Tag Archives: Baseball

The Last Days of the Philosopher King

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Wednesday night, as the final game of the Blue Jays-Mariners series rolled into the bottom of the 12th inning with both teams deadlocked at 1, and with the Blue Jays’ bullpen depleted of relievers, manager John Gibbons turned to an unlikely savior:  knuckleball starter R.A. Dickey.  Thinking presumably that should the game drag out into another exhausting 19-inning affair like the Canada Day grind against Cleveland, it would be wise to have someone on the mound who could chew through however many outs would be required before the slumbering offense could kick itself into gear.  It was not to be, however, and after having been let down by a couple of errors by the defense, Dickey shambled off with the walk-off loss, with only 1/3 of an inning pitched as Seattle took it 2-1.  With the possibility of the postseason still not entirely solid enough for Toronto fans’ liking, and Dickey unlikely to make the roster regardless, opinions both amateur and professional flew that this ignominious outing might very well be Dickey’s last in a Blue Jays uniform.  With Dickey turning 42 this winter and hitting free agency, it might even be the last time he steps onto a mound.  A career of struggle, crowning achievement and then the failure to repeat impossible expectations might be, in the end, fated to fade away rather than burn out.

Baseball is full of guys like that.  Few if any get a year-long (and let’s admit it – increasingly tiresome) farewell tour like David Ortiz is getting, coupled with his team’s seemingly unstoppable late-season pennant drive.  The ranks of baseballers are divided much like the circles in Dante’s Inferno, with a shining echelon for those who are anointed legends, and everyone else falling into their respective dark circles of almosts and never-weres.  There’s probably a guy wiping down the bar in your local watering hole who had twelve at bats in The Show back in the 80’s or 90’s.  There’s others who move on from middling careers as players to mediocre retirements as coaches, availing the youngsters of today of their decades of inexperience.  There are the sorts who flew too close to the sun on borrowed wings of wax:  Pete Rose, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, latterly Alex Rodriguez.  And there are the men like R.A. Dickey, the workhorses who will quietly close out a long career with beautiful memories of The Year It All Went Right and the lingering question of How It Never Was Again.

In how he approaches the game both on the field and before the TV cameras, Dickey seems like a throwback to a gentleman’s era of baseball that probably never existed except in fantasies colored by repeat viewings of The Natural.  As a knuckleball pitcher the fraternity he inhabits is a small one; as an erudite former English major given to extemporizing beyond the typical pre-fab soundbites about team efforts, that group is even smaller.  His steadiness of manner whether winning or losing is a remarkable contrast to the unpredictability of the knuckleball, a flabbergastingly peculiar pitch that can see him blast through opposing lineups through nine full innings or have him shrugging his way to an early exit to the dugout as that very same pitch sails once again into the outfield bleachers.  Chance always seems to play much more strongly into Dickey’s starts – even though statistically it’s likely no different than any of your standard four-seam hurlers – and too often fans have started to wring their hands the instant someone slaps one of Dickey’s pitches up the middle for a base hit.  Regardless of whether it’s a good night or a bad night, Dickey is hopeful, out there doing his best, and refusing to succumb to petulance if things don’t go his way – just as he won’t take a boastful curtain call if they do.  It isn’t who he is.  When you see players in their early 20’s – who probably can’t spell half the words that roll easily off Dickey’s tongue – sneering in the batters’ box as they lean in against him, you see how far removed Dickey is from where the game is going.

In Game Four of the ALDS in Texas last year, Dickey was lifted after 4 and 2/3 innings of solid work in favor of David Price.  Gibbons’ rationale at the time was that Price was simply a better matchup against Rangers outfielder Shin-Soo Choo who had been something of a menace to the Jays throughout the series.  The Jays held on to take the game, but because MLB rules state that a starter has to go 5 full innings to qualify in the scoring, Dickey didn’t receive his coveted first post-season win.  Sitting next to Price in the post-game press conference, Dickey opined that no competitor wants to be taken out in a situation like that, but that ultimately it was what was best for the team.  (Price earned the official win after notching an inning and a half.)  Refusing to take reporters’ feud-inducing bait, he moved on quickly and revealed his penchant for trivia, noting with a twinkle in his eye that it was the first time one Cy Young winner had been replaced by another in a post-season game.  It was the gentle Southern humility of a man who knows the game is bigger than any single player, and certainly much bigger than himself.

The level of abuse flung at R.A. Dickey by people who should be cheering for him is sad.  Plenty of fans are ready to concede the game as soon as he is penciled in to start it.  They’re equally disdainful of the weak-hitting Josh Thole, Dickey’s personal catcher and an expert at containing the knuckleball, for needing to occupy a roster spot so Russell Martin can have occasional days off.  Much of it has nothing to do with Dickey (or Thole by extension) at all.  After his phenomenal 2012 season with the Mets in which Dickey captured the Cy Young, won 20 games and struck out 230 batters, he, Thole and another catcher were traded to Toronto for a package of players which included a young prospect named Noah Syndergaard.  Syndergaard, or “Thor,” has grown into one of baseball’s premier starters, while Dickey has never been able to equal, let alone eclipse the magnificence of 2012.  Some fans continue to rue this deal as the singular worst in franchise history, as if somehow magically undoing it would result in three retroactive World Series titles – setting aside of course the airplane hangar’s worth of terrible starting pitchers that flowed through and out of the ranks of the Jays roster during that time who certainly didn’t help matters.  Which guy endured, through those agonizing summer months in half-empty stadiums as playoff hopes drifted away early, and kept heading out there every five days to do what he did best, while the others were traded away and forgotten?

Pitcher is the most stressful job in baseball, bar none.  A position player can strike out three times with guys on base and still be considered to have had a good night if his fourth at-bat is a three-run blast into the seats.  But a pitcher goes out there knowing the game can hinge on him making a single mistake.  One meaty fastball too near the center of the plate to one David Ortiz and all is abruptly lost.  Pitchers can even lose games through no fault of their own, as befell Dickey on Wednesday night.  Two grounders and a fly should have been a three-up, three-down inning, but a tired defense and an aching Josh Donaldson booted the game into the loss column, Dickey’s 15th on the year and an unwanted career record.  It was all too reminiscent of what happened with Mark Buehrle last year about this time:  Buehrle was two innings short of hitting the 200-inning plateau for the fifteenth straight year in his career, and Gibbons let him start on two days’ rest against the Tampa Bay Rays in an inconsequential game – presumably he’d let Buehrle throw the needed two and then turn it over to the September call-ups in the bullpen.  But shoddy defense let what should have been a routine first turn into seven unearned runs for the Rays, and Gibbons had to pull Buehrle before he could record a third out – with the TV cameras cutting repeatedly to Buehrle’s mortified wife cringing in the stands.  Buehrle was left off the playoff roster and hasn’t pitched since, and a guy who once threw one of only 23 perfect games in MLB history deserved better than to have his career sputter to an end like that.  As cool September winds begin to blow across baseball diamonds, we can sadly see R.A. Dickey walking a similar path.

