Tag Archives: Toronto Blue Jays

A Tale of 216 Stitches

“We’ll definitely get a ball.”

Of all the things my father ever said to me in the ten short years he was in my life, that one resonates louder than the others, as if it were etched by laser into the very tissue of my brain.  I can recall other moments, and wiser words offered on more significant occasions, but that one statement carries a deeper meaning.  It’s a promise any father would happily make to his son, with every intention of keeping it even if doing so depended entirely on chance.  What else would you say?  Would anyone want to dim an eight-year-old’s innocent hopes with frank explanations of probability and odds?

The snared ball is the greatest prize a baseball fan can hope to claim.  Financially it isn’t worth much, you can easily purchase one at modest cost from any vendor of sports equipment and yet for decades spectators at every stadium in every city have been leaping, diving and twisting themselves into pretzels to try to close confident fingers around that little, immensely important lump of cowhide and rubber.  It’s not the thing, of course, it’s the connection to the game.  Of being able to feel for one split second that you aren’t a faceless nobody in the crowd, but an integral part of the story you’re watching unfold before you.  Some people, like the infamous Steve Bartman, have seen their desperate quest for a ball script them into the narrative with an odious lapse in judgment they’ll rue to their last days.  For most, it’s just a matter of being in the right place at the right time, of sitting happenstance under the end of the arc of an errantly tapped breaking ball on the outside corner.

My father had been to the snow-blanketed, very first Toronto Blue Jays game in April 1977, and as soon as I was old enough to sit still for two plus hours it was my turn to accompany him to Exhibition Stadium every few weeks throughout the summer months, to find a place on the cold, chipped blue paint metal seats, with steamed hot dog, scorebook and tiny glove in hand, and watch the magic unfold on the bright green turf – hoping, as all kids did at that age, that the coveted foul ball might miraculously find its way towards us.  Shortly before the start of the ’84 season, he and his best friend John decided to go in halfsies on seasons tickets to ninth row seats up from first base.  John knew nothing about baseball (he intended to use his tickets largely to promote his insurance business), so my father was able to discreetly pick out the best games against the best teams with the best giveaways of Jays swag.  He put this thick book of 40 pairs of slim cardboard tickets in my hand and stood back to watch my eyes gleam as my fingers rifled through them.  I hope we catch a ball this year, I must have said.

“Oh, we’ll definitely get a ball,” he replied.

We had to, right?  Going to that many games, it was just a matter of time and inevitability before say, Willie Upshaw or Damaso Garcia popped a lazy curve just over our heads and into our laps.  And so we went.  To contests held in both evening and afternoon, scorchers under the July sun and polar affairs in late September darkness.  We baked, we were drenched, we froze, and still we went and we watched and we waited for that pop-up, both wearing gloves for the moment it was bound to happen.  1984 came and went, the Detroit Tigers stomped everyone in the league on their way to the World Series, and despite all of it we were still without what my little heart wanted most.  The ritual resumed the following year, and we went again, sharing in the triumph of the victory in the AL East and the heartbreak of seeing the Kansas City Royals snatch it all away.  But still no ball.  We came close once during a night game:  our seats were on the aisle and a foul did careen its way to about five steps above us, but despite my father attempting to imitate Kevin Pillar four full years before Kevin Pillar was even born, the ball slipped out of his grasp and into some other lucky sod’s hand.  (My father joked with friends later on that I had recorded the play in my scorebook as E-Dad).

We didn’t go to as many games in 1986, and I don’t remember what the last game we saw together was, but it too ended with that promise still unfulfilled.  There was probably a shrug and a “maybe next year” comment, and I don’t think I was even that upset about it.  I was old enough to understand then that catching a ball was really down to luck and being in the right place at the right time.  “It’s okay, Dad,” I’m sure I said.  Besides, there were much more potent and lasting prizes accumulated from all those games – memories, emotions, and precious shared time with the man I admired most in the entire world.

“We’ll definitely get a ball.”

Five months after the end of the ’86 season, he was gone.

He was gone long before Toronto had heard of Roberto Alomar or Joe Carter.  He wouldn’t see the opening of the SkyDome, nor the brushes with greatness that were the AL East championships in ’89 and ’91.  He wouldn’t see the glories that were ’92 and ’93.  And he wouldn’t get to see his son walk onto that field (with two hundred other red-coated marching band members) to play the national anthems for a game attended by then-prime minister Brian Mulroney and President George H.W. Bush.  Weighed down by a fifty-pound bass drum harnessed to my chest I took a breath and soaked in the persistent, bass-clef hum that hovers in the stadium air, thinking briefly about the voice that was missing. the one that would be cheering the loudest, pointing and boasting to everyone in earshot that “that’s my son!”  The one who’d still doggedly bring his glove to each game because he had an old promise to keep.

After having found my way back to baseball again these past few years I’ve wondered on occasion how he would have reacted to the strike of ’94 and the Blue Jays’ ensuing two decades of irrelevance and ugly uniforms.  If maybe there would have been a few arguments here and there about the importance of remembering and savoring the purest parts of the game and the impact it can have on the heart, rather than letting oneself be disillusioned by salary disputes and steroids and endless losing seasons.  I wonder if we still would have found ourselves in those first-base-line seats every other week staring hopefully towards home plate and tensing fingers inside mitts at each crack of the bat even as the crowds thinned away.  My father was many things, but not for one moment could he be accused of harboring the remotest hint of cynicism – hence the deliberate choice of the word “definitely.”  It was going to happen, it was just a matter of time and patience, and of never losing hope.

Fast forward to May 26, 2017.

The reviled Texas Rangers are in Toronto for the first meeting between the arch-rivals since Rougned Odor threw past Mitch Moreland to throw away their 2016 season.  A month or so earlier, my wife has the suggestion that we celebrate our upcoming tenth anniversary by renting one of the rooms in the Renaissance Hotel overlooking center field for the night.  It’s a lot of money, but we need the break after a stressful couple of months, and besides, it’s one of those bucket list experiences that every Jays fan should try at least once.  So we take the plunge.  The timing of the game she picks turns out to be serendipitous, with Josh Donaldson and Troy Tulowitzki each scheduled to return to the lineup for the first time after month-long stints on the disabled list.  I book the afternoon off work and we make our way down to the stadium, check in, grab a Starbucks and take the elevator up to the fourth floor, after signing the waiver promising we won’t do anything lewd within view of the public or worse, chuck anything onto the field.  The view is incredible:  staring directly back towards home plate, the tails of the championship banners dangling just above our window.  For the first time, I’ve hand-painted a sign to bring to the game; it reads IT’S OUR 10TH ANNIVERSARY – GO JAYS GO!  I tape it to the glass and lean out the window to watch the Jays take batting practice.  The air smells of air conditioning and oil, and even empty seats thrum with the anticipation of the contest to commence a few hours hence.

