Though it’s been difficult to locate a consistent sense of hope and optimism amidst the general daily deluge of assholery and batshit nuttery that characterizes the news of late, there is one lonely island that cannot, for the moment at least, be soiled by the antics of the present inhabitant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (or wherever the hell he chooses to park his flabby orange ass on any given day). One tiny beacon that can permit liberals and conservatives alike to shelve their ideological spite and instead rejoice in the spectacle of grown, uniformed men chasing a tiny sphere of cork and horsehair around a manicured field for a few hours at a time.
Major League Baseball is back.
Pitchers and catchers reported to spring training camp on Valentine’s Day, and this Saturday, the 2017 Toronto Blue Jays take the field for the first time in a Grapefruit League exhibition game against their first-ever World Series rivals, the Atlanta Braves. It’s not “real” baseball, one could argue: the lineup will be largely absent any of the team’s stars, and it will be more of a tryout for the second-stringers and the minor leaguers hopeful of even just a solitary shot in The Show. But it’s a welcome dawn after a long night, when the storybook triumph of the Chicago Cubs after 108 years without a championship faded with the stadium lights and the world awakened on November 9th to its worst hangover in our young lifetimes. We’ve craved the purity and the innocence of the pitch and the swing and the wonderfully endless possibility of what might happen next.
The off-season for Blue Jays fans has been typically painful. There’s a reason why “inside baseball” is a useful colloquialism for any industry in which peeking behind the scenes is an exercise in self-flagellation, and one might long for the younger days when you’d just show up at the stadium in April and cheer for whomever took the field. The front office is never doing enough, the corporate owners are never spending enough, and any cobbled together twenty-five that doesn’t consist of the reigning champions in every single batting and pitching category is bound to be a disappointment. And as always, the most bitter part of the off-season is the habitual departure of one or two of the favorites. Watching David Price slap on a Boston cap last year wasn’t great, but he hadn’t been with us very long. Seeing Edwin Encarnacion sheathe himself into a Chief Wahoo jersey was wound-salting agony. Making it worse is that you can’t even really blame him for jumping the puddle to Cleveland. Free agents earn the right to play wherever they want for however much they want, and Edwin worked his ass off to get there, even if there isn’t here. But what does the subtraction of all those delectable parrot walks do to the team he left behind?
There’s been plenty of speculation of course, because that’s what we do in the absence of new box scores to dissect. Sportswriters keen to claim the mantle of this year’s Nostradamus are ever eager to craft the season’s obituary before the first pitch is thrown. The day the Red Sox traded for Chris Sale, they were immediately anointed the 2017 AL East champions, even though the truth of baseball is that there are 162 games to get through, and numbers aren’t always the best measure of the randomness of reality. That rotation does look fearsome, but you never know: Price could continue his downward trend, Rick Porcello could have a natural regression from his Cy Young season, and Sale’s wonky delivery could finally blow out his arm. The point, one supposes, is that you can feign expertise but simply can’t say with any certainty, and for a sport that is often in danger of getting BABIP’d and fWAR’d to death by a parade of increasingly perplexing statistics designed to shackle the future to a handy script, its enduring appeal lies in its essential unpredictability. That slow, tantalizing burn where new event builds upon new event and the final outcome is light-years removed from what anyone imagined it might be at the commencement of play, is the beauty of the baseball game.
On the day before the first spring innings, every team has an equal chance to do what the Cubs did last year. Guys outplay or underplay their expectations year after year; goats become heroes and then suddenly grow the horns back on a lightning turn: you can be Mike Trout for a hundred and fifty-five games and then on one missed grounder you’re Bill Buckner (or Rougned Odor on the final play of Game 3 of the 2016 ALDS). In Florida and Arizona right now, there are a thousand breakout stars waiting to ignite, and the same thousand ready to slip away unheralded into the darkness. In Dunedin, where the Blue Jays are doing situps and wind sprints as we speak, Justin Smoak is hoping he can consistently be the guy who decided to tie and then walk off a 2016 game with two back-to-back home runs. Melvin Upton Jr. is craving a leadoff spot and another 20 stolen bases/20 home run season. Jarrod Saltalamacchia wants fans to learn how to pronounce his last name. Kendrys Morales wants to make everyone in Toronto forget how to pronounce “Encarnacion.” J.P. Howell wants to be Andrew Miller. Marcus Stroman wants to be Cy Young with a record deal. Joe Biagini wants to be Cy Young with a clown nose. And Jose Bautista just wants to be Jose Bautista again, consistently, from April straight through to October, regardless of what the (suitably humbled, one would imagine) Texas Rangers think.
They may be none of those things. They may be all of them. We’ll spend the next eight months finding out alongside, leaping out of our seats with fists pumping the air in one moment and hurling beers against the wall (and hopefully not at Orioles outfielders) in the next.
About the only certainty is the inevitability of change. This time last year, Drew Storen was a likely lock to be the closer, Gavin Floyd had a better than average shot to be the fifth man in the rotation, Chris Colabello was the set-in-stone starting first baseman, and the bullpen would be anchored by guys like Jesse Chavez, Arnold Leon and Franklin Morales. And Bautista (allegedly) wanted a $150 million contract extension with no hometown discount or he was outta here.
The people who get paid a lot to know this stuff better than we layperson fans have done their best to put together a squad that can contend. There are always questions of how long they will, as the core ages, contracts expire and the looming threat of a rebuild (i.e. sucking for five straight years or more with a roster of cheap nobodies) after a bad season nibbles away like a tick at the base of one’s skull. They said they wanted to get younger, more athletic, and more left-handed, and really none of that happened. Maybe that would have bettered their chances for this year, maybe it won’t make a difference. Maybe those mathematical projections that have the Jays pegged at a middling 81-81 and missing the playoffs by a country mile are spot on. Maybe they’re utterly bonkers.
Baseball has to write its own narrative anyway.
On paper, teams look however they are going to look at this point. Once the game begins, paper’s only role is to wrap the hot dogs.
On the day before, the 2017 Toronto Blue Jays are both the best and the worst team this franchise has ever fielded. The cast is assembled, the jerseys are washed and pressed, the infield grass is trimmed, the chalk lines are precise, and the stage is set, awaiting only two little words.