Saturday, 31 May 2014

Competitive Jays a Welcome Addition to Major League Baseball

Toronto has make-up to go all the way.

I've been a baseball fan for a long time, but never with the Blue Jays going so good. On Saturday, Toronto routed Kansas City, 12-2, extending it's lead atop the American League East in typical, feel-good fashion. I took the opportunity to watch this game live, and was mightily-impressed by the powerful team spirit on display. In every way, Toronto's current success is a collaborative effort; players not trying to do too much, coaches instructing a simplified game, fans buying into a long-overdue adventure. I saw a team, nay organisation, which believes strongly in it's own ability; a collection of wily professionals which has trust in every man; a Blue Jays Nation driving towards October baseball for the first time since 1993. It's great to see the loyal Toronto fanbase finally rewarded with a summer in the limelight; a competitive Canadian team adding immeasurably to the overall excitement of Major League Baseball. Even as a neutral, I'm enjoying every minute.   

In the aforementioned game at Rogers Centre, where Toronto set a club record with the first eight men reaching base successfully against Royals rookie Aaron Brooks, we saw plenty of the relentless, utilitarian approach which characterizes Blue Jays baseball. Every starter collected at least one hit, with the exception of centre-fielder Anthony Gose; seven separate players scored runs, including the imposing Adam Lind with four; and Marcus Stroman, a temporary sixth starter, pitched strongly for the win. However, I was struck by the ultra-professional approach of this Toronto ballclub; the powerful togetherness and eminent camaraderie which doesn't show-up in the boxscore but provides grist for consistent success. Nobody attempts to play hero. Nobody gets above his station. Nobody feels pressure to be That Guy. Rather, the Blue Jays, more than most teams I've seen in recent years, seem to have impenetrable faith in one another. They're patient, more than willing to pass the offensive baton, and respectful to the game of baseball.

In a complex media age, we've somehow devolved into looking at beards and wild walk-off celebrations as a barometer of team chemistry. The 2014 Toronto Blue Jays don't necessarily subscribe to those showy, ostentatious concepts, but, let me tell you, they have a fine togetherness. They have the make-up to go all the way, and it feels a lot like destiny.

On Saturday, I saw a team of solid veterans playing baseball the right way. In guys like Lind, Edwin Encarnacion and Dioner Navarro, they have consummate professionals familiar with the ups-and-downs of a marathon baseball season. They realise that this game will hurt more than it will thrill and, accordingly, take a tremendously even-keeled approach. The experienced core sets an exemplary tone, riding the waves of success and failure with poise and honour. This allows Toronto to remain fresh and stay true to their distinctive philosophy. At one point Saturday, the camera panned to the Blue Jays' bench, where every player sat immersed in the game. They paid attention, discussed the game. They were together, literally and metaphorically.

Jose Bautista embodies this intangible ethos more than anybody. The right fielder is regularly seen instructing on the field and in the dugout. Like any great player, he loves to speak baseball. One can see it on television, when Jose chats to Encarnacion or Melky Cabrera, a player he has tutored especially this season. Rarely does a team's marquee superstar assume such an up-front leadership role, and even more rarely does it work to such effect. It's truly brilliant to watch.

But don't let all this team spirit stuff detract from the actual talent of these ballplayers. Bautista is a quintessential All-Star. Jose Reyes continues to transform ballgames with searing speed. Encarnacion just blasted 16 home runs in the month of May, a feat matched only by Mickey Mantle in the history of American League baseball. At present, the Blue Jays are playing a brand of baseball which fits the tremendous skill and impressive spirit of their players. Again, we see the collaborative nature of their success: the creative Front Office blending a multi-talented team, a perceptive coaching staff and a sagacious team together before passionate fans. Simple.

Well, maybe not simple! The Blue Jays have experienced plenty of lean years whilst dreaming of such success. As I grew-up, in an age of American League baseball dominated by Steinbrenner capitalism and Epstein innovation, Toronto often resembled a forgotten team. Sure, Frank Thomas cranked some mammoth home runs and Doc Halladay smothered opposing hitters every fifth day, but, otherwise, the Blue Jays barely registered on the radar of contemporary fans. We were fed a steady diet of Red Sox-Yankees by ESPN; Toronto's perennial struggle both a cause and factor of this phenomenon.

Yet, deep down, I always had a hunch that, when they really get rolling, the Blue Jays would be a fun team to watch. We've all seen the clips of Joe Carter. We've all seen occasionally-large crowds go wild at Rogers Centre. We've all seen the unique culture of Canadian baseball.

Now, that heritage is being honoured by a vibrant new team, which continues to author magical moments all of it's own.