Tag Archives: Baseball

Not Fade Away

I wasn’t there at the beginning.  He crept unheralded onto the roster during my long night away from baseball and the team my father had taught me to love.  I wasn’t there as he transformed himself from a perennial journeyman castoff and marginal bench bat into one of the most powerful, most feared, and most significant hitters in the entire sport.  I – along with many others, judging by the endless rows of empty seats in the old highlight reels that have been making the rounds of the Interwebs in the last few days – wasn’t there, for the most part, to watch him become Jose Bautista.

But I, along with 47,393 others, and probably a great number more who wished they could have been, was there for the end.

As I noted last time, this was a crummy year for the Blue Jays, the metaphorical bill coming due for two most remarkable, franchise-reinvigorating seasons full of individual moments to spark debate and storied recollection for years to come.  It’s never easy to cope with the head-pounding hangover that follows, or to settle into the realization that maybe this ball club hasn’t quite made it over that maddeningly elusive hump that separates perennial contenders from perpetual also-rans.  Maybe, like the Minnesota Twins, we’ll have one bad year and be right back in it the next.  Whatever happens in 2018, it’s hard to nestle into the idea that No. 19 won’t somehow be part of it.  He has ingrained himself into the soul of this team, that bearded visage almost as eponymous for the Toronto Blue Jays as the bird in profile stitched into every uniform.

Somehow, it was easier to get over Edwin Encarnacion leaving.  We went through the five stages of grief pretty fast, soothed somewhat by how well Justin Smoak performed in his place at first base.  I was away from the game during Roy Halladay’s tenure, so he never meant as much to me as some of the guys in the 80’s I grew up watching, but maybe it was just as hard when he departed for Philadelphia.  At least you knew Doc would land on his feet, and indeed, he made some of his biggest contributions only once he was sporting a P on his cap.

We don’ t know what the future holds for Jose Bautista.  As he looks at 37, his fielding a shadow of what it was and the pop largely quieted from the singular bat, the thought of him reduced to a minor-league let’s-give-it-a-try deal to DH with a sub-par franchise somewhere else is heartbreaking.

That’s not how a legend is supposed to go out.

Blue Jays Nation’s Andrew Stoeten wrote a great piece a couple of weeks ago about how baseball seems to have piled itself collectively onto Jose Bautista and how despite the load, he’s never broken.  I’ve never quite understood why the mythos of Bautista-as-villain has been perpetuated, and the only “rationale” I can find is that maybe folks just don’t like being on the receiving end of one of his home runs.  You’ve heard the boos that rain down on him in every opposition ballpark (except maybe Seattle, simply because it’s flooded with Jays fans) and the snipes from jackass GM’s who whine that they wouldn’t want to sign him because their fans don’t like him.  You’ve seen the douchewad managers who order their pitchers to throw at him, or the childish players who dispense with words and just out-and-out take swings at him.  That’s what you get, it seems, for being exceptionally good and injecting, God forbid, some actual panache into how you play a “stately” sport that can at times bore people to tears with its mountains of algorithms and acronyms and robotic players possessing nary a discernible trace of personality.

Jose Bautista has always been larger than life.  I’d rather have – and the dirty secret is, most fans would rather have as well – a once-a-generation shining light than a legion of statistically competent monks shuffling in and out of the clubhouse.  You know, the types who play well enough, but no one ever wants to buy their jersey, or would ever sing their name out along with 40,000 friends after an instant of triumph.  Cleveland has a bunch of dudes like that, they won 102 games this year, are likely headed back to the World Series, and day in and out in the regular season they can’t fill their stands.  No one cares.  Because none of those guys has a flicker of what Bautista simply owns.

Jose Bautista is the kind of guy you’d want to make a movie about.

It’s fitting, then, that his last game in Toronto as a member of the home team had its own cinematic quality, and I’m lucky I got to witness it from five rows above home plate – just behind where Geddy Lee usually sits and keeps score.  I bought a program, but didn’t bother with a pencil.  I didn’t want my head buried in scribe’s work today lest I miss something special on the field.

The roof stayed closed until after 12:30, to hold off this atypical late September heat.  Improvised banners dangled or were hoisted everywhere, saying goodbye, saying thank you, or making obvious predictions about a future anointing to the Level of Excellence.  When a crack of sunlight crossed center and the panels began to slide back to the sound of the hip-hop pumped in by the stadium’s resident DJ, it was like the gradual unveiling of a Broadway curtain on the closing night of a show.  Of course, you weren’t exactly sure how the show was going to go down.  There was nothing riding on this game, the second Wild Card berth long having slipped out of reach.  Maybe it mattered more to the opposition Yankees trying to catch the Red Sox and avoid the dreaded do-or-die one game playoff.  It didn’t matter much to the talkative Yankee fan named Jonathan sitting next to me, who was in town on business and decided to grab a single ticket to hopefully see Aaron Judge sock some dingers.

It mattered to the rest of us, though.  We wanted to see an acknowledgement of our hero.  Baseball was dead in this town – pushing up the daisies, running down the curtain and joining the choir invisible dead – and he had cast his eye upon the empty blue seats and said no, I’m bringing it back.  Maybe moreso than anyone else, he had brought it back.

Most of all this day, we didn’t want to see him fail.

The first actor took the stage.  Marcus Stroman emerged for his warmups wearing an old-style black Bautista jersey, and we cheered.  We knew then that they were going to get it right, that everyone down on the field knew the significance of this game as much as we did in the stands.  The players let Bautista run out onto the field alone, his stride strong and determined, and we rose to our feet, careful not to waste a single of these last opportunities to let him know, here in the friendliest of confines where he’d never hear so much as a titter of disapproval directed at him, exactly how we all felt.

Heroes are few and far between in this day and age, when we are inundated hourly with relentless updates on the worst of us elevated to the maximum level of their incompetence and making the world suffer for their inadequacies (my new favorite word is kakistocracy – look it up).  It still seems silly, though, to assign the concept of heroism to men who get paid more in a year than we’ll earn in our lives to play a game for six (and if all goes well, seven) months.  Yet if you reflect on our intrinsic need for heroes, and the ability of athletes to unite thousands in a single, blazing moment of ecstatic, unifying glory – like what happens when a fastball down the middle connects with the barrel of a bat, and time and sound halt for a microsecond before the telltale crack – and a veritable supernova of unleashed excitement follows – how can you not come to think of the men who generate these moments in those terms?  Chances are you’d probably hate the guts of a majority of the other people in the stands with you if you knew them personally – what quality do you ascribe to someone who can compel you to set all of that aside and come together en masse with one purpose, one intensely shared passion; an instant when you know that everyone around you feels exactly the same way?

Bautista must have sensed it, and he fed off it.  Instead of looking like the flailing strikeout magnet he’d been for the majority of the season, there in the haze of an aroma of sunblock and french fries and humidity fogging the camera lenses we were all trying to use to capture these important final hours, he stepped into the box with the hot winds at his back.  He turned on the first pitch he saw and deposited it in front of Aaron Judge for a solid single.  The next time up, Yankees starter Jaime Garcia avoided giving him anything to hit, and he strolled to first on a walk, to be cashed in later by Russell Martin’s bases-clearing double.

When Bautista came to the plate with the bases loaded later in that game, the stir that had been building in the park began to crest; things had been going well so far, the Jays were out to a comfortable lead and Judge hadn’t done anything yet.  It was a growing recognition that maybe the gods of baseball were crafting the narrative to a conclusion drawn from The Natural.  The right man at the right time in the right place, one last time.  And just like we all did when the count went to 1-1 in ALDS Game Five, we took to our feet, drew a breath and shared one collective thought, 47,394 strong.

