For some privileged baseball fans, the private All-Star Gala that Major League Baseball and the Toronto Blue Jays threw last week was the perfect end to a day of celebrating the boys of summer. A breeze off Lake Ontario wafted the smell of barbecued lamb kebobs and sounds of steel drums as visiting baseball officials, sponsors, players and journalists strolled among blue-and-white tents set up on the manicured lawns of Olympic Island in Toronto’s harbor. The only obvious miscues came when guests struggled to identify the out-of-uniform stars who, on the following evening, would make up the National and American League teams at the July 9 all-star game. A man standing near a clutch of players in the food tent did not conceal his disappointment when he remarked to a friend that “they look so different in person.” And a boy of about 10, who spotted Cal Ripken Jr. of the Baltimore Orioles being interviewed, asked his father if Ripken, the eventual star of the game the next night, was a ball player. “He’s nobody,” said Dad knowingly.
Although not all the guests were knowledgeable fans, they nevertheless managed to revel in the fun of the annual all-star break and to celebrate a grand old game. As the beer and wine flowed freely on the island, participants savored a special day: the history and tradition of the Heroes of Baseball oldtimers’ game; Ripken’s epic performance in the Home Run Derby; the pleasure of a hot summer day fanned by a steady breeze off the lake. And the big game, sometimes derided in the past for having no competitive appeal, was a close contest, with enough drama to keep most of the 52,383 fans in their seats until the American League won 4-2.
What was good for the fans was also good for Toronto, reeling under the impact of the recession and job cutbacks. Tourism officials estimated that about 30,000 out-of-towners visited the city during the festivities and spent a reported $10 million. And as a result of unusually clear skies and a game-time temperature of 23° C, the host city appeared at its best on the CBS telecast to more than 100 million viewers around the world. Even The New York Times was moved to describe Toronto as “this sparkling city on the banks of Lake Ontario.” Said William Duron, president of the Metropolitan Toronto Convention and Visitors Association: “You could go out and pay for advertising, but you would not get the credibility that this offered.” Duron predicted that the media coverage would have a significant impact on the city’s important tourism industry, which he
said had suffered during the current recession.
The all-star events illustrated the seemingly insatiable interest fans have in the sport. There were almost constant lineups to get into FanFest, a high-ticket baseball theme park installed at Toronto’s downtown convention cen-
tre that attracted about 70,000 people to its Hall of Fame displays, batting and pitching machines and a smothering array of souvenirs. The Workout Day drew nearly 35,000 to the SkyDome stadium to cheer former all-stars including Ferguson Jenkins, Reggie Jackson and Brooks Robinson in the three-inning Heroes game, and later the Home Run Derby. The game itself set a SkyDome record for baseball attendance, including Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, President George Bush and a legion of security men. And after the game, players, reporters, league officials and sponsors extended the celebrations into the early morning at a packed private party in the convention centre.
Not being recognized at the gala might have offended some players’ egos, but not Ripken’s. The 30-year-old shortstop has been named to the all-star team for the past nine years, but he downplays his star status. “I want none of that,” he once said about stardom. “I’ve seen what it does to people.” Still, Ripken established himself as the star of stars. On the field, his fiery orange Orioles jersey stood out among the traditional blues and pinstripes of the other National and American leagues' stars. More than with his jersey, the six-foot, four-inch native of Havre de Grace, Md., distinguished himself and thrilled the Home Run Derby crowd by smashing a record 12 home runs— his closest rival hit five—in 22 swings of the bat against batting-practice pitches. The crowd fell silent before each pitch, and then erupted as each blast soared over Sky-
Dome’s outfield fences. Even jaded reporters watched in awe from the press box.
During batting practice before the game the next day, Ripken was almost apologetic. “I was probably the most surprised person in the stadium,” he said of his Derby barrage. He added: “I hope no one expects me to hit home runs at the game tonight like I did yesterday.” Whether they did or not, Ripken did hit a three-run homer. He scored the winning run himself on the blast and earned the game’s most valuable player award. American political columnist George Will, who attended the game with his wife and son, was unabashed in his praise of Ripken’s feats. “That,” he said, “was the stuff of legend.” Not bad for a “nobody.”
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