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One Night in October

words by Yang-Yi Goh

The Blue Jays and Toronto FC gifted Toronto its first truly great sports moments in over a decade

 

For a few brief and beautiful hours in the late evening of October 14th, 2015, Toronto was nearly unrecognizable. This city is a lot of things—a haven of multiculturalism, a cosmopolitan arts capital, a mouthwatering culinary destination. But a winning sports town? Fuggedaboutit.

An infamous 2011 ESPN poll ranked Toronto as the single worst city for pro sports in North America, behind even perennial sad sacks like Cleveland and Buffalo. It’s hard to disagree: since Joe Carter touched ‘em all in ’93, Hogtown has been a barren wasteland of squandered opportunities and constant rebuilding. There have been few highlights and even fewer reasons for celebration.

Which brings us back to that fateful Wednesday in October. All day long, for the first time in decades, the city had a true buzz that hung heavy in the air, a nervous excitement for the two massive games on the docket that evening. And somewhat surprisingly, neither match was set to feature the Leafs or Raptors, the dominant clubs in Toronto’s sports scene, both of whom have made short and unremarkable playoff runs in recent years.


Instead, it was the Blue Jays and Toronto FC making all the noise—two teams that, heading into 2015, each held their respective leagues’ longest postseason droughts, the biggest losers in a town full of them. But suddenly, somehow, the Jays were headed into a winner-takes-all Game 5 against the Texas Rangers in the American League Division Series. And TFC was due to take the field against the East-leading New York Red Bulls, a game that could clinch their first-ever MLS Cup playoff berth.

How did this happen? For the Jays, it was a heady confluence of timely roster moves. Offseason acquisitions Josh Donaldson and Russell Martin gelled well enough with Jose Bautista and co. to keep the team’s record hovering around .500 near the trade deadline. That was good enough to prompt GM Alex Anthopolous to go all in—he acquired both all-star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and Cy Young-winning lefty David Price in July, sending Toronto on an unprecedented run to the top of the AL East and back into the playoffs for the first time in 22 years.

For TFC, meanwhile, it all came down to one man: Sebastian Giovinco. The 28-year-old Italian international became the highest-paid player in Major League Soccer when he transferred to Toronto in January. He absolutely earned his keep, setting MLS single-season scoring record by ripping opposing defences to shreds with an arsenal of stunning free kicks, blazing speed and mind-boggling dangles. Every time Giovinco had the ball at his feet, it felt dangerous, like a goal was inevitable—and most times, it actually was.

Now, after two unexpectedly great seasons, both Toronto squads had a chance to send the city into an unparalleled frenzy. And both delivered in spades.

First, the Jays took to the pitch before a raucous sell-out crowd at Rogers Centre. For the first six innings, the game trotted along tensely but conventionally, with each side scoring two runs.  And then the seventh inning happened.

With the Rangers’ Rougned Odor at second base, Jays catcher Russell Martin sent a routine toss back to pitcher Aaron Sanchez on the mound. But the ball never made it to Sanchez. Instead, it ricocheted off of batter Shin-Soo Choo’s hand, allowing Odor to run home to score. An extended review of the play ensued, giving panicked Toronto fans enough time to lose their newfound confidence and start lamenting yet another extreme case of hard luck.

But Jose Bautista refused to let it end there. In the bottom of the inning, with two runners on base after a pair of bizarre Texas errors, he rocketed a monster homer deep into the upper deck. And then the bat flip heard ‘round the world—the one that sent his bat roughly into the lower mesosphere—happened. The Jays walked out 6-3 winners, and the city exploded with raucous joy.

The party wasn’t over yet, though. Down the road at BMO Field, just a couple hours after Joey Bats’ heroics, Giovinco followed suit. In the 78th minute, with TFC holding on to a slim 1-0 lead over New York, the Atomic Ant took over yet again. He got the ball near the halfway line, ran a circle around one defender, juggled his way through another three, and then used his remarkable control to dummy one more before sending it straight into the back of the net with ease. It was extraordinary, preposterous, the kind of goal that will still show up on highlight reels fifty years from now. And just like that, Toronto FC was headed to the playoffs for the very first time.

Toronto hadn’t had a truly sublime sports moment in well over a decade, perhaps not since Vince Carter was still soaring high in a Raptors jersey. Now it had two in a single night. Needless to say, there were thousands upon thousands of head-splitting hangovers in offices across the GTA on Thursday morning.

The good times didn’t extend far past that, unfortunately. The Jays were knocked out of the ALCS by the Kansas City Royals in six games, and TFC was embarrassed 3-0 by Montreal in their only postseason game.

So what happens now? A whole lot of uncertainty. Just a few short weeks after their season ended, the Jays made the mind-boggling decision to allow Anthopoulous—who was named Major League Baseball’s GM of the Year for his efforts—to walk away. Not long afterwards, David Price followed him out the door to the tune of a seven-year, $217 million contract from the Boston Red Sox. MVP Josh Donaldson and Bautista are still on the roster, of course, but there’s no telling if next season’s Jays will be able to recreate 2015’s magic.

TFC’s fate, again, hinges solely on Giovinco. If they can keep him around and surround him with a few stronger role players, the Reds will stand a good shot of making a deeper run next season. But given his performance this year, that’s a massive “if.” FC Barcelona has already come sniffing, and more big European clubs are sure to follow.

But those are worries for another day. For now, Toronto’s long-suffering fans should bask in the recent memory of that one incredible night in October. Whatever comes next, we can all rest a little easier knowing The Bat Flip and The Goal will always be a couple of simple YouTube searches away.