Please, don’t let him fail.

The pitch came.

The leg kicked, the barrel turned, and–

Off it went.  Not to the seats, but safely into right field again.  Another single.

A runner crossed the plate.  Notch another in the RBI column.  And doff your cap to the man standing at first, mission accomplished for this inning.

It wasn’t legendary.  It wasn’t really even spectacular.

But it was enough.

I recall wondering if maybe, when he came to the plate for what would likely be his final at bat in the game, if Dellin Betances, on the mound for the Yankees at the time, might just toss him a “Sam Dyson Special” to give Bautista one last chance to do what he had done almost without parallel for ten years.  (Don’t tell me pitchers last year weren’t going easy on David Ortiz from time to time.)  But the Bronx Bombers still had their eye on the division title, they’d Judged their way back into the scoring in this one – much to the delight of young Jonathan to my left – and they weren’t inclined to give anything away.  So Jose Bautista’s final plate appearance in Toronto would be a forgettable pop out into foul territory.

However, it was probably one of the only times in baseball anyone has received a standing ovation for doing that.

The best had truly been saved for last, though, and when manager John Gibbons lifted the man of hour for Ezequiel Carrera with one out in the ninth inning, a 9-5 lead safely in hand, the warrior returned from the field with his shield intact.  When he paused to hug each of the teammates he encountered on the way back, the tears started to well.  Yes, contrary to what Tom Hanks would have you believe, sometimes, there is crying in baseball – tears that are earned, and shared, and cherished.

With all of our remaining energies, with our palms pounding furiously against one another and shaking the very walls with our raised voices, we saluted him.

He waved back.

Ted Williams, famously, didn’t.  Jose Bautista did.

Some gods do answer letters, Mr. Updike.

Roberto Osuna sent the Yankees packing, he and Martin did their end-of-game knock-knock-and-dab, but eyes diverted immediately to just outside the dugout, where Bautista was speaking with Sportsnet’s Hazel Mae.  I didn’t learn what he said, nor the emotions that he chose to reveal, until much later at home; instead I snapped the photo above and remained in my seat, watching the field clear and the crowds file out and listening to a deep silence descend, knowing that it wouldn’t lift until the end of next March and that an important, needed piece of that picture wouldn’t be there on that day.  That the crowd would be full of fans wearing jerseys bearing a name and number now extinct and relegated to the past.

It’s appropriate that regardless of weather, the roof at the Dome is closed soon after the game concludes; it’s the curtain being brought down on the show.  We yielded finally to the inevitable and began the trudge back to the car, satisfied in the victory, satisfied that our hero had done well this day, speculating on the ever-churning well of what-ifs that might mean this wasn’t really the end.  If it had to be, then it was fine.  Perhaps not the ending doused in the champagne bubbles of a World Series after party, but an ending of dignity, of respect, and of gratitude.  The quiet, European cinematic ending.

The Toronto Blue Jays will win another World Series soon enough, and while he won’t be in the lineup that physically accomplishes the ultimate goal, Jose Bautista will have been an integral part of painting the way.  Against odds, against expectations, and against an ocean of doubt and the clucking of baseball’s mother hens, he made himself, through sheer force of character and will, into a legend in these here parts.  Bautista’s work made the team a contender again, made great players want to play here, and made disillusioned fans pour back in through the gates in ever-swelling torrents, even in a losing season.  Those who come afterwards will be fated to be compared to him and what he achieved.

This day, September 24, 2017, he did not fail.  Over ten years, he never truly did.  He went out and played and got the crap kicked out of him and kept showing up and kept trying, and he was rewarded and he was reviled and he kept going, with all the grit and mettle you come to expect from the finest people to ever pick up a bat and a glove.  He has nothing left to prove to the people of Toronto, nothing more owing on that contract with the fans.  It is left to us, then, to ensure that the memory of what he did for us remains strong, as the feats of Dave Stieb and Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter and others still do these many years later.  That these unifying little slices of time, the where-were-you-whens, will go on and never fade away.

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How to Love a Lost Season

Ever since the first week of April, regular sports folk and professional prognosticators have been champing at the bit to pronounce a moratorium on the Toronto Blue Jays’ hopes for success in 2017.  After all the caveats about it being “early,” and all the provisos that this is a team playing inexplicably below its talent level and overdue for an unparalleled hot streak, the dog days of summer were particularly canine, with sweep and series loss piled on top of yet another sweep and too many quiet exits through the clubhouse for those remaining players who hadn’t had their years snatched away by injuries.  Here, then, perpetually ten games under .500 with September ebbing away, is where we glance up for the sight of the final nail, dangling Damocles-like, for the team’s coffin.  At least for this year.

A few weeks ago, when our old friend Edwin Encarnacion and his Cleveland posse were flattening all opposition en route to their record-breaking win streak, a few noted sports scribes opined that without a World Series win come November, said streak would be meaningless.  Which, one supposes has a degree of validity, given that not a single MLB team kicks off April with the aim of simply having a good time for a few months and shuffling off to the golf course after they finish in fourth.  Of course everyone wants to win it all.  But judging the worth of an entire season by how it ends is a bit like judging the entirety of someone’s life only by how they die.  Coughing out your last breath as a withered husk in a ramshackle nursing home as opposed to going out saving a hundred orphans from a school bus that plunged off a bridge doesn’t mean that how you lived every one of those moments beforehand becomes worthless.  Jose Bautista’s dour, sputtering finale to his Blue Jays career in 2017 will never diminish the exhilaration of the instant of The Bat Flip™ nor the many other highs of his legendary tenure with us.  2015 ALDS Game Five continues to be talked about and cherished in Jays’ fandom, while 2015 ALCS Game Six is rarely ever mentioned, the pungent sting of that disappointing October 23 faded now like an old scar.

We’re reminded constantly that baseball is a game built on failure.  29 MLB teams and the hundreds of players who stock their rosters will fail every single year.  Every team, even the World Series champ, will lose at least 54 games, and a lot of those losses will be brutal, soul-crushing agonies.  The mere fact of statistical normalization will always tend to balance out the video-game-like triumphs with equally reality-defying slumps.  For the sake of your sanity, you can’t ever pin your enjoyment of baseball on how the season concludes.  Even as in these final days 2017 cements its reputation for the Blue Jays as The Season Where Nothing Quite Went Right, there are individual moments that deserve to live on, to bring you a smile as the skies darken, the fields go quiet and you inevitably roll your eyes at every transaction made by the front office come November and onwards.

We’ll remember 2017 as the year Chris Coghlan took flight, the year our ace pitcher hit his first home run, the year Steve Pearce smacked two walk-off grand slams in the same week – the latter capping an incredible comeback win after going into the ninth down 10-4 – and the year an unloved, strikeout-prone first baseman reduced largely to a late-inning defensive replacement role transformed himself into a fan-favorite, powerhouse All-Star.  We’ll remember it as the year the force of nature that is Josh Donaldson put up better numbers in basically half a season than most players do in a full 162 games.  We’ll remember a host of opposition batters looking utterly lost at Marcus Stroman’s sliders and Marco Estrada’s changeups.  We’ll remember Ryan Goins as “Mr. RISP,” Rob Refsnyder as “Refslider” and Carlos Ramirez as “Mr. Zero.”  We’ll remember those GIF-worthy moments like Darwin Barney swimming to third base, a bewildered Matt Dermody wandering off the field having forgotten that the game was over, or Gibby simply being Gibby.  And yes, we’ll even remember those infamous red jerseys.  Personally, I’ll remember my first selfie snapped field-side with my young niece, getting the chance to spend the night in one of the hotel rooms looking over center field, and of course, Jason Grilli throwing me the ball.  In light of those and uncounted thousands more precious personal experiences at the ballpark or watching or listening at home, what does it matter, really, that this year it won’t all end the way 1992 and 1993 did?

