Someone’s Gotta Win, Someone’s Gotta Lose

Ace and Bearemy

This is the indisputable truth whenever two teams step onto the field.  Hardly anyone ever just roots for a good clean game; you’re always hoping your guys make mincemeat of the others.  Before the first pitch flies, when the score is at zero, both squads have the exact same chance to walk off nine innings later with fists pumping the air.  And sometimes you have to swallow that sickening churn in your gut as you watch the other guys do it.  It’s regrettable that the effort and the drama of a 162-game season has to come down to a single pitch, a single swing of the bat, but that is the magic of baseball.  That was how it was in 1993 when Joe Carter won the World Series with his three-run blast to left field.  That’s how it was, with a far more bitter taste, in the heartbreaking ALCS Game 6.

So the incredible saga of the 2015 Toronto Blue Jays ends with Josh Donaldson grounding out to the Kansas City Royals’ Mike Moustakas, with Dalton Pompey and Kevin Pillar stranded at third and second, the Royals victors by a single run achieved by what was admittedly a terrific piece of baserunning by Lorenzo Cain in the bottom of the eighth.  While it would have been wonderful to watch our guys pull ahead and force a Game 7, it wasn’t to be.  The Royals will now take on the New York Mets for the World Series crown.  And you can’t begrudge the Royals for it, either; the ALCS came down to two formidable, equally-matched teams, and while from a statistical perspective you could make a legitimate argument that the Blue Jays were a better team, the Royals simply outplayed them.  They pushed harder, made better use of their scoring opportunities, silenced the Jays’ bats with their world-class bullpen.  The Jays went 0 and 12 with runners in scoring position in Game 6, so you can’t suggest they didn’t have plenty of opportunities to break out a big lead; they just weren’t able to come through.  And that’s not their fault either – sometimes, stats and history can be on your side and yet, plain dumb luck isn’t.  There were a few questionable calls in the game that Jays fans will be wringing their hands over all winter; the waaaay outside second strike called on Ben Revere in the ninth that had him smashing a trash can in the dugout after he whiffed on the next pitch, and a certain bearded young Royals enthusiast who picked what could have been only a double off the outfield wall with his glove and gave the aforementioned Moustakas a dubious home run in the second (I wouldn’t suggest that fan try visiting north of the border any time soon).  Chalk it up to those fickle gods of baseball again; just as often a bad call can break in your favor.  But it is what it is.

As always following a season-ending loss, the temptation to point fingers will be strong.  But just as a man should be remembered for the sum of his life’s achievements and not just how things go on his last day, so too should fans set aside bruised feelings and remember the 2015 Toronto Blue Jays by the sum of the amazing moments they gifted us with throughout a remarkable season, and the goodwill and unity they brought to a city and a country that needed it badly.  For me, there are a few distinct images that will stand out for years to come:

  • The 11-game winning streak following the July trade deadline, when it seemed like the Jays were invincible.
  • The surprise of the mid-summer acquisitions of Troy Tulowitzki, Ben Revere and David Price.
  • Tulo’s first game as a Blue Jay, including his first home run.
  • Every catch made by Kevin Pillar.
  • Sweeping the Yankees in Yankee Stadium.
  • The sage, unflappable cool of old pros R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle.
  • The mighty Edwing.
  • Ryan Goins’ come-from-behind two-run walk-off home run.
  • Justin Smoak’s first career grand slam.
  • Roberto Osuna’s silent moments of prayer before shutting down opposition bats.
  • The unhittable Brett Cecil.
  • Play-by-play man Buck Martinez calling out “Get up, ball!”
  • Russell Martin’s cannon of an arm throwing out base stealers at second.
  • Munenori Kawasaki’s delightfully weird postgame interviews.
  • The inspiring return of the fiery Marcus Stroman from a potentially season-ruining injury, and his motto that “height doesn’t measure heart.”
  • LaTroy Hawkins’ last pitch to clinch the AL East.
  • The unfurling of the “2015 AL East Champions” banner at the Rogers Centre.
  • Marco Estrada’s flawless pitching in Game 3 of the ALDS and Game 5 of the ALCS.
  • Tulowitzki’s season-saving 3-run home run.
  • Accidental pitcher Cliff Pennington’s fastball strike in the horrendous ALCS Game 4.
  • Chants of “MVP” whenever Josh Donaldson stepped to the plate.
  • And of course, no list of such things could be complete without Jose Bautista’s bat flip to end all bat flips.

We’ll remember the disappointment, too, the swings and misses and the lost promise of a World Series crown that will have to wait until October of next year.  But if nothing else, 2015 will be remembered as the year that the Blue Jays shut the door on 22 years of mediocrity and transformed into genuine, fearsome contenders, unable to be dismissed any longer as that average Canadian team that used to be great.  Specific feats cannot be denied:  they won the brutal American League East division and came back from the brink against a tough Texas team to claim the ALDS.  But we saw it too in the way those 25 roster members embraced each other, young and old, newcomers and veterans, and dedicated themselves to the pursuit of a singular goal, collected egos set aside.  R.A. Dickey said that “it’s amazing what you can accomplish when you don’t care who gets the credit.”  For a team with only three native-born sons, the attitude was somehow uniquely Canadian of them.