The peculiarities of baseball can perhaps explain why on the same team in the same year, you can have one guy who gets enough run support to achieve 20 wins (J.A. Happ) and another who can throw decent games and get absolutely nothing back from his hitters.  Witness Dickey’s August 15th outing against the Yankees, in which he held them to a single run across five innings, striking out six, and still lost the game when Toronto couldn’t notch a single run.  (You can also have the weird outing against the White Sox when Dickey gave up four home runs and still won the game, thanks to the Jays scoring 10 to the Sox’s 8.)  Arguably, Happ’s career year could have easily belonged to Dickey.  Is it that the Blue Jays just don’t feel as inclined to win when Dickey is on the mound?  Hardly, but that won’t stop the fans and the opinion-makers from shaking their heads, and, should this really be the last days in uniform for him, judging Dickey’s tenure as a Blue Jay to be a failure.

When Mark Buehrle was left off the 2015 playoff roster in favor of the shinier late additions that were David Price and Marcus Stroman, it had to have been an additional kick in the teeth, especially as the Blue Jays would not have made the playoffs at all without Buehrle’s 15 wins that year.  The same can be said in 2016 about R.A. Dickey – that the Blue Jays don’t get where they are without him, regardless of what you may think of his overall performance when plucking each game out of its season-long context.  With Dickey, the Blue Jays’ rotation has boasted remarkable endurance, with only 7 different guys starting games (including two spot starts from the since-traded Drew Hutchison), and apart from a few days off here and there for Marco Estrada and his wonky back, not one has gone down to injuries, or been demoted to recapture his groove.  In his four years with the Blue Jays, Dickey hasn’t been on the DL once, and the fact that he is still pitching and winning games in his 40’s when bucks ten years younger are blowing out their arms, says a lot about his commitment to the idea of a career in baseball, not just a couple of bright years and lucrative endorsement deals.  He probably knew as he donned the blue and white for the first time after his trade that he’d never be as good again as he was in 2012, but it didn’t mean he wasn’t going to try, that he couldn’t make an important contribution, or that he didn’t see himself as an important piece in this phase of the history of the Toronto Blue Jays.

Which he has been.  There can be no argument.  As great as Roy Halladay was, he never pitched the Jays into the playoffs.  R.A. Dickey has helped do it at least once, and unless the Jays completely tank the next 10 games, probably twice.  For a four-year stint with the team, that works out to a .500 average.  Not too bad.

The storybook ending you want to see is R.A. Dickey throwing a no-hitter to clinch Game 7 of the World Series.  What you’ll likely see instead is a quiet, deeply thoughtful man saying his farewells and retreating down the corridor out of the clubhouse for the last time, and plenty of post-mortems about how it was never as good as it could have been.  Perhaps that is a fair assessment – statistics, after all, are incapable of lying.  Statistics are far less capable of measuring the worth of introspection versus showboating, of lingering philosophy versus momentary flash.  There is something more deeply satisfying to the spirit in watching a contemplative veteran like R.A. Dickey grind out a hard, well-earned win than in witnessing a monosyllabic high school draftee paid a metric ton of money to smugly crush one home run after another.  A victory for the humble man is a triumph that can be shared; a victory for the arrogant is savored by the arrogant man alone.

R.A. Dickey is a vanishing breed of old-time ballplayer, with a sense of the history of the game that you simply don’t see reflected in the eyes of the younger guys coming up in his wake.  He is no less a competitor, and has no lesser will to win, but he seems to remember, more than the others do, that this is fundamentally a game of little boys in sandlots transformed into an entertainment for the masses played by overpaid adults tracing its lineage to the arenas of ancient Rome.  Whatever else R.A. Dickey wants from his baseball career, it is ultimately to leave the game better than he found it.  When #43 hangs up his cleats, that perspective will be lost, and it will be a loss for the Toronto Blue Jays that will be lamented, even as fresher and stronger arms trickle in after him.  One does hope that we get another chance to cheer for him as he takes the mound, and that in these last days of baseball’s philosopher-king, he gets the send-off that he’s earned – even if, like the man himself, it is a quiet one.

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A Jersey By Any Other Name

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I’m not the swiftest guy for recognizing trends, especially as they pertain to sports.  Purists might argue that I’m unfashionably late to the party, and no true Scotsman when it comes to speaking about baseball and the Toronto Blue Jays.  I might counter with a hipster retort that I established my bona fides before many of these folks were even born, that I can describe the precise ass-numbing feel of a field-level aluminum blue Exhibition Stadium seat and the sights, sounds and smells in early 80’s late September in visceral, soul-stroking detail, but admittedly, I titled my first piece of modern-day baseball writing All Aboard the Bandwagon, so contend with that contradiction if you will.

But there is one particular thing I’ve grown very aware and very weary of in these latter days regarding team jerseys.  Specifically this:  that it is considered in circles of sports fandom a pitiable faux pas for a fan to wear a professional jersey with his own name stitched on the back.  “Lame” is the first adjective that usually gets attached to it.  Plenty of sports writers both professional and amateur enjoy dropping in sneering little digs against self-named jerseys like it’s some kind of shibboleth for the hallowed learned ones, pretenders need not apply.  Even the athletes themselves get in on the scorn:  Noah Syndergaard of the New York Mets made a video in which (among other things) he condoned mocking it.

Far be it from anyone, I think, to dictate how any individual should be permitted to express their fondness for a particular sports franchise – barring unhinged, singular, stalker-like obsession – but let’s parse this a little.

Jerseys are massive business, the leading source of every team’s merchandise revenue, and demand for them is largely inelastic, especially if your guys are consistently winning.  Tune into any ballgame and the stands are an ocean of home team colors rising and rippling like a stormy Atlantic with every successfully batted ball, every welcome trot across the plate.  Only 25 guys at a time will enjoy the privilege of wearing those jerseys for the purpose for which they were designed, but this shouldn’t stop the 50,000+ people watching them from wanting to be connected to the action, from feeling that but for a few twists of fate (and lack of athletic ability) it might be themselves standing on that mound, or squaring up in the batter’s box with the emotions of millions of people pinned on the outcome of their swing at the incoming curve.  Not a fan has yet drawn breath who never, at any point in their lives, imagined they were out there on that field.  And the odds of actually getting to do so are lottery-like in their impossibility.  So we settle then, for donning the uniform in expression of solidarity with the fortunate few.  It lets us be part of something bigger than ourselves.

Not that this is a cheap option.  A basic MLB-quality Blue Jays jersey can set you back $250 and change, with customization driving the cost even higher.  For most fans this isn’t going to be a purchase they’re going to treat casually.  It might have to be a once-in-a-lifetime deal, unless one falls victim to an unfortunate mustard mishap during the seventh-inning stretch.  So the choice of what to stitch on the back requires careful consideration.  The most common option is to request the number and name of your favorite current player, but this can present a quandary should he abruptly be traded or otherwise fall from that esteemed plateau we reserve for our athletic heroes.  How many Jays fans still relish wearing Brett Lawrie jerseys as he flails with the failing White Sox while the guy they traded him for two years ago establishes himself as arguably one of the premier players to ever wear the Blue Jays uniform?  How many folks rushed to purchase a David Price jersey for his two-month run in Toronto in 2015 and now cringe at the sight of him leading the Red Sox biting at the Jays’ heels for first in the AL East?  And how many out there thought twice about slipping on their old Jose Reyes jersey again after his domestic violence bust?