It’s kind of hard to see facial features, but I can recognize the haircuts and the batting stances.  Donaldson, Tulowitzki, Kendrys Morales, Jose Bautista and Ryan Goins are each taking their turn smacking balls into the outfield.  Some dude in a suit with a shock of white hair is wandering around the cage chatting with each as they finish:  the one and only Buck Martinez, the same guy my father and I use to watch behind the plate at the Ex.  Directly below me, Blue Jay pitchers are taking warmup tosses with one another.  Marco Estrada is doing a series of hard sprints from left field into center, and as he finishes each he tilts his head up.  Like a starry-eyed six-year-old I wave at him each time, and on the fifth sprint he gives me kind of a half-assed arm shrug back, as if to say “bugger off mortal, I’m in game mode.”  Even though Mike Bolsinger is scheduled to start tonight, Estrada remains all business.

The pitchers finish their throws and four of them congregate in center to retrieve the balls the sluggers are knocking their way.  From our perch above it’s still hard to distinguish features, but numbers on warmup jerseys help.  Dominic Leone, J.P. Howell, Aaron Loup and Jason Grilli (easy to pick out with his longer hair) stand there chatting about whatever it is ballplayers chat about when the cameras are absent.  As Bautista knocks balls into the still-empty outfield seats and the WestJet Flight Deck, Grilli’s attention wanders and he turns around to look up.  This way.  I wave.  He waves back.  He sees my 10th anniversary sign.  He points it out to Aaron Loup.  Grilli’s been kneading a ball in his hand, and he holds it up as if to offer it to me.  I give a thumbs up.  Grilli reaches back and lobs it up, high, towards our window.

THUNK.

Off the glass just to the right.  Way outside the zone.  Ball one, maybe.  It tumbles back to the turf.

Grilli gets another ball and throws again.  This one misses to the left.  You can’t fault the guy for trying, but it’s starting to look a bit hopeless.  We’re really high above the field, and it’s not as if he can afford to burn his velocity and control on a souvenir for a fan when he needs to save it for a possible eighth inning against Mike Napoli et al, you know, the situations he gets paid $3 million a year for.  The third try is closer, but still off the mark.  I shrug at him, assuring him that it’s okay, that I appreciate the effort.

But the Grilled Cheese is undeterred, and he goes for a fourth attempt.  Here it comes.  Up, and up, and closer.  It hovers just outside our window, and time freezes it in place, tantalizing me.  Here it is, that invaluable prize the little boy in you always wanted.  It will never be closer than it is right now.

I thrust trembling arms through the window, and shaking fingers close tight.

I’ve got it.  Holy shit, I’ve got it.

Part of me can’t believe it’s just happened.  Quickly, I wave and give Jason Grilli a big thumbs up, and call out “thank you” even though he probably can’t hear me.  Then I turn away from the window, open my hand and look down.  It’s a lot smaller than I thought it would be.  It’s scuffed with blue and brown from its journey from the bat across the dirt infield to Grilli’s glove to my hands.  So little – and such a big deal all at the same time.  A lump rises in my throat and tears start to pool at the corner of my eyes.  A thirty-three-year-old promise, fulfilled as someone now long gone knew it always would be.  Maybe you can imagine that somehow he was guiding that last throw from Grilli.  Maybe it was all a coincidence.  But it doesn’t matter.  By whatever means you want to believe, it still felt in that moment like a final gift from father to son.  A reminder that cynicism is nothing next to the enduring power of hope.  The same intangible quality that keeps us invested in baseball no matter how dark the world outside gets, no matter how many runs the opposition piles up.  Hope can be found in the smallest of things, even in a modest collection of 216 stitches.

“We’ll definitely get a ball.”

We definitely did.

Thanks, Grilled Cheese.

Thanks, Dad.

“I Thought It Would Be Easier”

Quickly, who said that:  President Puffy Cheeto-Face or the collective of the Toronto Blue Jays and their fans reflecting on April 2017?  After what has been the ugliest slog of baseball in the franchise’s recent memory, with heartbreak served up seemingly inning by inning for four weeks straight, the most reassuring thing to note is that we exit the cruelest month now with only the second worst record in MLB.  That dubious honor belongs to the once-nigh-unstoppable Kansas City Royals, who steamrolled us in the 2015 ALCS on their way to an eventual World Series crown and who are likewise wondering how it all cratered so bloody fast.  Such is the way of the game where your fortunes can turn on a single pitch.

However.

Fortunes certainly turned this past weekend, where after a spectacular relief pitching implosion turned an all-but-certain Friday night victory into a curb-stomping loss at the hands of the eternally frustrating Tampa Bay Rays, both the bats and the bullpen decided they’d had quite enough of that for one month, thank you very much, and delivered two immensely satisfying wins in a row.  Yes, you read that right – wins.  Much craved for green shoots in a field that looked to be lifeless, even salted at times.  Toronto Blue Jays baseball as you want to see it:  shutdown pitching, ace defense and timely extra-base hits, with heroism at every berth in that lineup.  The course of this season has taught us to temper our optimism, to stare the upcoming schedule in the face (and in particular, three games against the ever-entitled yet undeniably good Yankees) with a good dose of trepidation, but damn, we simply need to believe that we’re done appeasing the baseball gods with bad karma for one year and this, to borrow last year’s official hashtag, is where our moment truly begins.

I had the good fortune to attend Saturday’s game, and sitting there beneath the sealed roof that always casts a faint air of factory warehouse across the lively green and brown of the playing field, you could sense the resurgence of a vibe from years past – the dreaded scent of lowered expectations.  Despite the best efforts of Ace and the lovely J Force girls to draw forth the exuberance that has become this stadium’s signature these past seasons, this was a crowd not quite ready to open its heart lest it be splintered again by a late-inning Rays rally.  Wariness ruled at first, and when the Rays snuffed out an early Jays lead by successfully appealing an out call at the plate and trainers emerged from the dugout to attend to Russell Martin’s neck, the predominant sentiment rippling through the seats was “here we go again.”  Christ, what the hell else can go wrong?  As the score lingered at a stagnant 1-1, a group of fans over in the 500’s by right field attempted to start The Wave, and it dribbled over a mere two sections before fizzling out.  Not now, we all said.  Not in the mood.  Toss me another $13 Stella to dull the pain.