And Canadians responded.  As their oft-trending hashtag urged, we came together.  The Blue Jays became Canada’s team.  We unleashed a pent-up emotion that was searching all these years for a floodgate through which it could burst.  We finally forgave the hurt that festered from the 1994 strike, we forgot about hockey and filled the stands again to share in the glory and the occasional agony.  There will be kids in tiny Toronto jerseys who will grow up remembering the 2015 Blue Jays as “their” team, and comparing every year that follows to this – just like those of us who came of age with 1992 and 1993.  While the roster will change next year as new faces arrive and old favorites move on, there will always be something particularly special about this iteration of the team, and we’ll look back at them with a reverence that they truly deserve.  In the end the World Series or lack thereof doesn’t really matter.  The Blue Jays have already won victories that can never be taken away.  This was the team that made me a fan again, that made many people across this country fans, either again or for the first time, and as far as I’m concerned, things can only get better from here.  The boys in blue are back.

Thank you so much, 2015 Toronto Blue Jays.  See you in the spring.

Boy, That Escalated Quickly

Sometimes, Ron Burgundy says it best.

Blue Jays fans will not be looking back on Game 4 of the 2015 ALCS with any kind regard.  The Royals annihilated them, opening the wounds with a 4-run first inning and chasing starter R.A. Dickey in the 2nd, leaving Toronto to try and stop the bleeding with a compromised, exhausted bullpen.  With the unhittable Brett Cecil out of the lineup due to a bad-luck calf injury suffered in the ALDS, and Aaron Loup out of the country attending to a family matter, the Jays were left with precious few options as Kansas City turned Dickey’s usually ferocious knuckleball into knuckle sandwiches aimed squarely in Toronto’s collective face.  Aussie Liam Hendriks pitched arguably the best game of his life, giving the Jays over four innings of scoreless relief, but he’s not a long man and with presumably fingers tightly crossed, manager John Gibbons had to turn to the erratic LaTroy Hawkins and the overwhelmed Ryan Tepera, who together let KC’s 5-2 lead transform into a 12-2 blowout.  It got so bad that Gibbons had to use Mark Lowe, who he’d hoped to give the day off, and finally, in a record-setting act of desperation, infielder Cliff Pennington, who watched two more runs come in before the humiliation came to an end.  It was, put simply, the most agonizing game the Blue Jays have played all season long, and as Royal after Royal crossed the plate one wondered if it would not have been better for the Jays to simply throw up their hands and forfeit.  In either case, the Blue Jays are now down to the wire, behind 3 games to 1, and today’s game will either mark the start of a tremendous, unheard-of turnaround, or bluntly, the ignominious end of an otherwise remarkable season.

Should today prove to be the finale of the Blue Jays’ 2015 postseason hopes, it comes as a valuable guidepost for general manager Alex Anthopoulos to assemble his 2016 squad.  The problem, as has so frequently been the case for the Blue Jays, is their pitching staff.  You saw this in the first half of the season, before the acquisition of David Price, as the Jays tried out new arm after new arm in the starting rotation only to see their up-and-comers get destroyed by opposition bats.  The irony is, and despite their struggles, from a statistical perspective the 4-man postseason starting rotation is as good as you could hope:  Price, Stroman, Estrada, and Dickey.  I’d even argue that the Jays starters are on balance better than the Royals’.  However, it’s been made clear that the Royals bullpen phenomenally outmatches the Jays.  Toronto hasn’t been able to score on them, whereas the Royals have been all over the Jays relievers, even dinging the otherwise reliable closer Roberto Osuna for a 2-run shot in the final moments of Game 3.  Though the Blue Jays bats have been relatively quiet during the ALCS, they were unmatched throughout the 2015 season, and will likely grow even stronger as Troy Tulowitzki recovers from his shoulder injury (we’ve seen signs of his potential with his two post-season 3-run homers).  They need to shore up their pitching, pure and simple.

There’s been a lot of talk as to whether the Blue Jays will be able to keep free agent David Price, when every wealthy baseball payroll will be coming after him aggressively.  For what it’s worth, he seems to truly enjoy playing in Toronto, and he’s certainly become a fan favorite in his two-plus months with them.  Let’s be optimistic and say the Jays are able to re-sign him, and let’s be even more optimistic and say they are able to keep Estrada as well.  The offense really doesn’t need to be improved.  That leaves the bullpen, and hoo boy, does it need help.  Game 4 made the holes in it very plain.  Since LaTroy Hawkins is planning to retire and there’s every chance that Mark Buehrle will as well, that frees up some space there.  The Jays can turn former starter Drew Hutchison into a long reliever, in the mold of Bill Caudill or Mark Eichhorn from their 80’s iteration – make him into a guy who can come into a game in an emergency in the second and pitch you into the seventh, or they can sign a starter from another team specifically for that role.  Ryan Tepera, for whom one felt nothing but sympathy yesterday, clearly needs more fine-tuning and should head back to the minors.  And while whatever is happening with Aaron Loup’s family is obviously very serious and not his fault, the truth is he’s never been a solid performer and the Jays need to fill his spot on the roster with a much more reliable, hard-throwing lefty – someone like the Texas Rangers’ Jake Diekman, who can blast batters with 97, 98 mph fastballs for one or two innings (and was something of a nemesis for the Jays’ bats in the ALDS).  And finally, Brett Cecil needs to watch his damn legs.  The Blue Jays need an even balance of hard-throwing lefty and righty arms, so that they never find themselves again in a situation like now, where they are undermined by injuries and random chance.

While the playoffs have been going on, the Jays quietly signed switch-pitcher Pat Venditte, who should prove interesting to watch assuming he makes the team next season.  The long and the short of it is that a bullpen with the caliber approaching that shown by Kansas City will make the difference between the team the Jays are right now and a team that can utterly dominate the league next year.  (Of course, this is all me doing my Monday-morning quarterbacking routine – pardon the mixed sports metaphor – and one would assume that Anthopoulos and incoming President Mark Shapiro are well aware of where their team’s weaknesses lie.  Hopefully Rogers gives them the money they need to make the moves they have to.)

