We know the ice will melt, the snow must surely stop, the buds have to appear and the actual cardinals and blue jays will finally see the point of making their nests. At some point spring becomes reality and stops being the faint hope of the winter-worn.
Opening Day is different. Yes, baseball is about to start for real (if we ignore the weird prequel at the Sydney Cricket Ground between the Dodgers and the Diamondbacks). Yes, it’s time to reset the clocks of fandom to 2014 from 2013, and rediscover the belief that a team with a 0-0 record has as good a chance as the Yankees or the Red Sox of going all the way.
But come on. You can’t fool us twice in a row. Nobody who experienced the 2013 season, at least as a dumbstruck and doom-laden fan of the Toronto Blue Jays, will ever again let hope put one over on experience.
If we go back a year, to that glorious and delirious week or two just before Opening Day – which culminated in a 4-1 loss to the Indians, and three passed balls by the derided and departed catcher J.P. Arencibia – our Canadian team was a sure thing for postseason play.
Maybe we weren’t certain of being World Series winners – that was our idea of a reality check back then, before vaunted utilityman Emilio Bonifacio proved conclusively that he couldn’t play any position well. Maybe, if worst came to worst and the oddsmakers were overly optimistic, we’d have to settle for a wild-card berth and earn our way to glory the hard way.
But all that off-season wheeling-and-dealing orchestrated by our brilliant young general manager Alex Anthopoulos was bound to turn out beautifully. Pity us now, but back then we thought it was more than enough to add R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle and Jose Reyes and Melky Cabrera and even the now-departed Josh Johnson to a lineup that boasted (but in a modest and likeable Canadian way) the power of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. Flush with our big-market pride, we didn’t have to count on Adam Lind clubbing 23 home runs or Colby Rasmus matching his career-high batting average. We had stars in our eyes – little knowing that a post-game, walk-off interview with Munenori Kawasaki would end up being one of the season highlights.
Munenori can now be found in Triple-A Buffalo, for those who like his protracted at-bats and high-energy Japenglish and physical embodiment of the game’s intangibles – another way of saying that we’re still searching for that elusive second-baseman who can swing a bat.
Still, it’s Opening Day and the calendar tells us the time has finally come to let the past go. Let’s pretend 2013 never was, at least at the Blue Jays level. That’s really the only way to move forward and harness the fan’s ability to balance belief with acceptance. Baseball is going to happen regardless, and baseball is good, for anyone who acknowledges the pleasure of the knee-buckling curve, the diving stab, the deft scoop in the dirt, the no-hop throw from right to catch the runner at the plate, the stand-up triple, the bunt against the shift, the accumulation of unexpected things done perfectly that add up to a good game.
Allegiance to a team is a form of deeper engagement, a way to care beyond the theoretical and the reasonable. I know Mike Trout is the second coming of Mickey Mantle, minus the wonky knees and boozy nights, but I don’t really know Mike Trout the way I know Jose Bautista. I’ve given myself over to his at-bats, watched his grimaces at marginal called strikes, shared his frustration at pitches off the plate he’s had to swing at because not every power hitter can be a Joey Votto and let the parade of junk pass by. I like baseball more because I’ve made it personal, felt the pain, appropriated the pleasure, realized I was holding my breath with bases loaded in the ninth and a 3-2 count (and understood in the heat of the moment that passion is a legal high).
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.
This isn’t the year, yet again, that Montreal Expos great Tim Raines will be admitted to the Hall of Fame, but it’s the best year for the momentum to build for his forthcoming election – even if Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz will join a ballot already featuring Craig Biggio, Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell (not to forget Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds). Raines is one of those old-time players who looks better as we come to appreciate his sublime skill at getting on base and moving around the diamond – which, as the sport’s statistical modernists say with their ancient wisdom, is the point.
But Raines was also an Expo in his prime, for better and for worse. For worse because, much like the franchise whose unmatchable logo he wore, he was overlooked and underrated. For better because 2014 is the year when the anniversaries of the team’s landmark seasons (the great if unfulfilled 1994, the miserable 2004) will be commemorated by influential Raines-boosters such as Jonah Keri, the Expos-chronicling author of Up, Up & Away. A world that understands the achievements of Tim Raines is a world that gets baseball, and it would be nice to think there is a place in the upgraded 2014 version of the game for recognizing exceptional talent – if only belatedly.
In a culture of distraction, most of it self-imposed, we struggle to see what’s right in front of us. Sport has the power to catch – and hold – our attention. It’s one of the last places where real drama unfolds moment-to-moment in our over-formatted entertainment zone, and the ninth inning always holds the potential pleasure of the unexpected.
Yes, the unexpected includes sad surprises like the Jays’ 2013 season, which good baseball stoics can accept as part of the game’s master plan. But now it’s time to be rational as well as hopeful, to see 2014 as a new beginning and not the culmination of a past we’re trying to forget. The Jays have a chance, once you get past their shaky rotation. Logically speaking, they’re not so different from the team we (and everyone else) predicted would go all the way last season, and our lowered expectations mean that we’ll be easy to satisfy if they can just keep in touch with the wild-card race. On the one hand, Reyes’s dodgy hamstring is acting up again, but on the other, Bautista had a monster spring.
Stop me now. It’s blank-slate time, and most of the preseason noise doesn’t matter any more. You might as well lose sleep at night wondering how Adam Lind’s extended goatee will compromise his rediscovered batting eye. Every team has issues, or will have – would you really want to have Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton and Prince Fielder under long-term contracts?
Yet someone thought those deals were the benchmark of success in the not-so-distant past. Dustin McGowan probably won’t be a surprise Cy Young contender but someone will be – and who was Chris Davis a year ago, or Jose Bautista a few years before that?
It isn’t scripted, and that’s why we keep coming back.
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