Love it, hate it, but don’t dismiss what it does to you.  Don’t discount the charge of endorphins flooding your brain when you hear just the right timbre of cracking wood that tells you that thing’s going into the upper deck (or out the exit, if JD is up at bat).  Don’t do a disservice to the nine guys working their asses off on that field to give you that charge with each play, nor to yourself for investing so much passion into the limitless possibility that tantalizes you every time one of them takes their position in the batter’s box.  Don’t think that the ultimate value of baseball lies solely in the glimmer of the World Series trophy.  It’s so much more than that.

It’s the bespectacled little kid in the Donaldson shirsey thrusting his tiny glove hopefully skyward when a foul pop tilts his way, or the explosive roar of the crowd and the home run horn burning itself into his subconscious when his hero goes deep.  Visceral, irreplaceable sensations to be recalled with a smile a decade or two hence when he’s taking his own kids to their first game – maybe in another losing season.

2017 isn’t going to be our year to win it all.  Arguably, it was never going to be our year.  But that’s okay, because we’ll be back cheering on the Blue Jays in 2018, and even if next year belongs to someone else as well, there are great baseball memories in store next season that we can’t even imagine yet.  Physics-defying plays, heart-stirring come-from-behind triumphs, and the incalculable, invaluable weirdness that often goes hand-in-glove with this unique and special game.

Like life itself, the joy in baseball has never been in seeing how it all ends.  It’s in what happens at every minute, every pitch along the way, and in having your heart simply leap at the thought of what – fastball, slider, curve or changeup – might be coming next.

A Tale of 216 Stitches

“We’ll definitely get a ball.”

Of all the things my father ever said to me in the ten short years he was in my life, that one resonates louder than the others, as if it were etched by laser into the very tissue of my brain.  I can recall other moments, and wiser words offered on more significant occasions, but that one statement carries a deeper meaning.  It’s a promise any father would happily make to his son, with every intention of keeping it even if doing so depended entirely on chance.  What else would you say?  Would anyone want to dim an eight-year-old’s innocent hopes with frank explanations of probability and odds?

The snared ball is the greatest prize a baseball fan can hope to claim.  Financially it isn’t worth much, you can easily purchase one at modest cost from any vendor of sports equipment and yet for decades spectators at every stadium in every city have been leaping, diving and twisting themselves into pretzels to try to close confident fingers around that little, immensely important lump of cowhide and rubber.  It’s not the thing, of course, it’s the connection to the game.  Of being able to feel for one split second that you aren’t a faceless nobody in the crowd, but an integral part of the story you’re watching unfold before you.  Some people, like the infamous Steve Bartman, have seen their desperate quest for a ball script them into the narrative with an odious lapse in judgment they’ll rue to their last days.  For most, it’s just a matter of being in the right place at the right time, of sitting happenstance under the end of the arc of an errantly tapped breaking ball on the outside corner.

My father had been to the snow-blanketed, very first Toronto Blue Jays game in April 1977, and as soon as I was old enough to sit still for two plus hours it was my turn to accompany him to Exhibition Stadium every few weeks throughout the summer months, to find a place on the cold, chipped blue paint metal seats, with steamed hot dog, scorebook and tiny glove in hand, and watch the magic unfold on the bright green turf – hoping, as all kids did at that age, that the coveted foul ball might miraculously find its way towards us.  Shortly before the start of the ’84 season, he and his best friend John decided to go in halfsies on seasons tickets to ninth row seats up from first base.  John knew nothing about baseball (he intended to use his tickets largely to promote his insurance business), so my father was able to discreetly pick out the best games against the best teams with the best giveaways of Jays swag.  He put this thick book of 40 pairs of slim cardboard tickets in my hand and stood back to watch my eyes gleam as my fingers rifled through them.  I hope we catch a ball this year, I must have said.

“Oh, we’ll definitely get a ball,” he replied.

We had to, right?  Going to that many games, it was just a matter of time and inevitability before say, Willie Upshaw or Damaso Garcia popped a lazy curve just over our heads and into our laps.  And so we went.  To contests held in both evening and afternoon, scorchers under the July sun and polar affairs in late September darkness.  We baked, we were drenched, we froze, and still we went and we watched and we waited for that pop-up, both wearing gloves for the moment it was bound to happen.  1984 came and went, the Detroit Tigers stomped everyone in the league on their way to the World Series, and despite all of it we were still without what my little heart wanted most.  The ritual resumed the following year, and we went again, sharing in the triumph of the victory in the AL East and the heartbreak of seeing the Kansas City Royals snatch it all away.  But still no ball.  We came close once during a night game:  our seats were on the aisle and a foul did careen its way to about five steps above us, but despite my father attempting to imitate Kevin Pillar four full years before Kevin Pillar was even born, the ball slipped out of his grasp and into some other lucky sod’s hand.  (My father joked with friends later on that I had recorded the play in my scorebook as E-Dad).

We didn’t go to as many games in 1986, and I don’t remember what the last game we saw together was, but it too ended with that promise still unfulfilled.  There was probably a shrug and a “maybe next year” comment, and I don’t think I was even that upset about it.  I was old enough to understand then that catching a ball was really down to luck and being in the right place at the right time.  “It’s okay, Dad,” I’m sure I said.  Besides, there were much more potent and lasting prizes accumulated from all those games – memories, emotions, and precious shared time with the man I admired most in the entire world.

“We’ll definitely get a ball.”

Five months after the end of the ’86 season, he was gone.

He was gone long before Toronto had heard of Roberto Alomar or Joe Carter.  He wouldn’t see the opening of the SkyDome, nor the brushes with greatness that were the AL East championships in ’89 and ’91.  He wouldn’t see the glories that were ’92 and ’93.  And he wouldn’t get to see his son walk onto that field (with two hundred other red-coated marching band members) to play the national anthems for a game attended by then-prime minister Brian Mulroney and President George H.W. Bush.  Weighed down by a fifty-pound bass drum harnessed to my chest I took a breath and soaked in the persistent, bass-clef hum that hovers in the stadium air, thinking briefly about the voice that was missing. the one that would be cheering the loudest, pointing and boasting to everyone in earshot that “that’s my son!”  The one who’d still doggedly bring his glove to each game because he had an old promise to keep.

After having found my way back to baseball again these past few years I’ve wondered on occasion how he would have reacted to the strike of ’94 and the Blue Jays’ ensuing two decades of irrelevance and ugly uniforms.  If maybe there would have been a few arguments here and there about the importance of remembering and savoring the purest parts of the game and the impact it can have on the heart, rather than letting oneself be disillusioned by salary disputes and steroids and endless losing seasons.  I wonder if we still would have found ourselves in those first-base-line seats every other week staring hopefully towards home plate and tensing fingers inside mitts at each crack of the bat even as the crowds thinned away.  My father was many things, but not for one moment could he be accused of harboring the remotest hint of cynicism – hence the deliberate choice of the word “definitely.”  It was going to happen, it was just a matter of time and patience, and of never losing hope.