What’s left for us fans then, as our boys in blue once again look down the barrel of elimination?  Pennington provided a lonely moment of joy for the dejected Jays in the dugout and the fans who bothered to stick around to the end by nailing his first fastball for a 91-mph called strike.  Estrada, who goes back to the mound today against Edinson Volquez (the notorious Donaldson-beaner who blanked the Blue Jays in Game 1), was uneven in his first outing but has the capacity to be dominant when he’s on – witness his salvation of the Blue Jays in ALDS Game 3.  He’ll need to be.  And Jose Bautista needs to Hulk out and start blasting some balls into the stratosphere.  The conspiracy theorist in me wonders if the Royals might be tempted to lay off a bit today and let the Jays force a Game 6 so they can win the series at Kauffman Stadium in front of their own fans.  But as anyone who follows the sport can tell you, the baseball gods are often fickle, and as good as Kansas City has been thus far, there is every possibility that they might just go completely off the rails now (recall that the Houston Astros almost eliminated them just a week or so ago), and give the Blue Jays the chance – with Price and Stroman slated for Games 6 and 7, if they happen – to come back from the brink, just as the Royals themselves did in 1985 against this very same team.  It’s baseball; anything can happen.

If this is it, well, the Toronto Blue Jays have nothing to be ashamed of.  Eventually every wave comes up against rocks upon which it breaks, and the Blue Jays in 2015 went from a middling, undervalued team playing to barely 20,000 fans a game to undisputed, stadium-packing champions of the toughest division in baseball for the first time in 22 years, with every indication that they will continue to be contenders for years to come.  Even if they fall short this time.  Remember too that the Jays lost the ALCS in 1991 before roaring back to win their twin World Series titles in the following two years.  There is every reason to hope that they can and will do it again.  I’m not giving up on them yet.  You?

Triumph of a Heavyweight

As a malaprop-prone former U.S. President might have put it, they misunderestimated him.

It’s a dark Tuesday morning, the blue jays (birds, not baseball team) are swiping peanuts from the feeder outside and I’m sipping on my homemade caramel latte, watching CBC Newsworld recap the incredible achievement of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party in the 2015 federal election.  The voters of Canada, who at the outset of the unprecedentedly-lengthy campaign had seemed content to muddle on with the same old crew of Conservatives for another few years, turfed them with a resounding choice for positive change.  The Liberals won 184 seats – 14 more than was needed for a majority – in a 338-seat House of Commons, whose recent redistricting was supposed to have favoured the Conservative incumbents.  That’s seven more seats than Jean Chretien managed in his best performance in 1993, and in each of his victories he had been running against a divided right.  Crushed in the red tide was Tom Mulcair and the New Democrats, who will be trundling back to their old, familiar berth of third place after flirting with the possibility of power in early polls back in August.  Departing the political stage entirely will be Stephen Harper, and while the temptation to bid him good riddance and thanks for nothing is strong, to do so would run contrary to the sentiment provided in Trudeau’s inspiring acceptance speech, that “Conservatives are not our enemies, they are our neighbours.”  Fair enough.  Best to focus then on the man of the hour, and the man who will guide Canada for at least the next four years.

For years, Conservative supporters, both from prominent mainstream media perches and flailing at the keyboard in dank basements, have tried to dismiss all criticism of their party’s policies as “Harper Derangement Syndrome.”  Basically, that any legitimate argument one might make against the Conservatives is automatically rendered moot because it must originate from a place of deep, embittered loathing of the popular kid, because he’s just so awesome.  Even before he won the leadership of the Liberal Party, Justin Trudeau endured a far more acute case of “Trudeau Derangement Syndrome” from those on both the near and extreme right.  All style and no substance was the theme of the more complimentary of the relentless slams against him – some of which are far too ugly to reference here.  The pattern of the intent was to utterly belittle and destroy the public image of a man whom those in power recognized, quite rightly as it turns out, presented a formidable challenge to the rightward tilt they were trying to shove a largely progressive country.  You saw this in the early days of the rumblings of Trudeau’s candidacy for the Liberal leadership in 2012 after interim chief Bob Rae withdrew himself from consideration.  Innumerable op-eds and website comments penned by sympathetic-sounding Conservatives suggested that Justin Trudeau at its head meant the end of the Liberal Party as a viable force in Canadian politics, and the Liberals should really pick someone else if they want to get back to relevance, maybe in two elections or so.  There is a term for this, as you know:  concern troll.

In June 2012 I wrote a piece about it.  I suggested that these sentiments were appearing because the Conservatives were afraid that they couldn’t beat someone who had the capacity to inspire hope and a desire for positive change the way Barack Obama did.  The morning after I published it, I was dropping my wife off at the train station when my phone began to buzz and ding and buzz, over and over again.  I opened it and discovered this tweet:

trudeautweet

Needless to say, I was as bowled over as it is possible for a neophyte, unknown writer to be.  I got almost 3,600 hits on my site that day (it had been averaging a mere 20), a whackload of new Twitter followers, and a plethora of comments agreeing with me and hoping that what I had written about would eventually come to pass.  Not too long afterwards, Trudeau declared for the leadership, won it convincingly, and set about rebuilding the battered Liberal Party and getting it into fighting shape to contest the coming election.  I’m not going to pretend I’m a soothsayer or that I had any influence whatsoever in what followed.  That credit goes entirely to Trudeau, his family and his incredible team of supporters and volunteers who battled with him for three long years, under the interminable assault of Conservative war chest-funded attack ads highlighting out-of-context quotes, and a compliant corporate media all to eager to jump on everything that might be interpreted as a gaffe given the proper spin – anything to reinforce the meme that had been established to keep Trudeau out of contention, to force his support down into the low teens so that the election would come down to a fight between the veteran, battle-hardened Conservatives and the untested NDP with its roll of accidental MP’s left over from the 2011 Jack Layton surge.

