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. "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 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." 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.
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, 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" 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.
This is a sports media that matches its negativity only with its ignorance. 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. 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." 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.