If Edwin Encarnacion is trotting his home run parrot for the Boston Red Sox next year as is widely rumored and feared, will the sea of Toronto fans who now wear his #10 still be as enthused to do so, especially when those jacks are jacking up the score against us?  Players are transitory – so is the nature of professional baseball as ultimately a business – but the team endures.

Five years from now, most of the Blue Jays we are cheering for today and whose names and numbers we wear with pride will be gone; traded, retired or otherwise sent packing.  Some will depart embittered for richer pastures, others will conclude their Toronto careers with naught but fond memories.  But the fans will still be here.  Stamping your own name on the jersey is to ensure its life beyond any possible expiration date, beyond unexpected trades and multi-million-dollar free agent contracts.  It’s to declare that your loyalty to your team is absolute, and can’t be bought by a Scott Boras type who’s secured you a king’s ransom to smash dingers somewhere else.  You’re here for the long haul, and you won’t be embarrassed to sport that jersey when your chosen guys suffer the inevitable down year and linger in the basement racking up a hundred hair-tearing losses in half-empty stadiums shaking with catcalls and flung empty beer cans.

The esteemed Mr. Syndergaard’s comment seems to suggest that some if not many of the players themselves don’t like fans wearing self-named jerseys either.  Maybe they believe that some rando in the stands hasn’t earned it the way they have, through bruising slogs in the minors to that coveted, fabled call up to The Show.  But it would seem the height of ego to assume that the fan is wearing it because he somehow equates himself with the greatness of the professional player, that he is trying to hint that he is just as good as they are.

At every home game, the Blue Jays hold a small ceremony in which they present a customized jersey to a member of the Canadian Forces who has served on active duty.  If that soldier then chooses to wear that jersey to a game simply as a fan, would anyone, pro athlete or otherwise, dare to scoff and suggest that he or she hadn’t earned it?  There may be a story to that self-named jersey, and you shouldn’t presume that it’s because the person chose to spend $250 on being “lame.”

No matter what Noah Syndergaard might possibly think.

(And let’s put things in perspective:  the ability to throw a 100 mph fastball is not curing disease or contributing to world peace.  It’s not even as noble a cause as that of a teacher who gets first graders passionate about reading, and no matter how many millions of bucks we fling at these dudes, they’ll be relegated to being laughable side statistics and local celebrity golf guests the day their arms finally blow out.)

For my (harrumph)th birthday, my family got me a Blue Jays jersey with MILNE and 11 on the back.  I don’t wear it to disrespect Kevin Pillar, the gravity-defying center fielder who currently wears #11 for the team.  I don’t even wear it for myself, even if it is my last name.

I wear it for my father.

Dad attended the very first Toronto Blue Jays game in 1977 and sat shivering on the metal benches of the Ex to watch them beat the White Sox in the April snow.  When I was old enough he started taking me to games, often pulling me out of school to the chagrin of my friends so we could hustle down to Toronto for a 12:35 contest on a Wednesday afternoon.  He loved the Blue Jays more than I ever could, and bequeathed to me an enduring passion for the game – a flame that sadly dwindled following the 1994 strike but blazed back to life in 2015.  While he saw them win the AL East for the first time, and we shivered in the stands together as they lost to George Brett and the Royals in the ALCS, he passed away in early 1987, and would never see the Jays make it to and win the World Series five years later.  It’s one of my deepest regrets that he missed out on that.  As for the #11, that was his number when he played football in high school, and when he played amateur slow-pitch softball as an adult – with me on the creaky wooden bleachers, scoring the game and keeping track of the bats and gloves and the post-game beers.  In another life he might have worn #11 for the Blue Jays himself, such was his dedication and determination for the things that drove him.  But absent the realization of that fantasy I will continue to sport the 11 and the name in his memory, to carry a part of him with me to the games that he would have loved to see, and if you want to approach me and tell me I’m lame for doing that then I hope you enjoy the bloody nose you’re going to walk away with.

The point is that you don’t know.  You don’t know where that jersey came from, or the personal significance of what’s stitched on the back.  There’s certainly more of an emotional history to it than to that of anyone who goes out and buys a Donaldson or a Bautista so they can look exactly the same as the fifteen other guys sitting in their row.  Making fun of someone who chooses to support their team in this small way is yet another example of this perplexing and tribal human need to qualify, for whatever insecure ego-assuaging reason, precisely how people are allowed to demonstrate their interest in whatever innocent something makes them happy – a reminder that class distinctions and unspoken rules prevail even in the shared passions that everyone is quick to claim unite us.

Just stop it already.

Anyhow, see you at the game.

You’ll know which one I am.

It’s the Other 54 Games that Matter: The Blue Jays’ Season So Far

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There’s a saying in baseball, I first heard it paraphrased on The West Wing but I’m sure it originates somewhere else:  Every team is going to win 54 games, every team is going to lose 54 games; it’s what you do with the other 54 games that matters.  162 games is a brutally long season, and completely botching 70 of those outings could still net a team a record decent enough to win a division.

As the Toronto Blue Jays sit in third place just having clawed their way back to a .500 won-lost percentage (15-15), while elsewhere about MLB the Cubs, White Sox, Red Sox, Mariners and Nationals are off to explosive starts, both longtime fans and bandwagoners who marveled at the can-do-no-wrong 2015 Toronto squad have been left scratching their heads.  Last night’s 12-2 blowout against the Texas Rangers was a welcome dose of ointment for that itch, a hint of the promise this team still holds in its reserve tank.  And there are 132 games left to play.  39 more wins, 39 more losses, and a whole lot of possibilities in those remaining 54.

When I was eight years old and going to games at the Ex with my dad, I didn’t pay attention to off-season maneuvering – trades, free agent signings and so forth.  So long as those guys on the field were in blue and white, I and the rest of Toronto would be cheering for them.  The same cannot be said for the electron microscope that was placed on every rumor, both legitimate and cockamamie, surrounding the Blue Jays as a Kansas City glove closed on the last out of the 2015 World Series.  What kind of team would newly appointed team president Mark Shapiro and general manager Ross Atkins assemble?  Would the notoriously tight-pursed Rogers Communications pony up enough loonies and toonies to get the band back together?  Did some of those guys even want to come back?

We found out the answer pretty quickly as the ramifications of outgoing GM Alex Anthopoulos’ decision to go all in on 2015 by purging the farm system crashed down like a bad hangover.

It was something of a poison chalice handed to Shapiro and Atkins, and while one can still legitimately question some of the choices they made, as fans, we were fortunate that as many of those same heroes of 2015 came back as they did.  Maybe for one last hurrah as it turns out, as the impending free agencies of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion loom in November, and plenty of teams with big bucks and hungry for big bats are salivating at the prospect of snapping one or both of them up.  (The thought of either in a Red Sox uniform in 2017 filling David Ortiz’s soon-to-be-hung-up cleats is enough to inspire cold sweats.)

We said goodbye to David Price, Mark Buehrle, Ben Revere, Mark Lowe, Liam Hendriks, Dioner Navarro, Cliff Pennington and the lovable Munenori Kawasaki.  We welcomed back J.A. Happ and Jesse Chavez.  We said hello to Drew Storen, Gavin Floyd, Joe Biagini, Franklin Morales, Pat Venditte and a whole slew of new and eager arms.  We finally saw a return on investment in Michael Saunders after he narrowly escaped a last-minute pre-season trade.  For the past couple of months this mix of veterans and newcomers has been struggling to jell as a team under the lights of the television cameras, the stares of thousands of fans and the weight of an entire country’s collected expectations.

