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Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher R.A. Dickey is congratulated by teammates (Darren Calabrese/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Toronto Blue Jays starting pitcher R.A. Dickey is congratulated by teammates (Darren Calabrese/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

CATHAL KELLY

Gibbons’s gutsy chemistry experiment causes desired effect Add to ...

A half-hour before the first pitch, Blue Jays president Paul Beeston is standing on a thronged sidewalk outside the Rogers Centre, holding court.

Torontonians talk about two things – in winter, they complain about winter; and in summer, they complain about traffic. Beeston is complaining about the traffic.

A lost fan wanders into conversation, ticket thrust out in front of him as if it’s a hall pass.

“Do you work here?” the fan says.

“I sure do,” Beeston says.

There’s a meandering story about some sort of seat mix-up.

“Stay right here,” Beeston orders.

As he’s running off to take care of the problem, a well-lubricated passerby screams, “GREAT JOB BEESTON!”

The first fan looks over, more confused now: “Is he important or something?”

Sort of. But right now, they all are.

Top to bottom, superstars to role players, the Jays are enjoying a moment. Winning is part of it. Toronto leads the AL East by two games – the deepest point in a season that that’s happened since 2000.

But winning is starting to feel more like an effect, rather than a cause. This is the first time in a generation that the Jays give off the feeling of being a team.

“I started to see that at the end of last year,” manager John Gibbons said. “When you bring in so many new faces, try to form a team out of it, it doesn’t happen overnight. Sometimes, it never happens.”

It’s happening here.

Of course, it’s early. And of course, there is a lot of baseball to be played.

But let’s let go of this baseball quirk, which tells you it’s too early to X, right up until it’s too late to Y. Fifty games is enough time to glean some understanding of a team. If they stay healthy (knock twice), Toronto is the most complete team in a division drifting toward mediocrity.

At the end of last season, it was an open secret that the clubhouse had largely gotten sick of each other. Given the hype, what happened to the Jays last year was more than losing. It was failure. And failure is spiritually corrosive.

There was extreme off-season pressure to do something about that. A major shake-up. The easiest way to do that – trade Jose Bautista for … well, anything, really.

Despite the superficial differences, Gibbons and GM Alex Anthopoulos are very alike. Their key shared trait is fatalism. They like their jobs. They don’t need their jobs. Why pin your self-worth on something so transient?

Where other team leaders would have begun flailing, Gibbons and Anthopoulos were willing to take a chance that could easily (and still could) get them fired. And, in both cases, probably forever.

They gambled on the idea that the preferred leaders in this clubhouse – guys such as Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Edwin Encarnacion – would begin setting the tone.

Not by talking, but just by that natural force that allows men to impose themselves on others. That change pushed other, more skittish presences to the background. And it’s working.

Ballplayers are like thoroughbreds. Whether they know it or not, they need to be calmed. They want to understand their place in the herd.

Six wins on the trot and we’re into a feedback loop, where the ease in the clubhouse feeds the on-field product, which in turn feeds the ease in the clubhouse.

“The music’s better. The jokes are better. Everything’s better when you’re winning,” said Sunday’s winning starter, J.A. Happ.

I’ve heard the music and the jokes. They’re still terrible.

Casey Janssen has been here as long as anyone – since 2006. He’s pitched alongside some of the true nutjobs in the game – guys such as B.J. Ryan and A.J. Burnett. The sort of teammates you did not want to get out of the foxhole in front of.

They were also intermittently great performers.

Gauging the true value of a Ryan or a Burnett is the attempt to define the relative merit of talent versus togetherness.

Is there something to that idea of chemistry?

Janssen, who is a very careful talker and a very nice guy, turns it around in his mind for a long time.

“Winning heals a lot of headaches,” he says finally. He won’t go so far as to say that this is the best Jays clubhouse he’s ever been in.

“Everyone’s just familiar with each other,” he shrugs. “We learned more about each other.”

That’s the sense you get with this Jays team. They’re not all best friends. There are still a number of interwoven cliques based on everything from position to ethnicity – just like in every room.

It’s the sense that they have created a climate in which each man knows his place, and is comfortable with it.

“I got a good feeling about that group in there,” Gibbons said afterward.

He should. He built it.

 

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