Though flames can dwindle, they seldom go out.  When the Jays rallied to take the lead, forty-two thousand seats creaked with bodies leaning forward again, stirred from their disinterest, with a few unfamiliar drops of hope trickling between the rivers of overpriced beer.  When the under-loved Justin Smoak connected lumber to horsehide and planted it in the center field seats, the roof itself bulged at the explosive uncorking of long-suppressed, highly carbonated joy.  We were suddenly all in it together again, and now The Wave could surf across the entire stadium for multiple turns, giving our guys the boost they needed to snip the Rays’ tails and send them shuffling back to the dugout – despite a tenser-than-usual ninth as three straight Rays batters sent Roberto Osuna fastballs to right field, only to have them land safely in Blue Jay gloves.  No miraculous comeback for the other side today, no need to load up the bats for yet another bottom of the ninth.  This one was ours, and as relatively meaningless as wins in April tend to be, we would happily take it.

Now that April is done, we’ve perhaps exhausted the excuse – paraded often these last weeks by Sportsnet’s Mike Wilner – that it’s early.  Likewise is it early after a mere two straight wins to begin projecting a trend, especially looking ahead at three games against the red-hot Yankees in their hood, followed by a return to the horrendous Tropicana Field and what will undoubtedly be an uncomfortable reunion with Edwin Encarnacion and his first-place Clevelanders.  But I will choose to take these last two games and the return of the namesake blue jay birds to my backyard feeders along with the green shoots of spring as the start of things getting better, of that point in the story of 2017 where we begin to astonish everyone who’s already written us off and grind our way back into the race.  Because frankly, we’ve absorbed far more than our share of bad baseball mojo this year.  At times, it feels like we’ve shouldered the burden for the entire league.  It’s time for some of that hideous stuff to rub off on the other guys, to the benefit of our “W” column.  Time for us to reap the bounty of late-inning rallies against flailing relievers and mighty opposition offenses rendered suddenly, inexplicably inert.  Time for us to make April merely the shadowed contrast by which May stands up and shines.

We are so due, folks.

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.

On the Day Before

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Though it’s been difficult to locate a consistent sense of hope and optimism amidst the general daily deluge of assholery and batshit nuttery that characterizes the news of late, there is one lonely island that cannot, for the moment at least, be soiled by the antics of the present inhabitant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue (or wherever the hell he chooses to park his flabby orange ass on any given day).  One tiny beacon that can permit liberals and conservatives alike to shelve their ideological spite and instead rejoice in the spectacle of grown, uniformed men chasing a tiny sphere of cork and horsehair around a manicured field for a few hours at a time.

Major League Baseball is back.

Pitchers and catchers reported to spring training camp on Valentine’s Day, and this Saturday, the 2017 Toronto Blue Jays take the field for the first time in a Grapefruit League exhibition game against their first-ever World Series rivals, the Atlanta Braves.  It’s not “real” baseball, one could argue:  the lineup will be largely absent any of the team’s stars, and it will be more of a tryout for the second-stringers and the minor leaguers hopeful of even just a solitary shot in The Show.  But it’s a welcome dawn after a long night, when the storybook triumph of the Chicago Cubs after 108 years without a championship faded with the stadium lights and the world awakened on November 9th to its worst hangover in our young lifetimes.  We’ve craved the purity and the innocence of the pitch and the swing and the wonderfully endless possibility of what might happen next.

The off-season for Blue Jays fans has been typically painful.  There’s a reason why “inside baseball” is a useful colloquialism for any industry in which peeking behind the scenes is an exercise in self-flagellation, and one might long for the younger days when you’d just show up at the stadium in April and cheer for whomever took the field.  The front office is never doing enough, the corporate owners are never spending enough, and any cobbled together twenty-five that doesn’t consist of the reigning champions in every single batting and pitching category is bound to be a disappointment.  And as always, the most bitter part of the off-season is the habitual departure of one or two of the favorites.  Watching David Price slap on a Boston cap last year wasn’t great, but he hadn’t been with us very long.  Seeing Edwin Encarnacion sheathe himself into a Chief Wahoo jersey was wound-salting agony.  Making it worse is that you can’t even really blame him for jumping the puddle to Cleveland.  Free agents earn the right to play wherever they want for however much they want, and Edwin worked his ass off to get there, even if there isn’t here.  But what does the subtraction of all those delectable parrot walks do to the team he left behind?

There’s been plenty of speculation of course, because that’s what we do in the absence of new box scores to dissect.  Sportswriters keen to claim the mantle of this year’s Nostradamus are ever eager to craft the season’s obituary before the first pitch is thrown.  The day the Red Sox traded for Chris Sale, they were immediately anointed the 2017 AL East champions, even though the truth of baseball is that there are 162 games to get through, and numbers aren’t always the best measure of the randomness of reality.  That rotation does look fearsome, but you never know:  Price could continue his downward trend, Rick Porcello could have a natural regression from his Cy Young season, and Sale’s wonky delivery could finally blow out his arm.  The point, one supposes, is that you can feign expertise but simply can’t say with any certainty, and for a sport that is often in danger of getting BABIP’d and fWAR’d to death by a parade of increasingly perplexing statistics designed to shackle the future to a handy script, its enduring appeal lies in its essential unpredictability.  That slow, tantalizing burn where new event builds upon new event and the final outcome is light-years removed from what anyone imagined it might be at the commencement of play, is the beauty of the baseball game.

On the day before the first spring innings, every team has an equal chance to do what the Cubs did last year.  Guys outplay or underplay their expectations year after year; goats become heroes and then suddenly grow the horns back on a lightning turn:  you can be Mike Trout for a hundred and fifty-five games and then on one missed grounder you’re Bill Buckner (or Rougned Odor on the final play of Game 3 of the 2016 ALDS).  In Florida and Arizona right now, there are a thousand breakout stars waiting to ignite, and the same thousand ready to slip away unheralded into the darkness.  In Dunedin, where the Blue Jays are doing situps and wind sprints as we speak, Justin Smoak is hoping he can consistently be the guy who decided to tie and then walk off a 2016 game with two back-to-back home runs.  Melvin Upton Jr. is craving a leadoff spot and another 20 stolen bases/20 home run season.  Jarrod Saltalamacchia wants fans to learn how to pronounce his last name.  Kendrys Morales wants to make everyone in Toronto forget how to pronounce “Encarnacion.”  J.P. Howell wants to be Andrew Miller.  Marcus Stroman wants to be Cy Young with a record deal.  Joe Biagini wants to be Cy Young with a clown nose.  And Jose Bautista just wants to be Jose Bautista again, consistently, from April straight through to October, regardless of what the (suitably humbled, one would imagine) Texas Rangers think.

They may be none of those things.  They may be all of them.  We’ll spend the next eight months finding out alongside, leaping out of our seats with fists pumping the air in one moment and hurling beers against the wall (and hopefully not at Orioles outfielders) in the next.

About the only certainty is the inevitability of change.  This time last year, Drew Storen was a likely lock to be the closer, Gavin Floyd had a better than average shot to be the fifth man in the rotation, Chris Colabello was the set-in-stone starting first baseman, and the bullpen would be anchored by guys like Jesse Chavez, Arnold Leon and Franklin Morales.  And Bautista (allegedly) wanted a $150 million contract extension with no hometown discount or he was outta here.