But it sure is nice to be proven right.

Not long after he won the Liberal leadership, Trudeau disappointed a few of the old diehard politicos by publicly declaring that he would not resort to negative attacks.  Surely, they argued, the game has changed, and if you’re not willing to punch hard then you risk being defined before you can define yourself.  When the Just Not Ready campaign fired into gear, it looked as though it was Dion/Ignatieff all over again.  Initial response suggested that the ads weren’t working and that there was even some backlash, but as they lingered and repeated ad nauseum ad absurdum, the effectiveness of the Big Lie began to seep in to the Canadian consciousness, abetted by media overreaction to off-the-cuff comments.  Maybe he wasn’t ready after all?  Eventually, Trudeau’s numbers started to sink.  When he supported the loathed Bill C-51 (which everyone forgets was going to pass even if the entire Liberal caucus spent the day of the vote in the Bahamas, and that Trudeau was able to get some of the more odious language removed through amendments because he offered public support, i.e. political cover, hence him making the best of a truly rotten situation) and the NDP surprised everyone by winning government in deep blue Alberta, the Liberals plummeted to third and progressive Canada turned its lonely eyes to Mulcair as its only possible salvation.  It was a rough time to be sure.  But faith untested is not true faith.  And as the Toronto Blue Jays have proven time and again this year, real fighters are never down for the count.

One of the most execrable yet pivotal moments of the campaign came when smug Conservative spokesperson Kory Teneycke (he who failed utterly to establish Fox News North) sneered that Trudeau could exceed expectations for the first leader’s debate simply by showing up wearing pants.  It crystallized what Trudeau was up against:  a party drunk on its own press releases, bulging with establishment bloat, so enamored of themselves and so contemptuous of anyone who dared question them that they were practically begging, like a political Biff Tannen, for a good old-fashioned solid left hook to the jaw.  Which Trudeau promptly delivered.  Not a knockout, but as Trudeau the boxer would certainly explain, a much more effective solid series of jabs, over and over again.  Debate after debate.  Event after event.  Rally after rally.  People listened.  People got on board.  Trudeau turned “Just Not Ready” to his own advantage.  I am ready, he declared, and set about proving it.  The other established media meme, that the Conservatives were brilliant campaigners, was wiped out, as true to form, they could not seem to answer what Trudeau was offering voters, their collected intellect unable to compute why Canadians wanted to hear more than just promises of tax cuts and overwrought head scarf hysteria.  But, they cried, we balanced the budget!  We sent you all free (not really) cheques!  But a country, Trudeau said, in words echoing the great statesmen of the past, is far, far more than how much money you have in your pocket at the end of the day.  A country is an idea, formed by the hopes of its people, greater than the sum of its parts,  and much stronger when unified in a bold vision than when stymied by exaggerated regional differences for the sake of a few swing votes.  Canadians want something positive to believe in together; exemplified best, perhaps, by the excitement of the Blue Jays’ 2015 playoff run.  We were thirsting for it so badly and didn’t even realize it.  And Justin Trudeau was giving it to us.

As numbers for the Liberals began to climb, the concern trolls bounded back into gear.  The polls are wrong, they bleated.  Look what happened in the UK.  Conservative support is always underestimated, the youth won’t come out to vote, seniors love the Conservatives, “shy Tories” will ultimately turn this election in favour of Harper.  It’s all going to collapse, and such a shame, we would’ve voted Liberal if only you’d picked the astronaut.  Okay, fine, whatever.  The Conservatives’ cash register stunt, hysterical warnings of legalized brothels and the dragging out of the Ford brothers in the final week showed the flailing desperation of a side that knows they’ve lost, and most telling of all were Harper’s visits to what had been thought of as safe Conservative ridings in the final days.  “Just Not Ready” kept running on TV, but Trudeau’s numbers kept rising, and the NDP fell away as the large progressive Canadian majority pledged its troth to the man who had defined himself in the long, long campaign that was supposed to have bankrupted his party.  A last ditch attempt by Postmedia ownership to swing support back to Harper by having all its newspapers endorse the Conservatives was fruitless, and probably did more to insult the intelligence of the Canadian voter than it did to move numbers to Team Blue.  Still, we were warned, the best Liberals can hope for is a decent minority.  Harper might even be able to cling to power if he gets a small plurality of seats.  We’ll be back at this in six months.

As Troy Tulowitzki smashed another three-run home run last night in what would become an 11-8 victory for Toronto over Kansas City and a cutting of KC’s lead in the ALCS in half, the returns started to come in, heralded by Atlantic Canada with its complete Liberal sweep.  Then came Quebec, shrugging off most of the 2011 NDP wave and giving the Liberals the highest total of seats they’d earned in the province since the first Trudeau won his final election in 1980.  Ontario shut the Conservatives out of The Six and most of the 905, and as polls closed in the west and Canadian political junkies flipped back and forth from Game 3 to Peter Mansbridge, the unexpected, the undreamed of, became reality.  You had to just stop and soak it in for a long moment.  1-8-4.  A freaking majority.

