I probably don’t need to tell you that it’s been a while since the Toronto Blue Jays have been in the midst of a postseason chase.
Even the most optimistic among us who have in recent years talked ourselves into believing that the team can make up a seven game deficit and leapfrog teams to get into the playoffs would acknowledge that the anxieties generated on a nightly basis in recent weeks are profoundly different.
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For those of us who remember the late season pushes from 1985 through 1993, the daily and nightly jitters of this year awaken many of the same thoughts and emotions of those years. It’s also a reminder that even when things were good for this franchise, they were nerve-wracking and tense and often profoundly disappointing.
This is a point that might be lost on some who were too young to remember those years clearly. The day-in, day-out process of watching a team win important games (yay!) only to lose important series (gargh!) can be both exhausting and an incredibly rewarding experience.
(And please forgive me if this seems like your annoying Uncle Tao lecturing you on how things were back in his day. I know that can be insufferable. I have a point beyond this, I promise.)
As much as the experience of truly engaging in scoreboard watching and doing quick math while glancing at the standings evokes those memories, it’s been noted by me and other fans that there’s something profoundly different about this process in 2014. The addition of the Wild Card to the equation – not to mention the second Wild Card spot – has made the nightly process of checking other games that much more complex.
There are eight other teams that Blue Jays fans could reasonably look upon as potential rivals for a playoff spot at this point, so when looking around the league at the nightly results, it’s often confusing to figure out who you’re rooting for. Do you hope the Yankees beat the Orioles so that you can make up ground on the AL East leaders? Or do you focus on the second Wild Card and root for Baltimore keep New York behind your team in the standings.
Or when Cleveland faces Baltimore this weekend, will we hope for them to sweep the O’s knowing that those three wins might put them back into the race for the Wild Card? Does one dare root for the Rays to stay hot against the Jays’ primary rivals, lest they stay hot enough to get themselves realistically back in the race? Do you root for the division leaders in the Central and West to beat on Wild Card contenders? Or do you worry that a week’s turn of fate will render those teams as key opponents in securing that away spot for the “coin-flip” game?
The addition of these Wild Card spots certain complicates matters for fans, but beyond that, the parity among franchises both on the field and in the front office has made it even more difficult to make up ground or separate yourself from the pack. With fewer teams out of the race, and most teams realistically a year away from competing again, the cost of acquiring players to help you get over the hump is prohibitive. This underscores the need for teams to establish a strategy for building their teams and developing their players, and adhering to it with a longer view. Flags fly forever, but one flag probably doesn’t outweigh several years of being uncompetitive. Even for Jays fans. (Or Royals fans, or Pirates fans.)
Looking ahead, it seems likely that five or six teams in each league who have a true-talent level in the 83-88 win range will be in the mix for the playoffs every year, with good health and good fortune often being the deciding factors. It might just force us as fans to change our perspective on how our teams “go for it” by tooling up their roster. Do you do this in the winter? Do you hope to find marginal value during the season? How do you value prospects in this context? What’s a win really worth?
It’s often a confusing bit of emotional arithmetic for the fan, made all the more maddening by the vast improvements in technology. When your team has realistically not been in the thick of a race in two decades, new information and distribution channels fundamentally change the way you interact with the nightly scoreboard watch.
It’s probably not a stretch to say that in those years where the Jays were perpetually competitive, a fan might find themselves checking the agate type in the sports section a full twelve hours after games wrapped up to find out how the race was shaking out.
I’m imagining how a young Tao – in his Doc Martens and torn jeans and flannel with long hair that made him look like a Faith No More roadie – would have processed the concept that you could not only follow along with the scores of every game as they occurred, but that you could check the count of every key at bat and see the location and movement on all of the pitches instantaneously. That version of me was pretty forward-thinking, but he certainly would have been impressed. And anxious to get that program loaded onto his friend’s 286 clone computer with the monochrome green-scale monitor.
While the Jays’ sweep at the hands of the Seattle Mariners puts a damper on things, the next three weeks offer them a great opportunity to make up ground and stay ahead of some rivals for a playoff spot. If the Jays can win nine of their next 14 games, it would seem likely that those elusive meaningful September games will be upon us.
What a delightful and agonizing turn of events that could be.