Tag Archives: Kevin Pillar

We Still Believe We Can Fly

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

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

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

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

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

The appropriately inspired Jays lost their next game.

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

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

At least, until the night Chris Coghlan took flight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris Coghlan showed us how.

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A Jersey By Any Other Name

jersey

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.

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.