Fast forward to May 26, 2017.

The reviled Texas Rangers are in Toronto for the first meeting between the arch-rivals since Rougned Odor threw past Mitch Moreland to throw away their 2016 season.  A month or so earlier, my wife has the suggestion that we celebrate our upcoming tenth anniversary by renting one of the rooms in the Renaissance Hotel overlooking center field for the night.  It’s a lot of money, but we need the break after a stressful couple of months, and besides, it’s one of those bucket list experiences that every Jays fan should try at least once.  So we take the plunge.  The timing of the game she picks turns out to be serendipitous, with Josh Donaldson and Troy Tulowitzki each scheduled to return to the lineup for the first time after month-long stints on the disabled list.  I book the afternoon off work and we make our way down to the stadium, check in, grab a Starbucks and take the elevator up to the fourth floor, after signing the waiver promising we won’t do anything lewd within view of the public or worse, chuck anything onto the field.  The view is incredible:  staring directly back towards home plate, the tails of the championship banners dangling just above our window.  For the first time, I’ve hand-painted a sign to bring to the game; it reads IT’S OUR 10TH ANNIVERSARY – GO JAYS GO!  I tape it to the glass and lean out the window to watch the Jays take batting practice.  The air smells of air conditioning and oil, and even empty seats thrum with the anticipation of the contest to commence a few hours hence.

It’s kind of hard to see facial features, but I can recognize the haircuts and the batting stances.  Donaldson, Tulowitzki, Kendrys Morales, Jose Bautista and Ryan Goins are each taking their turn smacking balls into the outfield.  Some dude in a suit with a shock of white hair is wandering around the cage chatting with each as they finish:  the one and only Buck Martinez, the same guy my father and I use to watch behind the plate at the Ex.  Directly below me, Blue Jay pitchers are taking warmup tosses with one another.  Marco Estrada is doing a series of hard sprints from left field into center, and as he finishes each he tilts his head up.  Like a starry-eyed six-year-old I wave at him each time, and on the fifth sprint he gives me kind of a half-assed arm shrug back, as if to say “bugger off mortal, I’m in game mode.”  Even though Mike Bolsinger is scheduled to start tonight, Estrada remains all business.

The pitchers finish their throws and four of them congregate in center to retrieve the balls the sluggers are knocking their way.  From our perch above it’s still hard to distinguish features, but numbers on warmup jerseys help.  Dominic Leone, J.P. Howell, Aaron Loup and Jason Grilli (easy to pick out with his longer hair) stand there chatting about whatever it is ballplayers chat about when the cameras are absent.  As Bautista knocks balls into the still-empty outfield seats and the WestJet Flight Deck, Grilli’s attention wanders and he turns around to look up.  This way.  I wave.  He waves back.  He sees my 10th anniversary sign.  He points it out to Aaron Loup.  Grilli’s been kneading a ball in his hand, and he holds it up as if to offer it to me.  I give a thumbs up.  Grilli reaches back and lobs it up, high, towards our window.

THUNK.

Off the glass just to the right.  Way outside the zone.  Ball one, maybe.  It tumbles back to the turf.

Grilli gets another ball and throws again.  This one misses to the left.  You can’t fault the guy for trying, but it’s starting to look a bit hopeless.  We’re really high above the field, and it’s not as if he can afford to burn his velocity and control on a souvenir for a fan when he needs to save it for a possible eighth inning against Mike Napoli et al, you know, the situations he gets paid $3 million a year for.  The third try is closer, but still off the mark.  I shrug at him, assuring him that it’s okay, that I appreciate the effort.

But the Grilled Cheese is undeterred, and he goes for a fourth attempt.  Here it comes.  Up, and up, and closer.  It hovers just outside our window, and time freezes it in place, tantalizing me.  Here it is, that invaluable prize the little boy in you always wanted.  It will never be closer than it is right now.

I thrust trembling arms through the window, and shaking fingers close tight.

I’ve got it.  Holy shit, I’ve got it.

Part of me can’t believe it’s just happened.  Quickly, I wave and give Jason Grilli a big thumbs up, and call out “thank you” even though he probably can’t hear me.  Then I turn away from the window, open my hand and look down.  It’s a lot smaller than I thought it would be.  It’s scuffed with blue and brown from its journey from the bat across the dirt infield to Grilli’s glove to my hands.  So little – and such a big deal all at the same time.  A lump rises in my throat and tears start to pool at the corner of my eyes.  A thirty-three-year-old promise, fulfilled as someone now long gone knew it always would be.  Maybe you can imagine that somehow he was guiding that last throw from Grilli.  Maybe it was all a coincidence.  But it doesn’t matter.  By whatever means you want to believe, it still felt in that moment like a final gift from father to son.  A reminder that cynicism is nothing next to the enduring power of hope.  The same intangible quality that keeps us invested in baseball no matter how dark the world outside gets, no matter how many runs the opposition piles up.  Hope can be found in the smallest of things, even in a modest collection of 216 stitches.

“We’ll definitely get a ball.”

We definitely did.

Thanks, Grilled Cheese.

Thanks, Dad.

“I Thought It Would Be Easier”

Quickly, who said that:  President Puffy Cheeto-Face or the collective of the Toronto Blue Jays and their fans reflecting on April 2017?  After what has been the ugliest slog of baseball in the franchise’s recent memory, with heartbreak served up seemingly inning by inning for four weeks straight, the most reassuring thing to note is that we exit the cruelest month now with only the second worst record in MLB.  That dubious honor belongs to the once-nigh-unstoppable Kansas City Royals, who steamrolled us in the 2015 ALCS on their way to an eventual World Series crown and who are likewise wondering how it all cratered so bloody fast.  Such is the way of the game where your fortunes can turn on a single pitch.

However.

Fortunes certainly turned this past weekend, where after a spectacular relief pitching implosion turned an all-but-certain Friday night victory into a curb-stomping loss at the hands of the eternally frustrating Tampa Bay Rays, both the bats and the bullpen decided they’d had quite enough of that for one month, thank you very much, and delivered two immensely satisfying wins in a row.  Yes, you read that right – wins.  Much craved for green shoots in a field that looked to be lifeless, even salted at times.  Toronto Blue Jays baseball as you want to see it:  shutdown pitching, ace defense and timely extra-base hits, with heroism at every berth in that lineup.  The course of this season has taught us to temper our optimism, to stare the upcoming schedule in the face (and in particular, three games against the ever-entitled yet undeniably good Yankees) with a good dose of trepidation, but damn, we simply need to believe that we’re done appeasing the baseball gods with bad karma for one year and this, to borrow last year’s official hashtag, is where our moment truly begins.

I had the good fortune to attend Saturday’s game, and sitting there beneath the sealed roof that always casts a faint air of factory warehouse across the lively green and brown of the playing field, you could sense the resurgence of a vibe from years past – the dreaded scent of lowered expectations.  Despite the best efforts of Ace and the lovely J Force girls to draw forth the exuberance that has become this stadium’s signature these past seasons, this was a crowd not quite ready to open its heart lest it be splintered again by a late-inning Rays rally.  Wariness ruled at first, and when the Rays snuffed out an early Jays lead by successfully appealing an out call at the plate and trainers emerged from the dugout to attend to Russell Martin’s neck, the predominant sentiment rippling through the seats was “here we go again.”  Christ, what the hell else can go wrong?  As the score lingered at a stagnant 1-1, a group of fans over in the 500’s by right field attempted to start The Wave, and it dribbled over a mere two sections before fizzling out.  Not now, we all said.  Not in the mood.  Toss me another $13 Stella to dull the pain.

