2009 Archives

Ian Gray: PLAYOFFS! (By a Blue Jays fan) (4/14 Game Thread)

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It's been a while since the Blue Jays and Atlanta Braves were at the top of their respective leagues. 17 years, to be exact. I asked my friend Ian Gray (who earlier previewed their 2009 team) to comment on their early success. This is also a game thread for tonight's game against the Marlins, where Javy Vazquez will pitch against Chris Volstad, and the two best teams in the NL will get to prove who's better.

The shout goes up around the Jays blogs every time the team moves into playoff contention, or every time they win a game, or really any time any thing remotely good happens regarding the boys in, er, black[1]. "The Jays are leading the division--PLAYOFFS!!!!" "The Jays beat the Rangers 5-3 to move to 78-76--PLAYOFFS!!!!" "Shawn Camp is rounding into form as the sixth man in the bullpen--PLAYOFFS!!!!"

We're thoroughly ridiculous, we Jays fans. But there are reasons for our absurdity. You have to cultivate a sense of humor to be a fan of this team. For one thing, there aren't many of us at all, as any Jays fan who's talked baseball with an American can tell you. I still remember the genuine surprise I encountered when I told one guy with whom I was talking sports that I was a Jays fan. "I've never heard of anyone being a Toronto fan before," he exclaimed. 

Or there was the time I led my long-suffering roommates on a world tour of Boston, looking for a Jays cap I could wear to that night's tilt at Fenway Park. Over hill and dale we went, stopping in at every vaguely sports-storeish looking place, only to find at every counter a dizzying array of Red Sox caps in every hue and color of the rainbow[2] and a smattering of caps from the other glamour teams. I thought it vaguely wrong that you could easily find Yankees caps, but Jays hats couldn't be found for love or money. We stopped in at a specialty cap store, for God's sake, only for the guy running it to take one look at me and say, "We don't have anything that'll fit him."[3] It was true. They had the only two Jays caps in the city, and they were so small that they perched atop my head as a beanie would. "We don't get a lot of demand for Toronto hats," explained the clerk matter-of-factly as he put the caps into the obscure cubbyhole from whence he'd taken them, and I went to that evening's game bareheaded.[4]

So that's how invisible we are in the States. It's actually probably better than the treatment the Jays get in the Canadian media, which ranges from perfunctory acknowledgements that there's a baseball team in Toronto in between breathless speculation as to who's going to be the fourth line left wing for the Ottawa Senators, which is the approach of most of the TV networks[5], to the barely veiled hostility at the entire notion of people hoping that the Blue Jays might amount to something this year, which is what you tend to see in newspaper coverage. Seriously, the best writer who regularly covers the team wrote a column a couple of years ago in which he explicitly and off-handedly said that only a very small part of him liked baseball.

This year, the Jays have jumped out to a 6-2 start, which I think most observers would agree is pretty good. I mean, there's still the entire season to go, more or less, but it beats the hell out of being 2-6, which has in recent years not been entirely out of the question. This is especially heartening because the team was expected to be anywhere from mediocre with hope for next year (as in my earlier article) to unbelievably godawful, with fans warned not to attend games at SkyDome or watch them on television for fear of going blind at the unspeakable horror that was expected to be the 2009 Blue Jays season. I mean, some people predicted that they'd finish behind the Orioles.

So the team's off to a reasonably good start. The response from the media covering the team has been, of course, to warn anyone who might possibly be getting excited about the unexpected good play that it can't possibly last and that things will soon be crashing down around our ears in the very near future. The Jays won the first game of the season behind Roy Halladay, but fortunately there was the National Post to remind us the rotation "turns to butter"[6] behind Halladay and that we could soon look forward to our regularly scheduled shellings. The team has since improved to 6-2, but the Globe and Mail wants you to remember that Jesse Litsch may have to go on the DL and B.J. Ryan has really sucked so far.[7] 

This is a sports media that matches its negativity only with its ignorance.[8] You really do get the sense, reading some of the nonsense that the papers put out, or watching through the endless hockey highlights to catch a look at the baseball scores, that Toronto's sports establishment wouldn't be all that upset if the Jays just packed up and moved away. And I tend to think that Major League Baseball would be fine with that--having one team in Canada complicates things, and it's much simpler to have everything in one country.[9] There's nothing on the horizon now, but I have very little doubt that the Blue Jays have less of a cushion keeping them in place than any other team in the majors.

