There is no more cursed franchise than one that has to depend on opening day for a year's worth of good vibes. For most of two decades, the Toronto Blue Jays were one of baseball's worst offenders.
People came to that first home game like they'd opened the bar ahead of the apocalypse. Out on the streets beforehand, it's chaos. Since it is the inalienable right of any Canadian to enjoy a patio ahead of a ballgame, even if it's being played during a blizzard, many are blind drunk. The fights in the 500s get more ink the next day than whatever the team has done.
It's fun in a 'Remember that time we got arrested in Puerto Vallarta?' sort of way.
Then they play the second home game of the season. That's real Toronto baseball – which feels like the crushing afternoon portion of a really bad hangover. The stands are now half full. Nobody's saying much or paying attention. It's April, but it feels like the dreariest parts of August. Because deep in their charcoal Toronto sports hearts, every one of us knows that it is going to functionally end in June, and then actually end in apathy.
On that note, welcome to the revolution. The bar's that way.
The Blue Jays begin their 2016 season on Sunday in Tampa Bay. They open at home on Friday against the Boston Red Sox.
This time around, it feels different. For the first time in a very long time, it feels like baseball in Canada matters again. That tingle you're experiencing – it isn't hope. We've had hope before, all of it forlorn. Instead, it's confidence. You never know how things are going to work out, but sometimes you feel like luck is on your side. After the way 2015 finished – just about perfect for three straight months – we've rounded back to that time again. Toronto just feels like a winner. When did you think you'd get to say that again?
The Jays have had seven weeks in Florida to arrange their affairs. Over that ridiculous length of warmup, things never go right. The best you can hope for is that they don't go terribly wrong. And they haven't.
(Remember that at this point last year, they'd already lost their best starter (Marcus Stroman) and their left-fielder (Michael Saunders) to slap-yourself-on-the-forehead-stupid injuries. The Jays didn't come out of the gate. They fell off it.)
This year, everyone is still healthy-ish. They all seem happy enough. Every opportunity to create the first ripples of discontent – 'Who'll start fifth?' 'Who's the closer?' 'What stupid error of judgment has management made?' – has been untaken. It's a little disorienting, this whole 'Toronto team does simple thing and seems to get it right,' especially when done consistently.
This must be how people who root for the Yankees feel most of the time (and don't just at the moment). That also seems lucky. The Jays got good just as everyone else got less so.
Excepting the two pratfalls of November – handling a management switch like Basil Fawlty hopped up on NyQuil and then not even bothering to low-ball David Price with a contract offer – it's been calm days and steady sunshine.
When Jose Bautista tried to throw a dollar-bill-shaped spanner into the works in March, his heart didn't seem in it. He did his Tennessee Williams thing for a few days – swanning around Dunedin in search of a fainting couch after his rough treatment by the brutes in the press – then snapped out of it.
What might have descended into total hysteria calmed into a contract cold war that won't spark again until we have a much better idea of how the Jays' season is shaping up. Bautista isn't really a Blue Jay any more. He's a Sergio Leone character in a baseball uniform, sticking around town long enough to secure his next payday. And that's fine. He's been that guy for a while, and it's worked out pretty well for both parties. I don't doubt Bautista loves the city, but I've never known a player who was so much a businessman.
That may be the best indicator of all as to how this team's promise is viewed internally. Management and players say the same predictable things before every campaign – high hopes, best shape of my life, feeling positive, need a few breaks, all the usual nonsense. But if they weren't really feeling that way, the Bautista sideshow would have edged its way into the Big Tent by now.
Instead, most of the conversation surrounds all the things that might go right in a best-case scenario. Five years ago, we were already fretting about all the things that could get turned sideways.
This is how you could chart the peaks and valleys of former years.
Peaks: Opening Day; Yankees and Red Sox in town for a holiday weekend; Canada Day; Player X reaches remarkable personal milestone on slow sports news day; Player Y plays well throughout entire year and surely will not ever leave having felt so much of a city's love.
Valleys: The 100 games played on weekdays; Every time the dome is closed; July; August; September; Spending most of September trying to pin-point precisely where it went wrong (Answer: July).
When I covered the beat during the Great Period of Mediocrity, I'd spend so much time sitting in the press box with my head forlornly in my hands, the chaffing would open up my elbows by June. For the rest of the season, they'd either be bandaged or I was bleeding through my shirt. Those Jays' teams, man, they bored you into baseball stigmata.
But not this time. This time it's full attention from the get-go. Because you will remember that this team's record for the first half of last year was exceedingly average, and they still made it. Why can't they do that again? Why can't they be even better? People believe that now. I'm not sure if it makes total sense, but it is human nature. Once you get headed in the right direction – especially after so long spent going the wrong way – it feels like your roll might never stop.
This is the year that you can't afford to forget baseball for months at a time. It's an April-to-October concern again. That's how real franchises in real baseball cities do it. This has always been a real baseball town. It's nice to have a real baseball franchise again.
When you look back, that was the true victory of 2015. The Jays didn't just beat the Yankees and the Texas Rangers. They defeated defeatism. They recalibrated everyone's expectations, including their own.
They are Vegas favourites to make the playoffs again, but they've been that before and disappointed. The difference this time is that they no longer hope to win. They expect to.
There's no reason to doubt them. Certainly not yet. For more than 20 years, this is the point at which we'd say, 'It might turn out if everything goes right.'
After learning how to win again, the Jays and their fans have been freed to turn that formulation over into: 'Why should we expect things to go wrong?' It's no guarantee of anything. But everything about this current team is more fun than the way we used to do it.