Dave Bidini is the author of Baseballissimo and band member of Rheostatics
Former Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver once told writer Thomas Boswell, "This ain't football; we do this every day," and for the 2017 Toronto Blue Jays, there's the rub. If baseball's schedule allows for redemption in the same breath as sin, sometimes there's only enough oxygen to go around. The Blue Jays, with a mere nine wins this season, have started their season as if afraid to exhale. Nine men tight and purple-faced in the screw-topped dome, now seemingly unable to hit after two consecutive years close to the league-lead in runs scored.
The Jays' estimable power-hitting has run as if on a wearying battery, and it's only the beginning of the season. Beyond languishing at the bottom of the Major League standings, their play has become so challenging that, in Friday's game, Jose Bautista – the team's bat-tossing matador and hood ornament for countless fans new to the team, as well as a plus-50 home-run threat at the once-menacing heart of the order – tried to slap-bunt to get on base, winging the bat through the strike zone like a child waving a water noodle before watching the Jays lose 7-4 to the dull, faceless Rays of Tampa Bay.
Injuries, sure; typical slow starts, sure; letting Edwin Encarnacion leave, okay; but if recent Jays teams have reflected the joyful abandon of the summer game – scoring runs like kids rounding dirt-yard fields with buckets for bases – the past four weeks have been a journey into darkness, barely scraping together enough runs to wake the scoreboard operator. It hasn't helped that the team's best player – third base bro-God Josh Donaldson has missed large swatches of the schedule with niggling injuries. But the Jays have reasonable hitting and pitching depth, and they even mounted a modest three game winning streak this weekend and Aaron Sanchez, the team's young, fireball arm, returned for a single inning before re-injuring his finger. But beyond injury, faltering play has infected the 2017 team.
It's a wonder that a team so good can perform so badly, but this is also something about baseball: psychologically and physically, it's a difficult and fragile sport. We know about the arm injuries and the slumps and the reason why baseball has so many fewer players in its hall of fame than other sports (i.e., it's hard to be great), but the game seems worse than others when it's played badly.
It's the only sport where errors are inventoried on your permanent playing record and, because the mound and the field hide nothing, fans, family and the world stare directly at the blight. When a pitcher – say, one of the Jays relievers – gives up a game-destroying home run, he's not only out there for everyone to see, he's standing on a hill, for crying out loud. Fans can hector any offending player, exposed on the yawning field in all of their ineptitude for upwards of three or four hours. Not even speeding up the intentional walk can prevent that.
And yet, because they "do this every day," there's always tomorrow, and, really, you never know. Another former manager, the Cardinals' Whitey Herzog, equalled baseball success to holding a bird in your hand; if you hold it too tight, you crush it; if you hold it too loosely, it flies away. This may sound esoteric and anti-analytical, but baseball is also about feel, and it often takes a moment before a team calibrates its play.
Fans will feel lots of things. They will feel better some days, worse others. But seasons – to say nothing of decades or lifetimes of seasons – are like the Scarborough Bluffs or coastal beaches or the rock at the bottom of Signal Hill. We'll never know what it looks like until large passages of time have elapsed, and if the Jays have neither runs nor wins, at least they have this.
We might think we know about them, but we have no idea because we're not them, which is why we watch them play. You hate to say "it's early," but baseball is always early. Then fall comes and most things die, and your team is either playing or it's not.