This post originally appeared at Sportsnet.
The Toronto Blue Jays are past the awkward phase of dating when you are still uncomfortably learning someone, but they aren’t quite at the stage where you are so comfortable that the intrigue and excitement disappears and you resent some of the things they do.
The Blue Jays’ marriage with their fans is in the sweet spot.
The home opener is here, the AL East banner will be hung. Savour this moment if you’re a Blue Jays fan. Pay no mind to the hot and cold 2-2 split with the Tampa Bay Rays. This is the 40th season of the franchise and there are few others where the outlook has been this bright. They’re ascending, not descending.
Catch Marcus Stroman: The #STROSHOW, a special Rogers Sportsnet documentary debuting April 9, following the Red Sox-Blue Jays game.
The sports business is fickle. Our expectations cloud our perception. The Toronto Maple Leafs are talked about positively although they have qualified for the playoffs just once since 2004-05 and were eliminated this year on March 19. The Toronto Raptors are described with angst even though they’ve set a franchise record in wins and improved their record for five consecutive seasons. In the same city, the Blue Jays find themselves somewhere in the middle with a much more realistic chance at hanging a championship banner.
That’s because the narratives of sports teams continue to ebb and flow. The slope is slippery. Rebuilding teams have hope. The terms used are aspirational positives that are seen as indicators of a brighter future.
Yet the honeymoon effect only lasts so long. After a couple years without a championship, the weaknesses become the focus. The conversation switches to what you haven’t been able to accomplish, not what you have. After a while all discussions about your team are weighed down by not being able to convert superior talent into superior results (see the Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Angels and Washington Nationals).
On the flip side, the teams on their way up the ladder become public darlings (see the Chicago Cubs, New York Mets and Houston Astros). In between there is the purgatory of not being relevant at all.
The Blue Jays are in the sweet spot of the bat. It’s not often you can taste both the sweet and sour of that existence. The Blue Jays ostensibly have building blocks of a bright future. They have the reigning MVP still on a favourable contract for three more years. It’s quite possible their two best starting pitchers and best reliever are their youngest arms, yet they are poised to compete with the elite teams immediately and nobody would be surprised if they won a World Series. It isn’t often a franchise’s preparation matches up with its opportunity.
Soak this in. There’s no telling how long this will last. The Blue Jays as presently constituted (talented, healthy) are a very impressive baseball team. They might be a couple trade deadline tweaks away from being a historically great team and they could be a couple key injuries from being a bad baseball team (see the 2015 Boston Red Sox). Things change that quickly in baseball.
The ills of the past seem distant. Remember the Marlins deal of 2013 that was supposed to make the team World Series favourites overnight? None of the supposed saviours are currently on the 2016 Blue Jays. This time last year Marcus Stroman and Michael Saunders were rehabbing and Dalton Pompey was the starting centre fielder with Kevin Pillar as the fourth outfielder. Additionally, Drew Hutchison was the opening day starter and Marco Estrada was in the bullpen. The roster is in a much better place now.
It’s far from a guarantee you’ll be able to make that claim next year. Two of the best sluggers in baseball in Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion could opt to play elsewhere or management may decide it’s fiscally irresponsible to commit to too much money and term for the aging stars. R.A. Dickey is 41 years old and in the final year of his contract. Seven others will also hit free agency.
Last year as many as four Blue Jays used Drake songs as their walk up music. This year fitting song choices would be from the Toronto native’s album What a Time To Be Alive.
If you’re a millennial baseball fan in Canada, it’s hard to argue you’ve ever had it better. There’s a generation of Blue Jays fans who didn’t see Joe Carter jumping up and down after Otis Nixon’s failed squeeze bunt attempt, or after his walk off World Series home run a year later. There’s a segment of the population who knew the baseball buzz when it wasn’t just a summer hashtag, it was a way of life. The AL East magic number was always the water cooler conversation and four million a year packed the then SkyDome. This season might be the closest we’ll get to replicating that summer magic.
There is no telling how long it will last and how long until the next time things will be this good. The Blue Jays represent a city and a country that haven’t had much to be excited about. When no Canadian team competes in the Stanley Cup playoffs this summer, fill that void with baseball. The conversation is always about wanting meaningful games in September and October, but don’t forget the games in April and May count for the same amount. No longer are you hoping to be relevant in playoff races down the stretch. The organization and its fan base now expects to. Thus making the 162 games over 180 or so days that much more intriguing. No longer does the regular season seem like an exercise in finishing .500 and feeling no better or worse than when the season started.
If you’re a Blue Jays fan enjoy this, revel in it. Don’t take it for granted.