Yeah.

The people who get paid a lot to know this stuff better than we layperson fans have done their best to put together a squad that can contend.  There are always questions of how long they will, as the core ages, contracts expire and the looming threat of a rebuild (i.e. sucking for five straight years or more with a roster of cheap nobodies) after a bad season nibbles away like a tick at the base of one’s skull.  They said they wanted to get younger, more athletic, and more left-handed, and really none of that happened.  Maybe that would have bettered their chances for this year, maybe it won’t make a difference.  Maybe those mathematical projections that have the Jays pegged at a middling 81-81 and missing the playoffs by a country mile are spot on.  Maybe they’re utterly bonkers.

Baseball has to write its own narrative anyway.

On paper, teams look however they are going to look at this point.  Once the game begins, paper’s only role is to wrap the hot dogs.

On the day before, the 2017 Toronto Blue Jays are both the best and the worst team this franchise has ever fielded.  The cast is assembled, the jerseys are washed and pressed, the infield grass is trimmed, the chalk lines are precise, and the stage is set, awaiting only two little words.

Play.  Ball.

In Defense of “Elite”

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There’s a new cabal of supervillains in town, haven’t you heard, and you won’t find them clad in garish Technicolor-hued costumes and cackling about plans for ruling the galaxy, but you might spot them at black-tie parties sipping champagne between lips perpetually curled into a superior smirk, shaking their heads at the calamity that has temporarily befallen their carefully-laid Machiavellian schemes for crafting a horrific utopia of universal health care.

That’s right:  it’s those dastardly elite.

The buzzword for the evil well-heeled liberal left is at the forefront of the discussion that lingers in the wake of the egregious phenomenon that is Donald Trump, with his election described as a rebuke to the ruling elite, and with others just a hair north of the border clamoring to pick up his poisoned torch, as if he were the vanguard of a burgeoning movement that seeks as its endgame the imprisonment of all lovers of Puccini and Dostoyevsky.

The word “elite,” which in its dictionary definition means the best of something, is in the political arena an archetype of snobbery and disdain, a pejorative concocting images of a haughty Illuminati-like cabal whose greatest crime is that they just don’t get what it’s like to be a real, average, hard-workin’ sort of folk.  This is despite the fact that those who hurl it with the most frequency and venom are themselves usually silk-suited, impeccably pedigreed, long-serving elected officials or heavily pancaked cable news talking heads who haven’t had to suffer the indignity of a working-class job since the paper route their corporate partner lawyer father made them get back in the 70’s – you know, elites.

Ironically, absolutely nowhere else is elite a term greeted with contempt; rather, it represents, as the word is meant to, the highest, most desirable caliber of person.  We read books, go to movies and listen to music made by elite artists, we want our kids to be educated by elite teachers, we want our health monitored by elite doctors, we want our houses and cars maintained by elite trades.  Businesses both big and small boast about how they only want elite people working for them, and that in approaching them as a customer you will receive only elite treatment.  When you go out to eat you want to be waited on by elite staff (even the poor kid at Mickey D’s had better be bright and cheerful and fast lest you raise hell with their manager), when you go on vacation you want elite white glove service from start to finish.

And of course, we only want elite athletes playing for our favorite professional sports teams.  I’ve been following the MLB off-season wheelings and dealings, and the Blue Jays’ Edwin Encarnacion remains unsigned after turning down an $80-million, four-year deal from Toronto – a deal which, if you do the math, would result in him making about $150K for every single game he plays – and you see fans who would take four years to earn what he’ll get in one day begging the ownership to please cough up even more to get his name on the dotted line.  No one is saying to please give up on Edwin and sign a busload of mediocrities in his stead; no one wants to watch that team boot the ball about the field.

Simply put, in every other aspect of our lives we not only desire the elite, we expect it; and yet, when it comes to politics, we’re suddenly terrified of them, picturing them as cloud-dwelling aristocrats trickling a steady stream of urine down onto the contemptible masses in lieu of rain.  But apply the same formula to a restaurant and ask yourself the question:  am I going to turn down this perfect medium rare sirloin grilled by the elite, Parisian-schooled chef in favor of an inedible hockey puck burnt by a bumbling hack because he’s the kind of guy who really gets me?

Not for a second.

Fear of the elite as the government is an artificial construction manipulated to win votes by politicians who are themselves of the same class they claim outwardly to despise.  George W. Bush, who ran as an outsider and the politician voters claimed they were most likely to want “to have a beer with” (in my mind the single stupidest qualifier for a candidate for office ever devised – I don’t want to have a beer with you, I want you to be working on growing the economy, fixing poverty, restoring the environment and keeping us out of wars), was the Yale-educated son of a long line of privilege.  Rob Ford was a working-class hero despite having inherited his family’s million-dollar label business.  Donald Trump, it was oft lamented by Clinton campaign personnel, literally shat in gold-plated toilets aboard his private jet and somehow convinced the out-of-work laborers in the Rust Belt states that he was one of them.  The hatred for the political elite – framed as single-handedly responsible for every ill that has befallen every human being ever, and they may have taken the Lindbergh Baby as well – is so strong that a disturbing number of voters are quite happy to overlook the glaring hypocrisy of anyone who steps up to affirm that anger in digestible, repeatable soundbites.

As Canada’s federal opposition Conservative Party prepares to select its new leader, the 14 pretenders to Stephen Harper’s iron throne are likewise bleating about sticking it to the elites a la Trump, despite the fact that all save one are veteran former federal cabinet ministers and most have degrees from prestigious educational institutions and long track records in the upper echelons of the corporate sphere predating their service in government.  You simply do not get to mount a campaign for the leadership of a national political party as a commonplace rube, and trying to pretend that you have suddenly become the standard bearer for people who haven’t the first clue what the letters in all the degrees after your last name stand for, people who you’d never condescend to speak to for a half-second if your public image didn’t require it, is the highest of farce – however, as Trump proved, sadly, it doesn’t mean you won’t still win.

As a word, elite needs to be reclaimed from those who are redefining it into a handy slur directed at the opposite side of the aisle.  Elite means the smartest and the best, something everyone should aspire to, and even if admitting it publicly is somehow seen as immodest, no one is sitting around thinking “I really hope to be the most numbingly bland, average, unremarkable, mediocre, inadequate and woefully subpar ____________ as it is possible in this life to be.”  No, we won’t all get to be President or Prime Minister or otherwise world-renowned, but we can still do the best we can with the life we have, which, surprise of surprises, requires a great deal of hard work, always lauded or used as the first line of defense by the thin-skinned in Internet comment section arguments:  “I’m not one of those elites, I’ve worked hard for everything I have!” – congratulations, that makes you elite, and there aren’t enough Make America Great Again stickers to plaster on your rear bumper to change it.