Wow.

It is not possible, I think, to overstate the accomplishment of Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party in this election, coming back from the doldrums of a little over 30 seats to a solid mandate to establish a new and uniquely hopeful and very much Canadian tone of governance for the next four years.  Coming back from being written off only a few months ago as a lightweight with a famous name, unsuited to step into the ring with the big boys.  It’s difficult not to compare the tone of this moment to the election of Barack Obama.  In Trudeau’s victory speech, he invoked Abraham Lincoln (and The West Wing) in referring to the better angels of our nature, before reminding us again, as he had many times on the campaign trail, that in Canada, better is always possible.  Many of us knew this all along.  And now we have the right person with the right team for the right time to make better happen.  I won’t lie.  It feels amazing today.  Today has more promise than most of the yesterdays in the past ten years, and we can look to tomorrow with excitement and anticipation, as we just watch him.

I don’t write about politics very often anymore.  My focus has changed as I’ve grown older, become a father, diverted my interests and attentions.  But I think often about what I wrote about Justin Trudeau three years ago, how it connected with him that day, and how generous he was to share my thoughts with the people who supported him.  (And I’m just a little bit proud that he still follows me on Twitter.)  But I couldn’t let today pass without writing the words that I hoped I might be able to one day, when I first clicked “publish” on Justin Trudeau vs. the Concern Trolls and sent it out into the world:

Congratulations, Mr. Prime Minister.  And thank you.

Clutch

jays

The climax of the film Moneyball (spoilers!) hinges on a single moment in a single game.  The Oakland A’s are looking to win their 20th straight and have, against odds, blown an 11-0 lead in the late innings.  Scott Hatteberg (played by Chris Pratt), a slumping catcher-turned-first baseman upon whom general manager Billy Beane has been piling his hopes for proving his sabermetric approach to baseball – and who has been benched over and over by disbelieving manager Art Howe – steps to the plate.  As if suddenly cast into a remake of The Natural, the unassuming Hatteberg swings hard and blasts a triumphant walk-off home run.  Baseball is full of these cinematic moments, and we saw another one last night.

Texas fans had to have been feeling pretty confident as they strolled into the familiar confines of Arlington after taking two straight from the AL East-winning Blue Jays at Toronto’s Rogers Centre (I still want to call it SkyDome), games in which Toronto’s league-leading offense fizzled in opportunity after opportunity.  Likewise, Toronto fans were simmering a bit in their dejection after such an otherwise inspiring season.  To see it end after all that in three straight, barely out of the postseason starting gate, would have been an odious fate worthy of the perennially terrible Maple Leafs.  But as the game wound its way into the middle innings, we started to see reminders of why obituaries and thoughts of sweeps were terribly premature.

Marco Estrada, a pitcher who began the season in the bullpen and who had gone somewhat unheralded given the headline-grabbing flash of the duo of David Price and Marcus Stroman, threw a nearly flawless sextet of innings.  The Rangers simply could not hit him or take advantage of the few times they were able to get guys on base.  If Game 1 was undone by a weaker-than-usual Price outing, and Game 2 ultimately undermined by a late failure by an exhausted bullpen, Estrada’s crystalline throws had to have delivered some inspiration to the bats, letting them work the small ball for a pair of runs instead of needing those massive – and risky – wild swings that can pay off with moonshots but more often than not lead to inning-ending strikeouts.  Buoyed by Estrada, the Jays notched a cheap 2, then found themselves in the sixth with the bases loaded, nobody out, and Texas starter Martin Perez – who had done the Jays the immense courtesy of walking in a run – heading for the benches.  Reliever Chi Chi Gonzalez got Chris Colabello to ground into a head-desking double play, the fourth time the Jays had done that in the night, and it looked as though another golden opportunity was about to be blown.

Then Troy Tulowitzki stepped into the batter’s box.

You can argue about your favorite players, and scream “MVP” every time Josh Donaldson runs out onto the field, but Tulo is for me the embodiment the 2015 Toronto Blue Jays – talented, driven, and oftentimes as frustrating as not, but ever possessed of the innate capacity to deliver down to the last strike of the last out.  Arriving halfway through the season and cast immediately into the role of leadoff man, Tulowitzki impressed with a home run in his very first game as a Jay, and with the rockets tossed across the field to retire sprinting batters at first.  But his bat abruptly cooled off, and the camera shot of him shuffling back to the dugout after whiffing on a third strike had become a familiar sight.  Manager John Gibbons eventually dropped Tulo to the middle of the order, giving the speedy Ben Revere a chance to shine as the leadoff man, but the bat still wasn’t connecting.  And then came that horrible moment in early September where a collision with Kevin Pillar cracked Tulo’s shoulder blade and put him out of commission until the very last games of the season.  Was this to be a harbinger of the Jays’ fates?  As Toronto clinched the division and then sputtered out with a couple of embarrassing losses, the stench of heartbreak years like 1985, 1989 and 1991 came wafting back.  Toronto’s middling performances in Games 1 and 2 reminded us of the old hated “Blow Jays” epithet.  Tulo, likewise, though he had worked hard in rehab to make it back into the lineup and was playing through pain, was back to a thus-far unremarkable season as a Blue Jay.

