Tuesday, August 11, 2015

It's Starting to Feel Like '93 Again: 2015 Toronto Blue Jays are making it fun to be a sports fan

It was October 23, 1993 when Joe Carter hit the famous walk-off home run that won the Toronto Blue Jays their second of back-to-back World Series titles. 

13 days later, I was born. 

What's with Blue Jays 3rd basemen and their hair?
(Photo via Sports Illustrated) 
Unless you live under a rock, you're aware that Carter's legendary shot was the last playoff moment in the city of Toronto. The franchise has gone through waves of rebuilding, with the last 21 seasons ending in the same result: no meaningful autumn baseball. 

I grew up cheering for the three major Toronto professional sports franchises (no offence to the Argos, Rock, and T.F.C.) and the Dallas Cowboys. As mentioned, the Jays haven't sniffed the post-season in my lifetime; the Maple Leafs had a few decent runs before the 2004-05 lockout, then missed the playoffs every season afterwards until 4-1; there was a slight Raptors surge with "We The North", but they haven't made it past the first round since the Vince Carter era; and Dez Bryant is my last glimmer of hope at a Super Bowl in Tony Romo's time with America's Team. 

The reason this blog is called "Feels Like '93", apart from it being the year I was born, is because of the glory that those teams had in 1993. The Buds went to game 7 in the Conference Finals against Wayne Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings. Jimmy Johnson coached the Cowboys to their second of back-to-back Super Bowls. Toronto's spot in the NBA was secured in November of '93. And you only have to watch the video up top to know what the Champers* were up to.

*Champers is the unofficial nickname for the Blue Jays that I've used for years. Its origins go back to "Pynese", a term to describe my dad's buddy Derek Pyne's mannerisms. Think: "Ricky-isms" from Ricky and Trailer Park Boys.

It's weird. I don't root for the Leafs like I once did -- obviously I still want them to be successful, if only so I can watch them lift the Cup at least once in my lifetime. Just once. I'd like to see the Raps go toe-to-toe with the elite of the NBA, if only to see what it would mean to the city of Toronto. And I'll always be an irrational sociopath when it comes to the Dallas Cowboys, just like the owner, God bless Jerry's soul. 

But nearly every summer in my life, the Jays would have up-and-down stretches where their playoff chances wouldn't exist come the end of July. The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox would take their spots near the top of the division, with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays staying afloat with ridiculously insane scouting.

Shaun Marcum, Troy Glaus, John McDonald, B.J. Ryan, Sal Fasano Vernon Wells, Alex Rios, Dustin McGowan, Marco Scutaro, Travis Snider, Shawn Camp. These were the guys who I watched play at the SkyDome (it'll always be called that, so let's not have that discussion). 
They were mediocre memories that always ended with "At least hockey's back." Pennant races in September didn't exist. 

Did you know: If you google "Roy Halladay", only Philly pics show up?
Then again, there was Doc. We always had Doc.

It was only in the off-season before 2013, when general manager Alex Anthopoulos made the mega-deals with Miami and New York, that people considered this team a playoff contender. 

What happened? Josh Johnson was a disaster. R.A. Dickey has shown flashes of brilliance but inconsistency and the rapid-development of Noah Syndergaard -- y'know, the guy they gave up for Dickey -- has most baseball experts giving that one to the Mets. And to steal a line from Randy Carlyle, Jose Reyes in a Blue Jay uniform was "Just okay." In fact, you could argue the best thing to come out of that summer was Mark Buehrle, who I could watch pitch anyday. Buehrle's game is a work of art. 

2014 was more of the same, although hope showed its face on occasion. The team finished third in the division, with young arms Drew Hutchison and Marcus Stroman showing a glimpse of what may come the following year. AA sent Brett Lawrie and change to Oakland for Josh Donaldson, who ranked 3rd in WAR (Wins Above Replacement, which is the quintessential stat for the sport) in all of baseball. They signed an elite catcher in Russell Martin to an $85 million contract. They still needed pitching, but -- stop me if you've heard this in Toronto before -- optimism was there.

The first half of the season caused the same eye-rolls and scoffs that we were accustomed to for years. Stroman tore his ACL in training camp. Dickey was on a milk-carton. The bullpen was among the worst in the majors. The team was never close to 100% healthy. All this, despite the fact that they were scoring more offense than anyone in the majors, and at a historic pace. 

Going into the July 31 non-waiver trade-deadline, not many could figure out if the Blue Jays would be buyers. That's why sports can be so freakin' awesome. Sometimes, without warning and in the middle of the night, the entire landscape can change. 

Two weeks ago, I was working the midnight shift at my summer job. I went on break around 2 a.m. and turned on the TV. The Champers got Tulo.

Toronto acquired Troy Tulowitzki, widely considered the best shortstop in baseball, and the world freaked out. A few of my coworkers had their jaws dropped. Those who punched in a half hour before I punched out spent those 30 minutes swooning over Anthopoulos and the deal. "They got Tulo AND got rid of Reyes?" There was a genuine excitement that you could feel in conversation. For a bunch of middle-aged white guys, they sounded like children awaking with the sunrise on Christmas morning. 

The Blue Jays now had the best left-side of an infield with Tulo and Donaldson. Some fans still questioned when they were going to get to improving their pitching. AA had the answer.

A few days later, they acquired David Price from the Detroit Tigers, who was by far the best arm on the market, and someone who many believed Toronto had no shot of getting. Price, who is an unrestricted free agent at the end of 2015, won the American League Cy Young in 2012 and has ranked among the best starting pitchers in the majors. He is already the best pitcher this organization has seen since Roy Halladay.

But they didn't stop there. Anthopoulos traded for Mark Lowe from Seattle, who is having one of the best seasons for any relief pitcher in the game, to help boost the bullpen; Ben Revere from the Phillies, who was one stolen base short of 50 in 2014, to have an everyday left fielder and add some speed at the bottom of the lineup. 

Oh, and I can't forget LaTroy Hawkins, the 42-year-old reliever who the Jays also got in the Tulowitzki deal. Hawkins was drafted in 1991 (Toronto took Shawn Green in the 1st round that year) and will retire at the end of the season. He's the 2015 version of Omar Vizquel.

There's a sense of pride that's swelling in the 6ix right now. Not even the Leafs spring of 2013 or the hype surrounding the Raps in the past few years can match what's going in with Toronto and its baseball club. I've been back and forth to Toronto a few times in the past few weeks, and you can feel the buzz when you're there. Everyone is wearing Blue Jays caps. Shirsey's have become the latest summer fashion trend. All the sports talk radio chatter is on this team and remember the nostalgia of World Series' past. 

Whenever my dad and I talk about the Champers, there's a level of excitement in his voice. He's giddy. Guy hasn't said a positive thing about the Leafs since the Pat Quinn-years, and he can't wipe the grin off his face. He keeps bringing up those moments from the early '90s; how he says Rickey Henderson's name -- "Ri-ckkkkeeeeeeeeeyyy" -- everything about it is a side of him I haven't seen in, well, ever. 

That's what winning does. It makes food taste better, it makes work a little easier, it makes your general outlook on life better. This is the first time in my lifetime that Toronto is sitting at the top of the baseball mountain, and I have to say, I love the view. 

All anyone is talking about is if this team compares to the ones back in '92 and '93. It's feelin' like it, isn't it?

Effin' rights boys!!!

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