Tag Archives: John Gibbons

Not Fade Away

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please, don’t let him fail.

The pitch came.

The leg kicked, the barrel turned, and–

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

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

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

But it was enough.

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

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

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

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

He waved back.

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

Some gods do answer letters, Mr. Updike.

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

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

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

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

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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

jays

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.