With two on and two out, Tulowitzki worked the count, and as the insipid FS1 color commentators lauded the Texas defense and pitching strategy (Harold Reynolds annoyed an entire nation with his snide comment about how Canadians can’t catch), it seemed like the late Yogi Berra’s deja vu all over again.  A game earlier, Texas had walked Edwin Encarnacion on purpose because they figured Tulo would be an easier out – which then, he had been.  As the count rose to the pivotal 3-2, here came Gonzalez with a changeup.  Over the plate.

Tulo swung.

It wasn’t one of those hits where you know, right at the crack of the bat, that this one is going to end up in the parking lot.  But there it went.  Faster.  Further.  Rangers outfielders looked up.  Watched it go.  Higher.  Deeper.

Gone.

All across Canada, living rooms exploded.  The Jays fans who had made the trek to Arlington did their best to fill a suddenly quiet stadium with roars.

And Troy Tulowitzki, the happiest man in the ballpark, rounded the bases, touched home plate, and high-fived his teammates, perhaps in his professional athlete’s mind not realizing the significance of that precise moment.  With that one clutch blast, he had saved the Blue Jays’ postseason.

Baseball never lets you dismiss the underestimated.

Texas managed to put up one run on a fielder’s choice in the bottom of the 6th, but suddenly inspired relievers Aaron Loup, Mark Lowe, Aaron Sanchez and Roberto Osuna did their jobs with efficiency and aplomb and shut down the remainder of the Rangers’ lineup.  And with that, on a 5-1 triumph, the Jays were still in it.  Game 4 sees knuckleballer R.A. Dickey becoming the oldest player to make his postseason debut, looking to even up the series and bring it back to Toronto for what one hopes will be the comeback victory of the decade, and on to the ALCS, even greater things and even greater moments.

For today though, Troy Tulowitzki has proven why he’s worthy to wear that blue uniform and stand on the field with those other guys every single night.  He came through.  delivered when it mattered.  He gave the game its Hatteberg-in-Moneyball scene.

A nation still has its hopes today.

Let’s go Blue Jays.

Vintage, Part Nineteen… yes, nineteen

vintagetitle

It’s been a while!  For those who are wondering where Part Eighteen is, you didn’t miss it, it’s just not here.  If you’ve been following the story up to this point, you’ve been following the evolution of the relationship between the two leads, and it came to a point where there was a certain inevitable destination.  That involved a bit of raciness that I think I handled rather maturely and tastefully, but at the same time I understand there are those who follow my site but don’t do it to be confronted with that sort of thing.  So Part Eighteen is only over at the Wattpad site.  (You can still leave comments on this post for it, if you like.)  In the meantime, here is the next chapter.

Warm night breezes and the lulling crash of surf nudged him awake.  The sky was without a moon, but it was more stars than dark, spilling a rich sheen of cobalt over the world, to whatever private corner of it she had whisked them away.  A cool satin sheet beneath them reflected the starlight and shielded bare bodies from the grit of the sand.  Etienne lifted his head and saw her pressed against him, one leg interlocked with his, propping her head on a bent elbow and tracing a gentle line down the center of his chest with her fingertips.  She was smiling, but her eyes were narrow, intense, full of purpose.

“You’re mine now,” Nightingale breathed, in a hue that was peculiarly sinister, belittling and foreboding.  “Completely… and utterly.”

A snap of cold split Etienne’s spine.  He shivered.  “W-what?”

She stopped and inched closer.  A flash of purple energy lined her irises.

Suddenly she corpsed and burst into a giddy, girlish laugh.  “Oh, goodness me, of course not.  You should see your face.”

“I don’t–”

Nightingale’s long hair danced in the delicate wind as she shook her head.  “Are you worried the evil temptress enslaved your immortal soul with her mystical sex powers?”

“Well, I–”

“Oh, please.  Aren’t Commissionaires supposed to be experts on witches?  Do you know who came up with ridiculous notions like that?  Very lonely men on very cold nights.”  She crawled in next to him and invited him to wrap his arm around her.  “Silly, silly boy.”

An embarrassed blush tinged his cheeks.  “It’s not cold here,” he said, absently.

“This is my favorite place,” Nightingale replied.  “Serene.  Worlds away from the world.”

“Thank you for sharing it with me.”

“You’re welcome.”  She closed her eyes.

Etienne held her and let thoughts wander with her gentle breathing and the waves lapping at the shore.  It was so strange.  He could remember little of what intimacy with Nightingale had felt like.  The precise recollections of kissing her and tasting her and having her, the sheer rapture that had been so fiery was blurred by the gray fog of old dreams from a thousand years ago, beyond his capacity for clear description as though he was a journeyman challenged to reproduce a masterpiece seen in a fleeting glimpse.  He felt smaller.  For an instant he had brushed against a fragment of greatness – something that perhaps was never truly meant for him – and now he was watching it drift up and away from his reach.  Even as he lay on her beach with her soft body warming his, even as he lost his eyes in the canopy of a million stars, he could sense this biting truth cementing itself in his mind.

The boy fleeing from his dying father’s bedside wanted to rant and rave and scream that it wasn’t fair.  The man on a distant island shore reflecting on what had transpired and what was to come understood it could not be anything else, that illusions of fairness were just that.

“Will you ever tell me your name?” he asked her quietly, afraid of disturbing her if she had fallen asleep.

The witch stirred.  “I’ve grown rather fond of ‘Nightingale,’” she said.  “There’s an old saying about making an enemy’s label into a statement of agency for yourself.”  Nightingale climbed on top of him and paraded her fingers along his skin.  “The nightingale is mysterious, soulful, romantic, a muse to the poets.  Why wouldn’t I embrace something so beautiful?”

