How long can you hold a grudge in major league baseball? It turns out in my case, it’s about 21 years. I can recall learning about the baseball strike from the news in August of 1994 and making a snap declaration that as a fan, I was finished. The game had been as much a part of my formative education throughout the 80’s and early 90’s, my spiritual nourishment, if you will, as math textbooks and peanut butter sandwiches, and as I pored over the announcement, a glum pallor darkening my face, it felt as though something else was being ripped away. I took it personally, as did many others of my generation, because it was all too personal indeed.
Over the preceding couple of years, the Toronto Blue Jays, after three false starts where they had won the American League East (in ’85, ’89 and ’91 respectively) but choked and collapsed in the first round of the playoffs, had established themselves as the best team in baseball, winning back-to-back World Series in ’92 and ’93. I have a distinct recollection of being in a high school economics class the day after Toronto dropped the first game of the ’92 ALCS to Oakland and overhearing my teacher chatting with a couple of my classmates, muttering confidently that “I don’t think they’re going to win.” (Somehow, I recall even more distinctively the boldface emphasis on the pessimistic ‘don’t’.) I acknowledged the possibility then that we were going to see the heartbreak we had known threefold before happen again, but I think I had more faith than anyone else I knew back then. I’d grown up watching those guys, soaking in a few dozen games a season in person at the damp and freezing Exhibition Stadium, and the rest on television or static-wracked AM radio drifting into my ears in a dark bedroom long into the night, past the threshold of sleep. Some of my early heroes were long off the roster by ’92. My old Dave Stieb jersey didn’t fit anymore. But no matter the lineup, the Blue Jays were what they’d always been: a team that you couldn’t help but root for. There have been MLB squads that have inspired deep contempt, and even individual, arrogant players you were happy to see humiliated, but the Jays have never been that. Since they debuted in April 1977 in a field full of snow, they have been the perennial underdogs scratching and scraping for victory, fueled not for the veneration of egos but entirely by the cheers of their fans.
So it was in 1992 and 1993, when the SkyDome bulged with capacity crowds each night and the Blue Jays responded with play that dazzled even the cynical. When Joe Carter hit his famous three-run walk-off home run to win the ’93 Series and leaped about the bases, for Blue Jays fans this was as good as it got. And it would have to be, for a long time. Carter’s blast would be a memory drawn repeatedly from the vaults and polished raw to once again feel some of its light on our faces in the years that followed, as the triumphant Toronto squad of those rosy, invincible days, their armor chinked badly by the strike of 1994, fell to tattered pieces and languished in the cellar of the A.L. East, watching once easily-dispatched rivals soar to championship berths. People stopped going to the games. Record highs in attendance dwindled to record lows. New players came and went, the management tried to spruce up the team’s appearance with would-be stylish black and silver uniforms, but the response was a collective indifference, as there now stood a permanent wedge between the Blue Jays and its fans. Unlike the embarrassing Maple Leafs, who could fail for decades on end and still draw capacity crowds, the Jays’ penance, and their road to atonement, was to be long and brutal.
I went to a few games here and there during that dry spell, if someone happened to have an extra ticket they couldn’t use that day. As I walked into the stadium, the air smelled listless, the crackle that infused it in the 90’s merely a musty remnant that had long seeped deep beyond reach beneath the concrete pillars. The banners hanging from the rafters above center field, commemorating old victories under the classic, abandoned bird-in-profile logo, were like relics from a forgotten century, the belongings of a different team. Baseball is perhaps unique among sports for its ability to hold within it a special sort of melancholy, as if the best part of the game has always been the nostalgia for glories of the past. Before me then in those later years, an interchangeable cast of well-meaning but forgettable newcomers swung their bats and circled the bases to a largely indifferent, much reduced crowd. When everyone rose to participate in the seventh-inning stretch to the Blue Jays’ old anthem, it was with resignation, not enthusiasm. Undoubtedly there were those who never stopped believing, who continued to wander the desert with the team and latch onto every spark of life, no matter how fleeting, but I wasn’t one of them. The promise made in 1994 held firm, and there was no sense that it would ever be reneged.
The Toronto Blue Jays of 2015 started their season with what promised to be another year of aspiration without realization; win-loss record bouncing about the .500 mark, fan favorites like the homegrown Brett Lawrie traded away, the always troublesome pitching blowing surefire leads and leaving the undermatched offense to struggle at catch-up until the whole enterprise struggled to a close in late September, playoff berths remaining the stuff of dreams. As late as the end of July it felt as though we would once again be fated to watch the wealthy and hated New York Yankees walk away with the AL East from the discomforting perspective of a perennial third or fourth-place berth, myself tuning in once in a while out of nothing more than an old, much-dwindled blue flame of curiosity. But in the tradition of the dramatic turn on which the outcome of a baseball game can hinge, the Toronto Blue Jays made key trades at the July deadline and in the process discovered who they were again; they went from middling to great.
Losing the error-prone Jose Reyes and a handful of mediocre pitching prospects to secure the services of Troy Tulowitzki, Ben Revere and David Price seems, in very short hindsight, to be the stuff of brilliance. What cannot be acquired through trades, however, is the sort of spirit that the 2015 Blue Jays version 2.0 have built over the past month. This is a team in every sense of the word; even from the benches and from the living room you can tell that this is a group of guys who genuinely like each other and love baseball even more. Last Tuesday, when the unlikely Ryan Goins blasted a two-run home run to secure a walk-off victory in the tenth inning against the Cleveland Indians, his teammates mobbed him as he circled to home plate as though they had just won the division. These guys are all in and all for one, and that drive has spread to the city of Toronto and indeed the entire country as the people have come pouring back, the remainder of the Jays’ home schedule abruptly sold out. In the middle of the 11-game August winning streak that took them from seven games back to the top of the AL East, the Blue Jays held a ceremony inviting back the members of the 1985 squad, the heroes I had watched on those cold aluminum Exhibition Stadium chairs as they posted a franchise-record 99 wins, and the comparison to this year’s crew was obvious and deserved. Those old Blue Jays played to win for the love of the game, and we loved them for it. The same goes for the new Blue Jays. They make us remember why we loved the game in the first place, and why we can continue to love it and cling to the edges of our collective seats, holding our breath and waiting as the pitch is loosed, for the signature crack of ball against bat and the absolute eruption of the masses as it finds the seats over the left-field wall.
There is a month to go and so much still can happen. Perhaps we will look back in another 20 years having elevated Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, R.A. Dickey, Roberto Osuna, Russell Martin, Kevin Pillar and the others to the same echelon we’ve reserved for George Bell, Jesse Barfield, Willie Upshaw, Roberto Alomar, Devon White, Joe Carter and their hallowed brethren. Despite what happens now, the 2015 Blue Jays have accomplished one thing that may not matter in the record books or the history of the sport, but has made a great difference in the life of one specific person: they’ve made me a fan again. You might think of it as climbing aboard a suddenly animated bandwagon, but my relationship with the Blue Jays runs far deeper than that. The funny thing about bandwagons is that they attract followers because the seats are comfortable. In my case, I’ve reconnected with a part of myself that has been slumbering for over twenty years, and I can look back now and recall the fortunate time I once stood in the middle of center field and gazed into the enormity of the stadium and felt that this was somewhere I truly belonged. It was never my destiny to be a player, so I’ll take the next best thing, and cheer for a team that has proven that it deserves to be counted among the best ever to play the game. That’s a bandwagon I think anyone would be happy to ride in.