It’s easy to forget that not that long ago — okay 20 years — that the Toronto Blue Jays were the toast of Major League Baseball.
In 1993 over four million people came to watch the the Blue Jays play at the futuristic SkyDome with its then-unheard of retractable roof and restaurant perched above center field. Just as important, Toronto had a great team to go along with its sparkling new edifice thanks to Pat Gillick assembling the likes of Roberto Alomar, Joe Carter, Jimmy Key and Dave Steib.
The Jays won back-to-back World Series in 1992 and 1993.
From there the Jays faded far out of the baseball limelight, with the SkyDome – now Rogers Centre – already a relic of a bygone era.
Since the 1994 strike Toronto has never finished higher than third in the American League East, nor have the Jays won more than 88 games. The carpet inside the dome has been home to immortals such as Billy Koch, Raul Mondesi, Brad Fulmer, Jose Cruz Jr. and countless other instantly forgettable players of middling Blue Jays’ seasons from 1995-2012.
This was all – in theory – going to change in 2013.
Jays’ GM Alex Anthopoulos went bold, making a mega-deal with the Marlins to acquire Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle and others. He followed this by trading with the Mets to acquire 2012 National League Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey.
It was all supposed to come together with the Jays in the playoffs for the first time since Carter’s walk-off homer off Mitch Williams ended the 1993 Series. Over the winter plenty of baseball people bought all the changes, pegging the Jays as the team to beat in the new-look American League East, conveniently forgetting the 2012 Miami Marlins — where the bulk of the newly acquired players plied their trade a season ago — went 69-93.
On Opening Day in Toronto you could see the Jays and their fans had bought into the hype, or more importantly — hope.
The Dome was filled. Toronto honored the late Tom Cheek, the team’s longtime broadcaster and 2103 Ford C. Frick Award recipient. To top it off, the Jays had Rush vocalist Geddy Lee (and one-time ESPN Fantasy Baseball commercial star) throw out the first pitch.
Only from the first inning it’s gone sour for the Jays. The Indians scored in the first on opening night off Dickey, en route to the winning the game. Through the season’s first 13 games the Jays are only 6-7, but it probably feels a lot worse than it sounds considering the expectations over the winter.
Friday Reyes, the jewel of the Marlins trade, ripped up his ankle sliding into second base in Kansas City and he’ll be sidelined until at least July. What makes the injury especially cruel is Reyes, never known for his durability, wasn’t even injured from side effects of playing on turf as many anticipated and had been playing well, posting a .395/.465/.991 line through 38 at-bats.
Meanwhile, the other keys to the Marlins trade haven’t fared much better coming over to the AL. In their first two starts apiece, Buehrle and Joshson each sported four-digit ERAs (Buehrle is down in the 7.31 after pitching effectively in Monday’s win over the White Sox). In his last start Johnson couldn’t make it out of the second inning in Detroit, his fastball topping out in the low 90s — he throws tonight vs. Chicago. Dickey wasn’t much better than the ex-Marlins allowing 10 earned runs in his first two starts although the knuckleballer was a little better on Sunday vs. the Royals giving up one run over 6+ innings of work.
It means through two turns through the rotation the Jays staff ace is, apparently, Philadelphia legend J.A. Happ.
Granted two weeks and 12 games do not a season make, but Toronto is already making a move you might label of the “panic” variety by playing the oft-injured Brett Lawrie at second base rather than his usual third as he rehabs in the minors from an injured suffered during the World Baseball Classic. This might clear a path for slugger Jose Bautista, who’s missed time already this season with a minor ankle injury, to play third base.
The good news for Toronto and its fans is that the American League seems to be as balanced as its been in the Wild Card era. It seems unlikely anybody in the East is going to run away in the division.
However, January’s optimism fades quickly once April rolls around.
It’s was going to take a lot more than two weeks to erase two decades of frustration and mediocre baseball North of the Border.