TORONTO -- A chilling wind shot through the corridors of this city's shiny, sky-scraped downtown yesterday morning. The streets were empty. It was Thanksgiving Day in Canada. Everyone was home. Except for the people without homes.
At the intersection of Shuler and Jarvis, on the edge of downtown, several hundred of Toronto's homeless gathered for a free turkey dinner at the Salvation Army's Harbour Light Center. There were families. There were men and women by themselves. They turned up their collars against the wind and waited in bright sunshine.
At a little after noon, a white Jeep pulled up in front. Dave Stewart popped out.
The other Toronto Blue Jays were already in Chicago, working out at Comiskey Park in advance of Game 6 of the American League playoffs tonight. It's a game that could deliver the Jays' second straight pennant. A game Stewart will start. The biggest game of the year. The very situation for which the Jays sank free-agent millions into Stewart, the top pressure pitcher of his generation.
All of that was far from his mind yesterday, though.
"Baseball is tomorrow," he said. "Today is coming here and making sure these people have a nice holiday meal and a comfortable afternoon."
He came up with the idea two months ago, when he discovered that Canada celebrated Thanksgiving six weeks before the United States. He donated some of the money and raised the rest by asking for help from sponsors. Around 600 meals were prepared. The Salvation Army passed out meal tickets on the streets and at its family services center.
There has always been a similar Christmas dinner at the Harbour Lights Center, but never one on Thanksgiving. Until Dave Stewart called.
"It's just a terrific thing, obviously," said Theo Kurthof, the chef at the center. "A famous man with time for people in need."
Many are the athletes who just donate their name and money, but Stewart's hands-on concern for the greater good is a matter of record. A native of Oakland, he spent days at a collapsed overpass after the World Series earthquake four years ago. He sponsors Boys Club chapters and started a non-profit agency that runs sports programs for Bay Area kids. He gives time to Volunteers of America and Planned Parenthood.
"It's a selfish thing to make all that money and keep it to myself," he said, standing outside the center during a brief break, dressed in jeans and a Salvation Army sweat shirt. "I hand-pick what I do, and I don't come by it lightly. It's been going on for 20 years. I've been community-oriented since I got into baseball. I've just gotten more involved as I've gotten more money."
He has held a Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless in Oakland, so it made sense to him to put one on here. It didn't matter a bit, of course, that Toronto is his rented hometown in a foreign country.
"People are people," he said. "It's not their fault that they're homeless or underprivileged. To me, they're people, deserving people, who have just had bad breaks. It's a terrible problem everywhere."
He helped provide 800 pounds of turkey, tall piles of potatoes and vegetables, 40 gallons of gravy, pans and pans of dressing and a choice of apple or pumpkin pie. There was ice cream for kids.
The diners ate with white plastic forks on bright blue and red tablecloths. There were whites, blacks, Asians, Eskimos, Indians, some in better shape than others. Stewart sat at their tables while they ate, talking, listening.
His plan was to spend the afternoon with them, then catch an evening commercial flight to Chicago. Ordinarily a team might frown on a pitcher putting in such a hectic, non-baseball day before such a big start. Not this time.
"[Manager] Cito [Gaston] and the organization are behind me very strongly," he said.
His presence drew a small horde of reporters, to his mild dismay. He doesn't seek attention for his community work, but, asked in a Sunday news conference why he wasn't accompanying the team to Chicago, he was stuck.
"Media coverage isn't something I'm looking for," he said. "I want people to come here, eat and feel comfortable. Not be ashamed to come."
He spoke to reporters for about five minutes. Someone asked about tonight's game.
It didn't sound right. Stewart didn't answer the question.
"Things happen every day to put baseball in perspective," he said. "The loss of a young life. The death of a grandmother. Cancer. Leukemia. Things that put sports in the proper perspective."
Like a warm meal for an empty stomach on a cold holiday afternoon.
AL PLAYOFFS TONIGHT
(Blue Jays lead series, 3-2)
Site: Comiskey Park, Chicago
White Sox starter: Alex Fernandez (0-1, 1.13 in ALCS)
Blue Jays starter: Dave Stewart (1-0, 1.50 in ALCS)
TV/radio: Chs. 11, 9; WBAL (1090 AM)