“It does suit you.  To be honest, I can’t imagine calling you anything else.”  He slid his hands over the small of her back.  “Is it who you really are?”

“Who am I to you, Etienne?  Does anything else matter?”

He nodded.  “It does.”

“You want to hear that story.  The story of the little girl with the special gifts who was beaten by her mother and touched by her father, before she ran away to escape a nightmare of a life that seemed determined to crush her.  Who discovered that she could shatter the limits the small-minded had shackled her with and create a new person out of the bones of the broken child.  Who learned to take ownership of herself and of the magic that had scared everyone so, and in so doing became more powerful than she ever could have dreamed.  Who dedicated herself to preventing any other little girls from enduring what she did.”  She spoke of these things without any hesitation in her voice.  “You should know that who we really are is not something that can be captured in a name, a title, or in a word, particularly one applied by somebody else.  We define who we are in the choices we make.”  Nightingale scooped a handful of sand and let it sift grain by grain through her fingers onto his chest.  She infused it with wisps of magic so that each fragment glowed violet as it tumbled and collected in a tiny pile.  “We build ourselves from moment to moment, collecting our own truths, and for a time we exist as the sum of our experiences, growing a little more each day.”

“I have this idea of a future with you,” Etienne said.  “We are standing arm in arm, watching the Bureau Centrale collapsing in massive flames that singe the clouds.  Then a huge celebration erupts throughout Calerre.  Statues fall, voices sing and wine flows, and thousands of women emerge from the shadows they’ve hidden in their entire lives, because for the first time, they have the promise of tomorrow.  They are looking to someone to thank, and they look for us, but we’re gone.  No one sees us ever again.  We find a place like this one, lush and full of bounty, and we build a house, or rather, I watch as you spin it into existence with your spells, because I never learned how to use a hammer.  We breakfast with the sunrise and dine as the sky turns red, and in between we walk on the beach and climb trees and laugh and dance and make love.  It’s not all bliss, of course; sometimes we fight, sometimes I storm out and slam the door, sometimes you vanish in a flash of light, but we always forgive each other.  One day you tell me that you are expecting, and eventually we have three daughters.  Robin, Raven and Whooping Crane.”

She groaned and gave his cheek a mock slap.

He smiled and went on.  “They are beautiful, like their mother, and like their mother they have the most wondrous powers.  I watch you teach them how to use them with confidence and wisdom.  We scold them when the eldest turns the youngest into a toad, and we smile with pride when one heals the other’s scraped knee.  We watch them grow into formidable young women.  We say goodbye as they head out into the world, and we hold each other and weep after they’ve gone.  After a long while we realize that I’ve grown terribly old, and you are still as young as you are now, and one night I go to sleep in your arms, listening to the song of my nightingale for the last time.  That’s what I dream about.  And here with you now, closer than I’ll ever be, I still dream that it might be possible.  Because it isn’t.”

Nightingale’s smile waned, but she did not correct him.  “The sum of my experiences,” Etienne continued, “are memories and events I wish I could sweep away.  But there are too many.  Too many faces.”  He looked away from her and to the stars.  “Too many tiny lights snuffed out, because of me, because of the choices I made, of my own free will.  There are some sins that cleave too deeply into the heart.  Old wounds that will always ache and bleed.  Someone like me does not deserve the romantic ending that I would want to have.  Someone like me needs to be forgotten, his particular page in history torn clean from the book and crumpled like a draft full of amateur errors.”  Etienne turned his eyes to hers again.  “The cruel joke of it is that after all this time, I think I finally understand the truth of what it is to love someone.  To love in its purest, most incorruptible form, and to know you will carry that love to the last of your brief fragments of mortal time.  Even if she doesn’t and shouldn’t love you in return.”

Etienne reached up to caress her cheek, knowing that although she might care for him in some way, it was not and would never be the equal of what he felt for her.  “I do love you, Nightingale.  Not because you cast that spell on me.  I realized after you left that day that yes, you took away the magic, but it doesn’t matter what happens to the match after the fire begins to burn.  You saved me from a dark noose I couldn’t see closing in on my own throat.  You haunt me, infuriate me, captivate me.  You are the most fascinating, complicated, and genuine woman I have ever known, and there are things I have to do now, and I want them to be for you, only for you.  Once they are done…”  He pressed his lips together and blew, and her little pile of luminous purple sand scattered into the wind.

Nightingale leaned in and kissed him.  “Not forgotten,” she whispered, and invited him to sit up and look out with her.  The individual grains of sand she had enchanted had spread across the beach and lent their light to the others.  Now a blanket of warm and lush amethyst rose to meet the star-pierced sky.  Etienne smiled, recognizing what she was trying to show him.  It only affirmed what he had said to her, and what he felt for her.  However, laced into it was a note of melancholy, of accepting that despite his carefully crafted dream of their future, this would be their only night together.

“Come swim with me,” Nightingale said.

He grinned.  “Are you going to freeze the water on me like you did the first time?”

She bit her lip.  “Ice is the furthest thing from my mind.”

The witch rose and pulled Etienne to his feet.  Laughing, she led him to the water’s edge and flung herself in, vanishing beneath the bubbling crests of the waves turning one at a time onto the flat, cool sand of the shore.  Etienne followed and leaped into the soothing embrace of deep, cool water, and of the woman who waited for him there, watched over only by the stars.

His goddess.  His Nightingale.

The first and last woman he would ever love.