Against that backdrop, what can you do but laugh, and enjoy the victories and glory when they come, however fleeting you expect them to be? Right now, the Braves are the best team in baseball. Right now, the Blue Jays are the best team in the American League. I don't necessarily expect that state of affairs to last all the way through the season, but there's no point to being a fan if you refuse to let yourself get into a team's unexpected successes. 29 teams go home losers every year, after all--if we insisted that our team be contenders to care, we'd all be Yankees fans. Or even worse, Red Sox fans.

Franz Kafka said, "You can hold back from the suffering of the world, you have free permission to do so, and it is in accordance with your nature. But perhaps the holding back is the one suffering you could have avoided."[10] Caution is well and good, in life as well as in baseball fandom. I'm not making plans to be in Toronto in October just yet. But getting excited about your team is what being a fan's all about. Franz Kafka would agree with me, I'm sure.[11]



"PLAYOFFS!!!!!!!"



[1] About our uniforms: the Blue Jays have, for the past fifteen or twenty years or so, been the team arriving to the party just a little bit after it stops being cool. Hence the SkyDome*, last of the gigantic soulless concrete bowls. Also hiring J.P. Ricciardi to bring a little of that Oakland magic to the True North, Strong and Free. Then black uniforms were all the rage in the late nineties, so we got rid of almost all of the blue in our uniforms so that the players would look like a company softball team just in time for black jerseys to become passé. You know what a cargo cult is? The Blue Jays are baseball's cargo cult, copying the form of successful teams without really understanding what makes these teams tick. They even do it with their own past glories--hence, the Return of Cito Gaston.

*Yes, damn it, the SkyDome. It was the SkyDome for 16 years, including all of the team's good years. I'm not changing what I call it just because some plutocrat bought the building and slapped his name on it. Though SkyDome is a pretty ghastly name. The trend of smashing words together and randomly capitalizing letters is one where we were ahead of the curve. You're welcome.

[2] Seriously, who wears a yellow Bosox cap?

[3] I have a gigantic head. I later ordered two Jays caps from the official website (they're actually a little too small) and one of the aforementioned long-suffering roommates was able to rotate the thing around his head with ease.

[4] This was perhaps for the best, as the crowd in the center field bleachers at Fenway is about as close in demeanor to the mob at an ancient Roman amphitheatre as I hope to get.

[5] American friends of mine sometimes ask me about how popular hockey is in Canada. Here's the anecdote that I like to cite in response: A couple of years ago, if you hadn't noticed*, there was a lockout in the NHL that wound up cancelling the Stanley Cup. One of the all-sports cable channels has a panel discussion program called Hockey Central, which is exactly what you would expect from the title. Anyway, not only did they keep this show going all the way through the lockout, but they continued to focus almost exclusively on the lockout and what the locked out players were up to in the interim. So you have the pricelessly absurd spectacle of these "hockey insiders," speculating aimlessly about the prospects for an end to the lockout and the resumption of hockey, much as hosers were in bars from St. John's to Victoria. The difference is that these guys were doing it in suits on TV once a week for an hour, and they had to pretend to know something even when, as was almost always the case, they didn't. So eventually they were sitting around in their lockout panel, and they say that one of them has some hot news. Which was the following: "Yes, Darren, my sources tell me that there's talk of potential emails." Talk of potential emails? That's like below sending smoke signals or tapping in code on a prison wall in terms of formal business negotiations. It was the most laughable non-scoop I've ever seen, and that I ever hope to see. The point of this story is that this sort of thing went on for the entire lockout, and had the network done the sane thing and put it on hiatus while there was no hockey for the hockey insiders to be on the inside of, there would no doubt have been people who complained. That's how much Canadians like NHL hockey. We really like it.

*And judging from the Atlanta Thrashers' attendance figures, you hadn't.

[6] What was particularly funny about this was that the writer used Shaun Marcum and Dustin McGowan as examples of the sort of rock-solid pitchers the buttery rotation of this year was lacking. I mean, I love both of them, when they're healthy and on, but Marcum came out of nowhere two years ago and has had trouble staying healthy and McGowan has electric stuff but has had immense amounts of trouble a) staying healthy and b) pitching well. They are, in short, promising young pitchers, much like...the entirety of Toronto's rotation after Roy Halladay this year.*

