It could have been such a grand gesture.
The Toronto Blue Jays entered this off-season amidst a crisis of confidence among their fanbase, brought on by a fourth consecutive demoralizing finish to their season and some misaligned explanations for how it all went wrong. While they entered the offseason with several priorities to shore up their roster, the largest task at hand was rebuilding trust.
There are a few conceivable scenarios that would allow a team to dig themselves out of such a deep hole in one fell swoop. It’s a tribute to the exceptional and unique status of Shohei Ohtani as a transcendent athlete that his signing would certainly have done that. And more.
As the murmurs of the Jays’ interest in Ohtani grew in recent weeks, and the few breadcrumbs of details that dropped indicated that the interest may have been reciprocated, fans’ incredulousness at the notion of this once-in-a-century player coming north of the border began to soften. The reasons why it wouldn’t happen took a backseat in the public discourse to the myriad of reasons why it could or should.
Even as fans were aware that it might be a long shot, and that they shouldn’t let their hearts open too much to the notion, visions of Ohtani in a Blue Jays uniform danced in their heads.
It’s not hyperbole to suggest that Ohtani would have been the single biggest free agent acquisition by a Canadian professional sports team in history. He would have fundamentally changed the direction of the franchise, and the future of the business of sports in Canada.
But beyond that – deeper than that – Ohtani choosing the Blue Jays, Toronto, and Canada, would have provided us all with some of the validation that we as Canadians innately seek from beyond our borders. As American pundits spoke of this market as though it were some NL Central Division outpost, like Milwaukee or Pittsburgh, the desire to see them proven wrong only grew stronger.
It wasn’t just about Ohtani choosing the Blue Jays. It was about him choosing us.
By the time we found ourselves following the flight paths of private jets and willing to believe the sparsest of reports that affirmed his route north, the Japanese slugger-hurler’s decision meant so much more than just a transaction.
From those pitched emotional heights, the fall was always going to be painful. When Ohtani announced on his Instagram account that he intended to sign with the Los Angeles Dodgers for an almost inconceivable amount of money, the thud at the bottom of that fall resonated for Jays fans.
The blowback is still evolving, days later. A potent mix of sadness and disappointment has given way to anger and cynicism. Invective spewed at reporters who got details wrong mixed with conspiracy theories over who was pulling which strings, how the Blue Jays and their fans were used as pawns, and ultimately, the rationale for booing Ohtani when he arrives at Rogers Centre in late April.
If there is any solace for the Blue Jays’ front office, it is that they are only one of many targets for the fans’ ire. But the eyes of many are now turning to Ross Atkins and Mark Shapiro to understand what their plans are now.
In fairness, the Blue Jays are not farther behind today than they were at the outset of the offseason. They still need a left-handed bat, an outfielder, and a third baseman. The market for position players was always thin this off-season, so the options to fill those positions are not markedly worse today than they were a few weeks back.
Moreover, the Jays’ serious pursuit should indicate that they intend to again be a significant player in the free agent market. Unfortunately, there is a steep drop off from signing Shohei Ohtani to cobbling together an offseason haul with the remainder of the players available.
Which raises the question: Is it better to have pursued Ohtani and lost than to have never attempted to sign him?
For a team that desperately needs to rebuild trust with the fanbase, demonstrating the seriousness of your commitment to winning should be seen as a positive. But losing the Ohtani sweepstakes only raises the stakes for every subsequent move and acquisition to come. His success – and that of the Dodgers – will be a measuring stick against which the Blue Jays will be measured.
With that frame of reference, there’s almost nothing the Blue Jays can do from now until the season begins will measure up. Frankly, there might not be anything in the coming decade that will fill the void of what could have been.
Through this monumental pursuit, the stakes have been raised. When the Blue Jays return to the field and begin to play games that matter, the urgency to win and win now has been raised even higher than they were at last season’s painful conclusion.