Canada flags down a Series controversy Raked by years of oversight, Toronto's fans don't take kindly to fallen national leaf

October 20, 1992|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Staff Writer

TORONTO -- There is nothing like an international sporting event to get the patriotic juices flowing. The World Series has come to Canada for the first time, and the flag-waving already has begun.

The trouble is, somebody waved the Canadian flag the wrong way on Sunday, and it turned into something of an international incident. The U.S. Marine color guard inadvertently displayed the Canadian maple leaf upside down during the playing of the national anthems before Game 2 in Atlanta.

No big deal, you say. Honest mistake, you say. Say that to the millions of Canadians who already think that America doesn't take them or their baseball team very seriously. The Toronto Blue Jays may be one of the dominant teams of the past decade, but there still is the perception in Canada that Americans view them as second-class baseball citizens.

Patriotic paranoia? Perhaps. But the reaction to Sunday's flag flap was very real around the Toronto area.

The flag incident quickly became the controversy du jour on the local talk-show circuit. Callers also jammed the switchboards of the local television stations. But America's Team did not add injury to insult -- the Braves let Game 2 get away in dramatic fashion in the ninth inning -- or the followers of Canada's Team would have been really upset.

"I can tell you one thing," Toronto businessman Frank Delfino said yesterday. "It won't be a matter of whether Blue Jays fans will be waving the American flag upside down in the stands tomorrow night, it's a matter of how many will."

Time will tell whether there will be an equal reaction from the sellout crowd that will pack SkyDome tonight for the first World Series game in Canada.

It is all in fun on one level. The Atlanta Journal and Constitution ran a banner headline in Saturday's editions that played right into the Canadian perception of American baseball fans. It read:

"Message to Toronto: This is OUR Game."

It probably was tongue-in-cheek, but that's very much how many Blue Jays fans perceive the way American fans look at this World Series. There is the feeling -- voiced on the streets and in the local media -- that Americans are horrified that the World Series has been moved out of the United States.

"I think it's all manufactured," said Toronto Sun baseball columnist Ken Fidlin. "It seems to me that most of that is coming from Canadians. We started it. There is a definite sense of living in the shadow of the United States. There is some sentiment that Americans don't pay us much notice except at times like this."

There also appears to be the perception that Americans should have paid a little more notice to the anthem ceremony before Game 2.

"I figured it was one of two things," Delfino said. "Either it was intentional, which doesn't bother me that much in the context of a sports rivalry, or it was done out of ignorance, which would bother me a little bit."

It apparently happened because the color guard accidentally attached the flag to the pole with the Canadian maple leaf pointing down instead of up and did not unfurl it ahead of time because of the brisk breeze that was blowing at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. If that wasn't bad enough, Canadian singer Tom Cochrane stumbled on the words to his country's anthem.

"At first, I thought it was part of the free trade agreement," said Brian Nasimok, a local television writer. "I figured they made the flag in Mexico and that's what they thought it looked like. Then I realized it was a mistake when everyone started apologizing.

"Hey, they say that bad press is better than no press. Maybe people will come up to see if our leaves really do that."

Canadian baseball fans may have stewed over the perceived slight for eight innings on Sunday night, but reserve catcher Ed Sprague took some of the sting out of it with his game-winning home run in the ninth.

That was a little fitting in itself.

Sprague found himself in the middle of another Canadian/American controversy this summer when his wife -- Kristen Babb-Sprague -- took advantage of a controversial scoring decision to outpoint Canadian Sylvie Frechette and win the Olympic gold medal in synchronized swimming. The medal would have gone to Frechette if not for a scoring error by one of the judges, but it went unchanged and raised a furor in Canada. Sprague came to his wife's defense and was vilified in the local newspapers.

It took just one big swing and all was forgiven.

Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston quickly dismissed the notion that the World Series has sparked some kind of national rivalry. His club doesn't have a single native-born Canadian player on its roster.

"Let's hope it was just a mistake," Gaston said. "I've said all along that this is not a battle of countries. Both teams have 90-95 percent American players. I'm a U.S. citizen. Sprague is a U.S. citizen. And we're proud to represent Canada."

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