When the Toronto Blue Jays won back-to-back World Series in 1992 and 1993, they did so in a remarkable, quintessentially 1990s way. The 1991 Jays had won the AL East, but had little chance against Minnesota in the ALCS due to modest pitching and a merely above-average lineup.
But through free agency, Toronto added Dave Winfield and reigning World Series MVP Jack Morris, and both went on to great seasons in 1992 despite their advanced ages. Winfield got the winning hit in the decisive Game 6, started by mid-season trade acquisition David Cone and finished by homegrown southpaw Jimmy Key.
In 1993, however, several key contributors to that team were gone. Key, Cone, Winfield, left fielder Candy Maldonado, closer Tom Henke and shortstop Manuel Lee all departed via free agency. Third baseman Kelly Gruber went to California in a trade that netted only Luis Sojo. Into the voids, the team plugged more free-agent signees (ancient veterans Dave Stewart and Paul Molitor), as well as some homegrown players who took advantage of their new opportunities (Ed Sprague, Duane Ward).
When, a few months into the year, it became apparent that the team needed help, GM Pat Gillick added shortstop Tony Fernandez and left fielder Rickey Henderson in spectacular deals. The Blue Jays won the Series on a dramatic Joe Carter home run, and a true achievement in team0building was complete.
On the other side of realignment, a strike and two near-strikes, revenue-sharing and the rise of the power corridor along the Eastern seaboard, Toronto's feat is almost unimaginable. The Jays could well finish with a winning record for the fifth year out of the last six with a strong finish this season, but during that time, they have not so much as smelled the playoffs.
Toronto fans are frequently found despairing in Augusts like this one over the idea that their team will never beat the Yankees and Red Sox. They need not and should not. Here are five reasons the Jays are worthy of your affection, whether they succeed in toppling the giants of their division or not.
On "Up and In: The Baseball Prospectus Podcast," the very best podcast in the business, I heard something strange a few weeks ago. A Blue Jays fan wrote into the show to say this:
"Like every Toronto Blue Jays fan in July, I'm depressed. Our team is never terrible, but we're never good ... we're heroically mediocre."
I accept the factual premise of the fan's comment. The Jays do seem to be stuck, sometimes, in a strange sort of limbo. They do struggle to contend with the mighty Yankees, Sox and Rays, even as they consistently win more games than they lose.
But I reject the notion that cheering on a futile team ought to lead inexorably to depression. A music fan does not decide how their favorite band has done based on the popularity of their latest single. The quality of the music, and the joy the listener gets from it, is more important than more objective means of determining value.
Just so, enlightened sports fans should worry less than most do about wins and losses, and more about having a clever and enjoyable team to watch. If you love the game, you should derive joy from seeing it played well and in an exciting way.
A team worthy of your attention, affection and attendance should be full of athletes who can make great plays in the field; hit for power and run the bases; pitch well and in rhythm, without issuing an undue number of walks; and acknowledge their fans on a positive level every day at the park.
The Blue Jays fill that bill. Aesthetically, they're fun to watch. Getting bogged down in win-focused minutiae is a good way to lose sight of what baseball really ought to be about.
Okay, so you're willing to rise above the simple framework that says, "Wins good, losses bad." Sports fandom is about more than that. At the same time, though, it cannot be denied: Being a sports fan is a competitive endeavor. Watching the game is more fun when you feel you have a chance to win, and if your team has no shot at winning the Fall Classic, you still want to see them succeed on some level.
The Blue Jays offer a terrific alternative. They are the best, just not between the white lines. Toronto's front office is as brilliant as they are creative. Trades like the one that shed the team of the horrendous Vernon Wells contract, or the one that swindled Yunel Escobar away from Atlanta, or the one that somehow extracted Colby Rasmus from St. Louis at the expense of one rent-a-starter and one solid prospect, make it fun to be a Jays fan because they prove that Alex Anthopoulos is the smartest executive in a division already papered with highly-praised minds.
The Rasmus deal is just the latest example of Toronto's intellectual superiority. Another is the draft, where the team aggressively snagged some very high-upside youth this June, and now have only to successfully sign them prior to August 15. The same tenacity and creativity that has helped Anthopoulos rig these lopsided deals has aided in the construction of a very promising farm system.
As a Cubs fan in the late 1990s and early 2000s, I knew well that the team would win fewer games than it won most years. I took solace, though, in the thrill of watching Sammy Sosa hit. When I went to the ballpark in those years, the best moments were during Sosa's four or five plate appearances. Call it naivete, but it looked as though Sosa had emerged at age 29 as a tremendous slugger and fringe demigod.
Toronto's Sosa is Bautista, but the story seems likely to have a happier ending. Bautista is almost certainly clean; as quiet and thoughtful as Sosa was impulsive and self-aggrandizing; and a better all-around athlete than the latter-days Sosa. He alone is worth the price of admission most days, and it's easy to like and pull for Jose Bautista, even if his team is out of the running.
Nor is the thrill of the Toronto offense restricted to Bautista: Adam Lind is underrated, and impossible to retire when he gets hot. Escobar, Rasmus and J.P. Arencibia are valuable without being boring at the plate. It's fun to watch this team score runs.
Why is no one talking about Yunel Escobar?
In a year when the shortstop position has become as glamorous as at any time in the past decade, Jose Reyes has become a mega-star; Starlin Castro has become the face of a franchise; and Asdrubal Cabrera has become a household name.
Yet Escobar, whom the Jays rescued from an Atlanta squad that so begrudged him his attitude as to overlook his immense talent, has been better than Castro or Cabrera. Defensively, he could be the best shortstop in baseball, and is certainly the best in the AL.
He's just 28, so no huge regression is due, and he will be with Toronto (unless the team declines its options on either of the last two years of his current deal) at least through 2015. Escobar makes the offense run with his on-base skills and has a shortstop's arm non pareil. Give the man his due.
The fan who wrote into the podcast made one especially specific complaint: The Jays, he contended, needed to push their young pitching prospects more aggressively, so as to give themselves a better idea of when they can put together enough pitching to seriously contend again. And he's not wrong. The slow-and-steady approach to player development can work, but it's a bit frustrating.
Still, the Blue Jays' system is loaded with useful prospects on both sides of the runs ledger. Brett Lawrie, whose five hits and home run in his first 14 plate appearances have affirmed his status as an elite offensive prospect, is only the tip of an iceberg of future studs.
The Jays are drafting aggressively, are perpetually in contention for top Latin American talent, and have a ton of depth already. Call it the Rays model: They are building a fool-proof stable of young players who will be on the next Blue Jays World Series winner. And Anthopoulos, the modern-day Gillick, will do the rest.