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.