It was a cold, crisp day, one of far too many that Blue Jay fans endured at “Excruciating Stadium” in the early years of the franchise, when winds off Lake Ontario made sitting though a game at the venerable Exhibition Stadium in Toronto, a challenge.
I believe it was late in the 1979 season, when the Jays’ Rico Carty fouled a line drive back over the screen and into my hands. Unfortunately, due to the cold – and my refusal to wear my glove – the ball bounced off my palm and bounced down a few rows, settling at the feet of a vendor.
This was my first of many meetings with Raphael Platner, a.k.a. “Ralph” (and also known as Raph, Rafe or Raphael).
“Excuse me!?” I shouted to the man in the dark-rimmed glasses, rocking a close-cropped haircut reminiscent of Michael Douglas’ look in 1993’s Falling Down. “Can I please have that ball, please?”
The still anonymous vendor looked down, picked up the ball, and tossed it into my hands while saying, “Ralph – my name is Ralph!”
That was the only “conversation” I ever had with this unique man who personified Toronto sports before passing away earlier this month at the age of 67, marking the end of an era.
While taking in a Jays game with my son Eli a couple of years ago, I saw Platner, looking virtually the same as he did back in ’79, doing what he had been doing since 1963, being the human “StairMaster”, sprinting up and down rows of seats, catering to the whims of Jays’ fans.
When he came to our row, I shouted, “Hi Ralph”. As usual he didn’t reply. But it was then that Eli asked me an important question.
“Daddy,” he asked, “How come you know Ralph’s name but none of the names of the other vendors?”
While I couldn’t answer him then, I later came to realize that it was because of the personal connection I felt to this relative stranger, a man with whom I’d been sharing the emotional highs and lows of watching Toronto’s sports teams perform live for decades.
Trust me; there are few things that bond Torontonians more than the fate of our Maple Leafs and Blue Jays.
Platner and I had something else in common as I too used to schlep metal trays full of soda and snacks at Argo games in the ’70s. The only difference is that I lasted less than a month at the job, while he, strong as a horse and in terrific physical shape, did it for a half a century.
“I didn’t know Raphael the person, but I certainly knew ‘Ralph The Program Guy,’ the legend,” says Toronto Blue Jays broadcaster Mike Wilner. “My earliest memories of Toronto sports fandom involve him, because he was everywhere. Always with the black buzz-cut and dark horn-rimmed glasses, wearing shorts no matter the weather. Before the game, whether it was at [Maple Leaf] Gardens, the Ex or the [Sky]Dome, you’d see Ralph outside selling programs. Once the game started, he was impossible to miss. Sprinting down the steps, he was all business all the time, single-minded of purpose – just to get rid of those programs.
"Hearing the stories of all the bar mitzvah crashing (apparently he had no interest in mine) makes me wish I’d taken time to get to know him. It’s going to be very, very weird to be at a ballgame and not see him, but the legend will most assuredly live on.”
Cantor Charles Osborne of Temple Sinai struck up a friendship with Ralph – not over religion or sports, but rather, classical music.
“Ralph would often show up at Temple after services, but always just in time for the Oneg Shabbat,” laughs Osborne. “He was a believer in Woody Allen’s dictum that 90 per cent of everything is showing up. If there was a spiritual side to Ralph, it would be summed up by the word kavanah – intention – because everything he did was with absolute focus and a strong will. He would share with me his incredible knowledge of music, especially film-score composers and the music scene in Toronto. It was through Ralph that I, someone relatively new to the city, learned of the depth and breadth of all it had to offer. He will be sorely missed.”
Toronto freelance journalist David Bale, who would often chat with Platner over rugelach at Temple Sinai, summed up his feelings about his passing with a few profound words.
“I never thought I’d compare shul with professional sporting events, but going to both will never be the same,” said Bale.
Dan Horowitz is editorial director at UJA Federation of Greater Toronto.