Blue Jays finally give fans new memories to savour

It's been 22 years since the Toronto Blue Jays had a banner year. And now, for the fans and players, a new moment has come.

BALTIMORE – Some fans can finally say it for the first time. Others, after a wait far longer than they care to remember, can say it for the first time since 1993. Now they can all say it, after 21 angst-filled years with so little to celebrate they may be tempted to scream it, and celebrate it, and at long, long last savour a new set of memories.

The 2015 Toronto Blue Jays – American League East champions.

A 15-2 victory over the Baltimore Orioles in the first game of a single-admission doubleheader Wednesday, behind eight dominant innings from Marcus Stroman and the offence’s 26th double-digit run outburst this year, delivered what had become inevitable, the sixth division crown in team history.

The B squad lost the nightcap 8-1, dropping them to 92-66, one game up on the 91-67 Kansas City Royals for the best record in the American League.

“It still feels like a dream, to be honest with you,” Stroman, who tore the ACL in his left knee early in the spring and returned September, said. “How everything played out from the beginning of this season and being in this position to help my team clinch, it’s been a journey, it’s been a special ride. I’m just thankful for everybody who helped me get to this point. …

“It’s been a really long time since this city has been to the playoffs, so to do it for the city of Toronto and to do it with this group of guys, it’s been a dream come true.”

Like last weekend’s clinching of a wild-card berth, discovered only in the middle of the night when a group of fans realized the scheduling conflicts of the AL West teams rendered the magic number moot, this one was a little awkward, as the second half of a twin-bill prevented an immediate blowout.

They made up for it afterwards, with three laundry carts filled with empty champagne and beer bottles.

“We wish we could have done this in between games, but obviously that wasn’t going to work out, unless they wanted to have the people playing drunk,” said Jose Bautista, who hit his 40th homer of the season in the opener. “We couldn’t do that, so we had to wait until this, and even though we took a loss in the second game, this is our time to celebrate. …

“It has been a long time coming,” he added. “The city hasn’t had the best of luck with any of the professional sports teams. We’re the second, because the Raptors made it to the playoffs (the last two years), but hopefully we get to go a little deeper and bring the championship home.”

Still after the first game they at least had time to charge out to the field, dogpile on the mound and exchange hugs before the several hundred elated Blue Jays fans in attendance at Camden Yards. In the ninth inning they chanted, “Thank you, Alex,” to general manager Alex Anthopoulos, who sat behind the dugout along with assistant GMs Tony LaCava and Andrew Tinnish, special assistant Dana Brown, pro scouting director Perry Minasian and other front office members.

“Our fan base is amazing to see,” said Anthopoulos. “I still get blown away when we go on the road, we’re going all over the place and the turnout of the fans the last three years has been amazing to see.

“It was great, it was a little weird, I know you want to smile and it’s nice, you’re definitely grateful, it’s a little odd,” he added about the chant. “You’re not a player, you certainly don’t expect that, but their support has been great. I can’t say enough about that.”

The bigger party started after the second game, and it’s a safe bet that the lineup for Thursday’s series finale, advanced seven hours to 12:05 p.m. ET because of inclement weather, will be a mess.

It’s all good, Blue Jays players, employees and fans have earned the right to arrive for work with a severe headache.

Since clinching their fifth AL East title on Monday, Sept. 27, 1993 with a 2-0 victory over the Milwaukee Brewers at County Stadium – behind 6.2 shutout innings from Pat Hentgen and a solo shot by Paul Molitor – the Blue Jays used 710 different players, 465 position players and 245 pitchers, over the 3,343 games before Wednesday’s clinch.

Over that time, the club’s ownership went from Labatt to Interbrew, the Belgian beer-maker that purchased the Canadian brewery, to Rogers Communications Inc.

The general managers went from Pat Gillick, to Gord Ash, to J.P. Ricciardi to Anthopoulos, while the run of managers went Cito Gaston, Tim Johnson, Jim Fregosi, Buck Martinez, Carlos Tosca, John Gibbons, Gaston again, John Farrell and, finally, Gibbons for the repeat.