And while many might rue the notion of being governed by the elite – in the manner as it is defined by pundits – like the business looking for that ideal hire, when we vote we truly do want the best person for the job.  Even the 62 million people who voted for Donald Trump did not really think he was going to suck at being President.  So can we please, for the love of the English language, put the misuse of elite to bed and stop acting like being really good at something is a failing and that ignorance in the ways of governing is in any way a desirable virtue?  Because you can’t be sanctimonious about proudly electing idiots and then complain with any legitimacy when everything goes to pot, which it will.  Everyone who is trying to win your vote by making an enemy of elites knows this.  They simply don’t care, and they are faking that they understand your struggles in order to achieve an office that will allow them to screw you with impunity, to the benefit of their wallets, not yours.  Elite is being informed and thoughtful enough to be able to recognize these purveyors of snake oil for what they are.  Given the alternative, which would you choose?

Elegy for the 2016 Season

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So… I guess we didn’t know the way out.  Or, we did, and we just couldn’t find it this time.

Baseball has no denouements.  For a sport often criticized for its length and occasionally languid pace, individual games and entire seasons can end in a slice of time scarcely more measurable than the duration of a blink:  the snap of a glove closing over a futile pop-up, a batted ball striking a plastic seat perched over the left-field fence.  A cord is cut, and abruptly it’s celebrations for one team and quiet exits through the clubhouse for the other.  There is no window in which to become comfortable with the notion of either, but plenty of time for deep contemplation to follow, once the lights have been dimmed and the crowds have gone home, and the weeks roll on into November and questions of trades and free agency and the long wait until spring training of a new year.

The lesson from the 2016 American League Championship Series is to be careful what you wish for.  As the Blue Jays were sweeping away the hated Texas Rangers, Cleveland was doing the same to the Boston Red Sox despite a pitching staff absent its two best starters, and every statistic in the book prescribed that the Jays would have a much better chance of beating Cleveland than going up against David Ortiz et al once more.  But Boston, like Toronto, was a team dependent on its offense, and Cleveland’s hurlers were stepping up and shutting that offense down.  Toronto had gone through a horrendous patch in September when they hadn’t been able to hit much of anything, and were making late callup opposition 4th & 5th starters they’d never faced before look like Cy Young and Sandy Koufax.  Perhaps we were fooling ourselves into the idea that those doldrums that had seemed to vanish in the week leading up to the playoffs couldn’t return.  The way our guys were demolishing Texas’ aces made a march to the World Series feel inevitable, the prospect of perhaps dueling the Cubs at Wrigley Field for the big trophy simply mouth-watering.  Surely, Cleveland’s compromised hurlers would be yet another easily crushed stepping stone.  Our guys even had better-than-average numbers against the fearsome reliever Andrew Miller from his days with the Yankees.

How wrong we were.

There have perhaps been few playoff teams as evenly matched as Cleveland and Toronto, and in the final analysis, Cleveland simply played better.  They deserve every congratulations for their victory – even if such kudos have to be offered through clenched teeth.

Perhaps because there are no denouements in baseball, it’s easy to become too focused on what we lost in that final disappointing game rather than what we shared in the 170 games that preceded it.  2016 gave us plenty of wonderful baseball memories to store away in the vault of highlight reels for fans to trade “where were you when” stories about.  The playoffs alone have given us Edwin Encarnacion’s walk-off wild card 3-run home run, and Josh Donaldson’s ALDS Game 3 walk-off face-plant into the plate.  Those can be happily added to the hallowed echelons reserved for “Touch ’em all, Joe,” Dave Stieb’s no-hitter and the greatest bat flip of all time.  Ultimately no one will have much cause to rue the hopelessness of the ALCS, much as few reminisce about last year’s.  We’ll take our victories where we can find them, and contemplate how neither the Orioles, the Red Sox or any of the teams that did not even touch the postseason will have any such memories of 2016 going forward.  For these are the moments that keep you invested in a team, keep you holding on to the unlimited promise of the next season, and the season after that.

There is of course a degree of melancholy in the end of 2016 for the Toronto Blue Jays in that it represents the potential end of the road for two of its most iconic players, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion:  men who shuffled into town with sparse fanfare and lower expectations and developed, under the hopeful eyes of millions Canadian fans, into two of baseball’s elite.  Few want to see them go, as their departure would represent the closing of a door on a singular time in Toronto baseball.  The reality of the business aspect of the sport foretells that they probably will.  At the risk of sounding like the devil’s advocate, one could make the case that they have had several years and chances to get it done, as it were, and have not.  Indeed, their respective offensive output was sorely lacking over these past five games when it mattered most, and hits from them alone in a key moment here and there might have changed the outcome completely.

Without meaning any disrespect to the two, maybe it is finally time to let someone else step up.

One recalls how important Dave Winfield was to the Blue Jays’ World Series win in 1992 and how his departure in the off-season would have seemed at the time to be fatal to the chances of a repeat, but the arrival and subsequent performance of Paul Molitor the following year rendered that conversation swiftly moot.  If the Jays’ front office doesn’t want to pony up to keep Joey Bats and the Ed-wing, who’s to say they might not find somebody better – a Paul Molitor for 2017?  We shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss the possibility.  Recall the hew and cry when Toronto passed up its chance to retain the forbiddingly expensive David Price and signed a cheaper, under-the-radar J.A. Happ instead.  After Happ’s 20-win season and Price’s year of scuffling with Boston, no one regrets that decision.

Bautista and Encarnacion may leave, but the team they built together and the fans they inspired will still be here – jerseys and all.  For that, we’ll always be grateful.  Perhaps we’ll welcome them back again one day in honorary Blue Jays uniforms, to throw out the first pitch or flip the bat and walk the parrot in a 50th anniversary game in 2026 as their names rightfully join the Level of Excellence.  They’ve earned it, and no one can ever deprive them of the history they’ve made in Toronto.

In the first Golden Era of Toronto Baseball, the Blue Jays had to lose four sets of ALCS appearances (with a few non-playoff seasons in between) before they were finally able to advance and take it all.  As we bear witness to the Second Golden Era, we might want to reassure ourselves with the same thought.  There is no reason why we can’t find ourselves back here same time next year, the holes in the boat patched, two years’ worth of playoff experience under our belts, a better, ingrained approach against shutdown pitching.  After decades in the wilderness, the Toronto Blue Jays have regained the most important thing it is to be in this sport:  the status of a contender.  Contenders pack the stands night after night, fashion the most gripping of games and have the best players in the league salivating to come join the party.  That might be a more satisfying, long-term victory than the fleeting glitter of a 2016 World Series trophy, and in a sport without denouements, an ending that can linger for years to come.

