Blue Jays fans are packing buses and following the team on the road, thanks to Roundtrip Tours. The latest stop: the Bronx.
Photo courtesy Josh Matlow/Roundtrip Tours
A white miniature schnauzer barks at me as I step out of my apartment building Saturday morning. On the 4 train on my way to the stadium, a kid across from me in full Yankees gear—including a cap with the Derek Jeter commemorative patch—keeps staring at me curiously. I'm wearing a Blue Jays jersey. His mother points at me and informs her son that's who the opponent is today. I slip on my headphones and uncomfortably pretend to sleep.
Despite not actually resting, I am exhausted from the night prior, when I watched the Jays open the series with an extra-inning win over the Yankees. Arriving home past midnight, I spent the next three hours talking to my close friend whom I've chatted baseball with for almost 15 years. We comb through the remaining schedule to figure out whether a four-man rotation is feasible (or, what's the maximum number of Drew Hutchison starts we can skip). We end by wondering how much 500-level seats will cost in the postseason (for the record, "I've never seen playoff pricing in Toronto" was my reply).
Forty-five minutes after my pretend nap, I arrive at 161st Street in the Bronx. Outside Yankee Stadium, I meet Josh Matlow, director of operations for Roundtrip Tours—a company he started a year and a half ago that organizes trips departing from Toronto to various cities for all major North American sporting events, music concerts and summer wine tours to Niagara-on-the-Lake. The group's most famous trip, in terms of media coverage, would be last December, when 286 people bused to Detroit to watch the Raptors play the Pistons. Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri surprised the group during one of the pick-up stops in Toronto, and joined them for the ride. It wasn't a pre-planned appearance, Matlow tells me. Even he was surprised to see Ujiri show up, not that he told the people travelling there. Sometimes it's best to just play along.
There's no grand statement with Roundtrip Tours. "We're just passionate sports fans," Matlow says when I ask him a question in hopes of an elaborate backstory that will help me write this story by itself. It doesn't come in that moment, or maybe any other, but I do learn the personal meaning of this trip for him. He started playing baseball at the age of 17, and got a Division I scholarship to play at Canisius College. After his junior year, he decided rather than waiting to be drafted ("I was a realist," he said about his prospects of being a major leaguer), he would take some time off and pursue a professional baseball career overseas. The journey took him to Australia, where he played in a pro league that paid him $750 a week and provided lodging, a vehicle and a part-time bartending job. He returned to finish his degree in his senior year, then played some more in Sweden and Holland. After that, his baseball career was finished. He returned to Toronto and started his own business.
Matlow compares organizing tours to planning for a wedding. Aside from tending to his full-time job, he estimates that 30 hours per week is devoted to preparing for these trips. Arranging buses, hotel accommodations, tickets and travel itineraries can be time consuming. It was frantic as first, but Matlow has a group of people he can delegate to. His girlfriend, who usually travels with him, is not on this trip. His cousin Jamie is, and acts as the official tour guide on the bus. "Probably my personality," he tells me when I ask why he was appointed the role. "And probably some nepotism." Having seen him act as the unofficial cheerleader guy in the stands over the weekend, I would side with the former.
The Jays were eight games back of the Yankees on July 29. They've made two significant moves since—trading for Troy Tulowitzki and then days later David Price—and other fringe transactions to bolster the depth of the roster for a playoff appearance, which would be their first since 1993. Even with Friday night's victory, Toronto remained 3.5 games back in the American League East. There were 12 more meetings left between the Jays and Yankees. I can't remember the Jays ever playing meaningful games in September—unless you want to count all of those series in which we had to take all three from Boston to move within four games of the wild card with three weeks to go.
After a trip to Stan's Sports Bar, the most famous pre-game hangout for Yankees fans and where Derek Jeter made an appearance for his Gatorade RE2PECT commercial last year, we settle into our seats in the bleachers. The travelling group of fans take up about four rows and are a mix of moms and daughters, older and younger couples, girlfriends travelling together, entire families and a few sports bros. Some are rambunctious, while others are simply there to watch some baseball. Although I suppose we all are.
The banter in the bleachers with Yankees fans was mostly friendly. We chanted Tulowitzki. One of the more expressive fans repeatedly told the sections behind us that "the Jays were coming", adding his own sinister tone to the warning. In return, they chanted "second place" and "Justin Bieber" at us. A fan in a Mickey Mantle T-shirt who left early told us that no one liked Canada, anyway, before he departed in his own two cents moment.
Many of those in the travelling group don't appear to be there to make friends, but there to take in the experience and watch the Jays play games with actual meaning. Justin Smoak broke a 0–0 tie in the top of the sixth inning with a grand slam. It was the first of his career and the first grand slam by a Jays player at Yankee Stadium (new or old) in franchise history. We stood and cheered and watched as the ball went over the outfield wall right near where we sat. There were awkward high fives between myself and strangers, my favorite part of the sports bonding experience. The Jays would win 6–0.
I arrived just a few minutes after first pitch to meet the group again for Sunday's series finale, this time in section 418. My timing is bad enough that I just missed Josh Donaldson's first-inning homer (might be a decent band name). The mood in the grandstands feels more subdued compared to Saturday. The group was still loud and boisterous, but it doesn't have the same intense vibe as the day prior in the bleachers. Perhaps it's because the Yankees had not scored a single run in this series after the second inning Friday.
My favorite moment of the weekend comes in the fourth inning. In the row in front of me was Michelle and her daughter Mackenzie, who is not old enough to have seen the championship years. They're on their second trip with Roundtrip Tours, having gone to Detroit to watch the Jays before. While Michelle spends a lot of the game taking photos with her professional-looking lens, Mackenzie is always looking to make the next chant happen. With Jose Bautista at the plate, she starts a "Jose, Jose, Jose" chant, and looks around to see a faint response from us, with a bit of disappointment on her face. The chant fades, but just a few pitches later, Bautista deposits a ball into the left-field seats, and all of us erupt again for another round of awkward high fives. And there was Mackenzie, chanting like the rest of us, maybe louder than anyone.
For all the prospects the Blue Jays gave up at the trade deadline and the likelihood Price will be pitching somewhere else next season, even as the division lead has been cut to 1.5 games, all of it may result in a coin flip wild card play-in game that doesn't go Toronto's way. But in those moments with Mackenzie cheering on the home run, and the overall experience of the weekend, it's hard not to look at all of this and realize that August and September will provide two months of playoff baseball, an experience that people like Mackenzie and myself have never seen. The meaningfulness of these games, the memories we will have from this run and wherever it takes us, is what these moves have guaranteed. We don't need to live vicariously through the success of other teams and wonder how it all feels—we can live through it ourselves now. Finally. As one fan chanted at us late Sunday, this is "October in August." He meant for it to be disparaging, meanwhile I'm here soaking it all in.
The 2–0 score ends up being the final. The Jays complete their first sweep on the road against the Yankees since 2003. It's the first time they've shut out their opponent in back-to-back games since May 2012. It's their first back-to-back shutouts in a series against the Yankees in franchise history. The Blue Jays are now just 1.5 games back for the division, and a chance to guarantee more postseason play than just a one-game play in. Everything is happening.
On my way out of the stadium, I say goodbye to Josh. The group will be on their way home, and back in Toronto in the wee hours of early Monday morning. In a moment of exhilaration, he tells me he might have to plan another trip back to New York next month, when the Jays return for a four-game series.
At this rate, he might want to start clearing his calendar for another return trip in October, too.