Nestled beside Toronto’s iconic, skyline-defining CN Tower is The Rogers Centre, home of the Toronto Blue Jays.
It’s the place where buzzing, blue- capped fans come together to cheer on Canada’s favorite baseball team. It’s the middle of August and the Blue Jays are away in Cleveland for a three-game series against the Indians. All is quiet at the Rogers Centre as I sit down with Daniel McPhee, director of the live in-stadium JumboTron coverage, to chat about behind-the-scenes baseball and the beauty of America's favorite past-time.
“Did you catch the game last night?” I ask him. The Blue Jays suffered a shocking, one-run loss against the Indians, and I was ready to commiserate. “No,” he laughs. “I tend to not watch them while they’re away. When they’re home, I’m with them almost every day of that week. Sometimes it’s nice to catch a break.”
Daniel and I overlook the empty field while the Blue Jays play in Cleveland | Photo credit: Toula Nikas (c) 2016
Daniel has been working with the Blue Jays since 1989. That’s five division championships and two back-to-back World Series titles.
For the past 26 years, Mr. McPhee and his team have orchestrated the show that accompanies every home game, from everything a fan sees on the JumboTron to the songs played over the sound system.
From the beginning of our conversation, it's evident to me that Daniel’s ability to do his job—making the game come alive for fans inside the stadium—is informed by his deep understanding and appreciation for the sport.
“I’ve always loved baseball. It’s the kind of game that’s a lot like real life. There’s a lot of failure and stumbling. You look at a player who has a .300 batting average and you think how great that is, but that still means that seven out of ten times, he fails. But baseball also gives players a lot of opportunity to make good. You might strike out your first at-bat but you still have three more at-bats in a game to make a difference.”
Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Edwin Encarnacion swings and misses in a game against the Baltimore Orioles | Photo credit: Toula Nikas (c) 2014
He starts as though he has something to add, but pauses for a moment to pour more coffee into our cups before continuing.
“One of the other things I love about baseball is that it has a huge connection to its history. In baseball, you’re always making connections to the past. People are looking at how well Josh Donaldson is hitting but are comparing his stats to Joe Carter, and sometimes they might even go further back to guys like Lou Gehrig or Teddy Williams.”
It seems fitting, then, that Daniel’s job is to create a memorable experience for the fans that will make them feel as though they’re a part of baseball’s long, cherished history. But the task is easier said than done.
The flags surrounding the Rogers Centre read "History Is Now" | Photo credit: Toula Nikas (c) 2016
I ask Daniel what a regular home game might look like for him and the entire production team.
“I come in about four hours before the game and get the script that has been prepared by Marnie, our producer. It takes me roughly an hour to go through it in detail, making notes here and there. We then have a production meeting that Marnie runs. She brings together all of the people who are going to be in the building executing the show. After the production meeting, I have a meeting with my camera operators to go through the script very quickly and tell them whether I need a shot of this or a shot of that. Not necessarily of what’s going on in the field—but in the audience. Fans love seeing themselves on the screen. They remember it forever.”
Daniel, second from right, sits in front of the monitor wall for the entirety of the game | Photo credit: Daniel McPhee (c) 2016
Half-joking, half-serious, I tell Daniel that I’m still waiting for my big moment on the JumboTron. He chuckles.
“A lot of thought is put into what goes on screen,” Daniel continues. “Everything must somehow relate to baseball so that it’s an extension of the experience. Our job is always easier when the team is playing well. But if we’re not playing very well, we have to be sensitive to the appropriateness of the show. We don’t want to run a feature on that week’s baseball bloopers if the team’s had a terrible inning. Instead, we have to change things to boost morale. Something to get the fans excited. Fans love the lip-syncing piece we’re doing this year.”
I think back to a game I attended earlier in the season. I watched starting pitcher Marcus Stroman close his eyes and passionately mouth the words to Adele’s “Hello” on the JumboTron as the Blue Jays trailed their opponents. Daniel’s right—the fans do love it, and it keeps morale high.
In-stadium JumboTron director Daniel McPhee in action during a game | Photo credit: Daniel McPhee (c) 2016
“But sometimes,” Daniel shares, “boosting fan morale is also a matter of mitigating conflict.”
Last October, in the rubber match against the Texas Rangers for the ALDS title, The Rogers Centre erupted in pure, unadulterated anger. The Rangers scored at the top of the 7th inning after Blue Jays catcher Russell Martin made an errant throw back to pitcher Aaron Sanchez. The ball hit Shin-Soo Choo’s bat instead, careening up the third baseline for Rougned Odor to run home and put the Rangers ahead by one.
Things started to get ugly as beer cans littered the field in protest. Players filed off of the field and into their respective dugouts for shelter. Cue Daniel McPhee and his production team.
“There was a moment in that 7th inning when we were really concerned because the fans were so upset. All of us were up in that room thinking, ‘is this going to get out of hand? What are we going to do?’ So we became a rallying point for the team. The team was emotionally down already, so we had to come in and get the fans behind them. It was definitely stressful—and emotional. But that’s when your years of experience come into play.”
Graphic designers, baseball statisticians, and analysts keep a close eye on the game | Photo credit: Toula Nikas (c) 2016
“What was everyone thinking in that room after the actual bat flip?” I press Daniel.
“None of us in that room will ever forget the actual bat flip. That was like…oh my god. If a scriptwriter was making a baseball movie and wrote a story that included the Texas Rangers making three errors in a row—these are all-star players who routinely make these plays—and to make three errors in a row? If you wrote that in a script people would say, ‘Come on, yeah right.’ Baseball people would say, ‘That’s not going to happen.’ But that is what happened. And it created a situation where suddenly, Jose [Bautista] walks up to the plate with this opportunity. There are already two outs. And you think, ‘No, this isn’t going to happen.’ And it does. He crushes that ball.”
The Rogers Centre, home of the Toronto Blue Jays | Photo credit: Toula Nikas (c) 2016
"Would you say that the bat flip is up there as one of your most memorable moments with the Blue Jays?"
“That, and watching Joe Carter hit the winning home run in 1993 to win the World Series. I was here, in the same control room, which at that time was much smaller. It was just an emotional experience. At the bat flip game, there was still more baseball to play. But Joe Carter’s home run was a three-run walk-off. It was the exclamation point. BANG. And it’s only the second time in baseball history that a World Series was won on a home run.”
Photo credit: Toula Nikas (c) 2016
As Daniel and I finish up our conversation and our now lukewarm coffee, he tells me to give him a heads up the next time I come to a Blue Jays game. “And send me your seat numbers,” he adds.
The following Tuesday I receive a text message from a friend: “Jays game tonight? I have an extra ticket with your name written all over it.” It was their first game since returning home from Cleveland, and the Rogers Centre was buzzing.
The Blue Jays take on the Angels Of Anaheim, Tuesday, August 23rd, 2016 | Photo credit: Toula Nikas (c) 2016
It wasn’t until the fourth inning or so that I remember to message Daniel with my seat number. I was surprised to receive a response – a mere “thumbs up” emoji. In the bottom of the fifth inning, I hear my friend whisper, “Toula, look up.” There, on the JumboTron, was me. My big moment.
Reeling, I send Daniel another message to thank him. He sends me another “thumbs up”. He’s busy in the control room, of course, directing the ultimate fan experience—and the game is stopping for no one.