Thank you to every one of the Toronto Blue Jays for a terrific season.  See you in the spring.

We’ve Been Down Here Before, and We Know the Way Out

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If one was a member of the Toronto Blue Jays imagining the course of the 2016 American League Championship Series, the most ideal situation would not necessarily be rolling into Game 3 down two and needing to win four of the next five to move on to the big finale.  The Cleveland Indians are sitting far more comfortably after their first two victories and five straight so far in their 2016 postseason.  They can afford to absolutely tank the next few games confident that even in the Blue Jays’ most optimal outcome, this series will be decided on Cleveland’s home turf of Progressive Field by the end of this week, with a legion of red-clad fans on their feet for every strike hurled against an opposing batter.

No, not really what you want to see as a Toronto player or a fan, especially given the doses of playoff magic we’ve been treated to thus far:  Edwin Encarnacion’s walk-off home run in the wild card, Josh Donaldson’s faceplant walk-off slide into home in the ALDS.  We want more of that to keep us sustained over the long winter to come.  It’s crunch time now, backs against the wall, the importance of every at bat magnified by expectant eyes and television cameras.  And yet, there is perhaps no team with as much potential to reverse this perilous course and claw its way back to a triumphant finale.  Because this isn’t last year, when you had an essentially virgin playoff roster flailing to find its way against the more experienced and more clutch Kansas City Royals.  And the losses to Cleveland thus far have contained more than a few silver linings to keep the faith going (as indeed, I had to be reminded of by my better half through more than a few grimaces and obscenities as I watched Game 2 slip away).

The consensus among sportswriters was that these were going to be low-scoring games as the pitching on both sides is elite.  No argument there.  But for one bad pitch each from Marco Estrada and J.A. Happ, these two games have entirely different outcomes.  Bummer if you’re a Jays fan looking for a crucial win, obviously, but reassuring to know that we won’t likely be treated to a reprise of last year’s horrifying Game 4, when Toronto’s pitchers might as well have been tossing underhand tennis balls to Kansas City.  Lost perhaps in the talk of the Blue Jays’ inability to scratch out hits with men in scoring position or indeed do anything but whiff against Cleveland’s Andrew Miller is the fact that those two errant home run balls have represented the sum total of Cleveland’s ability to score over these past two games.  Estrada and Happ were largely lights out except for those couple of forgivable mistakes (which would have been meaningless had their offense supported them in the manner to which they became accustomed in the ALDS).

We didn’t need to use our bullpen in Game 1, but in Game 2, Joe Biagini and Roberto Osuna combined to silence Cleveland’s lineup over three innings as effectively as Miller, even if they weren’t doing it in as flashy a manner – a zero on the scoreboard is a zero, whether it’s by strikeouts or groundouts.  And because Estrada was so solid in Game 1, those are the only two of our relievers that Cleveland has had to face.  Jason Grilli, Brett Cecil, Francisco Liriano, Aaron Loup and Ryan Tepera are all rested and ready to go when needed, and Cleveland doesn’t have much experience facing any of them.  It is true that Osuna had begun to struggle a bit in the closing days of September, but when you recall that it was against AL East teams who’d seen him umpteen times throughout the season, it’s not surprising at all – and he’s been able to recoup his mojo quite handily in October against guys who haven’t had to face him in months.

On the Cleveland bullpen side, manager Terry Francona has relied exclusively on Miller and closer Cody Allen, who have combined to render the Blue Jays’ bats impotent.  The danger with this approach is that the more times the Jays face Miller, the better they’ll be able to read what’s coming – and because Miller has thrown multiple innings each outing, everyone down the lineup has had a chance to see him.  As good as Miller is, he’s not immortal, and he’s going to make a mistake at some point – or worse, become predictable.  One of the most satisfying moments of last season’s drive was watching Dioner Navarro rip an “unhittable” Miller pitch into the Yankee Stadium seats, and something similar is inevitable during the course of this long series (the hand-wringing likely to result for Francona, along the lines of Buck Showalter’s criticism for not using Zach Britton in the wild card game, is amusing to contemplate).

I and a few others wondered if the long layoff between the sweep of Texas in the ALDS and the start of the ALCS might lead to the Blue Jays losing the crucial edge that had served them so handily starting with the final two games of the regular season at Fenway.  When hitting is so much a matter of precision timing, any disruption in routine can trend it south, and while the Jays certainly used their well-earned downtime to continue training and practicing, lazy drills in an empty stadium simply don’t have the electricity needed to keep that edge sharp.  Sinking into a must-win situation, however, does, and with Marcus Stroman coming to the mound tonight as he did for the wild card game, the ingredients have been assembled for a repeat breakout that will both knock Cleveland back on its heels and put our guys smack back in it.

It’s been the story of the Toronto Blue Jays 2016 season.  They may look lost from time to time, but they’re never finished.  To paraphrase Leo McGarry, we’ve been down here before, and we know the way out.  It was punctuated, you may recall, by a particularly notorious flip of the bat.

That’s the hope, anyhow, as the playoffs are not notorious for providing a wealth of second chances, and a loss tonight could result in a lot of early obituaries for Toronto’s season.  But it’s not as though the Blue Jays are being pounded into the dirt by a far superior team with no hope of recovery.  The narrative has been simply that of one evenly matched team edging out the other by the narrowest of margins.  That trend isn’t sustainable, and even though Cleveland’s offense is probably due to break out, one can’t see that happening under the blazing lights and deafening roars of the Rogers Centre.  The odds have most definitely turned in our favor.

Former Jays utility player Munenori Kawasaki had a delightful quote last year about how his team would make its run:  “Don’t thinking! Don’t don’t thinking. Just swing! Just catc…uh throw! Just catch. Don’t think everybody. Just win!”  I can’t think of any better advice to my team than that.

Just win.  You know how.

You’ve done it before.

Clash of the (Mild-Mannered) Titans

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It’s hard to believe it’s only been four days since the Blue Jays walked off the Texas Rangers to earn their second straight trip to the American League Championship Series.  The collective nerves of Toronto fans certainly merited a break, even if they won’t truly stop jangling until we see our guys clutching a champagne-soaked World Series trophy – or the undesired alternative.  With a little over three hours to Corey Kluber’s first pitch of Game 1, those stomach-dwelling butterflies are beginning to flap their dreaded wings once more.  Even though by all rights we have much more reason to be more confident about our prospects in this series than we did one year ago, watching our guys take the field at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City.  Our squad is experienced, battle-hardened and eager to conclude unfinished business, to propel the entire nation into a final showdown with either the Dodgers or the Cubs.

We got a taste of this last year, and how we are ever starving for it now.