So far, in 2016, we’ve seen our share of heartbreak.  The season’s first loss to Tampa Bay, when the Jays got smacked with a questionable application of the new “Chase Utley Rule,” reminded us again how vulnerable we are in close games and that Major League umpires in the clutch tend not to be on Toronto’s side.  (Recall that questionable umpiring handed Game 6 and the ALCS to Kansas City by awarding the Royals a home run on obvious fan interference, being too generous with the strike zone on poor Ben Revere and failing to call a blatant balk on Royals’ closer Wade Davis when the go-ahead runs were on base.)  We watched reliever Brett Cecil’s incredible scoreless pitching streak come to a spectacular dumpster fire of an ending as he, along with our carefully crafted bullpen, let lead after lead slip away.  And we shook our heads in stunned disbelief as we watched one of last season’s most beloved players, Chris Colabello, take an 80 game suspension when a banned substance was found in his urine.

April 2016 hasn’t just been a hangover from last year’s high; it’s been the full-on nauseous throes of heroin withdrawal.  Perhaps one consolation is that however the Blue Jays seem to be struggling, the hated New York Yankees are doing far worse:  9-17 out of the gate and poised for possibly their worst year in decades.

But let’s be honest with ourselves.  As much as Toronto sportswriters like to fantasize, the Blue Jays were never going to go 162-0 and sweep all three playoff series.  Baseball remains a game of obsessive statistics, and as hot as those other teams are right now, slumps (or regressions) are inevitable.  It could be that the Blue Jays have just spent April purging their bad karma, and that May 5’s trouncing of the Rangers – karmically embarrassing Texas starter Derek Holland, who wiped himself with a Blue Jays rally towel during the ALDS last year – is the Jays settling back into where they’re supposed to be.  They’ve won three in a row now, and while this weekend’s inter-league matchup against the Dodgers won’t be a cakewalk (particularly with the strikeout-prone Jays facing MLB strikeout leader Clayton Kershaw on Saturday), it’s a chance to solidify the team’s direction and remind themselves, the fans and the world that they are no fluke, that they remain a force to be reckoned with and a serious contender to take it all in the fall, no matter how many people say the Chicago Cubs are due.

The alternative, what Blue Jays fans dread most, is more slips and stumbles, a fall out of playoff contention, and greedy front office suits champing at the bit to launch a Marlins-esque fire sale at the trade deadline in favor of cheaper, lesser players who will proceed to suck for the next ten years – what baseball executives charitably like to call “rebuilding.”

We endured 22 years of that, we don’t have the patience to go through it again.  The franchise itself might not survive it.

The Blue Jays have all the ingredients of a championship team.  The defense is borderline flawless.  If Troy Tulowitzki isn’t producing at the plate, he’s making up for it in the hits he’s denying opposing batters.  The starting pitching has been the highlight of the season so far, on balance arguably the strongest five-man rotation in baseball.  Happ in particular, who was exceptionally average in his first stint as a Blue Jay and whose off-season signing was greeted with resigned sighs given that it slammed the door on any lingering hopes of reacquiring David Price, has been simply exceptional, going 4-0 with one no-decision and proving to be that guy about whom you can relax and let out a long breath when you know he’s going to be on the mound that day.  Yes, with the exception of Roberto Osuna, the bullpen has been a source of many jangled nerves, shouldering the blame for nearly every single loss so far this year, but they seem to be settling down finally, with Chavez starting to rack up the K’s and Biagini throwing clean innings (and curveballs in his post-game interviews) and once Cecil and Drew Storen figure things out the whole crew should prove to be as lights-out as any bullpen in the majors.

The big difference between this year and last is the hitting, or lack thereof.  It’s almost as though the Blue Jays read too many of their own clippings and league-leading 2015 stats, and have been so focused on belting the ball out of the park that they’ve lost their timing and failed to recall that small ball can win games as well as home runs can.  Interestingly enough, of last night’s twelve runs scored, only three of them came from homers, and those three were the result of one three-run blast by Encarnacion in the bottom of the third.  Whatever magical combination of circumstances was working for the Blue Jays on May 5th, 2016, they need to etch it into their brains and hearts and continue to summon it as they face Kenta Maeda and the Dodgers this evening.  If the bullpen can’t save you, and the umpires are against you, just keep the line moving, keep padding the lead and make the games into no-doubters.

It’s still too early to say that the corner has been turned.  There are at least 39 losses yet to come, and some of those are going to be nail-biters, and teeth-gnashers, and set-your-jersey-on-fire heart-shredders.  That’s baseball for you.  Like any team sport, it demands faith.  Toronto fans have been tested by far worse before, and last night was a crumb of that fabled manna falling from the heavens into a well-worn leather glove.  Let’s hope that it portends bigger and greater things, and if it doesn’t right away, there’s lots of baseball left.  It’s the other 54 games that will make the difference.

What price David Price?

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It’s the $200 million question hanging on the lips of every long-time, newbie or recently returned (like yours truly) fan:  will southpaw pitching ace David Price, a free agent after a stellar 2 and a half months with the Toronto Blue Jays, re-sign with them for 2016 and possibly beyond?  I don’t imagine there’s been this much attention paid to a baseball off-season north of the border since, well, ever.  Hard to believe that we’re only a few weeks removed from this year’s World Series, and the last game we saw our 2015 boys in blue play against Kansas City in the ALCS.  Naturally everyone and his brother, sister and second cousin once removed has weighed in with opinions far and wide:  Price is definitely going to the Cubs to play for his former manager.  He’s definitely going to the Dodgers because they can afford to out-bid everyone.  He’s definitely going to the Red Sox to play for his former GM.  He’s definitely going to the Yankees because, well, doesn’t everyone want to play for the Yankees?  And the prevailing opinion amongst the collected experts, insiders and seasoned gossip-mongers is that there is no way, no how, no possibility in the world that Price is coming back to Toronto.

Not that there haven’t been rumors leaning that way as well.  As the off-season wheeling and dealing got going, the first Price rumor to circulate was based on that connection he had with Cubs manager Joe Maddon, whom he played for during his stint with the Tampa Bay Rays, and an old, off-hand comment that Price had made back in 2014 where he speculated that it would be great to play for a team like the Cubs and help them to a World Series at long last.  (Interestingly enough, were Price to don a Cubs uniform he’d have to forgo his jersey number, as Chicago retired “14” several years ago to honor legendary “Mr. Cub” Ernie Banks.)  No one confirmed this speculation of course, but that was the leading narrative on Price for a couple of weeks.  And then a few days ago, a Chicago sportswriter got Toronto’s hopes up by telling Sportsnet’s Tim and Sid show that the Cubs were actually exploring other options for their pitching and weren’t likely to pursue Price.  Reports started flying that Price loved Toronto, was touched by how warmly he was embraced by its fans during his brief tenure, and considered the Blue Jays his first choice for a long-term deal.  But yesterday, Fox Sports’ bow-tied Ken Rosenthal promptly pissed all over Toronto’s renewed excitement by trying to slam that door again on their collective fingers, saying the Jays weren’t “a major factor” in Price’s off-season prospects, and fanning the Red Sox flames instead (despite the fact that Price and Red Sox star David “Big Papi” Ortiz don’t particularly like each other and based on their public statements to that effect would not be thrilled to play on the same team).  The subject of all this discussion, clearly watching it with a degree of bemusement, tweeted cheekily the other day that thanks for the attention, but he was going to go play in Japan.

