It should be straightforward that the calendar year and the baseball year are supposed to align. And yet, by the time we’re toasting old acquaintances this week, it’ll seem for Blue Jays fans as though 2019 has finally caught up with where our hearts and minds have been for months.
Still, for as much as 2018 was an eminently forgettable year, there’s a lot that can happen while you’re looking ahead to something better.
When asked to think of some notable memories from the past year, there was some concern as to whether I could get past a handful of obvious moments, none of which speak to a franchise in a stellar state. But given a bit of time to ponder, there were a number of events upon which we may look back, either with fondness or understanding of their place in the larger narrative.
These are the memories – roughly in chronological order – that stand out to me personally, either for the moment itself, or the meaning perceived within. Yours may differ.
Cue The Beatles’ “In My Life”, and let’s travel back together.
1. Mark Shapiro’s “intellectual exercise” comments: This interview actually took place in December 2017, but the Jays CEO’s remarks on The Jeff Blair show lingered over the entire season. “I’ve said all along, if we were just running our team without fans and it was an intellectual exercise, we probably would’ve hit a reset over a year ago,” Shapiro said at the time, and it felt in the moment like an assertion of immediate competitiveness, and certainly an insight into the mindset of the team’s leadership. As the year played out, some held the comments forth as an example of the front office’s cynicism or incompetence, though those notions are easier to put forward with lots of hindsight and few of the details that occurred in between.
2. Josh Donaldson’s spring breaks: In spring training, it’s easy to scoff at the meaningless tempests in teapots that fill reporters’ notebooks and columns when little else is happening. On March 6, Josh Donaldson strolled out to the field with a blaring, suitcase-sized speaker in defiance of the order to maintain some silence as standardized testing took place at the adjacent school. Manager John Gibbons quickly grabbed the speaker and the two disappeared into the clubhouse, as I found myself looking at other media members in disbelief. A couple of days later, Donaldson would pull himself from a game after one at-bat, and his season was off to an inauspicious start.
3. Vladdy and Bo in Sarasota: A March 8 game versus the Orioles in Sarasota became an event with the news that Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette would suit up for the Blue Jays in their big-league spring training debuts. Vladdy would go 4-for-5, Bo 2-for-3, and otherwise, the pair caused a genuine stir both in Florida and amongst Blue Jays fans online.
4. Vladdy’s walk-off in Montreal: If you order your list of recollections according to which was most memorable, this would unquestionably sit atop for many Jays fans. From the player to the moment to the location, there are few baseball events that could ever seem quite so perfect. Unfortunately for the Blue Jays’ 2018 season, nothing in the regular season held quite as much meaning as this.
5. Remembering Doc on opening day: Losing Roy Halladay remains one of the most painful moments in the history of the franchise, and honouring the Jays great on opening day was an opportunity to grieve collectively, and also to remember what a transcendent figure he was in his time with the Jays. This came two weeks after his son Braden suited up for the Canadian junior national team against the Blue Jays in Dunedin, and seeing Doc’s widow Brandy Halladay carry herself with poise and joy and sorrow through both events will stay with many of us forever.
6. Donaldson’s dead arm: Among the bigger WTF moments in recent memory, seeing the team’s franchise player suddenly and meekly shot putting balls across the diamond was one of the first tip-offs that 2018 was not to be a rousing success.
7. Roberto Osuna’s arrest: There’s not much more to say about this, and yet, there’s so much more to say about this. Ultimately, it’s a moment that snaps you out of the mostly invented drama of a game, and makes you feel uneasy about the hero worship associated with those games.
8. Russell Martin at shortstop: Depending on your point of view, this was a hoot and good fun for the fans, or a sign of desperation unleashed by a desperate manager. Or maybe, most appropriately, it was both.
9. Jose Bautista’s return: He was arguably the most iconic figure in Toronto sports over the past decade. Though he left the city with something of a whimper after the 2017 season, Bautista’s return with the Mets in July was as warm a welcome as a recently departed player has received at Rogers Centre. Many of us were just happy to see him still playing.