I’m not the only one who isn’t terribly upset that we’re not facing the Boston Red Sox again.  With the major league schedule calibrated to ensure that teams play the majority of their games against division rivals, it felt like Toronto was suiting up against those guys every week, and honestly, it was getting a bit wearying, especially given the excessive media spotlight on David Ortiz’s final season.  Now that he is done and the Sox, swept efficiently to the curb by Cleveland, are looking to 2017, we don’t have to worry about Craig Kimbrel’s silly bent-over pitching stance, or Mookie Betts’ arrogant plate sneer, or Dustin Pedroia’s goofy stretchy-face, or John Farrell’s brooding dugout mug, or Fenway’s home-run stealing Green Monster, or any of those infuriating quirks spoiling the mood one last time.  So long guys, see ya in April.

We can finally have – as the hashtag says – our moment.

Tonight, Marco Estrada goes up against Corey Kluber.  I was at the game on July 3rd when the Jays hammered Kluber and his compatriots so badly, to the tune of 17-1, that manager Terry Francona was forced to have his catcher pitch the last few innings.  Cleveland’s starting rotation has been thinned by season-ending injuries and the current plan is for Game 4 to be a “bullpen game,” with no qualified starter available to take the mound.

Toronto’s starters are another matter.  Collectively, they are the best in the league.  While neither J.A. Happ nor Aaron Sanchez were in their fighting form in the ALDS, they have had more games than not during the season when they pitched like aces, and stand every chance to do so again.  Along with Marcus Stroman, whom nobody wanted to start the wild card game, and who fed off those doubts to throw the game of his life.  As long as our guys keep hitting and running the bases like they have been, we have every chance to move on.

It feels like we deserve to move on.

Not that it will be easy.  Both teams are undefeated in the postseason this year, and one of those streaks will end tonight.  Despite a compromised pitching staff, Cleveland managed to hold the run-happy Red Sox at bay in three straight.  They’re no pushovers, not by a long shot.  They deserve to be here as much as we do.  And if they manage to secure a World Series berth, no one will be able to say it wasn’t earned.

What gives me the most hope is that during the playoffs and even those last two games against Boston that secured home field advantage for the wild card, the Jays are playing the kind of baseball that the Royals used to defeat them last year – manufacturing runs from tiny hits, running hard, taking extra chances that pay off huge.  Josh Donaldson’s walkoff dash on Sunday night was taken right from the same playbook that saw Lorenzo Cain score the winning run from first base in last year’s Game 6.  That’s the kind of high-risk ball that can push a good team into the realm of greatness – when it works, of course.  Combined with the rate at which the balls are flying out of the respective yards, the Blue Jays enter this series as favorites, and not just in the minds of their fans.

It’s a relief as well that we are playing against a team with which we really don’t have much of a history; there are no simmering grudges over past slights that require setting right.  Our guys don’t hate their guys, nor vice versa.  (No one in Cleveland has a memory long enough to warrant burning effigies of Dave Stieb over his 1990 no-hitter.)  Respective blood should remain at a gentle simmer rather than a roiling boil.  Two sets of titans are fated for a most civilized showdown.  Our guys, and theirs, can just go out and play great ball night after night and enjoy doing it, to the benefit of every single fan.  The game, and not individual egos, will assume its proper place at the center of the stage.

Could it all go wrong again?  Certainly.  Baseball’s entire outcome can turn on a single bad play.  Ask Rougned Odor.  You just have to make sure you make fewer bad plays than the other guys.

But more than last year, the Blue Jays have shown that hard work and dedication can pay off.  They won’t lie down and throw any of these games away.  They will fight and scratch and claw and battle to the last out to try to bring a championship north of the border again.  And really, that’s all you can ask from any team to whom you throw your support, no matter the result.

Oh, screw that good sportsmanship horse puckey.

I want them to win, dammit.

GO JAYS GO!!!!

The Miracles of October

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September seems like such a long time ago.

The stale taste of those doldrums lingered far too long; a miasma of blown leads, impotent offense, the fist-clenching frustration of watching the ubiquitous Boston Red Sox explode into an 11-game winning streak reminding us of who we were at this same time last year, the team everyone expected us to be again.

To be fair, the entire 2016 season seems like a long time ago.  The prevailing wisdom was that the unfulfilled promise of the otherwise magical 2015 run of the Toronto Blue Jays, thwarted at the last mile by the eventual champion Kansas City Royals, was mere dress rehearsal for greater destinies ahead.  The same core was back, the pitching had (ostensibly) been fortified, and it was merely a matter of sitting back and watching home runs fly out of stadiums on a cakewalk back to glory.

The baseball gods are never inclined to make things that easy.

There was a point in 2015 where you just expected the Jays to go out and win every game, and even in the ones they lost, they made it close.  But for much of this season, the 2016 squad felt like shells of their former selves; well-meaning guys who in the end just couldn’t get it done, and let their obvious frustrations play across squinting faces at each crushing swing and miss.  When a string of bad games plunged the Blue Jays permanently out of first place just as the kids they’d inspired were shuffling back to school, a colleague of mine sent me a quick email:  “Looks like we won’t be troubled by October baseball this year.”

I wasn’t disinclined to agree with him, nor was most of baseball.  There were too many more exciting stories for which to write tantalizing opening paragraphs:  the Chicago Cubs possibly smashing the infamous Goat Curse, the Giants reasserting their even-year playoff dominance, David Ortiz closing his storied career with a World Series ring on his finger.  As late as the last week of September the Blue Jays were yesterday’s news.  Move along folks, nothing more to see here.

For Blue Jays fans, it was as if an entire fabled era was stumbling to a whimpering close.  The image of a saddened Edwin Encarnacion, free agency and greener pastures looming, lingering in the dugout after a shattering shutout loss to the Baltimore Orioles and gazing one last time out at the stadium in which he worried he’d never get to trot his parrot again, epitomized what everyone was feeling.

It wasn’t supposed to end like this.

It couldn’t end like this.

The Blue Jays stumbled into Fenway Park largely written off by the entire sport.  The Red Sox had clinched the AL East a few days earlier (thanks to a Blue Jays loss) but were playing for home field advantage in the playoffs, so they weren’t inclined to make things any easier.  Nor did they, taking the first game in typical Red Sox fashion – and mirroring the Jays’ struggles in April – as Ortiz secured the win with a two-run blast off Brett Cecil.  Veteran political campaigners call it “the stench of death” – a creeping, settling dread that the end is certain no matter how much time remains on the clock.  These are the hardest moments to be a fan, of any team.

But.

The game has nine innings and the season has 162 games, and a quote from Vanilla Sky looms large:  every passing moment is another chance to turn it all around.