Trying to look at this from a somewhat objective point of view, I think it’s not so much David Price himself that Toronto wants to hang onto, but rather the spirit of the entire 2015 team.  Even long-time sports cynics have noted how cohesive that gang was, how they meshed and worked together and supported one another in a way that few Toronto squads (and few MLB teams, if we’re being honest) have.  There was a magic there that the starved baseball lovers of Toronto and Canada don’t want to lose, and even as the Jays were mounting their comeback triumph over the Rangers and struggling to hold their own against the Royals, the spectre of all those pending free agents was gnawing away at the backs of our minds, leading us to wonder if money and circumstance would snatch this unexpected source of joy from us just as we were learning to love it all over again.  Truly, we only had half a year with these guys.  We wanted to see what they could do with a full season.  Then Alex Anthopoulos, the architect of the 2015 Blue Jays, departed unexpectedly, and chills shot through a million spines trying to speculate at what newly appointed team president Mark Shapiro had planned – helped not by a story that team owners Rogers had ordered Shapiro to slash the payroll for next year.  Maybe we were headed back to years of mediocrity in the name of the corporate bottom line.

But there were a handful of green shoots to be found.  The Jays worked quickly to lock in Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and R.A. Dickey for another season.  A huge sigh of relief came when red-hot starter and playoff-saver Marco Estrada inked a two-year deal and said that he hadn’t really been interested in playing anywhere else.  We have seen a few guys around the edges go:  LaTroy Hawkins hung up his cleats and retired; Cliff Pennington, utility outfielder (and pinch playoff relief pitcher) signed a two-year deal with the Angels; relief pitcher Liam Hendriks, the sole bright spot in the Jays 14-2 drubbing by the Royals in ALCS Game 4 with his four innings of scoreless relief work, was traded to the Oakland A’s for starter Jesse Chavez; and late-season infielder callup Matt Hague (unlike Price) is actually headed for Japan.  Still to be decided:  veteran starter Mark Buehrle, who struggled with injuries as the season drew to a close, will likely retire or sign a one-year deal somewhere closer to his home; while Ben Revere is a possible trade chip owing to his higher salary and a depth of cheaper options (including Dalton Pompey and the injured Michael Saunders) in left field; and free agent Dioner Navarro would prefer to play somewhere he can be the starting catcher instead of Russell Martin’s backup.  But that’s it.  Everyone else is staying put, and Jays executives have said that while they have had interest from other teams in some of their key guys, they’re certainly not interested in creating a weakness in one area to try and shore up another.  (Suggestions/hopes that Troy Tulowitzki and his expensive contract might get fobbed off on another team are likely bogus.)  What’s needed still is additional bullpen strength, including a hard-throwing left handed reliever to provide another option for Brett Cecil and Aaron Loup, and of course, the biggest question mark of all, that empty space on the starting rotation.

Some enterprising Blue Jays fans started a website, www.anypricefordavid.com, where you can enter your pledge of a charitable act you will undertake if Price signs and returns to with Toronto.  Yesterday, Price weighed in with his opinion on it, and for whatever it’s worth, this clearly isn’t something that a guy does if he doesn’t think coming back is a strong possibility:

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Obviously, the advantages to ponying up the cash to secure David Price are enormous.  A starting rotation consisting of Price, Estrada, Dickey, ace-in-the-making Marcus Stroman and Chavez and Drew Hutchison as possible fifth men/long relievers would be fairly fearsome for opposing batters.  Price is a natural team leader and provides a unifying voice in the clubhouse.  Yes, there is still the question of how he performs in the post-season, but, if he can help get you there consistently to have that discussion in the first place, isn’t that worth the cash investment alone?  Eventually, he’ll get over his post-season jitters just as Randy Johnson did.  Perhaps most important of all, his teammates love him, and he loves them.  One moment that stands out for me is when Josh Donaldson hit his third walk-off home run of the year, and while he was being interviewed about it, Price stepped into his face and bellowed “M-V-P!!!”  Again, not the act of a guy biding his time waiting to cash in on free agency.

Everyone on either side of this debate will agree that David Price has earned the opportunity to decide where he wants to spend the latter half of his career.  What is interesting is how quickly the purveyors of sports op-eds have been to suggest that Price can’t wait to pack his bags and flee the dreaded Great White North for whomever ponies up the most cash.  They can’t fathom that there might be something more in the equation for Price than just money.  I can’t speak to that of course, nor can anyone except David Price himself.  It’s quite possible too that Rogers will look at the books, weigh the prospect of added revenue from sold-out stands and post-season tickets/merchandise and decide to make the offer that Price’s agents will find the most palatable; or, they may put in only a half-hearted bid and try to make a play for one of the cheaper options out there, feeling that between Stroman, Estrada and Dickey the rotation is strong enough as is.  But ultimately, I’m going to come down on the side that thinks David Price is going to remain a Blue Jay.

Wishful thinking, perhaps?  Conventional wisdom says I’m wrong.  Conventional wisdom also said Stephen Harper was a genius for calling a long election campaign on the back of sending every parent in Canada a cheque, that he’d be returned with a second majority, and “just not ready” was going to spell the death of the Liberal Party.  I think David Price likes Toronto, I think he likes his Blue Jay teammates (he bought them all scooters, and jokes with them regularly still on social media), I think he likes the fans, and I think he feels there is some unfinished business there, i.e., a World Series ring.  Like the fans I think he may wonder how the Blue Jays can do with a full season with their winning 2015 roster mostly intact.  I think he wants to keep hold of that magic, like we all do.  So we’ll wait and see, and either we’ll be vindicated and have a good laugh at the expense of Ken Rosenthal and his ilk, or we’ll shrug and say thanks for the taste of David Price’s services that we were lucky enough to enjoy for those amazing few months this past summer, and wish him well in his future endeavors (hopefully in the National League so we don’t have to try hitting against him).

Mostly though, I think he’s coming back because my wife says she thinks he will.  And her judgment has always been enough for me to keep faith.  So you heard it here first, folks.

Waiting with bated breath.

UPDATE Dec. 1st: Price has signed a 7-year, $217 million deal to pitch for the Red Sox. So you can disregard everything you just read. However, I still love and trust my wife.

So long #14, thanks for the memories.

Someone’s Gotta Win, Someone’s Gotta Lose

Ace and Bearemy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Boy, That Escalated Quickly

Sometimes, Ron Burgundy says it best.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clutch

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

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

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

Then Troy Tulowitzki stepped into the batter’s box.

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

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

Tulo swung.

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

Gone.

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

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

Baseball never lets you dismiss the underestimated.

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

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

A nation still has its hopes today.

Let’s go Blue Jays.