“It’s the ultimate right now,” said Gibbons. “To be honest, we think we have more ahead of us, we really do. It was a big hurdle to get over. It had been so damn long.”

Over that time, dominant season after dominant season from franchise cornerstones like Carlos Delgado and Roy Halladay all went to waste, both of them never getting closer than a sniff of the post-season while in Toronto.

Eventually, an institutional rot set in, one that at long last has been flushed out.

“It comes down to better players and more of them,” said Gibbons. “For a lot of that stretch, when I’ve been here anyway, it was always the Yankees and Red Sox heads above everyone else, those were the two teams battling out there at the end. This year, the difference that’s been made, we added some top-notch players that put us in this spot.”

What’s made this season all more remarkable is that last winter attempts were made to hire Ken Williams of the Chicago White Sox and Dan Duquette of the Orioles to replace Paul Beeston as president, with an eye toward looking over the shoulder of Anthopoulos.

Neither worked out, and Anthopoulos pulled off a masterful year of general managing, stealing sure AL MVP Josh Donaldson from the Oakland Athletics and signing free agent Russell Martin to an $82-million, five-year contract before orchestrating perhaps the best non-waiver trade deadline in baseball history.

In the span of five days, Anthopoulos acquired Troy Tulowitzki, LaTroy Hawkins, David Price, Mark Lowe and Ben Revere, each playing an instrumental role in the club’s 43-16 run since July 26. Even more impressive is that Anthopoulos made the moves without any extra allocations to the team’s budget.

He never stopped pushing, either, getting Cliff Pennington in early August when it became evident second baseman Devon Travis wouldn’t return from his shoulder injury and then adding Darwin Barney in September the day after Tulowitzki suffered a crack in his shoulder blade.

“People are scared to make moves at times because you don’t know if it’s going to jell,” said Tulowitzki. “In our case, it’s one of those few circumstances where everything worked out and it made our team that much better.”

It’s as professional and determined group as they’ve had since the World Series years, marked change from the teams of the past few seasons.

“When you reflect on some of the teams of the past, even last year, we were in first place for quite a bit, then a lot of guys got hurt, I felt we had talented teams and what was the piece we didn’t have?” said Anthopoulos. “The more we self-analyzed and we reviewed it, we felt that was the one element we might need to place a little more emphasis on. …

“It was challenging because we really wanted to stay diligent with the philosophy and at times, we thought about bending a little bit, but we didn’t, and I’m proud of our group that we stayed with it the entire way.”

The philosophy?

“It’s production and talent, first and foremost, you can have a team with great guys that aren’t productive that’s not going to matter,” said Anthopoulos. “Caring about the game, the importance of winning, commitment, self-starters, being good teammates, guys that can make other players around them improve as well, there’s something to be said about that. There’s a long list, and it’s not necessarily a manual, but the more work do, you become more specific with it, and we stayed with it. We started in the off-season and even through the trade deadline, we stayed with it, we were very selective.”

Added Gibbons: “The character end of it, for me, you’ve got guys that just keep pushing. They’re not necessarily better guys, they’ve just got a different mentality.”

The promising hire of Mark Shapiro to replace Beeston at season’s end has positioned the Blue Jays to firmly leave their years of dysfunction behind and forge an even more successful path forward, but first Anthopoulos, whose contract expires at the end of October, must be extended.

Reaching terms shouldn’t be hard – Anthopoulos has earned the three or four guaranteed years that is industry standard, along with the autonomy to operate independently, but under Shapiro’s guidelines.

It’s on both sides not to screw this up, especially when the team can definitively turn the corner for years to come.

The best part for the Blue Jays is that there’s the potential for so much more in the days to come, with a lead over the Royals for best record, and therefore home-field advantage, throughout the playoffs, and then in the post-season itself.

“This is the best I’ve felt going into the post-season,” said Martin. “We’re dangerous offensively, we’re dangerous on the mound, we play awesome defence. If somebody’s going to beat us, they’re going to have to play tremendously well. And even then I don’t know if it can happen.

“The confidence feels pretty good right now.”

There’s no more need to live in the glories of the past, or in the hopes for the future. These Blue Jays are carving a new chapter in franchise lore.

It’s about time.

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