Though flames can dwindle, they seldom go out.  When the Jays rallied to take the lead, forty-two thousand seats creaked with bodies leaning forward again, stirred from their disinterest, with a few unfamiliar drops of hope trickling between the rivers of overpriced beer.  When the under-loved Justin Smoak connected lumber to horsehide and planted it in the center field seats, the roof itself bulged at the explosive uncorking of long-suppressed, highly carbonated joy.  We were suddenly all in it together again, and now The Wave could surf across the entire stadium for multiple turns, giving our guys the boost they needed to snip the Rays’ tails and send them shuffling back to the dugout – despite a tenser-than-usual ninth as three straight Rays batters sent Roberto Osuna fastballs to right field, only to have them land safely in Blue Jay gloves.  No miraculous comeback for the other side today, no need to load up the bats for yet another bottom of the ninth.  This one was ours, and as relatively meaningless as wins in April tend to be, we would happily take it.

Now that April is done, we’ve perhaps exhausted the excuse – paraded often these last weeks by Sportsnet’s Mike Wilner – that it’s early.  Likewise is it early after a mere two straight wins to begin projecting a trend, especially looking ahead at three games against the red-hot Yankees in their hood, followed by a return to the horrendous Tropicana Field and what will undoubtedly be an uncomfortable reunion with Edwin Encarnacion and his first-place Clevelanders.  But I will choose to take these last two games and the return of the namesake blue jay birds to my backyard feeders along with the green shoots of spring as the start of things getting better, of that point in the story of 2017 where we begin to astonish everyone who’s already written us off and grind our way back into the race.  Because frankly, we’ve absorbed far more than our share of bad baseball mojo this year.  At times, it feels like we’ve shouldered the burden for the entire league.  It’s time for some of that hideous stuff to rub off on the other guys, to the benefit of our “W” column.  Time for us to reap the bounty of late-inning rallies against flailing relievers and mighty opposition offenses rendered suddenly, inexplicably inert.  Time for us to make April merely the shadowed contrast by which May stands up and shines.

We are so due, folks.

We Still Believe We Can Fly

In that slice of a second as Chris Coghlan’s feet left the dirt, it was like those first nineteen games of 2017 had never happened.

Just for a moment, the gut-churning misery of dozens and dozens of swings and misses on third strikes and a seemingly infinite stream of zeroes chucked onto the scoreboard at the whims of brilliant-to-utterly-rubber-armed pitching felt like it had happened to some other team in some other town in some other long-forgotten year.

This was the moment when you were reminded that for all the agony hard-coded into a sport where the elite guys fail seven out of every ten tries, baseball is supposed to be fun.

For the Toronto Blue Jays, the 2017 season thus far has been “fun” as drawn from the imaginations of the Spanish Inquisition:  Impotent offense.  Blown leads.  Pitching meltdowns.  A veritable curse on the lineup composed of a witch’s brew of brittle hamstrings, inflamed elbows, natty calf muscles and even, in Aaron Sanchez’s case, a lowly fingernail.  Worst of all, perhaps, a complete and utter failure to live up to that most impossible of standards:  the expectations of their fans.

In 1992, the Blue Jays opened the season with six straight wins and a Toronto newspaper had the hubris to run the headline:  “Could The Jays Go 162-0 This Year?”

The appropriately inspired Jays lost their next game.

Yet it seems that’s still the expectation that many of us come to the park (or flip on 590) with.  A win is the natural course of World Series history unfolding as it should.  A loss – or repeated losses, in this case – is time to throw away your season tickets and go bellyache online about how it’s all over and they need to trade everybody and start the rebuild with 16-year-olds who’ve never played above class-A ball and fire Gibbons and Shapiro and Atkins and Ace and the guy selling the hot dogs and of course you knew this would happen two years ago and said so but nobody listened and blllllarargargargahahhh!!!!!!

Like John Lennon famously said, nobody loves you when you’re down and out.  The Jays have the worst record in the majors and the vultures in sports media have been circling, salivating at the prospect haul a mid-year Josh Donaldson trade might net – when they’ve bothered to talk about Toronto at all.

At least, until the night Chris Coghlan took flight.

Baseball has always been about the narrative crafted by the season.  With 162 games to plow through between April and October there are plenty of pages available to chronicle the rise of underdogs and the fall of expected heroes.  It’s a relentless grind where highs and lows are dished out in equal measure until one squad of misfits manages to climb, against odds, to the top of the pile.  It’s amazing to me why both professional sports columnists and fans are always eager, like a child flipping impatiently to the last page of the murder mystery, to write that narrative long before it’s even gotten started.

What happens in April should be taken for what it is, not as prescriptive for how the coming months will unfold.  At some point, you know that home-run-bashing comeback Eric Thames is going to sink into a major hitless drought and the untouchable Chris Sale is going to get touched up for a five-spot in the second inning of some meaningless game against a last-place team.  Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, baseball keeps building these surprise plot twists into its narrative to keep us clinging to the edges of our seats, to keep us invested in hope at the unlikely no matter how many sabermetric patterns we rely on to make the game safe and boring.

The 1989 Blue Jays opened their season 12-24 and then turned it around and won the AL East.  Weirder things have happened.

Piscotty probably should have caught that ball last night, and even if he didn’t, Jays coach Luis Rivera probably should have held Coghlan at third.  But the confluence of improbable events building upon one another that makes up the nine (or more) innings of a baseball game wasn’t content to leave it at that.  For a team struggling to make highlight reels, or indeed accomplish much of anything at all, the wildness that followed was a positive injection of nitroglycerine.  Who knows if Marcus Stroman has enough adrenaline sizzling in his veins to rocket a double into left field in the top of the 11th if he’s not already jazzed by watching Coghlan go airborne, and at the realization that this team is never out of it.

It’s important to remember that apart from a couple of ugly losses this year, the Blue Jays have been in the fight in each of their games until the very last out.  In several of the games you can point to one pivotal moment where if the play goes the other way, they’re sitting in a tie for first with the Orioles right now.  They’re hardly lying idle and letting themselves get rolled for everyone else’s amusement.  And we’ve already seen the inklings of some unheralded new narratives to carry us through the summer:  nobodies like Joe Smith and Dominic Leone doing lights-out bullpen work, Kevin Pillar’s emergence as a solid leadoff hitter and stolen base man, and the put-upon, can’t-do-anything-right-in-the-eyes-of-fans Justin Smoak suddenly becoming one of the most potent bats in the lineup.

There is lots of 2017 to come.  We’re barely into Chapter One.

The presumption among the faithful is that this team is too talented to keep piling up the L’s.  That the ship will right itself and that once Donaldson, Tulowitzki, Happ and Sanchez have healed the sheer force of nature that was the Toronto Blue Jays between July of 2015 and September 2016 will return with a bat-flipping, showboating, opposition-crushing vengeance.  But even as they are now, playing hurt, with a rotating roster of no-name pitchers and unwanted utility guys plucked from the Island of Misfit Toys (i.e. the waiver wire), they retain the capacity to be one of the most exciting teams in baseball, regardless of whether anyone is paying attention.  When you’re scuffling, when everyone is waiting for you to fail again so they can file their tsk-tsking op-ed pieces, the only option is to take more chances, play harder, and push against the wall of expectations until you smash through it – no matter how bloody you get in the process.