All Aboard the Bandwagon

jays

How long can you hold a grudge in major league baseball?  It turns out in my case, it’s about 21 years.  I can recall learning about the baseball strike from the news in August of 1994 and making a snap declaration that as a fan, I was finished.  The game had been as much a part of my formative education throughout the 80’s and early 90’s, my spiritual nourishment, if you will, as math textbooks and peanut butter sandwiches, and as I pored over the announcement, a glum pallor darkening my face, it felt as though something else was being ripped away.  I took it personally, as did many others of my generation, because it was all too personal indeed.

Over the preceding couple of years, the Toronto Blue Jays, after three false starts where they had won the American League East (in ’85, ’89 and ’91 respectively) but choked and collapsed in the first round of the playoffs, had established themselves as the best team in baseball, winning back-to-back World Series in ’92 and ’93.  I have a distinct recollection of being in a high school economics class the day after Toronto dropped the first game of the ’92 ALCS to Oakland and overhearing my teacher chatting with a couple of my classmates, muttering confidently that “I don’t think they’re going to win.”  (Somehow, I recall even more distinctively the boldface emphasis on the pessimistic ‘don’t’.)  I acknowledged the possibility then that we were going to see the heartbreak we had known threefold before happen again, but I think I had more faith than anyone else I knew back then.  I’d grown up watching those guys, soaking in a few dozen games a season in person at the damp and freezing Exhibition Stadium, and the rest on television or static-wracked AM radio drifting into my ears in a dark bedroom long into the night, past the threshold of sleep.  Some of my early heroes were long off the roster by ’92.  My old Dave Stieb jersey didn’t fit anymore.  But no matter the lineup, the Blue Jays were what they’d always been:  a team that you couldn’t help but root for.  There have been MLB squads that have inspired deep contempt, and even individual, arrogant players you were happy to see humiliated, but the Jays have never been that.  Since they debuted in April 1977 in a field full of snow, they have been the perennial underdogs scratching and scraping for victory, fueled not for the veneration of egos but entirely by the cheers of their fans.

So it was in 1992 and 1993, when the SkyDome bulged with capacity crowds each night and the Blue Jays responded with play that dazzled even the cynical.  When Joe Carter hit his famous three-run walk-off home run to win the ’93 Series and leaped about the bases, for Blue Jays fans this was as good as it got.  And it would have to be, for a long time.  Carter’s blast would be a memory drawn repeatedly from the vaults and polished raw to once again feel some of its light on our faces in the years that followed, as the triumphant Toronto squad of those rosy, invincible days, their armor chinked badly by the strike of 1994, fell to tattered pieces and languished in the cellar of the A.L. East, watching once easily-dispatched rivals soar to championship berths.  People stopped going to the games.  Record highs in attendance dwindled to record lows.  New players came and went, the management tried to spruce up the team’s appearance with would-be stylish black and silver uniforms, but the response was a collective indifference, as there now stood a permanent wedge between the Blue Jays and its fans.  Unlike the embarrassing Maple Leafs, who could fail for decades on end and still draw capacity crowds, the Jays’ penance, and their road to atonement, was to be long and brutal.

I went to a few games here and there during that dry spell, if someone happened to have an extra ticket they couldn’t use that day.  As I walked into the stadium, the air smelled listless, the crackle that infused it in the 90’s merely a musty remnant that had long seeped deep beyond reach beneath the concrete pillars.  The banners hanging from the rafters above center field, commemorating old victories under the classic, abandoned bird-in-profile logo, were like relics from a forgotten century, the belongings of a different team.  Baseball is perhaps unique among sports for its ability to hold within it a special sort of melancholy, as if the best part of the game has always been the nostalgia for glories of the past.  Before me then in those later years, an interchangeable cast of well-meaning but forgettable newcomers swung their bats and circled the bases to a largely indifferent, much reduced crowd.  When everyone rose to participate in the seventh-inning stretch to the Blue Jays’ old anthem, it was with resignation, not enthusiasm.  Undoubtedly there were those who never stopped believing, who continued to wander the desert with the team and latch onto every spark of life, no matter how fleeting, but I wasn’t one of them.  The promise made in 1994 held firm, and there was no sense that it would ever be reneged.

Until now.

The Toronto Blue Jays of 2015 started their season with what promised to be another year of aspiration without realization; win-loss record bouncing about the .500 mark, fan favorites like the homegrown Brett Lawrie traded away, the always troublesome pitching blowing surefire leads and leaving the undermatched offense to struggle at catch-up until the whole enterprise struggled to a close in late September, playoff berths remaining the stuff of dreams.  As late as the end of July it felt as though we would once again be fated to watch the wealthy and hated New York Yankees walk away with the AL East from the discomforting perspective of a perennial third or fourth-place berth, myself tuning in once in a while out of nothing more than an old, much-dwindled blue flame of curiosity.  But in the tradition of the dramatic turn on which the outcome of a baseball game can hinge, the Toronto Blue Jays made key trades at the July deadline and in the process discovered who they were again; they went from middling to great.

Losing the error-prone Jose Reyes and a handful of mediocre pitching prospects to secure the services of Troy Tulowitzki, Ben Revere and David Price seems, in very short hindsight, to be the stuff of brilliance.  What cannot be acquired through trades, however, is the sort of spirit that the 2015 Blue Jays version 2.0 have built over the past month.  This is a team in every sense of the word; even from the benches and from the living room you can tell that this is a group of guys who genuinely like each other and love baseball even more.  Last Tuesday, when the unlikely Ryan Goins blasted a two-run home run to secure a walk-off victory in the tenth inning against the Cleveland Indians, his teammates mobbed him as he circled to home plate as though they had just won the division.  These guys are all in and all for one, and that drive has spread to the city of Toronto and indeed the entire country as the people have come pouring back, the remainder of the Jays’ home schedule abruptly sold out.  In the middle of the 11-game August winning streak that took them from seven games back to the top of the AL East, the Blue Jays held a ceremony inviting back the members of the 1985 squad, the heroes I had watched on those cold aluminum Exhibition Stadium chairs as they posted a franchise-record 99 wins, and the comparison to this year’s crew was obvious and deserved.  Those old Blue Jays played to win for the love of the game, and we loved them for it.  The same goes for the new Blue Jays.  They make us remember why we loved the game in the first place, and why we can continue to love it and cling to the edges of our collective seats, holding our breath and waiting as the pitch is loosed, for the signature crack of ball against bat and the absolute eruption of the masses as it finds the seats over the left-field wall.

There is a month to go and so much still can happen.  Perhaps we will look back in another 20 years having elevated Josh Donaldson, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, R.A. Dickey, Roberto Osuna, Russell Martin, Kevin Pillar and the others to the same echelon we’ve reserved for George Bell, Jesse Barfield, Willie Upshaw, Roberto Alomar, Devon White, Joe Carter and their hallowed brethren.  Despite what happens now, the 2015 Blue Jays have accomplished one thing that may not matter in the record books or the history of the sport, but has made a great difference in the life of one specific person:  they’ve made me a fan again.  You might think of it as climbing aboard a suddenly animated bandwagon, but my relationship with the Blue Jays runs far deeper than that.  The funny thing about bandwagons is that they attract followers because the seats are comfortable.  In my case, I’ve reconnected with a part of myself that has been slumbering for over twenty years, and I can look back now and recall the fortunate time I once stood in the middle of center field and gazed into the enormity of the stadium and felt that this was somewhere I truly belonged.  It was never my destiny to be a player, so I’ll take the next best thing, and cheer for a team that has proven that it deserves to be counted among the best ever to play the game.  That’s a bandwagon I think anyone would be happy to ride in.

