Last night, I went to the first four innings of the Toronto Blue Jays/Oakland Athletics game at SkyD…sorry, Rogers Centre, then bailed early to drive up to Branksome Hall for a dodgeball game. It was the twenty-sixth home game I’ve attended thus far this season, and during the past three months me and my regular assortment of baseball cohorts have watched the Toronto Blue Jays somehow, inexplicably, wind up in a pennant race. Sure, some observers are claiming that the Blue Jays are overachieving wildly–but the fact remains that, in an ultra-competitive American League, they’re doing more than anybody could have reasonably expected of them in 2005. The team’s glaring needs should be obvious to anybody who’s been watching them so far this year–namely, a solid starting pitcher and a batter who can drive in runs–but beyond that, here are the top five things I’ve been noticing so far:
- Our bullpen is our salvation. Gone are the dark days in which Juan Acevedo or Kerry Lightenberg would trot out to the mound, give up nineteen runs in two-thirds of an inning and force utility infielder Frank Menechino to record the final out (don’t laugh, it’s happened). This year’s Blue Jays bullpen has been solid all year; particularly impressive have been Jason Frasor and the Pete Walker show, while Scot Schoenweis and Justin Speier have done good situational work. Sure, Miguel Batista is a gong show 50% of the times he comes in to nail down a win, but still, this unit has come a long way.
- Aaron Hill is for real. When Corey Koskie went down with a broken thumb and Aaron Hill was hastily called up from AAA Syracuse, most of Toronto’s fifteen remaining baseball fans held our collective breath…and then watched as Hill went 2-for-4 in his big league debut and turned into the Blue Jays’ most reliable hitter. His numbers might have fallen off slightly in recent weeks–when last I checked he was batting .347–but the fact remains that Hill has been a major revelation, and that without his hitting the Jays would be in serious trouble. The question now is, how will John Gibbons deal with him when Koskie returns from the DL?
- Would the real Ted Lilly please stand up? I’ve been at enough games this season to have witnessed both extremes of Ted Lilly–the dizzying heights (his ownership of the Baltimore Orioles and Washington Expos), the terrifying lows (games against Chicago and New York in which he might have totalled three total innings), and seldom anything in between. John Gibbons has stated time and time again that the Blue Jays need Lilly to star if they’re to make a serious run at the playoffs this year; I think all fifteen area baseball fans would wholeheartedly agree.
- Russ Adams cannot–I repeat, cannot–end the season as our team’s RBI leader. Okay, so Vernon Wells is actually the new team leader…but going into last night’s game, Russ Adams–Russ Adams!–was leading the Blue Jays in runs batted in. Wells, meanwhile, is the ultimate stats padder: he’s great to have up to bat in a five-run game, but utterly useless in the clutch (and yes, I know what he did last night–even if I didn’t actually witness it, since I’d already left). Right now, the Jays have a lot of players with 30-40 RBIs; according to statistics, however, teams that finish the year without a single player with 80 or more RBIs seldom finish above .500. Bottom line: Toronto needs a slugger–badly, although who it might be and where he might fit in I do not know.
- We go as far as Roy Halladay’s arm will carry us. This should be sufficiently self-explanatory…let’s move on, shall we?
Meanwhile, I’ve also spent enough time at SkyD…sorry, Rogers Centre this year to offer the following five points on the current baseball experience in Toronto:
- There are fifteen real baseball fans left in Toronto: me; Adam; Jamie; that guy who sat next to us at Tuesday’s game with the Red Sox cap; that crazy dude in the 500 level who passes out free stickers; the two old women sitting in front of us last night who tried starting a Frank Menechino cheer (he struck out); Jeff Whatley; the vendor who hisses “iiiiiiiiiice…coooooooooold…beeeeeeeeer!” (you’ve got to assume that he and Gregg Zaun are hitting the town after home losses); the drummer (who actually works for the team, according to Saj); John Gibbons (I’m pretty sure he’s just some derranged fan who somehow stumbled into the manager’s job…I mean, how else to explain it?); the kid who inexplicably owns not one, but two Josh Tower replica jerseys; Sherkin; Justin Hui; Andy Young; and Ricky the Usher. Other than that, everybody else at the Rogers Centre is there to see Ryan Greer. And speaking of him…
- Die, Jay Force, die. Baseball is not “street”…well, apart from Orlando Hudson, whose presence doesn’t even come close to making up for the likes of Aaron Hill, Corey Koskie, Eric Hinske (who probably traps his own venison), Jason Fraser and Gregg Zaun, among others. Remember when the Toronto Star ran that ridiculous article about the Toronto White Jays? I don’t give any credence to it whatsoever–but it was bang on in that sense that this team is about as street as a Hilary Duff movie. So then why are the Blue Jays aggressively trying to market baseball as a “street” sport? And moreover, why is every facet of the game being marketed? I mean seriously, right now there’s more advertising at the Rogers Centre than on a European hockey jersey. The FedEx game ball delivery? The Staples relay? The Klondike fan of the game? Among many, many others? I mean, the only way this can possibly end is with the players getting corporate nicknames. “Now batting for Toronto: the centre fielder, #10, Vernon “The Condom Shack” Wells!” All this has merely reaffirmed my belief that the 50,000+ fans who were packing SkyDome (when it was actually called SkyDome) back in early nineties weren’t actual baseball fans, but rather members of the most overcrowded bandwagon in Canadian sports history. Now that the Jays aren’t winning back-to-back titles, the team is being forced to market itself to a group of fans who don’t really know the history of the sport, or even of the team itself. I feel like Tom Cruise: “You don’t know the history of the Blue Jays–I do!”
- Scoring games rules! If you’ve ever met Jeff Whatley, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that he scores every single game he attends…and somehow, he’s roped me in to the extent that I’m searching out a scoring book for the second half of the season. In unrealted news, I graduated a virgin.
- Saj’s hatred from a certain vendor is legit. Saj is, without a doubt, the most irrational human being alive–yet his hatred for a certain vendor is 100% legit, and it’s gotten to the point where Saj has Andy hating on him as well. In fact no, sir, I don’t want yours popcoannnnnnnn, licorisssse, emememmmmms or peanisssss. (Honourable mention to that circus midget who sells programs and other assorted souvenirs.)
- I miss 50,000+. Okay, so only fifteen of them were actual baseball fans. At least they gave the stadium a semblance of atmosphere–something it’s sorely missing these days. Then again, at the rate things are going right now, come September they might all be coming back. Is 50,000 bandwagon jumpers worth a post-season berth? Almost as certainly as a Vernon Wells strikeout with runners in scoring position.