Whenever this city hits the international news cycle, I think of a Steve Martin line from 30 Rock: “Toronto is just like New York, but without all the stuff.”
For a couple of hysterical days, that’s what Shohei Ohtani represented to this city – the chance to get some stuff.
By Friday, the city had convinced itself that the best player in baseball had chosen the Toronto Blue Jays. It was so obvious. All you had to do was get some red string and connect somebody’s dinner reservations with Flight N616RH out of Southern California with something someone who should have known better tweeted.
Coupled with a little keyboard psychoanalysis (he doesn’t date models, so he’ll love the dreary anonymity of Canadian ‘celebrity’), we decided that he’d decided. He was on his way here now.
For a few hours there, the country enjoyed the most binding collective sports experience in its history that did not involve a game being played. All you needed was WiFi and a dream.
Everyone should spend an afternoon sitting over an online flight tracker watching a private jet inch across North America. It really puts your problems into perspective. As in, if you’ve got time to do this, you don’t have any.
Ohtani wasn’t on the plane. He never left home. He signed with the Los Angeles Dodgers on Saturday, as it should have been obvious he would do all along. The MLB insider whose tweets rocket fuelled Toronto’s hysteria was forced into an embarrassing climbdown. Others who got it only slightly less wrong hid behind him.
As one colleague who was rushed over to the airport to capture the Great Arrival texted me after his drive home, “This is one of those days where I can confirm that what we do for a living is nonsense. Stupid fun. But nonsense.”
You’re left with one of two conclusions about what happened here – that there was never anything to this, or that Toronto and the Blue Jays got played for suckers.
Who’s to say Ohtani’s camp weren’t at the point of putting pen to paper with Toronto, but managed to wring a last-second re-offer out of L.A. by putting a soft word in the ear of a friendly reporter. Ohtani’s final number – US$700-million over 10 years, significantly more than was expected – screams ‘panic raise.’
Maybe. Maybe not. But if it was my client, that’s what I would have done. Knowing that he wanted L.A. and that L.A. knew he preferred them, I would have used Toronto to break down the Dodgers’ financial resistance. Then I get to go back to my player with a bonus $200-million and say, ‘This is why you pay me 5 per cent.’
Whatever the case, the result is the same – Toronto looks ridiculous. Friday’s online victory parade makes it so much worse.
Now we know why Americans have such a blunt impression of Canadians. Every time we are mentioned in their popular culture it is as well-meaning, but vaguely pathetic, keeners. Maybe they see us more clearly than we see ourselves.
This weekend didn’t help our case as would-be world-class cosmopolites. Instead, we are revealed as what we’ve always been – New Yorkers manqué.
If this kind of thing had happened to real New York, they would already have declared media war on Los Angeles. The front pages would be festooned with elaborate promises of sports revenge. Ohtani would be persona non grata north of 138th Street.
What does Toronto do? ‘Oh well, I guess the best city won,’ and then head up to our bedroom to blast sad Taylor Swift songs.
L.A. must be so disappointed. Canadians don’t even know how to feud right.
Eventually, the city’s hurt feelings will be channelled back on the executives of the Toronto Blue Jays as rage.
Were they right to risk embarrassment by asking someone who was clearly out of their league to the baseball prom? Yes.
Did they screw up? Also yes. Not only because they lost, but because they lost so spectacularly. The other Ohtani finalists – San Francisco, Chicago and the L.A. Angels – managed to emerge from this with dignity intact.
If dirty tricks were deployed, that makes it worse. I doubt we’ll ever know to a certainty how this went down. It would make too many people look even sillier than they do now.
While the Jays were getting strung along by Ohtani, the other prize of the off-season, Juan Soto, tip-toed off to the Yankees.
So what’s left at the free-agency market now? Cody Bellinger – a decent hitter now worth a fortune to every other MLB striver who isn’t the Dodgers or the Yankees – and not much else. The Jays could acquire someone via trade, if they had people to trade back. They don’t.
As currently constituted, Toronto has a three-man hole in the middle of its batting order. It’s hard to win games if you have to forfeit every third at bat.
Just getting back to where they were last year – which was not good enough – may no longer be doable. The club is one, maybe two, years from teardown territory.
On Friday afternoon, the Jays were on the precipice of taking the city and the country on a great leap forward into the sports future. Ohtani would turn Toronto and the Jays into an international brand, on par with Barcelona and Bayern Munich. We were entering a new age.
On Sunday morning, they look like third- or fourth-best in the American League East. They aren’t a terrible team, but the guys who remain look dull as dishwater when stood up next to the Ohtani of our imagination. Every home run he hits in the wrong colour blue is going to hurt. It feels like a performance spiral in 2024 is possible, and maybe even likely.
If in the end, it all comes to ash – that the Jays win nothing in the next couple of years, that Bo Bichette moves on and Vlad Guerrero never gets anywhere close to the player people thought he would be – at least we’ll know exactly where it went wrong.
Friday, December 8 – the best-worst day in Toronto sports history.