As one who is old and sometimes wise, let me tell you about the two favourite baseball teams from my youth.
The 1976 Montreal Olympics seemed doomed from the start. Cost overruns, labour disputes, and construction delays meant that the Games opened with barely-complete venues, and a legacy of debt that Quebecers paid off only in the early years of this century.
But the games went on, and turned out to be quite successful. On the next to last day, an unknown Texas-born, Vancouver-raised high jumper named Greg Joy literally came within centimetres of winning Gold. That he fell just short (he won Silver), and Canada became the first host nation never to have an athlete stand atop the podium (a feat we repeated in Calgary a dozen years later), seemed to symbolize these Olympics: they fell short in many ways, but finished with a memorable flourish.
Lost in the lead up and aftermath of these games were the Montreal Expos, who stumbled across the finish line to a 107-loss season. Only three seasons earlier, in their fifth season of existence, the Expos rode a young pitching staff, led by a young call up named Steve Rogers, and a rubber-armed (92 games, 179 IP) closer Mike Marshall, to finish just 4 games out of first (despite a 79-83 record). Management felt they were only a few players away from a pennant winner, so they dealt Marshall to the Dodgers for 35 year old CF Willie Davis, and when that didn’t work, they traded their best position player, Ken Singleton, to the Orioles for P Dave McNally, a former 20 game winner whose best days, like Davis, were clearly behind him.
How do teams get broken, and wander the sub-.500 baseball wilderness for years? There are many ways, but certainly acquiring players on the downside of their careers is one of them, and the Expos, after that brief taste of a pennant run in 1973, fired their first and only Manager (Gene Mauch) after a 91-loss 1975 campaign, and prepared to bite the bullet.
The Expos drew less than 650 000 fans in their last year at Parc Jarry before moving into the spacious (and roofless) confines of Olympic Stadium the following season, but a foundation for future success was being laid. The 76 Expos were the youngest team in the National League in terms of position players, as youngsters like Larry Parrish, Ellis Valentine, and Gary Carter were worked into the lineup, and became full time players the following year. In 1978, they added Andre Dawson, Warren Cromartie, and Scott Sanderson to the roster. By 1979, the Expos were back in the thick of a pennant race right down to the season’s final weekend.
Baseball was a long time coming to Toronto. Even though minor league baseball had left the city a decade before, Toronto had a long and proud history as one of the most successful franchises – on the field and at the gate – for over half a century. Toronto fans almost had a National League franchise on their hands when only a last-minute intervention prevented the Giants from moving here in the mid-70s, and in 1976 the American League wisely pounced on the best market not in MLB by granting an expansion team to the city.
The 1977-81 Blue Jays took their own turn roaming the MLB wilderness without a compass. The expansion draft in those days was more of a clearing house for warm bodies and players several years away, but the Blue Jays of 1982 showed that the two cornerstones of team building – player acquisition and development – were beginning to take effect. New Manager Bobby Cox was able to work young players Jesse Barfield and George Bell into a lineup that already featured young talents like Dave Stieb, Alfredo Griffin, and Willie Upshaw, and by 1983, the team finished above .500 for the first time in franchise history. Two years later, they clinched their first pennant.
A cynic will argue that neither of those teams won the ultimate prize, and there’s no arguing that. Player acquisition and development only take you so far in terms of roster construction and competitiveness. But these were teams that were carefully and methodically constructed. In many ways, building a contender is like assembling a giant jigsaw puzzle with extra pieces added. It takes time to sort the pieces, and to figure out which ones fit, and which ones ultimately don’t.
Are the Blue Jays a team that, despite its current ugly W/L record, is on track? Only time will tell for sure, but they are among the leaders in baseball in terms of the building blocks or roster construction. They have one of the top-ranked farm systems in baseball, although critics say the strength is at the top of the system, and there really isn’t a Top 100 OF prospect to be found. Google some of the top-ranking members of their high performance department, and you’ll find some very impressive resumes in other sports, which leads one to wonder how well that will transfer to baseball. But with Vlad Jr, Cavan Biggio and Lourdes Gurriel Jr in town, Bo Bichette reportedly on his way later this summer, and Nate Pearson and Patrick Murphy likely hear at some point next year, followed by Jordan Groshans and Alek Manoah some time after that, the roster will be vastly upgraded in about another 24 months.
As a Blue Jays fan, how do you survive the current season – and, for that matter, 2020, and maybe even 2021, if the above experiences are any indication of the gestation time of a contender? For starters, remember that this is a process, and while there are no guarantees, this team does have a plan in place that suggests it will avoid those lengthy sojourns in the wild. So, look for baseball alternatives. Get an milb.tv subscription (they’re cheap), and enjoy the farm system for a while – even if you don’t want to fork out, all minor league radio feeds are streamed for free, so on a warm summer night, open up the windows, turn off the tv, and listen to the voices of the Blue Jays minor league system – Jesse Goldberg-Strassler in Lansing, Tyler Murray in New Hampshire, Pat Malacaro in Buffalo, Jim Tarabocchia (select games only this year) in Dunedin, Rob Fai in Vancouver, and Zach Helton in Bluefield. Hit up amazon, and catch up on your baseball reading – my personal recommendations include Jim Bouton’s iconic Ball Four, Pat Jordan’s beautifully crafted A False Spring, Roger Kahn’s exciting Good Enough to Dream, or Travis Sawchik’s Big Data Baseball, the tome that brought me fully on board with analytics – which Sawchik pointed out involves more than just numbers.
Most important of all, accept that this team will, quite frankly, suck this year. And maybe even next year. But that doesn’t mean it will always be the case. As we watch the World Series-contending Astros this weekend, remember that not so long ago, they were in the same place the Blue Jays now find themselves.