10. J.A. Happ’s all-star save: The lone Blue Jay in the mid-summer classic was also clearly in his final days with the team, and nearly didn’t make an appearance. But late inning meltdowns by both bullpens resulted in Happ taking the mound in the 10th with an 8-5 lead. (And promptly giving up a homer to Joey Votto, before closing the game down.)
11. Lourdes Gurriel Jr.’s multi-hit streak: The Cuban rookie’s unlikely 11-game streak of multiple hits in a game is now both the Jays’ franchise record, and an all-time MLB rookie record. Some good luck was involved, but Gurriel also showed impressive bat-to-ball skills that gave reason for optimism going forward.
12. Ryan Borucki’s south side homecoming: Borucki threw six solid innings with two earned runs on six hits and five strikeouts against the Chicago White Sox, the team for which he grew up cheering. Moreover, after some up-and-down outings to start his career, this outing seemed to steady the young lefty for much of the rest of the season, and perhaps solidified his spot in the rotation, both at the time and for 2019.
13. Kendrys Morales’ homer streak: More streaking! Morales began the year in the funkiest of funks, but an impressive August run of seven straight games with a homer turned around the narrative on his season. After his deep spring dip, Morales finished the season with a 112 OPS+, just three points behind Edwin Encarnacion in that category.
14. The Donaldson trade: There are deadlines, and then there was the insanity of the Blue Jays attempting to get Donaldson into a single-A lineup to prove that he was healthy enough to be dealt. Donaldson’s lingering injuries and weather delays nearly scuttled a last minute move to Cleveland. Eventually, a deal was done, a player-to-be-named was returned, and Donaldson detonated some minor explosives to vandalize the bridges behind him on the way out.
15. A Rowdy September: Rowdy Tellez, who had become something of an afterthought as a prospect, became the story of the team down the stretch. After struggling through the death of his mother after a prolonged battle with cancer, Tellez made the most of his September call-up. In his first three games, the first baseman went 6-for-10, with all six hits being doubles. In his fourth game, Tellez broke his doubles streak by parking the ball over the centre-field fence, adding a walk and a single for good measure. Though no one could maintain such a torrid pace, Tellez did finish with a .329 on-base and .614 slugging in 23 games.
16. The kids come back: On Sept. 20, the Blue Jays trailed the frustratingly contending, always-troublesome Tampa Bay Rays 8-2 heading into the ninth inning. With many of the regulars out of the lineup, a rally ignited by Dwight Smith, Tellez, Jonathan Davis, and Danny Jansen narrowed the deficit to 8-6, before a two-run Gurriel homer tied the score, and Justin Smoak walked it off. After a long season, it was good to see that baseball – and the Blue Jays – still had the ability to pleasantly surprise us.
17. Gibby’s goodbye: As far as manager firings go, John Gibbons’ dismissal was treated like something more of a good-spirited wake over the final days of the season. It was a fitting departure for the laid-back skipper, and gave fans an ample opportunity to offer up praise and best wishes as he exited.
18. Tulo’s release: There may yet be another point where we hear the competitive window behind us slam shut yet again, but the outright release of Troy Tulowitzki came with a jarring clatter. It was a move that made sense, and yet still felt somewhat unbelievable when it first popped up in your news feeds. Appropriate enough, considering how Tulo arrived amidst a wave of incredulity, albeit enthusiastic at that time. It’s fair to say that Tulowitzki’s acquisition was a monumental turning point in the history of the franchise. At his debut, 27,060 fans showed up at Rogers Centre to watch a team that was 50-51. Over the next two weeks, the Jays would go 13-1, taking over the AL East lead and packing in more than 46,000 fans for weekday games.
But all that’s over now. And now we remember the good, move past the bad, and look forward to something better soon. Here’s sincerely wishing all of us Blue Jays fans a very happy new year.