Ever since the first week of April, regular sports folk and professional prognosticators have been champing at the bit to pronounce a moratorium on the Toronto Blue Jays’ hopes for success in 2017. After all the caveats about it being “early,” and all the provisos that this is a team playing inexplicably below its talent level and overdue for an unparalleled hot streak, the dog days of summer were particularly canine, with sweep and series loss piled on top of yet another sweep and too many quiet exits through the clubhouse for those remaining players who hadn’t had their years snatched away by injuries. Here, then, perpetually ten games under .500 with September ebbing away, is where we glance up for the sight of the final nail, dangling Damocles-like, for the team’s coffin. At least for this year.
A few weeks ago, when our old friend Edwin Encarnacion and his Cleveland posse were flattening all opposition en route to their record-breaking win streak, a few noted sports scribes opined that without a World Series win come November, said streak would be meaningless. Which, one supposes has a degree of validity, given that not a single MLB team kicks off April with the aim of simply having a good time for a few months and shuffling off to the golf course after they finish in fourth. Of course everyone wants to win it all. But judging the worth of an entire season by how it ends is a bit like judging the entirety of someone’s life only by how they die. Coughing out your last breath as a withered husk in a ramshackle nursing home as opposed to going out saving a hundred orphans from a school bus that plunged off a bridge doesn’t mean that how you lived every one of those moments beforehand becomes worthless. Jose Bautista’s dour, sputtering finale to his Blue Jays career in 2017 will never diminish the exhilaration of the instant of The Bat Flip™ nor the many other highs of his legendary tenure with us. 2015 ALDS Game Five continues to be talked about and cherished in Jays’ fandom, while 2015 ALCS Game Six is rarely ever mentioned, the pungent sting of that disappointing October 23 faded now like an old scar.
We’re reminded constantly that baseball is a game built on failure. 29 MLB teams and the hundreds of players who stock their rosters will fail every single year. Every team, even the World Series champ, will lose at least 54 games, and a lot of those losses will be brutal, soul-crushing agonies. The mere fact of statistical normalization will always tend to balance out the video-game-like triumphs with equally reality-defying slumps. For the sake of your sanity, you can’t ever pin your enjoyment of baseball on how the season concludes. Even as in these final days 2017 cements its reputation for the Blue Jays as The Season Where Nothing Quite Went Right, there are individual moments that deserve to live on, to bring you a smile as the skies darken, the fields go quiet and you inevitably roll your eyes at every transaction made by the front office come November and onwards.
We’ll remember 2017 as the year Chris Coghlan took flight, the year Steve Pearce hit two walk-off grand slams in the same week – the latter capping an incredible comeback win after going into the ninth down 10-4 – and the year an unloved, strikeout-prone first baseman reduced largely to a late-inning defensive replacement role transformed himself into a fan-favorite, powerhouse All-Star. We’ll remember it as the year the force of nature that is Josh Donaldson put up better numbers in basically half a season than most players do in a full 162 games. We’ll remember a host of opposition batters looking utterly lost at Marcus Stroman’s sliders and Marco Estrada’s changeups. We’ll remember Ryan Goins as “Mr. RISP,” Rob Refsnyder as “Refslider” and Carlos Ramirez as “Mr. Zero.” We’ll remember those GIF-worthy moments like Darwin Barney swimming to third base, a bewildered Matt Dermody wandering off the field having forgotten that the game was over, or Gibby simply being Gibby. And yes, we’ll even remember those infamous red jerseys. Personally, I’ll remember my first selfie snapped field-side with my young niece, getting the chance to spend the night in one of the hotel rooms looking over center field, and of course, Jason Grilli throwing me the ball. In light of those and uncounted thousands more precious personal experiences at the ballpark or watching or listening at home, what does it matter, really, that this year it won’t all end the way 1992 and 1993 did?
Love it, hate it, but don’t dismiss what it does to you. Don’t discount the charge of endorphins flooding your brain when you hear just the right timbre of cracking wood that tells you that thing’s going into the upper deck (or out the exit, if JD is up at bat). Don’t do a disservice to the nine guys working their asses off on that field to give you that charge with each play, nor to yourself for investing so much passion into the limitless possibility that tantalizes you every time one of them takes their position in the batter’s box. Don’t think that the ultimate value of baseball lies solely in the glimmer of the World Series trophy. It’s so much more than that.
It’s the bespectacled little kid in the Donaldson shirsey thrusting his tiny glove hopefully skyward when a foul pop tilts his way, or the explosive roar of the crowd and the home run horn burning itself into his subconscious when his hero goes deep. Visceral, irreplaceable sensations to be recalled with a smile a decade or two hence when he’s taking his own kids to their first game – maybe in another losing season.
2017 isn’t going to be our year to win it all. Arguably, it was never going to be our year. But that’s okay, because we’ll be back cheering on the Blue Jays in 2018, and even if next year belongs to someone else as well, there are great baseball memories in store next season that we can’t even imagine yet. Physics-defying plays, heart-stirring come-from-behind triumphs, and the incalculable, invaluable weirdness that often goes hand-in-glove with this unique and special game.
Like life itself, the joy in baseball has never been in seeing how it all ends. It’s in what happens at every minute, every pitch along the way, and in having your heart simply leap at the thought of what – fastball, slider, curve or changeup – might be coming next.