The Versatile Blogger Award!

versatile

Try to picture me now, six foot three inches of hangdog pout, twisting the toes of one foot back and forth on the floor in shame at having let something sit for far too long.  A month or so back I was nominated for the Versatile Blogger Award, and like a lazy farmer wondering why the crops aren’t doing anything when the seeds haven’t been planted yet, I let this sit, and sit, and recede into the shallows of memory, assuring myself that I would indeed get around to it.  Terrible.  Well, after a few other projects have been swept from the deck, here I am finally, getting around to said thing.  Despite my drag-assedness, I’m deeply grateful to the four stellar talents who were kind enough to nominate this tiny corner of the Internets:  Michelle Gordon, Jessica West, Nillu Stelter and Debbie Vega.  Thank you so very much ladies!  Keep being awesome, and more to the point, keep writing awesomely.  And sorry I’ve taken so long to accept your generous nomination!

The rules for this particular honor are:  thank the person(s) who nominated you (check!), disclose seven interesting factoids about yourself, and nominate fifteen more deserving winners.  As regards the seven interesting facts about myself, well… I’m not really that interesting a person.  I can string words together pretty well on paper and I’m okay at parties until my material runs out, but you’d probably brush past me on the street and not even realize I was there.  I suppose I write fiction to make up for the tame trappings of an average, middle-class upbringing and ongoing life.  But if you’re looking to be regaled by recollections of jaunts through the African savanna or the backstreet jazz clubs of New Orleans or rubbing elbows with the famous and the powerful, you’ve clicked on the wrong link.  It’s why I have to try to captivate you with my words; the rest of me won’t do it.  Regardless, here goes with a few things you might not otherwise know about me.

1.  As noted above, I am six-foot-three, shuffling along in a world designed for the five-foot-six.  This means a chronic case of slouching and a neck somewhat out of alignment from leaning forward to look down.  It also means, for whatever reason, strangers predisposed to think you are athletic.  I am incredibly not.  I marvel at shorter folks who can run marathons – I’m wrecked after a half-walked 5K.  At the risk of sounding a bit Dangerfield-esque about it, I was such a lousy athlete as a child that even the teachers picked me last.  Can’t throw, can’t hit, can’t kick, can’t field.  And to think that a childhood dream (swiftly extinguished by reality) was pitching in major league baseball.  Nope – closest I’ll get is field level seats, and you know what?  I’m totally okay with that.

2.  When I was a teenager, I drew comic books.  This is similar to #1 in that I cannot really draw, either.  My character was an anthropomorphised simian version of James Bond (for the simple reason that monkeys were easier to draw than humans) and I did seven books with him, only four of which were finished.  The last one, that part of me regrets not completing, was a James Bond-Star Trek: The Next Generation crossover, in which Bond fell for Dr. Crusher.  And because I couldn’t draw, the story was a lot of dialogue and character development as opposed to splash pages of pencil-crayoned ass kicking.  Doing these books did teach me a great deal about how to create character beats and arcs, how to plot, and how to sharpen the storytelling edge to finish within the number of pages left in the purloined school exercise book.

3.  I usually wear at least one piece of Disney-related clothing on any given day.  It started a few years ago with one solitary T-shirt; now the wardrobe has expanded considerably through ties, boxers and other apparel, and I’m writing this with a grinning Mickey Mouse displayed proudly on the left breast of my black golf shirt.  We’ve added Olaf to our growing empire of stuffed animals; he’s on a shelf in our living room, enjoying the summer and peering down at the mischievous kittens who are plotting to knock him from his lofty perch.

4.  Speaking of kittens, after we said goodbye to our beloved Muffins, we acquired two new furry friends to carry on her legacy:  siblings Dudley and Daila.  Dudley is an orange tabby while Daila is a tortoiseshell, and while they are both very sweet, Dudley is a master thief!  He has stolen articles of clothing, stress balls, batteries and keys, but his favorite target is pieces of fruit, specifically, bananas.  We have to hide any bananas we buy in the microwave, otherwise we’ll wake up in the morning with a banana in our bed.  Last weekend Dudley figured out how to open the desk drawer in our kitchen, and pilfered a ball of string.  Even though we were proud (and a tad terrified) of his ingenuity, we were somewhat disappointed at his descent into cliche.  It’s all right, he’s young, he’ll grow up and be quoting Proust before you know it.  (A la recherche du souris perdu, anyone?)

5.  My wife and I are part of the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program, and we mentor a young boy we’ve known since he was nine.  It was a year and a half after we met him that we were introduced to the then-11-year-old who would become our adopted son.  So you don’t have to be a major in anything to connect those dots and realize that the experience of mentoring made us realize that we could parent an older child.  A project still lingering on the backburner is a detailed article about being a mentor which I’m hoping to get finished in the next couple of weeks, so watch this space for updates on that.

6.  The infamous novel to which I have alluded from time to time is still working its way through the query trenches, now numbering 11 rejections all told.  I refuse to accept that this is a trend, and I soldier on.  One rather disappointing (yet interesting) tale from this process is having a Twitter pitch for it favorited by one particular agent after she had already rejected the query and sample chapters, which were sent to her because she favorited the same pitch in a prior Twitter contest.  (She was great about it though.)  With that sort of thing, you just have to laugh and keep going.  There was another form rejection I received that was so apologetic I almost felt I should have responded, assuring the agent that I didn’t take it personally and that I wasn’t going to go fledermaus-scheise on her.  Probably a result of too many wannabes doing just that.  As an aside to any literary agent out there who might be reading this, I promise promise PROMISE that I won’t be a jerkwad if you say no to me.  I’m taking a stand against that crap.  I may even develop a variation of the Serenity Prayer for rejected writers, or something more basic, like “I will not break, I will not bend, I will not turn into a raging douche-a-holic.”

7.  And lastly, I have struggled with my hair since as long as I can remember.  The avatar I use for all my social media profiles is one of the rare few pictures in which I find it looks somewhat respectable, instead of like a wildebeest flayed by a helicopter rotor.

Ok then!  Onwards to the third part of this here deal.  Versatility to me suggests, at least by its dictionary definition, individuals with a wide range of skills.  Applied to blogging it would therefore seem to mean people who write well about a lot of different subjects.  This runs contrary to most blogging advice, which posits that in order to build an audience you should focus on one topic you know really well and then just write the bejeezus out of that, rather than trying to be good for all time zones.  I suppose that when you become established as a “voice” that others seek out, you are then freer to weigh in on whatever you want, as opposed to trying to build a niche audience from nothing.  Some blogs I follow are informative writing resources, others are pop culture treasure troves, others still are founts of creativity expressed through wildly imaginative fiction.  What they share, however, are voices I look forward to hearing, and find myself missing when absent.

