September 15, 2014

Sports | March 18, 2013
In search of a title
The restoration of the Toronto Blue Jays
Written by Lewis Krashinsky | Visual by Julia Boshyk

The sound of an R.A. Dickey knuckleball may not carry the same resonance as many other common ballpark features: a B.J. Ryan post-Tommy John surgery fastball, the frequent spit of each manager, the intoxicated rowdy fan in the third row mad that he just paid $12 for his sixth tallboy. The fluttering, baffling 74 miles per hour masterpiece of a pitch might just be the quietest thing in all of baseball. Toronto Blue Jays’ fans would be just fine hearing that knuckleball float softly into the catcher’s mitt as opposing bats flail aimlessly. The winner of the 2012 National League Cy Young award (given to the best pitcher in each league) is the cherry on top of the most eventful off-season in recent memory for the lone remaining Canadian Major League Baseball (MLB) team.

After the collapse of the J.P. Ricciardi-era Blue Jays following the 2008 season, a feeling of malaise came over the entire Canadian baseball fan base. They saw the failure of the prodigy mentored by Billy Beane (the Oakland Athletics general manager at the centre of the book and movie Moneyball) in displacing the top dogs of the American League (AL) East: the gluttonous New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. Replacing him was his assistant General Manager (GM) Alex Anthopoulos, the unknown former letter opener for the Montreal Expos, who had a bold plan. He initially traded possibly the greatest pitcher the franchise had ever known in Roy Halladay for three top prospects, thereby initializing the rebuilding process of a franchise that has not been to the playoffs since 1993, a year before Justin Bieber was born.

Quickly the team began to take shape. Anthopoulos made crafty deals that brought in young potential cornerstone talents in Brett Lawrie and Colby Rasmus. He drafted and stockpiled a multitude of top prospects that formed one of the best minor league systems in the major leagues, which led to increased faith in the plan to slowly build a perennial contender. Gradually expectations rose and fans wondered when the results would finally show, settling on the 2012 season.

However, things did not go as planned. Slugger José Bautista missed almost the entire second half of the season due to injury. Ricky Romero lost the ever-important ability to throw a strike, seeing his Earned Run Average (ERA) balloon to 5.77. As poorly as Romero performed, he was also one of only two starting pitchers who made it through the season injury-free. Playoff hopes were met by another fourth place finish and the notion emerged that perhaps the rebuilding process, which previously evoked the promise of success, had failed.

Closing out the painful 89-loss season, the Blue Jays were a team plagued by questions. They had a troublesome shortstop that had the ignorance to write a homophobic slur on his eyeblack (those black streaks under players’ eyes) , a starting rotation decimated by injury, and a manager that wanted to be elsewhere. But through a series of moves between November and January, the Blue Jays were transformed from a cellar dweller into the team that Las Vegas says is the favourite to win the World Series, at 8:1 odds.

The decision to trade unhappy manager John Farrell to the Red Sox was tough to comprehend. Farrell’s eyes were set on filling the vacant managerial role in ‘iconic’ Boston, or according to him, his “dream job.” Despite Toronto giving Farrell his first shot at managing a team, he insisted upon leaving for Boston just two seasons later. In the search to replace the unappreciative manager, the Blue Jays settled on the familiar face of John Gibbons, who had managed the team from 2004 to 2008. Through the ups and downs of his four-year stint as manager, the one thing that was evident was that Gibbons always wanted to be there. He was a constant, undistracted presence for the players and the fans, something that should not be underappreciated.

Gibbons will have his hands full managing a team full of newly acquired talent. In the blockbuster steal of a trade with the Miami Marlins, already coined by  the media as “The Trade,” Toronto acquired second baseman Emilio Bonifacio, three-time All-Star shortstop José Reyes, four-time All-Star pitcher Mark Buehrle, and two-time All-Star pitcher Josh Johnson. In addition, the Blue Jays also had one of the most underrated moves of the off-season, signing outfielder and near batting average champion Melky Cabrera, who served a fifty-game  suspension last season for testing positive for performance enhancing drugs that severely diminished his perceived value. However, if he can stay clean and play with the ability he showed before the suspension, he could join the four former Marlins in forming a tremendously improved ball club.

The biggest and most debated single acquisition, however, was acquiring R.A. Dickey. A lot was given up – top prospects Travis d’Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard, – for the 38-year-old knuckleballer with no ulnar collateral ligament (elbow ligament involved in throwing), who has only pitched effectively for the past three seasons.

Many questioned whether too much of the future was given up for a peculiar pitcher closer to the end of his career than the beginning. The skeptics still remain, but the bottom line is that the charismatic Dickey can flat-out pitch. In 2012, he won twenty games, had an ERA of 2.73, struck out the most batters in the National League with 230, and held opposing batters to a meager .278 on base percentage. He had similar success in the 2010 and 2011 seasons, averaging a 3.06 ERA between the two. Dickey is the ace the Blue Jays have been looking for since the departure of Halladay.

For the team that has constantly had to compete against the Yankees and Red Sox – continual playoff contenders with deep pockets – the timing could not be better. It is the first time in perhaps the last ten years that both New York and Boston appear vulnerable. The last season and a half have not been kind to Boston. With rumours about an undisciplined and poorly led clubhouse, much of their core talent was either traded or released by the end of the 2012 season. New York has now just recently begun to show their age, with a rash of injuries across the board to notable players such as Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson, Michael Pineda, and Mark Teixeira. Despite all this, the AL East still remains a stiff challenge. The resourceful Tampa Bay Rays and the surprising Baltimore Orioles still remain tough.

While the combination of all the acquired pieces will surely result in a better whole on the field, it also provides a reason to care about baseball again, mot just for fans in Toronto, but for all of Canada. With the heart-rending loss of the Montreal Expos franchise in 2004, combined with the perpetual poor play and diminishing crowds of the Blue Jays, it would not have been unreasonable to question the future of baseball north of the border. But now, with the legitimate chance of contention and the possibility for meaningful September ballgames, baseball is very much alive in a country that craves something to grasp in the summer months. Come April 2, the sound – or lack thereof – of R.A. Dickey’s knuckleball will be heard across the country for the first time, and with it will come the filling of seats, the excitement of fans, and the relevance of a sport that was once lost.

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