In some ways, the start of the 2021 Major League Baseball feels like a return to normal. Or at the very least, an aspiration towards normal. Though at this point, normal is very much an abstract concept.
For Blue Jays fans, the build-up to this season has been years in the making, and the exuberance for this team and this moment is mounting. After some fallow years while the organization regenerated itself following the Bat Flip years, expectations have grown along with the slew of second-generation prospects who have emerged since. Supplemented by significant veteran signings, expectations are understandably high.
In a somewhat refreshing twist considering the general tenor of sports fandom, there’s at least some nuance in the midst of the fervour. While there’s a belief that this is a year where the team evolves from a prospective challenger to a legitimate contender, there’s at least some general acknowledgement that this isn’t the peak for this iteration of the Blue Jays. Still, there’s some sense that we should start to see the peak from here.
It could be that even those of us who are impassioned baseball fans have had the additional perspective from everything that the past year has wrought into every other aspect of our lives seep into that obsession. In spite of the longing for a return to the ordinary, the “everything” isn’t nearly as much in the rearview mirror as many of us would have hoped at this point.
The Blue Jays, by nature of being Canada’s team in America’s game, have always been just slightly askew from the rest of the league. This year, that distinction will be underscored profoundly, on almost every stop along the way. As baseball begins to move towards a full schedule, cross-continental travel and fans in attendance at games, the Blue Jays will remain the outlier.
For all the excitement about this year’s team, they will likely spend most or all of 2021 at a distance from the fans. We’re all excited to see the next level of progression from this team up close, but there will be no early arrivals at the gates near the lakefront to see batting practice. No drummer busking in his Blue Jays gear. No rising to your feet with thousands of strangers to root, root, root for the home team. Home is also an abstract concept for the Blue Jays and their fans lately.
Not that this will diminish what still should be an exciting season for the whole of the fanbase. In truth, many of the Jays’ most ardent followers can go years without stepping foot into the ballpark on Front Street at Blue Jays Way. One of the distinguishing attributes of the team’s supporters is that they are spread from sea to sea to sea, across thousands of kilometres and multiple time zones.
There’s a joyful exuberance that has returned to Blue Jays fandom. A sense that there’s a reason to be excited, not only about the current squad, but also about the next several years.
It’s a team filled with recent graduates from the minor league system that still has enough enticing talent who are also so close to contributing. After several dreadful years on the way to this, Jays fans are shedding our collective sense of dread like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. shed pounds in the offseason. There’s a lightness to us all, and a little extra spring in our step.
It will be a strange collision of thoughts and emotions on many days in the season to come, as we simultaneously ponder and feel the grim realities of the pandemic that will not subside and the reveries of what could be with our favourite pastime.
For an intriguing team with boundless potential, this year’s Blue Jays should draw attention as one of the compelling teams to watch in the game. But their story will also continue to be the daily adversity that they face that no other team in MLB does. In last year’s abbreviated season, they managed to overcome those challenges and made their way into the makeshift postseason tournament. A full six months of improvising normalcy will be another level of challenge for this young team.
The Blue Jays could use those sub-optimal circumstances to make excuses, but part of what endears this year’s team to its fans is its unwillingness to do so. At the heart of this squad is Bo Bichette, who is precociously wise and unabashedly brash, and his fighting spirit is a beacon for fans who might need to believe that something better is on the way.
This season for the Blue Jays will be about many happy returns: A return to normalcy, a return to contention, and in our fondest hopes, a return home to Canadian soil.