And, though it took me a while, I’ve figured out that the ups are so much better because of the downs. As with life, so with baseball. It stinks to be rich and to win every year, seriously. No, I mean it.
The trouble with the Blue Jays is that because the downs have displaced so many of the ups in the 20 years since the team last went to the post-season, we’re left with the conviction that the rebuilt right arm of Drew Hutchison could be our salvation – and even believers ought to recognize the point where blind faith becomes selective delusion.
At which point, it’s necessary to have a backup plan: Support your team, sure, but love baseball above all. If nothing else, the odds will shift in your favour, because you can never lose.
When you’re above the fray and can see Opening Day simply as the curtain rising on a season of great theatre, rather than the beginning of the end of your hopes, there’s so much more to enjoy in the way that sport was meant to be enjoyed. You can be a confirmed Yankee-hater at some basic level of cosmic justice and still be intrigued by the debut of their 25-year-old Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka – neatly scheduled for the Jays’ home opener on April 4.
Miguel Cabrera versus Mike Trout, traditional stats versus the new metrics (which as proponents of Wins Above Replacement like to tell us are new only in name and altered perspective), the expansion of instant replay, Clayton Kershaw confirming his superiority on the mound (but what’s this about a sore back?), learned discussions about the catcher’s art of pitch framing, the screw-you attitude of the cerebral Votto who’s promised to “tighten up” his strike zone even as the know-nothings tell him to swing for the fences – who knows what will become the preoccupation du jour?
Baseball’s everydayness is the best thing about it, and it’s a mistake to establish a season’s narrative before it has even started. As the Blue Jays proved, we never know, and every fantasy-league winner is just a loser who got lucky.
But in some mellowed version of old age in a baseball life – I once saw Al Kaline live, at Tiger Stadium, after stepping over the legs of passed-out drunks on the walk to the ballpark with my dad – I find I just like to watch a game, any game, and try to appreciate how good these guys really are as they stand up to a 95-mile-an-hour fastball or field pretty well every sharp hopper that comes their way. Ryan Goins, the Blue Jays’ all-glove second-baseman widely seen as a stopgap until someone better can be signed to an inflated $14-million contract, will amaze us at some point in the early season, and it is well worth being prepared to savour that gift in the GIFs to come.
Fielding is back in favour among the smarter students of baseball, and rightly so. We’re learning how much we don’t know about evaluating a player’s full range of ability, particularly in a time alleged to be the post-steroids era, which has made it much more interesting to watch a game and try to figure out if we truly get it. Most of the old hands of the broadcast booth have lagged far behind in the way they talk about the product on the field – average fans who are plugged into sophisticated sites like fangraphs.com can now supply their own analysis at an advanced level of appreciation that hugely enhances both the inning-by-inning connoisseurship and the 9-to-5 cubicle chatter. In many ways, baseball is better than it ever was, on both sides of the lines.