In a game nobody cared about, a replacement-level player nobody expected a damn thing of did exactly that, and delivered us the most spectacular play of the year.

And he just happened to be wearing a Toronto Blue Jays uniform.

That’s why we still believe we can fly.  All the way to the postseason again.

Chris Coghlan showed us how.

On the Day Before

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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.

Yeah.

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.

Play.  Ball.

In Defense of “Elite”

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There’s a new cabal of supervillains in town, haven’t you heard, and you won’t find them clad in garish Technicolor-hued costumes and cackling about plans for ruling the galaxy, but you might spot them at black-tie parties sipping champagne between lips perpetually curled into a superior smirk, shaking their heads at the calamity that has temporarily befallen their carefully-laid Machiavellian schemes for crafting a horrific utopia of universal health care.

That’s right:  it’s those dastardly elite.

The buzzword for the evil well-heeled liberal left is at the forefront of the discussion that lingers in the wake of the egregious phenomenon that is Donald Trump, with his election described as a rebuke to the ruling elite, and with others just a hair north of the border clamoring to pick up his poisoned torch, as if he were the vanguard of a burgeoning movement that seeks as its endgame the imprisonment of all lovers of Puccini and Dostoyevsky.

The word “elite,” which in its dictionary definition means the best of something, is in the political arena an archetype of snobbery and disdain, a pejorative concocting images of a haughty Illuminati-like cabal whose greatest crime is that they just don’t get what it’s like to be a real, average, hard-workin’ sort of folk.  This is despite the fact that those who hurl it with the most frequency and venom are themselves usually silk-suited, impeccably pedigreed, long-serving elected officials or heavily pancaked cable news talking heads who haven’t had to suffer the indignity of a working-class job since the paper route their corporate partner lawyer father made them get back in the 70’s – you know, elites.

Ironically, absolutely nowhere else is elite a term greeted with contempt; rather, it represents, as the word is meant to, the highest, most desirable caliber of person.  We read books, go to movies and listen to music made by elite artists, we want our kids to be educated by elite teachers, we want our health monitored by elite doctors, we want our houses and cars maintained by elite trades.  Businesses both big and small boast about how they only want elite people working for them, and that in approaching them as a customer you will receive only elite treatment.  When you go out to eat you want to be waited on by elite staff (even the poor kid at Mickey D’s had better be bright and cheerful and fast lest you raise hell with their manager), when you go on vacation you want elite white glove service from start to finish.

And of course, we only want elite athletes playing for our favorite professional sports teams.  I’ve been following the MLB off-season wheelings and dealings, and the Blue Jays’ Edwin Encarnacion remains unsigned after turning down an $80-million, four-year deal from Toronto – a deal which, if you do the math, would result in him making about $150K for every single game he plays – and you see fans who would take four years to earn what he’ll get in one day begging the ownership to please cough up even more to get his name on the dotted line.  No one is saying to please give up on Edwin and sign a busload of mediocrities in his stead; no one wants to watch that team boot the ball about the field.

Simply put, in every other aspect of our lives we not only desire the elite, we expect it; and yet, when it comes to politics, we’re suddenly terrified of them, picturing them as cloud-dwelling aristocrats trickling a steady stream of urine down onto the contemptible masses in lieu of rain.  But apply the same formula to a restaurant and ask yourself the question:  am I going to turn down this perfect medium rare sirloin grilled by the elite, Parisian-schooled chef in favor of an inedible hockey puck burnt by a bumbling hack because he’s the kind of guy who really gets me?

Not for a second.

Fear of the elite as the government is an artificial construction manipulated to win votes by politicians who are themselves of the same class they claim outwardly to despise.  George W. Bush, who ran as an outsider and the politician voters claimed they were most likely to want “to have a beer with” (in my mind the single stupidest qualifier for a candidate for office ever devised – I don’t want to have a beer with you, I want you to be working on growing the economy, fixing poverty, restoring the environment and keeping us out of wars), was the Yale-educated son of a long line of privilege.  Rob Ford was a working-class hero despite having inherited his family’s million-dollar label business.  Donald Trump, it was oft lamented by Clinton campaign personnel, literally shat in gold-plated toilets aboard his private jet and somehow convinced the out-of-work laborers in the Rust Belt states that he was one of them.  The hatred for the political elite – framed as single-handedly responsible for every ill that has befallen every human being ever, and they may have taken the Lindbergh Baby as well – is so strong that a disturbing number of voters are quite happy to overlook the glaring hypocrisy of anyone who steps up to affirm that anger in digestible, repeatable soundbites.

As Canada’s federal opposition Conservative Party prepares to select its new leader, the 14 pretenders to Stephen Harper’s iron throne are likewise bleating about sticking it to the elites a la Trump, despite the fact that all save one are veteran former federal cabinet ministers and most have degrees from prestigious educational institutions and long track records in the upper echelons of the corporate sphere predating their service in government.  You simply do not get to mount a campaign for the leadership of a national political party as a commonplace rube, and trying to pretend that you have suddenly become the standard bearer for people who haven’t the first clue what the letters in all the degrees after your last name stand for, people who you’d never condescend to speak to for a half-second if your public image didn’t require it, is the highest of farce – however, as Trump proved, sadly, it doesn’t mean you won’t still win.

As a word, elite needs to be reclaimed from those who are redefining it into a handy slur directed at the opposite side of the aisle.  Elite means the smartest and the best, something everyone should aspire to, and even if admitting it publicly is somehow seen as immodest, no one is sitting around thinking “I really hope to be the most numbingly bland, average, unremarkable, mediocre, inadequate and woefully subpar ____________ as it is possible in this life to be.”  No, we won’t all get to be President or Prime Minister or otherwise world-renowned, but we can still do the best we can with the life we have, which, surprise of surprises, requires a great deal of hard work, always lauded or used as the first line of defense by the thin-skinned in Internet comment section arguments:  “I’m not one of those elites, I’ve worked hard for everything I have!” – congratulations, that makes you elite, and there aren’t enough Make America Great Again stickers to plaster on your rear bumper to change it.

And while many might rue the notion of being governed by the elite – in the manner as it is defined by pundits – like the business looking for that ideal hire, when we vote we truly do want the best person for the job.  Even the 62 million people who voted for Donald Trump did not really think he was going to suck at being President.  So can we please, for the love of the English language, put the misuse of elite to bed and stop acting like being really good at something is a failing and that ignorance in the ways of governing is in any way a desirable virtue?  Because you can’t be sanctimonious about proudly electing idiots and then complain with any legitimacy when everything goes to pot, which it will.  Everyone who is trying to win your vote by making an enemy of elites knows this.  They simply don’t care, and they are faking that they understand your struggles in order to achieve an office that will allow them to screw you with impunity, to the benefit of their wallets, not yours.  Elite is being informed and thoughtful enough to be able to recognize these purveyors of snake oil for what they are.  Given the alternative, which would you choose?

Elegy for the 2016 Season

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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.

We’ve Been Down Here Before, and We Know the Way Out

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If one was a member of the Toronto Blue Jays imagining the course of the 2016 American League Championship Series, the most ideal situation would not necessarily be rolling into Game 3 down two and needing to win four of the next five to move on to the big finale.  The Cleveland Indians are sitting far more comfortably after their first two victories and five straight so far in their 2016 postseason.  They can afford to absolutely tank the next few games confident that even in the Blue Jays’ most optimal outcome, this series will be decided on Cleveland’s home turf of Progressive Field by the end of this week, with a legion of red-clad fans on their feet for every strike hurled against an opposing batter.

