The Nationalisms of the World Series

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Things are set to come to a head all over again.

A recent article in NYMag noted that the recent pessimism by fans of a newly fiscally restrained New York Yankees, if misplaced, hasn’t been this dour since 1992. The cover of that week’s New Yorker features the Yanks’ cast of expensive stars with crutches, canes, and wheelchairs.

For a different set of fans 1992 also marks a milestone, though one considerably less somber. That was the first year that the “World Series” became even remotely international, as the Commissioner’s Trophy made its way north into Canada. So was 1993, and so—nearly—was 1994, until the baseball strike blew into the MLB fandom everywhere and destroyed the season of best-in-baseball Montreal Expos.

Baseball recovered (until the juices started flowing anyway…); the Expos never did. The team that won it the first two times looks—notwithstanding a string of early season losses—like they are just about to break out into the comeback for which their fans have longed for nearly two decades. ESPN blogger Dave Shoenfield writes about a return to the time when “Toronto was the baseball capital of the world.” What does it mean, this potential ascendancy of the Toronto Blue Jays? The Yankees are not really America’s (or should I say the United States’; most of the western hemisphere is America) team—except insofar as they unite most USians outside of the tri-state area in cheering against them. The Blue Jays earn a little more indifference, but a non-USian team winning the Series still poses a problem for a lot of people. The Jays nearly played the Expos in 1994. Maybe that would have been worse for the game than the strike. Never mind that professional sport is a mercenary, not a local boy, game, and that teams across the MLB feature players from the US, the Caribbean, Latin America, Asia, and, yes, even Canada in a way that has everything to do with their talent and nothing to do with location. Baseball is America’s game, and Canadians love winning at it.

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In fact, when the Jays first grabbed the title in 1992, Canadian journalists gloated and cheered in unabashedly nationalistic terms. Even in traditionally less-warm-towards-Toronto places like the west and Quebec, writers called the Blue Jays “Canada’s Team.” Prime Minister Brian Mulroney tried to use the team to score political points, and pundits used the opportunity to explore Canada’s role as the snubbed originator of baseball; the country that both played the game before Abner Doubleday and—even better—served as the more sensitive testing ground for integration when Jackie Robinson debuted on the Montreal Royals.

Perhaps it’s premature yet, but in the wash of World Series predictions and pre-emptive satisfaction with the Jays’ offseason maneuvers, the nationalism of the punditry has remained relatively restrained. It is worth asking why.

Perhaps a clue lies in the fact that even though Canadian professional baseball has been dormant compared to the behemoths of the United States, Canadians feel a lot more confident about their country’s prospects as a whole.

In 1992, many Canadians were upset about the signing of NAFTA, which they feared would send thousands of jobs either to the United States or Mexico. Journalists raged against a prime minister who they blamed for selling out Canadian sovereignty through, among other things, his participation in American military and economic ventures (and his duets of “Irish Eyes” with President Reagan). In 1992 Canadians didn’t even know if their own country would survive long past the World Series, as a major unity referendum faced the nation in the days after. Gallup, incidentally, forecast that a Blue Jays victory could tip the vote towards the major constitutional change on the table by up to a percentage point.

Today, however, the tables seem reversed. Maclean’s, one of Canada’s premier news magazines, published a cover story in the midst of the worldwide recession reporting that Canadians—whose more regulated banks had remained significantly more stable—felt “on top of the world.” In fact, with that playing out it seems that Canadian power is spreading into the United States. The proliferation of TD Banks across the country—TD stands for Toronto Dominion—seems testament to that. And then there’s the surreal phenomenon of Keystone XL, in which an American president tries to muster the strength to block a potentially damaging project by a Canadian corporation.

Any kind of analysis like this is inevitably a bit oversimplified and overgeneralized. But the nationalist discourse about the winning Blue Jays in 1992 smacked of insecure catharsis, a level of flag waving not normally seen outside of the Olympics. Even the constant calls for bringing the Stanley Cup home to Canada don’t really match them. The lack of that discourse now, on the other hand, points to an entirely different phenomenon. Something to think about anyway.

Play Ball.

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