*Well, almost. Our fifth man is Scott Richmond, a 29 year old Canadian who managed to get through five starts last year without the roof falling in completely, and who also accidentally created a truly ridiculous tempest in the teapot that is the Canadian sports media when he was called up to Toronto shortly before he was scheduled to pitch in the Olympics for Team Canada. Everybody who knows anything about baseball knows that no one in baseball cares about Olympic baseball-that's one reason why baseball is now out of the Olympics. The Canadian sports media, intent on demonstrating for the millionth time that they do not, in fact, know anything about baseball, proceeded to badger J.P. Ricciardi for three weeks about why he'd robbed Team Canada of its "ace" and how he, as the GM of Canada's only MLB franchise, could do such a thing to Team Canada. It was a blast. So Richmond, in addition to the usual pressures that come with making your major league debut, had to navigate the tricky question of whether he'd rather be at Skydome or in Beijing without bruising Canadians' tender patriotic feelings. This had an amusing coda this past spring at the World Baseball Classic, in which Richmond was again selected for the team and again touted as the team's ace-a fact should tell you something about the depth of pitching that particular incarnation of Team Canada boasted. Anyway, he didn't start against the USA, and was held back to face Venezuela in a hotly anticipated elimination game that unfortunately never happened because Team Canada lost to Italy and got eliminated a day early. Scott Richmond has to be the guy in baseball history who's spent the most time as a team's ace without ever throwing a pitch for them. He's a fascinating character-he was out of baseball for two years and worked as a longshoreman at the Port of Vancouver before getting his shot with Toronto-but he's extremely unlikely to be a major part of the team's plans in anything but the immediate future. Or so we have to hope, anyway.

[7] Again, I think the papers are not just being gloomy but are actively missing the point. Jesse Litsch is the second most experienced and tested member of the rotation, but that says everything about the rotation and very little about him. I said in my earlier piece about the Jays that I thought he was bound to regress, and if he does have to miss some time the team has no fewer than three pitchers in AAA looking for innings in Toronto. I hope and expect that Litsch will be one of the five guys who makes it through the shakedown process in the rotation, but he's not absolutely crucial. As for Ryan, either he'll improve, in which case there's no problem, or he's going to be moved out of the closer's role in the very near future, which while a shame would also not be the end of the world-both Brandon League and Scott Downs are at least worth a look if the job comes open, and Jason Frasor has also been pitching very well in pressure situations in the very early going. These situations are not ideal, but they're not harbingers of impending doom.*

*The actual harbinger of doom: the fact that the offensive players appear to have been hypnotized into believing that they're the 1995 Colorado Rockies. Marco Scutaro has an OPS over 1.000. I know it's only been eight games. I'd have been shocked if it'd only been three games and he was OPSing over 1.000.

[8] I will never quite forget Bob McCown, a local radio host, dismissing 2007's team on the grounds that they didn't have enough pitching. For the record, the 2007 Jays had the second best staff in the league.

[9] To explain: It will come as no surprise to anyone that the Blue Jays are not one of baseball's glamour franchises. I was amused and a little touched at the naivety of one online columnist this spring, who was puzzled by the fact that Toronto was the only team that hadn't been featured on an ESPN game in three years. Why could this be, he wondered? The fact that Toronto is the only MLB market ESPN doesn't broadcast to appears to have eluded him. Also, you may recall that in 1994, one of the owners' key arguments was that interest in baseball was declining, an assertion they attempted to prove by citing the fact that the Nielsen ratings for the 1992 and 1993 World Series showed a major decline from previous years. I'm sure I don't have to tell such an intelligent and educated audience of Braves fans why viewing numbers would only have spiked in one city in the Nielsens, as opposed to the more usual two.

Generally, though, the Jays are hard to market in the United States, the team offers potential complications legally*, and they represent a holdover from an era when MLB was feeling more optimistic about its prospects for long-term growth internationally. I think any serious problems the team meets with are going to be viewed less sympathetically by the head office than similar problems would be in other cities.

*For example, anti-scab legislation then in effect in Ontario would have compelled the Blue Jays to play the entire 1995 season on the road if the owners' plan to field teams of replacement players had ever come off. That particular law is now off the books, but it's possible that some similar problem could crop up in the future. Also, the Jays are a natural pick for contraction if that particular monster ever rises from the deep to terrify us all again--the Expos, in addition to the various problems they had, were also a logical pick because they could be contracted without pissing off any American legislators. Major League Baseball already has enough trouble on Capitol Hill without provoking more grandstanding on robbing Americans of their teams. Canadians, conversely, don't count in these calculations.

I will refrain from my lament for the Expos. This piece is already long and convoluted enough. Another time, perhaps.

[10] Don't ask me where. Walon and Bubbles quote it in the last episode of The Wire. So here, in the one place where a footnote is appropriate, I'm citing fictional drug addicts. This is why I'll never get into grad school.

[11] Also, given the absurdly hopeless situation facing the Blue Jays in the AL East, I think Kafka is a Jays fan. Him and Sisyphus.


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