Baseball: Canada has its heart set on the Blue Jay way: Will the World Series title stay north of the border, in spite of the Phillies' efforts?

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The Independent Online
Think of Canada's sporting legacy and you think of men chasing a puck around on ice and slamming each other into Perspex boards. The idea that baseball, a game surely designed to be played under flawless skies and in 80-degree heat, has a distinguished history here seems faintly risible. Yet, as the Toronto Blue Jays begin the defence of their World Series title against the Philadelphia Phillies here tonight, many local voices are quick to deny that the two professional franchises north of the border represent an invasion of alien territory by America's national pastime.

Babe Ruth, they inform you, hit his first professional home run into Lake Ontario when playing for a Boston Red Sox farm team against the Toronto Maple Leafs, a side based for many years on Centre Island, just off the city waterfront. And Jackie Robinson, a hero to black Americans as the first player to break the sport's colour bar, took his first steps on the road to integration with the Montreal Royals, a Brooklyn Dodgers farm outfit. Some even claim the game was being played in southern Ontario before Abner Doubleday invented it in New York.

So when Toronto was awarded a major league franchise in 1977, the crowds were ready to flock to the Blue Jays, even though they were forced to endure the chill discomforts of an exhibition stadium, later dubbed the 'Mistake by the Lake' when the team moved into the magnificent, retractable-roofed SkyDome in 1989.

This sporting cathedral is a wonder to behold, with its roof girders stretching the equivalent of 31 storeys in to the sky, but as the Jays have become the hottest ticket in town, some have expressed concern that the SkyDome experience - with the Hard Rock Cafe in right field, the Windows on SkyDome restaurant, the hotel, health club and cinema - has supplanted the team as the main attraction.

The famous couple whose passion led them to cover all the bases in the window of their hotel suite during a game three years ago were the exception in this city whose style is studiedly low key. Joe Carter, the Blue Jays right-fielder, actually issued a public appeal for more noise earlier this season, but generally the team's mood reflects that of their crowd.

Toronto confessed to have had 'a small celebration' after clinching their second consecutive American League Championship in Chicago on Tuesday, but were happy to speculate about the aggregate beer consumption of the Phillies after their gutsy, hustling brand of baseball had knocked over the Atlanta Braves to take the National League title on Wednesday.

The Phillies' belated arrival here yesterday was anticipated rather like a gang of Hell's Angels approaching a sleepy seaside town. That could be because more than a few of them look as if they are auditioning for lead singer with Iron Maiden, with behaviour to match. Larry Andersen, the middle reliever, has a party-piece of a 10-second clubhouse burp that makes most television interviews in the vicinity unusable.

America, however, is happy for this bunch of re-treads and rejects from other teams to carry the flag into the second US-Canada World Series.

After two years of the Tomahawk Chop, and of Ted Turner, the Braves' owner, falling asleep on Jane Fonda's shoulder by the eighth inning, a new storyline is required. 'Tomahawk, schmomahawk,' read a banner at Philadelphia's Veterans Stadium on Wednesday, which seemed to sum up the national mood.

Of course, even the US v Canada theme, happily exacerbated at last year's World Series when the Canadian flag was paraded upside-down by a detail of US Marines in Atlanta, is also irrelevant. None of the Blue Jays who will start game one tonight hold Canadian citizenship. 'It is really about whether our Americans are better than their Americans,' one local observed.

Not quite. The Blue Jays will start the Series with two from the Dominican Republic, including the pitcher, Juan Guzman, one Puerto Rican and an outfielder, Devon White, who was born in Jamaica. The smooth- running centre-fielder White, incidentally, the most effective of the Blue Jays' batting line-up against the Chicago White Sox in the play-offs, was never set for a great innings in West Indies cricket. He played mostly football in Kingston before his family emigrated to New York when he was nine. 'I only picked up a bat because that's what all the American kids around me were doing,' he said.

If the play-offs are any guide, trying to predict the outcome of this World Series is a fool's game. The White Sox, with their supposedly superior pitching, were deemed to hold a slight edge over Toronto's hitting. In the end, the Blue Jays got four wins out of Guzman and Dave Stewart, the former Oakland pitcher who at 36 may have lost a little speed on his fast ball but has retained all his big-game temperament. Chicago's main starter, Jack McDowell, by contrast, who led the League with 22 wins this season, fell apart in both his games, conceding 10 runs in the nine innings he pitched.

The NL play-offs had a topsy- turvy look as well. Although out-hit (59-47) and out-scored (33-23) by the Braves over the course of the six games, the Phillies eked out three one-run victories and then pinned Greg Maddux, Atlanta's 21-game winner, to the canvas with a couple of two-run shots in the decider.

Eight of the 12 play-off games were won by the away side, which suggests that the Blue Jays should be on their guard against a quick Philadelphia getaway tonight.

If Guzman and Stewart can throw as they did against Chicago, the Phillies' cavalcade ought to be stopped in its tracks. But as Stewart himself said: 'People have their opinions about how these games are going to go. A lot of people consider themselves geniuses on this game. But I always say the one thing you can't measure in a player is his will to win and the size of his heart.'

SkyDome tonight could do with one from the heart.

(Photograph and graphics omitted)