Harsh dawn came in an eon or two with an unheralded and unnoticed return to the very worldly confines of St. Iliane and an insistent banging against a flaking door.  Etienne scratched at the irritation from the straw bed, dragged on a basic decency’s worth of clothing and tucked the old wool blanket tighter against the witch sleeping next to him.  He brushed a long strand of hair away from her face and sat there in quiet contemplation until the door rattled again.

“Tête de cul!  Ouvrir cette putain de porte!”  No question as to who that was.  Etienne left Nightingale in the back room and meandered his way to the front of the hut.  Le Taureau nearly smashed the door in as Etienne began to turn the handle.  Corporal Valnier was behind him, and stepped inside with considerably more respect and patience in his stride.  “Pardonnez-moi, monsieur, am I disturbing your maudit beauty rest?” barked the behemoth.

Etienne noted the peculiar configuration his hair had assumed courtesy of the misshapen pillow on which it had been lying.  “That wouldn’t be the worst thing for you to try sometime,” he replied.

“I’ve earned every scar on this face.  And the men who gave them to me look a lot less pretty than I do now.”

“What is it you want?”

“This arrived for you.  Just now.”  Le Taureau slammed a folded piece of paper against Etienne’s chest, and since the man did not do anything by half-measure, Etienne winced and tried not to gasp.  

He turned the paper over in his hand.  It bore the red seal of the Bureau Centrale, which in itself was not that remarkable, as such things could easily be faked with a candle and some patience.  But the series of digits scrawled across the back confirmed to him that the message was genuine, and that it originated with the Directeurs.  He fought an abrupt trembling in his fingers as he moved to open it.  The seal split and wax shards tumbled to the floor.  Etienne scanned the note quickly; it was brief, as expected.  He folded it again and nodded.  “Well?” Le Taureau demanded.

“How soon can you be ready to go?” Etienne asked.

“How soon?” barked the giant.  “This instant!  J’en ai ral le cul with all this lolling around!”

Etienne looked to his faithful corporal.  “Valnier?”  He received the sparsest of nods.  Sometimes even two words was too much for Valnier.

“One problem,” Le Taureau said.  “Have you forgotten the missing element of this scheme?”

“No, he hasn’t,” announced Nightingale’s voice.  The men spun about as one to see her emerge from the back hallway of the hut.  She was clad in the same sleeveless black gown in which she had greeted Etienne upon her sudden return, and her long hair fell neatly to one side.  Yet the flurry of cold that usually preceded her arrivals was absent.  Perhaps she no longer saw the need for the dramatic flourish.  It did not, in any way, Etienne thought, diminish the impact of her appearance in a room, though he could admit he was fairly biased.  Love tended to do that.

“Déesse!” cried Le Taureau.  That was not hyperbole; he really did look on the edge of tears, and happy enough to see her that he ignored the potentially troubling fact of her emergence from the same bedroom as that from which Etienne had presented himself just a few moments ago.  Valnier, for his part, eyed her with an unreadable cast to his face, a man as unperturbed by the presence of a beautiful woman as he would be by a particularly beautiful piece of furniture.  He and Etienne had undertaken so many missions to apprehend women just like her, and yet they were about to go into battle with this remarkable witch at their side.  If Valnier had doubts, he was not sharing them.  He was obeying orders as he always did.  Without question and without hesitation.  That was his code, and the only law that mattered to him.

Nightingale smiled at Le Taureau, and her acknowledgement of Corporal Valnier was emotionless.  “It’s time?” she asked Etienne.

“At moonrise tonight,” he replied.  “You’re ready?”

“For longer than you can have imagined,” she said.

“If I might say something,” interrupted Le Taureau, “before we embark on this misbegotten campaign of mass suicide?  I don’t know what peculiar turning of fate has brought together a bureaucrat, his mute servant and a true déesse together with the magnificence that is myself, but I would like to hope that it is not simply to break against the rocks.  And while I would not go so far as to call the lot of you honorable, I will allow that you have more courage than your pampered exteriors would suggest.  So if I have to die in service of a cause, then I am not completely horrified at the notion that it will be the same cause to which you have also pledged yourself.”

The other three were somewhat taken aback by Le Taureau’s sudden display of eloquence.  “That was almost poetic,” Etienne said for them.  “And you didn’t swear.”

“Casse-toi, branleur dégéneré,” Le Taureau snapped.  “Avale mes couilles.”

“That’s more like it.”

Nightingale smiled.

Le Taureau chuckled and departed, followed in short order by Valnier, who had remained silent throughout the entire conversation.  He had an almost theatrical sensibility in understanding entrance and exit cues, knowing instinctively when his master wanted moments alone.  Etienne promptly forgot about them both.  “I’ll have to give you the details of the plan,” he told Nightingale.

She shook her head.  “I know them.”  He did not need to ask how.  “May I see the note?”

He handed it over, carefully, as one might lend another flaming branch.  Nightingale drew a fingernail over the words as she read them, as if trying to scrape them away.  Etienne saw her swallow.  Despite the scope of her powers, she was still vulnerable to a very real fear.  “Moonrise?” she said.

“Yes.”

“We should make the most of our time until then, don’t you think?”

Etienne grinned.

The note fell from her hands, and they left it behind, wedged between the dusty timbers of the floor.  Had anyone else stopped by and picked it up, they would have been perplexed by the message, unfamiliar as they would have been with the code established by the Bureau with Etienne before he had departed on his assignment.  But the mere four words were enough, to the informed reader, to set in motion the last act of this particular drama, though none of the performers could be certain as to where, in the end, the playwright was directing them.

NEST FEATHERED.  HAWKS HUNGRY.

* * *