TORONTO - The words were mentioned over and over again, in different forms but similar description.
Best ever. Best second baseman ever. Best Blue Jays player ever. Everything beginning with best.
It makes you pause for a moment and realize how fortunate Toronto was to have that five-year glimpse of Roberto Alomar, however brief and long ago it might have been. And how this city, for reasons that can never be completely explained, has been so bereft of sporting stars of the highest calibre.
Now that Alomarís number has been retired, a question to ponder is: Whoís next?
Not just for the Blue Jays. But for the Maple Leafs, the Raptors or the Argonauts? Where is someone, anyone, that you will want to encircle with the kind of words that were tossed Alomarís way on an emotional Sunday afternoon?
Some of us couldnít help but cry throughout the ceremony, even watching from home, knowing what was so long ago, and wondering when it will be again. Not just the championship seasons with Alomar at second base, in some peopleís mind the best player in baseball for that very short period of time. But a team that started building in the early 80s, winning something by 1985, contending in every year for the next eight seasons: Some of the best Blue Jays teams and best Blue Jays players never won anything more than a playoff spot.
Alomar, clearly, was the best Blue Jay weíve seen, and may be the only retired number for some time. Maybe down the road Roy Halladay will have his number retired, but the feeling would never be the same. He was never part of anything resembling a championship here. Same with Carlos Delgado. Itís harder to celebrate greatness from teams that were never more than mediocre.
Itís easy to anoint Alomar the best of all Blue Jays and far more difficult to determine the best Leaf of all-time. My choice has always been Dave Keon, but thatís purely personal and from my era as a kid, but then you look at where Keon would rank among the best players in hockey history, and heís nowhere close to top.
My father always thought the best Leaf he ever saw was Syl Apps. Then you can get an argument for Ted Kennedy, for Turk Broda, for Johnny Bower, for Frank Mahovlich, and for two and a half seasons Doug Gilmour.
You wouldnít use best ever to describe any of those.
The Bruins had Bobby Orr. The Canadiens had Rocket Richard and Jean Beliveau and Guy Lafleur. The Blackhawks had Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita and Glenn Hall. The Red Wings had Gordie Howe, Steve Yzerman, Terry Sawchuk, now Nicklas Lidstrom.
And the Leafs had Keon, whose number has not been honoured by the team because he wonít allow it to happen. This is where the Leafs and Keon are wrong. What happened Sunday afternoon at the Rogers Centre wasnít really for Roberto Alomar: It was for the fans, those in attendance, those watching on television, those who remember. The Leafs should honour Keon, whether or not he wants to attend, because itís doing something for the fans. They would be honouring a period of time and a memory those old enough to share would appreciate, even if Keon chooses to hold grudges against those who are long dead.
The best Raptor ever? Vince Carter. There will be no parade for him. There is little to celebrate in the basketball history of this city. The second best Raptor? Chris Bosh. A good player, but nowhere near the list of all-time greats. There are no Birds, no Magics, no Cousys, no Kobes in the Raptors history. This is the Toronto franchise for this era of inconsequential. There is no one player to point to, no real future to believe in.
The best Leaf today? Thatís a challenging question. Maybe Phil Kessel. Maybe James Reimer. Maybe Dion Phaneuf. The Hall of Fame doesnít exactly await.
The only best in the city right now is Jose Bautista, and should he remain atop this enormous mountain he has climbed, then maybe one day he will have both championship acclaim and his name on the Rogers Centre wall.
Some cities are blessed to have Tom Brady and Tim Thomas and Bill Belichick and Doc Rivers and Big Papi all at the very same time. Weíve never been one of those cities. We appreciate the greatness of Roberto Alomar, partially because of how he played, and partially because weíve never known anyone like him, in any sport, before or since.