At the outset of the baseball season, when there were still fibs worth telling and plenty of tickets yet to be sold, the Toronto Blue Jays made it sound as though they had a prayer.
“Nobody in there is thinking about rebuilding,” manager Charlie Montoyo said, back when he was young and still had hope. “We’re going to play to win.”
As it turns out, the praying part was mostly about being down on your knees. And the playing-to-win part was mostly about finding creative ways to lose.
The season began winding down in mid-May. By late July, the campaign ended in a complete surrender, though the team was contractually obligated to continue taking the field. What remains of the year will finally be put out of its misery on Sunday.
All in all, Toronto’s main accomplishment was a negative rather than a positive. The Jays managed to avoid losing 100 games. Hurray.
At some point in the year, Jays management finally realized that if they kept sucking and blowing at the same time, someone was going to pass out. All the “we still think like winners” talk went out the window. The Jays committed hard to losing, but the sort of directional losing made fashionable by Silicon Valley.
The Jays decided to treat their baseball team like a tech startup. Fail fast, fail often.
They churned through a rotating roster of slim-hope minor-leaguers and no-hope veterans like they were auditioning for American Idol: MLB Edition. Just about every day, someone was going up and someone else was headed back down. This is not the way successful professional sports outfits do sports.
Eventually, Montoyo lost track who was where doing what and how it all fit together. You can hardly blame him.
The increasingly forlorn manager provided the quote that captured the tone of the year about a month ago. Someone asked him who was starting the next day’s game.
“We honestly don’t know,” Montoyo said. “An opener and a guy.”
Aside from a few glitzy kids, that’s what the Jays are now. A bunch of guys.
As far as failing on purpose goes, this was top-drawer stuff. Peter Thiel would be impressed.
Which is great until you start thinking too hard about the fact that 90 per cent of startups don’t just fail fast and often, but also permanently.
While all this aspirational failure was going on, the Jays didn’t stop charging for tickets. Beers weren’t suddenly free.
Customers were still expected to fork over real money to see what was, in effect, a theoretical baseball club. Because the Jays are a great team, or will be at some unidentifiable future point. You just have to imagine it.
When you go to buy something big – say, a couch – you don’t expect the store to have the couch on hand right that instant. But you do expect it will tell you approximately when the couch will be ready.
The Jays don’t do retail that way. You pay in full now, but it is unreasonable – impossible, really – for them to let you know when or if that couch will ever be done.
“You have to understand that with human beings there’s no finite date that we can give [as to when the Jays will be winners], but we’re not going to set a limit to how soon that can happen and we hope that that can happen faster than anyone thinks possible,” Jays president Mark Shapiro said back when people still figured complaining might get them somewhere.
So you may be getting that couch tomorrow. Or maybe never.
It’s probably never. But it could be tomorrow. There is plenty of talent down in the couch factory. So tomorrow can’t be ruled out.
What the Jays are currently selling isn’t baseball. It’s the illusion of progress. Not that you see much of it out there on the field.
Let’s be honest about Vlad Guerrero, Jr. He was good this year, but not a revelation.
In April, Guerrero was greeted like the reincarnation of Babe Ruth, like a once-in-a-generation player. But there are a few really good players just out of their teens playing in baseball right now. And guys such as Juan Soto, Ronald Acuna and Rafael Devers are all ahead of Toronto’s guy.
Regardless of how well Guerrero turns out, one guy isn’t going to do it.
The Los Angeles Angels have what may turn out to be the best player in history, performing at the absolute peak of his powers. And Mike Trout has spent October golfing for the past five years.
Two guys or four can’t do it, either. You need about a dozen of them.
Beyond the Not Yet So Big Three (Guerrero, Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio), who does Toronto have? No one we’ve seen.
In much the same way that the Jays waited forever to begin their teardown, they are now dragging their heels on the post-teardown reveal. Because once you have shown everybody everything you’ve got, it’s going to become clear it doesn’t amount to nearly enough.
Toronto still needs an outfield. And a rotation. And a bullpen.
That’s a lot of things. You can’t make them in a 3-D printer over the winter and have them ready just in time for spring.
If the Jays want those things, they have to go out and buy them or trade for them or do some thing that involves taking a flier.
But who wants to come to a team that just lost nearly 100 games, and will probably lose nearly 100 more next year? To a team that seemed delighted to slide into cost-saving mediocrity by jettisoning all of its top performers? To one that has been very clear that it has no ambition to punch financially with its direct competition in Boston and New York?
No one does.
So all the Jays have left to sell is the fantasy that things must be getting better precisely because nothing ever remains this bad.
But it can and does. It does all the time.
It does until someone finally decides they’re going to stop worrying about pretending to get better, and begin making the hard, expensive, risky and potentially job-ending decisions it takes to actually get better.