No, not really what you want to see as a Toronto player or a fan, especially given the doses of playoff magic we’ve been treated to thus far:  Edwin Encarnacion’s walk-off home run in the wild card, Josh Donaldson’s faceplant walk-off slide into home in the ALDS.  We want more of that to keep us sustained over the long winter to come.  It’s crunch time now, backs against the wall, the importance of every at bat magnified by expectant eyes and television cameras.  And yet, there is perhaps no team with as much potential to reverse this perilous course and claw its way back to a triumphant finale.  Because this isn’t last year, when you had an essentially virgin playoff roster flailing to find its way against the more experienced and more clutch Kansas City Royals.  And the losses to Cleveland thus far have contained more than a few silver linings to keep the faith going (as indeed, I had to be reminded of by my better half through more than a few grimaces and obscenities as I watched Game 2 slip away).

The consensus among sportswriters was that these were going to be low-scoring games as the pitching on both sides is elite.  No argument there.  But for one bad pitch each from Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ, these two games have entirely different outcomes.  Bummer if you’re a Jays fan looking for a crucial win, obviously, but reassuring to know that we won’t likely be treated to a reprise of last year’s horrifying Game 4, when Toronto’s pitchers might as well have been tossing underhand tennis balls to Kansas City.  Lost perhaps in the talk of the Blue Jays’ inability to scratch out hits with men in scoring position or indeed do anything but whiff against Cleveland’s Andrew Miller is the fact that those two errant home run balls have represented the sum total of Cleveland’s ability to score over these past two games.  Estrada and Happ were largely lights out except for those couple of forgivable mistakes (which would have been meaningless had their offense supported them in the manner to which they became accustomed in the ALDS).

We didn’t need to use our bullpen in Game 1, but in Game 2, Joe Biagini and Roberto Osuna combined to silence Cleveland’s lineup over three innings as effectively as Miller, even if they weren’t doing it in as flashy a manner – a zero on the scoreboard is a zero, whether it’s by strikeouts or groundouts.  And because Estrada was so solid in Game 1, those are the only two of our relievers that Cleveland has had to face.  Jason Grilli, Brett Cecil, Francisco Liriano, Aaron Loup and Ryan Tepera are all rested and ready to go when needed, and Cleveland doesn’t have much experience facing any of them.  It is true that Osuna had begun to struggle a bit in the closing days of September, but when you recall that it was against AL East teams who’d seen him umpteen times throughout the season, it’s not surprising at all – and he’s been able to recoup his mojo quite handily in October against guys who haven’t had to face him in months.

On the Cleveland bullpen side, manager Terry Francona has relied exclusively on Miller and closer Cody Allen, who have combined to render the Blue Jays’ bats impotent.  The danger with this approach is that the more times the Jays face Miller, the better they’ll be able to read what’s coming – and because Miller has thrown multiple innings each outing, everyone down the lineup has had a chance to see him.  As good as Miller is, he’s not immortal, and he’s going to make a mistake at some point – or worse, become predictable.  One of the most satisfying moments of last season’s drive was watching Dioner Navarro rip an “unhittable” Miller pitch into the Yankee Stadium seats, and something similar is inevitable during the course of this long series (the hand-wringing likely to result for Francona, along the lines of Buck Showalter’s criticism for not using Zach Britton in the wild card game, is amusing to contemplate).

I and a few others wondered if the long layoff between the sweep of Texas in the ALDS and the start of the ALCS might lead to the Blue Jays losing the crucial edge that had served them so handily starting with the final two games of the regular season at Fenway.  When hitting is so much a matter of precision timing, any disruption in routine can trend it south, and while the Jays certainly used their well-earned downtime to continue training and practicing, lazy drills in an empty stadium simply don’t have the electricity needed to keep that edge sharp.  Sinking into a must-win situation, however, does, and with Marcus Stroman coming to the mound tonight as he did for the wild card game, the ingredients have been assembled for a repeat breakout that will both knock Cleveland back on its heels and put our guys smack back in it.

It’s been the story of the Toronto Blue Jays 2016 season.  They may look lost from time to time, but they’re never finished.  To paraphrase Leo McGarry, we’ve been down here before, and we know the way out.  It was punctuated, you may recall, by a particularly notorious flip of the bat.

That’s the hope, anyhow, as the playoffs are not notorious for providing a wealth of second chances, and a loss tonight could result in a lot of early obituaries for Toronto’s season.  But it’s not as though the Blue Jays are being pounded into the dirt by a far superior team with no hope of recovery.  The narrative has been simply that of one evenly matched team edging out the other by the narrowest of margins.  That trend isn’t sustainable, and even though Cleveland’s offense is probably due to break out, one can’t see that happening under the blazing lights and deafening roars of the Rogers Centre.  The odds have most definitely turned in our favor.

Former Jays utility player Munenori Kawasaki had a delightful quote last year about how his team would make its run:  “Don’t thinking! Don’t don’t thinking. Just swing! Just catc…uh throw! Just catch. Don’t think everybody. Just win!”  I can’t think of any better advice to my team than that.

Just win.  You know how.

You’ve done it before.

The Miracles of October

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September seems like such a long time ago.

The stale taste of those doldrums lingered far too long; a miasma of blown leads, impotent offense, the fist-clenching frustration of watching the ubiquitous Boston Red Sox explode into an 11-game winning streak reminding us of who we were at this same time last year, the team everyone expected us to be again.

To be fair, the entire 2016 season seems like a long time ago.  The prevailing wisdom was that the unfulfilled promise of the otherwise magical 2015 run of the Toronto Blue Jays, thwarted at the last mile by the eventual champion Kansas City Royals, was mere dress rehearsal for greater destinies ahead.  The same core was back, the pitching had (ostensibly) been fortified, and it was merely a matter of sitting back and watching home runs fly out of stadiums on a cakewalk back to glory.

The baseball gods are never inclined to make things that easy.

There was a point in 2015 where you just expected the Jays to go out and win every game, and even in the ones they lost, they made it close.  But for much of this season, the 2016 squad felt like shells of their former selves; well-meaning guys who in the end just couldn’t get it done, and let their obvious frustrations play across squinting faces at each crushing swing and miss.  When a string of bad games plunged the Blue Jays permanently out of first place just as the kids they’d inspired were shuffling back to school, a colleague of mine sent me a quick email:  “Looks like we won’t be troubled by October baseball this year.”

I wasn’t disinclined to agree with him, nor was most of baseball.  There were too many more exciting stories for which to write tantalizing opening paragraphs:  the Chicago Cubs possibly smashing the infamous Goat Curse, the Giants reasserting their even-year playoff dominance, David Ortiz closing his storied career with a World Series ring on his finger.  As late as the last week of September the Blue Jays were yesterday’s news.  Move along folks, nothing more to see here.

For Blue Jays fans, it was as if an entire fabled era was stumbling to a whimpering close.  The image of a saddened Edwin Encarnacion, free agency and greener pastures looming, lingering in the dugout after a shattering shutout loss to the Baltimore Orioles and gazing one last time out at the stadium in which he worried he’d never get to trot his parrot again, epitomized what everyone was feeling.

It wasn’t supposed to end like this.

It couldn’t end like this.

