By now, each of us is familiar with the boom-bust cycle of a Toronto Blue Jays off-season.
The boom part is literal. It’s a very loud noise about all the moves the Jays are thinking about making. These guys have collected more contact info than Statistics Canada. They are in communication with people. Lots of them. Putting out the feelers. Touching base.
Presumably, this goes something like this:
“Hey, you want to come to a no-hoper for much less than your market value?”
“Amazing. That’s great feedback. So when should I call you again? Hello? Hello?”
There was a lot of talk about the difference between payroll “flexibility” and “future flexibility.” The Jays make this sound more complicated than Hegelian metaphysics. This team isn’t good at much, but it is a global business leader in making simple things sound hard.
Talking about payroll flexibility – whenever you have it – implies you plan to spend money.
You and I have flexibility. It is theoretically possible that we could buy a Porsche this afternoon with imaginary funds. That’s cool. We all have dreams.
But we don’t go around telling friends we’re buying a Porsche because, eventually, someone would say, “Weren’t you going to buy a Porsche?” and look at you funny. We certainly don’t go down to the Porsche dealership and ask to sit in every car on the lot, making “vroom vroom” noises for six hours. That’s delusional. And yet …
“There’s not a free-agent pitcher that we haven’t touched base with,” Jays general manager Ross Atkins told reporters a couple of weeks ago.
Guess how that worked out?
The Jays rotation is a mess. That was the priority. The team has added two journeyman – Chase Anderson and Tanner Roark – who don’t make it much better and an also-ran from Japan who ought to have the words “situational relief” written across the back of his jersey.
As it stands, the starting five may be a little bit worse than it was on opening day a year ago.
Hundreds of column inches have been written about a possible Toronto bid for high-end pitcher Hyun-Jin Ryu. The Jays have done nothing to calm that expectation. Instead, they’ve stoked it with their “every available pitcher” talk.
In the next breath, one of Atkins or Jays president Mark Shapiro will then talk about “future flexibility” and how fantastic it is. The implication – how does one in good conscience spend actual money right now when that might affect spending imaginary money a year or two from now?
Well, one reason is that people spend their own very real money to watch baseball in the present as well as in the future. That’s a constant. It is not unreasonable that they might expect their team to follow the same rule.
But the Jays won’t. This inevitably leads to the bust, which is happening right now. That’s when fans realize the Jays have done it again. They’ve shined everyone on.
“I know it doesn’t feel like it, but there’s still a lot of off-season left,” Shapiro said this week.
Oh, it feels like it. It feels like the off-season could go on forever. And just you wait for the on-season, when the team as currently constructed is out there playing Hacky Sack with ground balls and throwing batting practice for the New York Yankees. That will truly be an eternity.
What makes sane people crazy about the Shapiro/Atkins Blue Jays isn’t that they are bad. It’s possible to love a bad team. The Maple Leafs have made a few bucks off the concept.
What drives people batty is that the Jays are forever talking about getting better with no seeming intention to do anything to make that happen.
You can get away with it for one year. Two years is pushing it. The Jays have been at it for three.
If you tried the Shapiro/Atkins routine for three years in Boston or New York, you’d be run out of town tied to the back bumper of a truck. Those are win-right-now cities. If you can’t win right now, you are expected to supply a clear timeframe for when that happens, and it better not be long.
What does Toronto get instead? A temporal shell game. Which shell is the winner under? 2020? 2021? 2037? None of them. The guys running the game have palmed the ball.
Even by the wretched sports standards of this city, this is a new phenomenon. As bad as Toronto teams have got in the past, they have at least made some effort at being seen to try.
When things don’t work out, they’ve accepted some level of shame at having failed. That’s the least they can do considering all the money they’re paid to screw things up.
Not the Jays. Instead, they give you the sort of bargain-bin-MBA gobbledygook that Atkins delivered up to reporters at the winter meetings:
“When [Shapiro] and I got here, we didn’t choose to have 2019 occur. That’s not what our vision was. What our vision was trying to do everything we could to extend that window with the parameters that we had.”
One assumes they also have a vision for 2020. And that it will also happen. And that it won’t turn out the way they choose.
There is something malignly brilliant in this approach. If you never try, you can never fail, but you did at least hope. That’s something … if you’re starting a doomsday cult. I’m not sure it works quite as well in baseball.
You’re long past getting the sense this will go on forever. That the Jays will spend the next 10 years making phone calls that never get answered and promising to try once it makes sense, which it never will.
They’ve got away with it so far. Toronto baseball fans continue to nod along in unison. The long con is turning into a forever con. A sudden infusion of cash or effort into the system might unbalance this perfect symmetry of mediocrity. Why stop now?