Breakfast of a Champion
Kurt Vonnegut over the weekend (I'm working on some Jack London). Rather I'm feeling a little bit nostalgic about Joe Carter and a bowl of Honeycombs from 14 years ago. The details are a little foggy but knowing I was a high school student on summer vacation it was probably just another lazy morning of sleeping in and bumming around before the rest of the day's laziness.
This was a rare era where baseball, not hockey, was king in Canada. Our national hero, Wayne Gretzky had abandoned us for southern California and no Canadian-based team had won the Stanley Cup for a couple of years (nor have they won one since). The Toronto Blue Jays were two-time World Champions. They, not the Maple Leafs, not the Canadiens, not anyone else were Canada's team. Matters were also helped by the fact that the Montreal Expos were the best team in baseball up until the point of that fateful morning.
Memories of Joe Carter blasting a walk-off three-run homer still rang through in the collective Canadian consciousness. It was Game Six against the Phillies. Toronto entered the game with a 3-2 series lead but Philadelphia entered the bottom of the ninth inning winning 6-5. With Phillies closer Mitch Williams on the mound, it looked like a seventh game was in the works.
Williams lived up to his nickname "Wild Thing" right away, walking Rickey Henderson (yes, he was a Blue Jay for a couple of months) on four straight pitches. With one out Paul Molitor hit a single. This set the stage for the most dramatic Canadian sports moment since Paul Henderson scored against the USSR in the 1972 Summit Series. Joe Carter stepped up. I'd been glued to the entire game not walking away to get a drink, snack or even use the washroom. I couldn't wait any longer so I cranked the volume a little, ran across my dad's apartment and hoped nothing would happen. Wouldn't you know, mid-stream cheers ran out from the apartment upstairs. A gasp and a cheer came from the apartment downstairs. I made it back to the TV just in time -- for the replay.
With the count 2-2, Williams shook off a signal from catcher Darren Daulton. He let the pitch fly, Joe Carter swung and it was over. It was like a freeze-frame moment. The swing, the crack of the bat, the hop and fist pump around the bases, the team piling onto the field, a sea of Canadians jumping up and down in unison in the Skydome stands, the rest of the country feeling proud from the comfort of their living rooms. The Toronto Blue Jays were World Champs for the second straight year.
But it's the 1993 home run to win the second championship that stands out and not the routine play that won Toronto's (and Canada's) first World Series. Let's face it, home runs are more exciting. The moment had more intensity and tension to begin with. To this day it's still replayed over and over. Carter's raised arms have also been featured on plenty of cards as well in the 15 years since. It also made him an instant legend up here in the great and sometimes white North, even amongst though of us who weren't hardcore Jays fans but still felt proud knowing another World Series trophy was residing above the 49th.
So I'm sitting there pouring my box of Honeycomb cereal and I realized it was a new box. An airbrushed baseball card waited for me at the bottom of the box. Like other Post sets, the cards were licensed by the Players Association but not by MLB so you got the superstars but not their logos. As a result they weren't the prettiest cards, but they were still more exciting than the cereal they came with.
My first bite reminds me that I really need to remind my mom that Fruit Loops are far superior in the taste department next to Honeycombs, even without the cards. Just as I did when I was four, I pull out the bag of cereal to see if I'm going to have to dig through the cereal to get my prize or if it was sitting outside the bag on the bottom of the box. I get my answer quickly. Sitting on the bottom of the box is Joe Carter right after a swing, watching a flyball head out to left field. It might as well have been the homerun. Disappointment was the first thing that ran through my head. I was hoping for an Expo or Frank Thomas. As the first glance gave way to a quick inspection I realized that I'd struck cardboard gold. It was the Joe Carter autograph - essiently the grand prize of cereal box prizes that year.
My mom wasn't around so I let out a [EARMUFFS, young 'uns!], "Holy shit!" of the most happiest kind. Instantly it was the coolest part of my collection (it's still up there today). A couple thousand were made and are probably floating around out there but I didn't care. It was the first time I'd "won" something with such long odds (1:3,000 boxes to be exact). It was an autograph of a legend. From a box of cereal. Even if he wasn't on "my team" or he wasn't "my player" it was the coolest thing. My hands shook as I took it out of the box. A smile caked my face and it wouldn't go away as I repeated the story over and over to my sister, step-dad and mom after each of them came home.
I guess my mom figured I was lucky. For the next two months cereal was a steady diet of Honey Combs and lunch was often a second helping. I explained to her that the cards came in other Post cereals as well but it didn't matter. She saw my smile that day. And when your teenager's smiling you want to do all you can to recreate that moment or at least hold it in time. On the bright side for me, I ate enough boxes to send away for the free complete set (plus $4.95 shipping and handling).
I still have the Joe Carter card. The last time I looked at the price, it was listed at $60 in a Canadian price guide (it's not even listed in my Standard Catalog). But that doesn't matter one lick as it's one of the few cards that I'll be able pull out and tell my grand-kids about while they sit on my knee and rub Grandpa's old man whiskers. They'll ask me why it's in a block of plastic like the frozen caveman on that movie. Then I'll tell them it was so that I'd still have it for that very moment when we could take it out together and I could pass it onto to them so they could tell their grand-kids about baseball, home runs and Honeycombs.