The Blue Jays stumbled into Fenway Park largely written off by the entire sport.  The Red Sox had clinched the AL East a few days earlier (thanks to a Blue Jays loss) but were playing for home field advantage in the playoffs, so they weren’t inclined to make things any easier.  Nor did they, taking the first game in typical Red Sox fashion – and mirroring the Jays’ struggles in April – as Ortiz secured the win with a two-run blast off Brett Cecil.  Veteran political campaigners call it “the stench of death” – a creeping, settling dread that the end is certain no matter how much time remains on the clock.  These are the hardest moments to be a fan, of any team.

But.

The game has nine innings and the season has 162 games, and a quote from Vanilla Sky looms large:  every passing moment is another chance to turn it all around.

In Game 161, Kevin Pillar’s bat came to life.  In Game 162, Aaron Sanchez no-hit the hardest slugging team in the major leagues for seven innings.  And the grind during the regular season against the home-run happy Baltimore Orioles ensured that the Blue Jays had a winning record against them and thus would have home field advantage for the crucial do-or-die wild card game – at the loudest, most raucous ballpark in the majors (remember when Dave Winfield had to beg for more noise?)

You all know what happened next.

Victories are sweet but temporary, and as soon as the champagne and beer dried off the plastic strung over the clubhouse, the next challenge awaited.  A rematch with the hated Texas Rangers, they of the year-long festering butthurts over getting bat-flipped to the golf courses in 2015, who had initiated the brawl in May that had left Jose Bautista with a bruised face from Rougned Odor’s fist.  Still looking to settle the score, the Rangers had cruised to first place in the weak AL West division and the best overall record in the league and hadn’t had to play meaningful baseball in weeks.  But they were hungry.  By all stats they were in a better position.  The Blue Jays were banged up and their relief corps was in trouble again:  seventh-inning shutdown expert Joaquin Benoit was out with a torn calf muscle sustained in a stupid brawl against the Yankees, lightning-armed eighth-inning setup man Jason Grilli was suddenly tossing wiffle balls, and indispensable closer Roberto Osuna had departed the wild card game with a strained shoulder.

Most sportswriters were favoring the Rangers in four.

The game is played by nine men at a time, but each individual contest usually has one hero.  In Game 1 it was Marco Estrada, befuddling the Rangers with his changeup and blanking them into the ninth as a long-dormant Jays offense piled up 10 runs.  In Game 2 it was Roberto Osuna, with “NO PANIC” written on his shoes, quieting the last two innings and securing a squeaker of a 5-3 victory and sending the Jays home with only one game left to win (yet still with question marks as reliable leadoff man Devon Travis was held out with a bone bruise and Francisco Liriano took a terrifying, mild concussion-inducing shot to the back of the head off Carlos Gomez’s bat).  Game 3 seemed like it was fated to belong to Aaron Sanchez again.  That’s how the baseball gods would want it, right?

The Rangers, however, were not going to fold up and go quietly, and they hammered Sanchez for 6 runs, two of them coming on a home run from the hated Rougned Odor, the last coming on a Mitch Moreland double that was two inches from being another rally-ending diving catch from Kevin Pillar.

Sphincters clenched across Canada.

Even though we knew there would be a Game 4 to right the ship should this one collapse, watching the lead slip away was gutting.  We’d been in that position last year, and we rallied from a two game deficit to claim three straight and advance.  We knew Texas was aching to do the same, seemingly lacking only the inspiration of a close, hard-fought win to reignite the competitive spirit that had notched them 95 victories.

To the bullpens then.

The Jays tied the game at 6 apiece as Texas reliever Keone Kela threw the ball past catcher Jonathan Lucroy with the bases loaded, allowing Troy Tulowitzki to trot in from third.  But Nomar Mazara robbed Ezequiel Carrera of a bases-clearing double, and then on came Matt Bush, the 99 mph fireballer who had ignited the entire May mess by drilling Jose Bautista in his last at bat.  Inspired by Encarnacion’s wild card walk off, Jay after Jay hoping to be this game’s savior kept swinging through Bush’s heat, leading once again to extra innings.  Manager John Gibbons gambled twice in as many games with Roberto Osuna’s arm, keeping him on the mound for two innings and recognizing that if the Jays couldn’t win it in the bottom half, his best relievers were done, and it would be left to the less reliable second tier to try to hold the dangerous Rangers at bay.  Bush came back out for a third straight inning and kept firing in unhittable strikes.

Until Josh Donaldson finally connected and hurtled into second.

The Rangers were not inclined to let Encarnacion repeat his triumph, so they gave him a free pass to first.  Jose Bautista came to the plate, but was deprived of a storybook victory against the guy who’d plunked him by instead striking out.  So it would be left to Russell Martin, who hadn’t had a hit so far in the postseason until sending a solo blast over the wall in the first.  Martin was baffled by Bush, floundering into a quick 0-2 count before battling back, smartly letting balls go by and fouling off strikes to get him into 3-2 and Texas hungering for a ground ball double play.  Donaldson danced off second, Encarnacion waited calmly at first.

The pitch came.  Martin swung, and there it went, bouncing perfectly to shortstop Elvis Andrus, who relayed it to Rougned Odor at second to get Edwin, before relaying it to Mitch Moreland at first.

Double play.

Right?

But Odor’s throw bounced off the dirt and dragged Moreland off the bag.  Martin was safe.  And meanwhile, no one had noticed that Donaldson was running hard for home, risking the game on a desperate charge on a wonky hip.  Moreland threw to catcher Jonathan Lucroy, who let the ball bounce out of his glove as he wheeled to tag the sliding Donaldson.

Safe.

Ballgame.

Rangers manager Jeff Banister needlessly delayed the celebration by asking for a review of Encarnacion’s slide at second, hoping that he might have broken the grating “Chase Utley Rule” by interfering with Odor’s throw.  Had the New York office reversed the call, the stadium would have exploded and made the embarrassing can toss at an Orioles outfielder in the wild card look like a child’s tea party.  But Encarnacion’s slide was perfectly legal, and the Blue Jays walked off in triumph.  On to the ALCS for a second year in a row, a postseason sweep for the first time ever, and a six-game winning streak putting the wind at their backs.  From September slumps to October accomplishments.  From yesterday’s news to prohibitive favorites, unfinished business awaiting starting Friday in either Boston or Cleveland.

Someone more learned than myself said that baseball is stretches of disappointment punctuated by small miracles, and the 2016 Toronto Blue Jays have achieved a string of miracles in the last few weeks that have suddenly made them the most exciting team in baseball.  Yet they aren’t really miracles; they are the product of a team that has fought and clutched and grinded through abject humiliations to forge a formidable adversary for anyone who suits up against them.  From starting pitching to hitting to defense to the relief corps, every man in the blue and white is firing on all cylinders.  Each win has been earned.  Last year there were too many weak links, and the newness of the postseason experience let nerves undermine the consistent effort needed to close the deal against the Royals.

It feels different this time.  As if we’re finally riding a tide that no wall can break.  As if our team is absolutely stacked with heroes-in-waiting, as if each game is a chance to see another miracle.

This is the unfinished story of 2016, the story that those eager to crown other teams without letting the actual games play out first are missing.  Okay, fine, the Cubs have been great and they’re a hundred years overdue, but inevitability is tedious to watch.  And the Red Sox have simply worn out their welcome by making every single game a retirement ceremony for David Ortiz.  There’s nothing left to write about there, while north of the border, an ignored, discounted, marginalized gang of baseballers has been bringing excitement back to the sport every single night.

And we simply can’t wait to see what’s next.