Going into a new season, most teams would like you to know that they’re better. They’ve gone out and hired new guys. The old guys are in the best shape of their lives. There’s usually something in there about shocking breakthroughs in performance management and how they’ve put in-wall speakers in the weight room.
This year, the Toronto Blue Jays are trying a different route. They’re not just better; they’re serious.
Did you like the Jays because they seemed young, loose and happy to be there? Well, bad news, pal. The good times, they are over. Time to start playing baseball like it’s a job.
“There’s a fine line between fun and silly,” Jays manager John Schneider recently told the Toronto Star.
Last season, the Jays couldn’t get enough of how fun and silly they were. The home-run jacket, 16-part handshakes, elaborate pointing at each other on the base paths that looked like they were helping to land a jumbo jet.
This wild-and-crazy approach reached its climax early in the most humiliating loss in Jays history. In the fourth inning of a win-or-go-home playoff game, Teoscar Hernandez hit a home run. It was his second of the game. He came out for a curtain call.
You know when you should do a curtain call in a game you absolutely have to win? Never.
Toronto was up 4-0 at that point. They went up 8-1. They lost 10-9 to Seattle, a team that did not appear to prioritize fun.
It was a bad way to end a hopeful year, as well as the end of a short era. The fun-time Blue Jays died that day.
Speaking in code, Schneider went on to describe last year’s playoff team as a bunch of feckless nincompoops (”a talented team that had fun”), and this year’s iteration as quiet professionals (”a bunch of guys that … are going to hold each other accountable”).
If this Jays pre-season had a mission statement, it was maturity. Not acquiring it, or evincing it, but saying it. Players hit that word so often it was like hearing ‘amen’ in church.
What’s the first thing that pops into your mind when someone tells you they’re mature? It’s not that they are.
So what’s changed? Roster-wise, more of a shuffle than a re-org. Hernandez and a few other fun-loving types were run out of town, replaced by grimmer sorts such as Daulton Varsho, Kevin Kiermaier and Brandon Belt.
They flipped a good no-name starter (Ross Stripling) for a good brand-name starter (Chris Bassitt). They tell us that last year’s free-agent Hindenburg, Yusei Kikuchi, is this year’s hidden surprise.
But the stars are still the stars – Vlad Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, George Springer, Kevin Gausman and now Alek Manoah. Guerrero is the best of them; Springer the most proven; but more and more, 25-year-old Manoah feels like the heartbeat of the team. He gives off the impression of a person for whom this all matters an awful lot. Manoah is also the only personality on the Jays that pops.
A team has reached the peak of its up-and-coming phase and tipped over into its ‘what are you doing for me right now?’ phase when people lose interest in the individuals. For the last couple of years, media couldn’t get enough of the Jays’ various nepo-baby back stories. Many thousands of words were spilled on Springer choosing Toronto. People wanted to know everything about all of these guys.
That’s out the window now. People aren’t poring over the playbill any more. They just want to see the show.
The biggest news story out of a long spring training was how the cheapskates at Rogers, the team’s owner, won’t send the Jays’ radio show on the road. A distant second was the deluxe new set of hot-dog stands in the outfield bleachers at Rogers Centre.
The players? Yeah, give us a call when they’re doing something that matters. Better yet, text us in the playoffs, preferably when they are not blowing seven-run leads. Like all Toronto teams must do eventually, these Jays have become the Leafs.
We all know the beats to that storyline. The Jays have been comers since 2019, roughly since the arrival of Guerrero in the big leagues.
Comers get mulligans. Everything’s a learning experience and bad losses are lessons in disguise. From a management perspective, there is no better team to oversee than a comer. The hopefulness papers over all manner of sins. It was at work immediately after that loss to Seattle, when we were being reassured that no one was too upset about it. Thank God.
Partly owing to that collapse, the Jays aren’t comers any more. They’re overdue arrivers. They have begun to overcompensate for past failures, as in talking about 100-win seasons. That’s the sort of thing you don’t want to put out there. But in lieu of showing, people must tell.
The problem with sports is that while you’re figuring yourself out, others are doing the same. When you’re in your window – and the Jays have at least one leg slung over the sill – there are teams behind you trying to shove you through.
The Jays’ window has a natural clock – for as long as Guerrero is contractually under team control. He’s free to leave after the 2025 season. Based on what is knowable now, that’s how long Toronto has to capitalize on its golden generation.
Three years isn’t much. All the patience they have enjoyed until now is nearly gone. Every action will provoke an outsized reaction. If you blow a tire now, fans will engage their favourite sporting emotion – hysteria. You haven’t seen a lot of hysteria at the ballpark in Toronto in recent years. It’ll be nice to feel again.
After years spent delaying the pivotal moment, the Jays finally seem prepared to engage with it. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t have given Hernandez – one of the best hitters in baseball – away so easily.
Watching a bad baseball team can have its charms. If you’re not worried about outcomes, you can luxuriate in process.
Watching an average team can also be okay. Small moments or one great player may sustain you.
But no one enjoys watching a good team failing. That leaves the 2023 Toronto Blue Jays with a binary choice. They are either good – as in, World Series contenders good – or they have failed.