texted. The Blue Jays still had the bases loaded, with just one man out now. Up to the plate was Josh Donaldson, the team’s best player. That did not bode well for Texas. With the MVP at the plate, the Blue Jays would surely be taking the lead momentarily.

That wasn’t the case. Donaldson was retired. Even the best are not perfect. Even the best will only get a hit 30% of the time.

***

The pre-health advisor informed me of my options. They were all terrible. I could ride out the semester as a pre-dental student and see how I did, but she didn’t recommend I waste my time. Instead, she suggested that I choose another major. I looked at her with a dazed appearance on my face, unsure what to say.

***

Since I was 13, Jose Bautista was my connection to the Blue Jays. He was the face of the team, and when I thought of baseball, I thought of him.

Now, in the biggest moment of his career, the biggest moment of the last two decades of Blue Jays baseball, he stepped up to the plate, swagger exuding from his bearded face and chiseled upper body, and I smiled, knowing that he wouldn’t let me down. There were no Blue Jays without Jose Bautista.

I watched with angst as he fouled the first pitch. The next pitch came in at 98 mph, but badly missed the strike zone, and the count was now 1-1.

My roommate joined me. As I sat on my bed, my hands were buried underneath the mattress. I hoped that the weight would keep them down and make me look semi-normal as the rest of my body was contorted with anxiety.

“The 1-1 from Dyson,” said the TV announcer as the next pitch was set to be delivered.

***

I attempted one last hail Mary with my advisor. “Before I make any rash decisions, I feel like you should know that the professor told me she’d drop the test grade and consider it purely in the past if I showed improvement.”

***

“OMG. I CAN’T BELIEVE HE JUST DID THAT,” read the text from my brother Daniel. Daniel was watching the game at work, somehow able to sneak by his bosses, even though I was stuck plotting data points in Excel. My phone continued to buzz.

I knew what had happened, and I couldn’t believe it. The biggest moment of my life, and I missed it.

***

The tears ran down my face in my dorm room almost as fast as the beer cups were being thrown onto the field in Toronto. The scene on the screen was mayhem. The cameras were shaking because the stadium was shaking. Fifty thousand people were going berserk, all at the same time.

“Bautista with a drive. Deep to left field…No doubt about it!”

With a single swing, Jose Bautista scored three runs. He flipped his bat into the air. The home run was a culmination of arguably the wildest hour in baseball history. But it wasn’t just that. It was a culmination of decades of Blue Jays futility, of the countless hours I’d spent on the team, watching and writing and hoping.

I pressed rewind on my computer. I needed to see it again.

***

“Oh. Well in that case, just do better next time.” the advisor said, a sudden look of awkwardness creeping onto her face.

“I will,” I told her, my nerves calmed. I was going to get a tutor. I would study every day until the next test. I had a great start to college, but almost threw it away with one bad test. I was determined not to let that happen. This was my time for redemption. This was my time to step up to the plate.

***

Two years after Jose Bautista hit that home run and the pre-health advisor gave me that ultimatum, I was interviewing at various dental schools as a prospective student. I managed to get a B in physics, after I scored much higher on the remaining two exams, and the failing grade was dropped, just as the professor promised.

During each interview, as I once again sat nervous across from someone who would be deciding my future, my performance in physics was never brought up. Instead, one topic permeated the conversation at all eight schools: baseball writing.

The academics had not mattered. It was the intangibles that ultimately made the difference.

***

The subject of the emails read “Offer of Admission.” Four of them. And it was only 4 p.m. on the first possible day of acceptance.

***

In early December 2017, I was interviewing the president and CEO of the Blue Jays, Mark Shapiro, for my last piece of baseball writing before I went on hiatus to focus fully on my studies.

After 15 minutes of conversation, I ran out of questions to ask, and it was time to hang up the phone and put a curtain on my baseball writing career. As I thanked him for his time, Shapiro, the man in charge of a multi-billion dollar major league baseball team, said “Good luck in dental school.”

A previous version of this essay was submitted as an assignment in ENG1740 at Yeshiva University in 2017.


Gideon is a second year student at The University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine. Before his graduate school days, he was a writer and editor at Blue Jays Plus and Baseball Prospectus Toronto. He can be reached via email at gideon.s.turk [at] gmail.com
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Awesome story! Thanks!