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28 September, 2015

Okay! Blue Jays! Let's...Play...Ball!

I know there are many people out there who believe baseball is only slightly less boring than competitive paint drying. I'm not going to disabuse you of your notion, because we all have sports we can't stand.

For me it's football. I've only ever watched one football game from beginning to end, when the Wilfrid Laurier Golden Hawks defeated the Mount Allison Mounties to win the Vanier Cup in 1991. It was a school spirit thing, even though I never really had much of that.  (Still remember the T-shirts, though, with a Golden Hawk extending an upraised middle talon, caption "Mount This!")

I have a prosaic reason for hating football: it was always the football players who took the keenest interest in rearranging my face. I've been beaten up (quite badly) by Tim Tindale, who went on to play for the NFL's Buffalo Bills (slogan: Boy I Love Losing Superbowls). That's my claim to football fame right there.

I'm a fan of baseball. It appeals to me on many levels. George Carlin has a primer on the differences between baseball and football that, while quite funny as he always was, makes several underlying points that really resonate with me (as he always does):

In Football, the object is for the quarterback, otherwise known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz even if he has to use the shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing his aerial assault with a sustained ground attack, which punches holes in the forward wall of the enemies’ defensive line. (applause) In Baseball, the object is to go home, and to be safe. I hope I’ll be safe at home, safe at home.

The whole atmosphere surrounding baseball is unlike that of any other sport I can think of. There are rivalries, sometimes heated ones...but most baseball fans really do respect other baseball fans and usually 'their' teams. Baseball's the only place they stop the action so the entire stadium can rise to its feet and start singing a song that dates to 1908. There's a sense of camaraderie with baseball fans, a studiousness that mirrors my personality. And then, of course, there's the history. No other team sport is so rife with history. The stats encoding that history in its minutest detail have gotten a bit ridiculous--"he's the only lefthanded knuckleballer in major league history with a career WTF of .360, an OMG of .750-plus, and a BBQ of -1 or better"...but every player who steps into a batter's box and runs the bases is literally walking in the footsteps of his sport's greats...and he knows it.  The crowds cheering today's Trouts and Donaldsons and Arrietas and Prices are no different that the ones who cheered Mantle and Maris and Koufax and Ruth...and they know that too.

I've been holding off on writing a Toronto Blue Jays blog out of fear I might jinx them somehow. (Scratch the most rational sport's fan's surface and you'll find a dark cave riddled with superstitions: you don't refer to "no-hitters" until they're over, for instance: the same goes for shutouts in hockey.) Now that they Jays have clinched a post-season berth for the first time in 22 years, ending the longest drought in professional sports, I feel like some shackles have been removed.

Do you remember 1992 and '93? The Jays won back-to-back World Series titles and the celebrations were just amazing. I lived then, as I do now, an hour west of Toronto and the main drag in my city shut down as throngs of cheering people, by no means all of them young, rushed out into the street and starting hugging and kissing total strangers.  I still get chills listening to this (RIP Tom Cheek): "Touch 'em all, Joe, you'll never hit a bigger home run in your life."

And then things went south in a hurry. The Jays entered a prolonged period of mediocrity. You'd find at least one star player on every year's roster--Carlos Delgado and Roy Halladay being the two most memorable--but the team never seemed to put it together. They compete in the nuclear arms race that is the AL East division, and until recently they've been bringing budgetary pop guns to each year's nuke-fight...with predictable results.  They'd sometimes go on a run of eight or ten wins in a row, but the fans and even the players seemed to know they couldn't sustain it...and they never did. Each eight game winning streak would be followed in short order by a stretch of ten losses in twelve games, and Jays fans everywhere would return to their somnolent doze.

Not anymore.

The 2015 incarnation of the Toronto Blue Jays looked, at first, to be destined for the same scrap heap that had consumed its predecessors all the way back to '95. They could hit home runs, there was no denying that...with Bautista and Encarnacion, power wasn't a problem. Josh Donaldson looked as if he might provide some pop and much-needed defence as well. But pitching? Arguably their best starter was  the ageless Mark Buehrle, a solid and dependable #2 or #3 on contenders...and a whole lot of question marks after that. Even the days of the the Doc, when the rotation consisted of "Halladay, and pray, pray, pray", were more inspiring. And the bullpen was, in my considered opinion, a disaster.

On July 28th, the Jays' record stood at a game under .500. Josh Donaldson had proven to be everything we could have hoped for and much more besides...and yet the Jays kept finding new and interesting ways to lose baseball games. It was infuriating, because once again this year the AL East was uncharacteristically the AL Least division. Getting into the playoffs was a less daunting proposition than it had been in many years...but the Jays didn't seem to be into daunt. Dilly-dally, dither, dipsy-doodle...not enough daunt.

Alex Anthopoulos had had enough.

First he traded one talented but laid-back shortstop, Jose Reyes, for an even more talented and driven Troy Tulowitzki, also picking up LaTroy Hawkins and Mark Lowe to stabilize their bullpen. Then he rented the consensus best pitcher available, David Price, who instantly became the Jays' ace by a country mile. Almost as an afterthought, Anthopoulos brought in Ben Revere, a pesky outfielder who had a career history of spraying hits every which way and an above-average glove.

And what happened? Oh, nothing much...the team just went 38-14 in its next 52 games. Price has been lights-out every time he has stepped on the mound, compiling an 8-1 rec with a no-decision since joining the Jays and making himself a good bet to win a Cy Young. Tulowitzki started his tenure with a bang, going 3-5 with a home run  and two doubles, and has contributed most games since (although currently injured after an unfortunate collision with Kevin Pillar). The bullpen has snapped into form thanks largely to the emergence of Roberto Osuna...the youngest player in franchise history to don a Jays jersey (and the youngest player in the history of baseball to record an extra-innings save).

And that Josh Donaldson guy?  The odds-on favourite to win the AL MVP award. It's an honour and a privilege to watch this guy play baseball. He  does it all and he does it well, never taking a second off and making it all look easy.

Yes, the stats get a little out of hand. But look behind the numbers and what you see on this team is...a team. They care about and for each other and they emanate an intimidating aura of confidence: we're going to win and we're going to have fun doing it. Fans of other teams have started to take notice, and in the manner of baseball fans everywhere, they're appreciative of the talent and the teamwork.

A division pennant is well within their grasp, and then the playoffs await. Nobody wants to face them. But I sure want to watch them win it all.

C'mon, sing along with me:

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