So… I guess we didn’t know the way out. Or, we did, and we just couldn’t find it this time.
Baseball has no denouements. For a sport often criticized for its length and occasionally languid pace, individual games and entire seasons can end in a slice of time scarcely more measurable than the duration of a blink: the snap of a glove closing over a futile pop-up, a batted ball striking a plastic seat perched over the left-field fence. A cord is cut, and abruptly it’s celebrations for one team and quiet exits through the clubhouse for the other. There is no window in which to become comfortable with the notion of either, but plenty of time for deep contemplation to follow, once the lights have been dimmed and the crowds have gone home, and the weeks roll on into November and questions of trades and free agency and the long wait until spring training of a new year.
The lesson from the 2016 American League Championship Series is to be careful what you wish for. As the Blue Jays were sweeping away the hated Texas Rangers, Cleveland was doing the same to the Boston Red Sox despite a pitching staff absent its two best starters, and every statistic in the book prescribed that the Jays would have a much better chance of beating Cleveland than going up against David Ortiz et al once more. But Boston, like Toronto, was a team dependent on its offense, and Cleveland’s hurlers were stepping up and shutting that offense down. Toronto had gone through a horrendous patch in September when they hadn’t been able to hit much of anything, and were making late callup opposition 4th & 5th starters they’d never faced before look like Cy Young and Sandy Koufax. Perhaps we were fooling ourselves into the idea that those doldrums that had seemed to vanish in the week leading up to the playoffs couldn’t return. The way our guys were demolishing Texas’ aces made a march to the World Series feel inevitable, the prospect of perhaps dueling the Cubs at Wrigley Field for the big trophy simply mouth-watering. Surely, Cleveland’s compromised hurlers would be yet another easily crushed stepping stone. Our guys even had better-than-average numbers against the fearsome reliever Andrew Miller from his days with the Yankees.
How wrong we were.
There have perhaps been few playoff teams as evenly matched as Cleveland and Toronto, and in the final analysis, Cleveland simply played better. They deserve every congratulations for their victory – even if such kudos have to be offered through clenched teeth.
Perhaps because there are no denouements in baseball, it’s easy to become too focused on what we lost in that final disappointing game rather than what we shared in the 170 games that preceded it. 2016 gave us plenty of wonderful baseball memories to store away in the vault of highlight reels for fans to trade “where were you when” stories about. The playoffs alone have given us Edwin Encarnacion’s walk-off wild card 3-run home run, and Josh Donaldson’s ALDS Game 3 walk-off face-plant into the plate. Those can be happily added to the hallowed echelons reserved for “Touch ’em all, Joe,” Dave Stieb’s no-hitter and the greatest bat flip of all time. Ultimately no one will have much cause to rue the hopelessness of the ALCS, much as few reminisce about last year’s. We’ll take our victories where we can find them, and contemplate how neither the Orioles, the Red Sox or any of the teams that did not even touch the postseason will have any such memories of 2016 going forward. For these are the moments that keep you invested in a team, keep you holding on to the unlimited promise of the next season, and the season after that.
There is of course a degree of melancholy in the end of 2016 for the Toronto Blue Jays in that it represents the potential end of the road for two of its most iconic players, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion: men who shuffled into town with sparse fanfare and lower expectations and developed, under the hopeful eyes of millions Canadian fans, into two of baseball’s elite. Few want to see them go, as their departure would represent the closing of a door on a singular time in Toronto baseball. The reality of the business aspect of the sport foretells that they probably will. At the risk of sounding like the devil’s advocate, one could make the case that they have had several years and chances to get it done, as it were, and have not. Indeed, their respective offensive output was sorely lacking over these past five games when it mattered most, and hits from them alone in a key moment here and there might have changed the outcome completely.
Without meaning any disrespect to the two, maybe it is finally time to let someone else step up.
One recalls how important Dave Winfield was to the Blue Jays’ World Series win in 1992 and how his departure in the off-season would have seemed at the time to be fatal to the chances of a repeat, but the arrival and subsequent performance of Paul Molitor the following year rendered that conversation swiftly moot. If the Jays’ front office doesn’t want to pony up to keep Joey Bats and the Ed-wing, who’s to say they might not find somebody better – a Paul Molitor for 2017? We shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the possibility. Recall the hew and cry when Toronto passed up its chance to retain the forbiddingly expensive David Price and signed a cheaper, under-the-radar J.A. Happ instead. After Happ’s 20-win season and Price’s year of scuffling with Boston, no one regrets that decision.
Bautista and Encarnacion may leave, but the team they built together and the fans they inspired will still be here – jerseys and all. For that, we’ll always be grateful. Perhaps we’ll welcome them back again one day in honorary Blue Jays uniforms, to throw out the first pitch or flip the bat and walk the parrot in a 50th anniversary game in 2026 as their names rightfully join the Level of Excellence. They’ve earned it, and no one can ever deprive them of the history they’ve made in Toronto.
In the first Golden Era of Toronto Baseball, the Blue Jays had to lose four sets of ALCS appearances (with a few non-playoff seasons in between) before they were finally able to advance and take it all. As we bear witness to the Second Golden Era, we might want to reassure ourselves with the same thought. There is no reason why we can’t find ourselves back here same time next year, the holes in the boat patched, two years’ worth of playoff experience under our belts, a better, ingrained approach against shutdown pitching. After decades in the wilderness, the Toronto Blue Jays have regained the most important thing it is to be in this sport: the status of a contender. Contenders pack the stands night after night, fashion the most gripping of games and have the best players in the league salivating to come join the party. That might be a more satisfying, long-term victory than the fleeting glitter of a 2016 World Series trophy, and in a sport without denouements, an ending that can linger for years to come.
Thank you to every one of the Toronto Blue Jays for a terrific season. See you in the spring.