Brunt: The message is loud and clear

Nathan Denette/CP

The expectations aren’t nearly as high this season, but nobody will be satisfied if this Jays team isn’t a contender

It has been quite the trip.

One year ago, the Toronto Blue Jays entered the season riding a wave of fan excitement following one of the most remarkable winters in the history of the franchise. The Marlins trade, the R.A. Dickey deal, the signing of Melky Cabrera: You know the details, and if you are a Jays supporter, you remember the giddy feeling, one unfamiliar for the better part of two decades.

Ticket sales spiked, television ratings soared for the opener, and then came the cruellest month. By the end of April, heck, it was still early, but as it turned out, the die was cast.

Fast forward to 2014, to another Opening Day, and a dark cloud hangs over a team that, minus Josh Johnson and J.P. Arencibia, is pretty much the same as the one that stirred all of those high hopes. Fans, by definition, are prone to big mood swings, but it’s hard to remember another circumstance in which crazy optimism morphed into relentless pessimism in so short a time.

It’s not all nuttiness. There’s some logic at play here as well.

The Jays’ greatest failing in 2013, other than some godawful fielding and terrible luck with injuries, was the starting rotation, which imploded early and often. The stated goal of GM Alex Anthopoulos heading into the off-season was to rectify that situation.

Pickings were slim on the free-agent front, outside of Japanese star Masahiro Tanaka—and with their self-limiting organizational policy of not offering contracts longer than five years, Toronto was never really a contender for his services.

That left an uninspiring group of free agents—Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez, Ervin Santana, each of them with asterisks attached—or the possibility of a trade, though it’s tough to deal for rotation help without
sacrificing prospects, because teams that consider themselves contenders tend to hold on to their front-line starting pitchers.

Having pillaged the upper reaches of their minor-league system to make those deals with the Marlins and Mets, Anthopoulos didn’t want to go that route again—though given the Jays’ rapidly closing window with this group, and given his own precarious position, it actually wouldn’t have been all that shocking to see him further mortgage the future.

Then nothing happened—beyond the acquisition of catcher Dioner Navarro to replace Arencibia. Lots of speculation, lots of rumour, all followed by silence.

Those same people who had invested so much emotion in the Jays in 2013, who had given themselves over to the team for the first time in years, became impatient, then worried, then cranky, then disenchanted, then cynical, to the point that even during the carefree days of spring training, you could hear the grumbling. It came to a head during the week in March when it appeared the Jays had signed Santana to a one-year deal, only to have him opt for the Atlanta Braves instead. Fan sentiment curdled into anger, all before a single meaningful pitch had been thrown.

That’s a whole lot of goodwill squandered in a mere 12 months.

And that’s in part why this season is not year two of a three-year window in which the Jays hoped to contend. It is not a step toward something else. It is an all-or-nothing proposition, at least for this roster, John Gibbons and Anthopoulos.

If the Jays do not win, or at least if they do not contend, one would suspect they’ll all be gone. That a fire sale of talent will ensue, and a new cast will take over, whose job will be to sell a fresh approach to ownership and to the fan base, assuring both that the elusive brass ring can indeed be grasped.

Is that fair to Anthopoulos, or to Gibbons—who would be the first casualty of a slow start this season and knows it? Not entirely, especially understanding that there are forces in play here beyond their control.

But that’s the message that was delivered to them this spring, and that’s also the business of sports, which isn’t so much driven by
winning—because in the end there can only be one winner—as by belief, by convincing those who have attached themselves to a team that there is a plan, that there is a destiny, that those in charge share their dreams, that if they remain faithful, their faith will eventually be rewarded.

And when the little religion fatally breaks down, there’s nowhere to go other than ritual sacrifice and rebirth.

Either that or a pennant race is coming.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.