Nostalgia can be a comfort, and nostalgia can be a crutch, and for the Toronto Blue Jays since the end of their glory days, at times it has been both.
Many gallons of water have flowed under the bridge since 1993, and so often during those non-contending seasons, with the Yankees and Red Sox (and then the Rays) disappearing beyond the horizon, the Jays were more than happy to play the good-old-days card.
Flashback uniforms, and fondly remembered alumni in the house, and even rehiring a retro manager in Cito Gaston. It was a bit like prestidigitation: look over here at the happy past, and pay no attention to the gloomy present.
On opening day 2011, there is reason to believe that at least the act has changed. Not just because Gaston has closed out his second tenure and retired, but because the organization seems ready, finally, to turn the page, optimistic that there will soon enough be a happy present to sell. They won't even be trotting out those alternate, powder-blue unis this season, which seems symbolic.
A funny business, the faith-based world of professional sport. Winning is obviously the single key to securing the loyalty of the paying customers, but for most in baseball outside Boston and New York, that isn't an every-season possibility. So somehow you need to keep the fans on-side, to instill a sense of shared purpose with management, and ownership, and the guys on the field. You have to sell a plan, suggest that there really is a commitment to something other than turning a profit, and then do everything possible to prevent cynicism from creeping in.
It hadn't just crept in, it was occupying whole, empty sections of the Rogers Centre during the final stages of the Paul Godfrey/J.P. Ricciardi years. What those guys were selling, even the hard core had stopped buying by the bitter end. Each succeeding season began to feel like part of a loop of futility. What year of the grand blueprint is this? Who's the saviour now? What set of unlikely circumstances has to come together to allow this team to contend?
And when discontent got a little too thick: Hey look! Isn't that Lloyd Moseby?
It isn't entirely fair to cast the ancien régime as villains; lord knows, they were trying their best. And it isn't entirely rational to extend a blanket endorsement to the new guys (in the case of Paul Beeston, the new/old guy, brought in by Rogers to clean things up and start afresh). Alex Anthopoulos got bonus points out of the gate simply because he wasn't Ricciardi, and because he was young and fresh-faced and Canadian, and liked to talk, and seemed to have nothing to hide. But as is the case with every other general manager employed in the City of Non-Champions, he hasn't won a thing, and his most notable accomplishments so far come under the heading of subtraction: moving Roy Halladay and getting some value in return; moving Vernon Wells and his albatross contract.
That said, the baseball crowd, including some of the fair-weather types lurking around the fringes, are prepared to give Anthopoulos, and new field manager John Farrell, the benefit of the doubt. They are willing to look at the Jays' stockpile of fine, young arms and believe that even given all of the sport's x-factors, the odds suggest a very good rotation and bullpen can eventually be forged there. They will look at the retooled lineup, with newly signed Jose Bautista as its foundation, and see sound defence up the middle, potentially plenty of pop, and Brett Lawrie waiting in the wings to take over at third base.
You can make a counterargument - in sport, there is always a counterargument. You can see the glass more empty than full, you can look way, way up at the Red Sox, you can point to what a lot of learned analysts have suggested this spring, that these Jays will actually take a step back in 2011, that they'll lose more games than they win, that they'll finish fourth or fifth in the American League East, that by the all-star break any hopes of finally playing meaningful games in September will be out the window.
But that's not the vibe right now, even if that may well be the short-term result. That's not what you hear on the call-in shows, or at the water cooler. Perhaps that's simply a function of a town so desperate to embrace a winner - even just a potential winner.
At least they're talking now, not then.