You’ve been bearing with me for this long, and I want to shake it up and end on something of a twist, so here it is:  rather than list fifteen names and links you won’t click on, I’m going to do Q&A’s with each person I nominate.  I enjoyed hosting Emmie Mears in June and it’s given me the itch to do some more of that there stuff.  I just think you’ll get more of a sense of why I admire these writers, and it’ll give them a chance to talk about what drives them, what scares them, what they’re after and what they want their legacy to be.  None of this fill-in-the-blank, true-or-false quick answer claptrap, we’re going to dive deep down, tug at the heart and probe the soul.  I’m gonna be the Brian Linehan of the blogging world if it kills me.  (I am aware that Brian Linehan is dead, so that could be taken the wrong way.  I meant in the sense of his detailed interviewing style.)  And each will of course be asked for their favorite swear word.

This might take a while so don’t expect all fifteen to show up in the next week, or even the next couple of months – it’ll be an ongoing feature here and I’ll categorize them so they’re easy for you to find.  To my unwitting subjects:  watch your Twitter DM’s and your email inboxes, like so many arrows loosed by an intrepid archer, or darts flung at a perforated cork board by a drunken punter round the pub, my questions will be coming for you.  Mwa ha ha.

Catch: A story of fathers and sons

SAMSUNG

This is my unsuccessful entry for the 2014 CBC Nonfiction Short Story Contest.  Their loss is your gain.  Please to enjoy.

Late afternoon, and amber light from a cloudless sky is mirrored in thousands of dandelions littering the field of cool park grass.  Wind tugs at my hair and bites at the flesh of my cheeks.  The scent of leather triggering a hundred fragments of memory, I reach into my old glove and curl my fingers around the seams of the ball.  Tightly woven threads rub against each ridge of my fingerprints.  What’s it to be – a curve, a slider, a non-athlete’s approximation of a ninety-mile-an-hour fastball?

“You ready?” I call out.

A short distance away, my son waits.  His glove is brand new.  A week ago a plastic tag hung it from the chrome arm of a store display.  It’s stiff, immaculate, ready to be infused with history.  And he’s not holding it right.  “Up and open,” I tell him.

Awkward fingers reorient themselves to the pose he thinks I’m asking for.  He doesn’t really want to be here, I can tell.  But he’s trying because he knows this is important to me.

I nod, wind up and release.  Perfect pitch.  Nolan Ryan would be envious.  The ball sails towards him.

My boy reaches up and closes the pocket too fast.  The ball bounces off the edge of the mitt and tumbles into the weeds.

“It’s okay,” I say.  “Try again.”

I’ve never purchased a glove for myself.  The one I’m using, the one I’ve always used, is my late father’s.  I used to have a smaller one, until I grew into his.  Just like his suits, the first ones I ever wore.  As ridiculously out of style as I must have looked, they had a reassurance to them.  Slipping my arms into the sleeves was like feeling his around my shoulder again.

My son doesn’t feel that way about my things.  Because until only a few short months ago, he wasn’t my son.

There is something of a skewed, Hollywood perception of what happens after you adopt an older child, particularly one who’s spent most of his life in and out of foster care.  I’m thinking of the end of Face/Off, where John Travolta’s character brings home a kid adopted from the terrorist he’s just killed.  The rest of the family embraces the boy, the music swells and the credits roll, the happily ever after securely in place.

Integrating our new son into our family has not been quite so instantaneous, and it has certainly been devoid of any triumphant orchestral music.  In preparing yourself for taking on an older child, you can rationalize until your brain oozes out your ears:  Of course it’ll be different than giving birth to our own baby, but that’s fine.  It’s okay that we don’t get to name him, or see his first steps, or hear his first word.  We’re giving a home to a child who needs one.  And at least we’ll never have to change diapers.

The trouble is, your brain can accept these facts, but your heart, not so much.  You can’t steel yourself with intellectual arguments against what you’re going to feel.  When your new son sits at the dinner table with you and all his stories, all his memories, are of another life that you weren’t in.  When he says “my dad” and he’s not referring to you.  You feel like you’re babysitting someone else’s child, this well-mannered little stranger whose stay with you seems to be going on a while.  And the very worst part is that this is normal, it’s no one’s fault, and there’s nothing you can do about it.  It just is what it is.

And it’s positively gutting.

He tosses the ball back, and I scoop it out of the air.  I catch a scent of my glove again as I wind up, and I think about the man who should be here with us and who isn’t.  I lost my dad when I was 11, and I adopted my son when he was 12.  I’m going to be presiding over this boy’s teenage years with no road map, no example to draw from, not a solitary conception of what it is I’m supposed to do.

He’s taken off his glove to adjust his sunglasses.  I’m so lost in insecure reflection I don’t notice.  I throw.  Roger Clemens.  Down and away.

In the general direction of my son’s face.

WHACK!

An explosion of tears, and my wife runs to his side.  With each choked sob a crescendo of guilt rises within me, the creeping and admittedly hyperbolic sensation of being the worst father in the world.  It sure ain’t like the movies, I think to myself.

Too many people in the world have made this boy cry.  Too many have disappointed him, failed to meet his basic needs, even abused him in moments unthinkable.  He wants so much to be happy and the world keeps kicking him while he’s down.  Now his new father has hit him in the head with a baseball.  One more chorus of pain for the cacophonic dirge that has been his life to this point.

My father made me cry when he went away.  When my mother told me that he’d died, I shattered.  Like the neighbor’s window met by a carelessly tossed ball.  My soul was broken shards on cracked earth.  It has been nearly thirty years gluing it back together.

Tears dry, but my son doesn’t want to play anymore.  We gather the gear and proceed home in a heavy silence, broken only by the roar of cars passing on the street.  Once inside, he tosses his glove aside and hurries upstairs to the sanctum of his video games.  There are aliens to destroy and princesses to save.

My wife tells me not to worry about it.  She’s right, of course; it was obviously an accident.  I’m not there anymore; I’m trying to recall the very last time I played catch with my dad.  Memory is uncooperative.  No bars, no signal.  Only a gray blur.  It was likely a moment to which I assigned no special significance at the time, because it was one of a thousand, and I wouldn’t have suspected there wouldn’t be a thousand more.  So it is lost in the mists, forever.

It occurs to me then that it won’t be long before my son doesn’t remember this day either.  That maybe he’ll have the vaguest of recollections when he looks back from fifty years’ distance.  If I’m still around, and I remind him, he’ll laugh at the old man for dredging up such a silly reminiscence.

And then I realize.

It’s not the golden, soft-focus Field of Dreams moment we’re promised by the movies.  It isn’t even a collection of moments so perfect they might have been choreographed for maximum impact on the heart.  The smiling pictures we post online for our friends to envy.

It’s the work we put in one day to the next, through seemingly endless bouts of frustration and failure and feeling like the last people on the planet who ever should have been approved for parenthood.

It’s not in how we throw the ball, or even that we make the time to throw the ball back and forth whenever the sun shines on that field of dandelions.

It’s in the catch.

Our boy was falling, but we caught him.  He’ll stumble often throughout his life, but we’ll catch him.

Even if he never truly loves us the way a son is expected to love his parents, we’ll catch him.

One day he’ll be ready and he’ll want to throw the ball to me.

With my father’s glove I will catch it.

With a father’s love, I will catch him.