In Game 161, Kevin Pillar’s bat came to life.  In Game 162, Aaron Sanchez no-hit the hardest slugging team in the major leagues for seven innings.  And the grind during the regular season against the home-run happy Baltimore Orioles ensured that the Blue Jays had a winning record against them and thus would have home field advantage for the crucial do-or-die wild card game – at the loudest, most raucous ballpark in the majors (remember when Dave Winfield had to beg for more noise?)

You all know what happened next.

Victories are sweet but temporary, and as soon as the champagne and beer dried off the plastic strung over the clubhouse, the next challenge awaited.  A rematch with the hated Texas Rangers, they of the year-long festering butthurts over getting bat-flipped to the golf courses in 2015, who had initiated the brawl in May that had left Jose Bautista with a bruised face from Rougned Odor’s fist.  Still looking to settle the score, the Rangers had cruised to first place in the weak AL West division and the best overall record in the league and hadn’t had to play meaningful baseball in weeks.  But they were hungry.  By all stats they were in a better position.  The Blue Jays were banged up and their relief corps was in trouble again:  seventh-inning shutdown expert Joaquin Benoit was out with a torn calf muscle sustained in a stupid brawl against the Yankees, lightning-armed eighth-inning setup man Jason Grilli was suddenly tossing wiffle balls, and indispensable closer Roberto Osuna had departed the wild card game with a strained shoulder.

Most sportswriters were favoring the Rangers in four.

The game is played by nine men at a time, but each individual contest usually has one hero.  In Game 1 it was Marco Estrada, befuddling the Rangers with his changeup and blanking them into the ninth as a long-dormant Jays offense piled up 10 runs.  In Game 2 it was Roberto Osuna, with “NO PANIC” written on his shoes, quieting the last two innings and securing a squeaker of a 5-3 victory and sending the Jays home with only one game left to win (yet still with question marks as reliable leadoff man Devon Travis was held out with a bone bruise and Francisco Liriano took a terrifying, mild concussion-inducing shot to the back of the head off Carlos Gomez’s bat).  Game 3 seemed like it was fated to belong to Aaron Sanchez again.  That’s how the baseball gods would want it, right?

The Rangers, however, were not going to fold up and go quietly, and they hammered Sanchez for 6 runs, two of them coming on a home run from the hated Rougned Odor, the last coming on a Mitch Moreland double that was two inches from being another rally-ending diving catch from Kevin Pillar.

Sphincters clenched across Canada.

Even though we knew there would be a Game 4 to right the ship should this one collapse, watching the lead slip away was gutting.  We’d been in that position last year, and we rallied from a two game deficit to claim three straight and advance.  We knew Texas was aching to do the same, seemingly lacking only the inspiration of a close, hard-fought win to reignite the competitive spirit that had notched them 95 victories.

To the bullpens then.

The Jays tied the game at 6 apiece as Texas reliever Keone Kela threw the ball past catcher Jonathan Lucroy with the bases loaded, allowing Troy Tulowitzki to trot in from third.  But Nomar Mazara robbed Ezequiel Carrera of a bases-clearing double, and then on came Matt Bush, the 99 mph fireballer who had ignited the entire May mess by drilling Jose Bautista in his last at bat.  Inspired by Encarnacion’s wild card walk off, Jay after Jay hoping to be this game’s savior kept swinging through Bush’s heat, leading once again to extra innings.  Manager John Gibbons gambled twice in as many games with Roberto Osuna’s arm, keeping him on the mound for two innings and recognizing that if the Jays couldn’t win it in the bottom half, his best relievers were done, and it would be left to the less reliable second tier to try to hold the dangerous Rangers at bay.  Bush came back out for a third straight inning and kept firing in unhittable strikes.

Until Josh Donaldson finally connected and hurtled into second.

The Rangers were not inclined to let Encarnacion repeat his triumph, so they gave him a free pass to first.  Jose Bautista came to the plate, but was deprived of a storybook victory against the guy who’d plunked him by instead striking out.  So it would be left to Russell Martin, who hadn’t had a hit so far in the postseason until sending a solo blast over the wall in the first.  Martin was baffled by Bush, floundering into a quick 0-2 count before battling back, smartly letting balls go by and fouling off strikes to get him into 3-2 and Texas hungering for a ground ball double play.  Donaldson danced off second, Encarnacion waited calmly at first.

The pitch came.  Martin swung, and there it went, bouncing perfectly to shortstop Elvis Andrus, who relayed it to Rougned Odor at second to get Edwin, before relaying it to Mitch Moreland at first.

Double play.

Right?

But Odor’s throw bounced off the dirt and dragged Moreland off the bag.  Martin was safe.  And meanwhile, no one had noticed that Donaldson was running hard for home, risking the game on a desperate charge on a wonky hip.  Moreland threw to catcher Jonathan Lucroy, who let the ball bounce out of his glove as he wheeled to tag the sliding Donaldson.

Safe.

Ballgame.

Rangers manager Jeff Banister needlessly delayed the celebration by asking for a review of Encarnacion’s slide at second, hoping that he might have broken the grating “Chase Utley Rule” by interfering with Odor’s throw.  Had the New York office reversed the call, the stadium would have exploded and made the embarrassing can toss at an Orioles outfielder in the wild card look like a child’s tea party.  But Encarnacion’s slide was perfectly legal, and the Blue Jays walked off in triumph.  On to the ALCS for a second year in a row, a postseason sweep for the first time ever, and a six-game winning streak putting the wind at their backs.  From September slumps to October accomplishments.  From yesterday’s news to prohibitive favorites, unfinished business awaiting starting Friday in either Boston or Cleveland.

Someone more learned than myself said that baseball is stretches of disappointment punctuated by small miracles, and the 2016 Toronto Blue Jays have achieved a string of miracles in the last few weeks that have suddenly made them the most exciting team in baseball.  Yet they aren’t really miracles; they are the product of a team that has fought and clutched and grinded through abject humiliations to forge a formidable adversary for anyone who suits up against them.  From starting pitching to hitting to defense to the relief corps, every man in the blue and white is firing on all cylinders.  Each win has been earned.  Last year there were too many weak links, and the newness of the postseason experience let nerves undermine the consistent effort needed to close the deal against the Royals.

It feels different this time.  As if we’re finally riding a tide that no wall can break.  As if our team is absolutely stacked with heroes-in-waiting, as if each game is a chance to see another miracle.

This is the unfinished story of 2016, the story that those eager to crown other teams without letting the actual games play out first are missing.  Okay, fine, the Cubs have been great and they’re a hundred years overdue, but inevitability is tedious to watch.  And the Red Sox have simply worn out their welcome by making every single game a retirement ceremony for David Ortiz.  There’s nothing left to write about there, while north of the border, an ignored, discounted, marginalized gang of baseballers has been bringing excitement back to the sport every single night.

And we simply can’t wait to see what’s next.

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.