It’s the 20th of April 2004. On the back of Ed Belfour, the Toronto Maple Leafs have beaten the Ottawa Senators in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Conference Quarterfinals. But this is a baseball story, why is that relevant? Because that was the last time a professional team in Toronto won a playoff round.
Rewind further to October 20th, 1993, the last memory of the playoffs for Toronto Blue Jays fans. It was the greatest home run hit in franchise history. Joe Carter sent one over the tall padded fences of the (then) Skydome in front of 52,000 fans who collectively lost their minds. Little did they know that would be the end of the golden age of baseball in Toronto.
Two of the cities pro teams didn’t even exist back then, with the Toronto Raptors still two years away and Major League Soccer, nevermind Toronto FC, not even a thought in people’s minds.
The trek that Toronto sports fans have taken since those years of back-to-back World Series titles has been long and hard.
From inception in 1977, Blue Jays fans had hope in droves, paying off with an American League East win in 1985. It came at a time when only four teams made the playoffs. For fans, it seemed like a pretty quick rise to victory.
Successive winning campaigns continued with the team taking the AL East again in 1989, 1991 and then World Series wins in 1992 and 1993. Those wins had the city packing record amounts of people into a new stadium that was built on the backs of the success. The record for attendance in a season set by Blue Jays fans stood for 12 years.
But that was it. The baseball strike came and the World Series greats had lost their sparkle. The same team came back ,but it was a terrible season and it was time to rebuild. Legends had to move on.
Along the way, the team changed hands a number of times, seeing budgets go up and down and GMs come and go. The excuse of playing in baseball’s toughest division, the American League East, had become the commonplace anthem at the end of disappointing seasons. The New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox were big market teams that spent to the moon and baseball’s competitive system was broken.
The fans had been sold (or sold themselves) on Toronto being a small market team that would have to catch onto the hope of being lucky to catch one of the other two giants sleeping. That was despite being one of the largest markets in North America. Then came the Tampa Bay Rays to disprove that. The glimmer of hope was diminishing and legitimate worries of losing an entire generation of baseball fans in the city had set in.
Saviors had been recruited along the way. Roger Clemens had arguably his best two seasons in a (hideous) Jays uniform, but that didn’t make a difference.
The list of players, brought in or homegrown, who would be propped up as Messianic figures to lead the Jays out of the desert and back to greatness came and went. Jose Canseco, B.J. Ryan, Troy Glaus, Shawn Green, Vernon Wells, a Cy Young-winning Pat Hentgen, Adam Lind, Aaron Hill, Scott Rolen, A.J. Burnett and others came and went. As did Blue Jays greats Carlos Delgado and Roy Halladay, who saw their day in the Toronto sun (or under the domed roof) and all were part of teams that languished out of the playoffs despite individual success.
The team even tried to reinvent their look along the way. A failed experiment in trying to modernize a team in a sport that prides itself on tradition.
J.P. Ricciardi was brought in as a student of moneyball and his never ending five-year plan was supposed to bring change to the team. Fans were given hope that no matter the budget, they could compete with the big guns. Eventually, his hype died off and he was relieved to let rookie GM Alex Anthopoulos engineer the trade of one of the team’s greatest pitchers, Roy Halladay, out of town so he could have his desired chance to win a championship. To some, the Jays had resorted to an unproven GM in Anthopoulos who got his start in baseball begging for a job in the Montreal Expos parking lot.
Along the way, the other pro teams in the city also struggled. The Maple Leafs have never been the same since the NHL instituted a salary cap and their last playoff round ended with a Game 7 collapse to the Boston Bruins that had fans literally crying in the streets.
Toronto FC have never made the playoffs. Ever. Since 2006.
The NBA’s Raptors have had a couple of division titles, with their seasons then ending in quick (and sometimes ugly) playoff runs. The hope and fandom is certainly there now with the NBA team but they’re not one of the leagues elite by any stretch. The fans flooded the streets for the Raptors. They wer the first competitive team the city had in a long time. The sports beast had been awakened and everyone saw how bad this city was clamoring for a winner.
Despite the plethora of proclaimed potential heros along the way, this 2015 Blue Jays team’s formation started August 21st, 2008. Along came a player who up to that point had been a Rule 5 draft claim, waived and traded around the league through five different teams and at 27 was playing for $1.8 million and his future career in the league. He was traded by the Pittsburgh Pirates for a player who would play a total of 41 career MLB games.
The Blue Jays had brought Jose Bautista to town.
There was no big press conference. There was no hope. He wasn’t a “face of the franchise” type player. Just a good fielder with a little bit of pop that filled some needed holes on the roster.
Then things started to change. Bautista transformed into one of the most feared power hitters in the game. And he didn’t leave. He stayed, signed an extension and the Jays had caught lightning in a bottle.
The team abused the draft process and filled the farm with picks (both regular and compensation picks cleverly acquired). Players like Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow were brief glimmers of something more but fizzled away.
There were times where people talked more about Tommy John more than Cy Young with the pitching staff but Alex Anthopoulos had a plan in place.
Edwin Encarnación became the “2” in a 1-2 power hitting punch after being part of the trade that saw Scott Rolen leave Toronto.
The pieces were coming together, the hype was building but the results weren’t there yet.
Then came one of the lower points in franchise history. John Farrell, the team’s manager, asked to leave town to go to the division rival Red Sox.
Social media, newspaper columns, blogs and even mom and dad on the phone thought the writing was on the wall. Any hope was fading and this wasn’t a sign of good things coming the Jays way. John Gibbons returned to manage the team after a meeting with Anthopoulos. He had a sub-.500 record as a manager and was coaching in San Antonio for a team Jays fans had never heard of before. The grip the Blue Jays had on their fanbase felt maybe as tenuous as ever.
Then came the big trade. The chips that were stacked through drafting, development and acquisitions along the way were getting cashed in. In came reinforcements from the Marlins along with the reigning National League Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey. It could be argued that Farrell leaving ended up being a good thing because it may have applied the pressure for the Jays to make a big move.
The hype and hope returned to the hearts of Toronto fans. The season was a disaster but along the way people had always said “if this could happen…” or “if they could grab a good…” the team could be great. The next season had the team climb back above .500 and many believed the team could turn the corner.
Those “ifs” became the new reality as “double A” revamped his team. In came Toronto born (and perennial playoff player) Russell Martin and via trade for Brett Lawrie, came Josh Donaldson. They arrived, as did Marco Estrada, Michael Saunders and Devon Travis through trades and Chris Colabello and Justin Smoak off the waiver wire. The team and clubhouse had changed drastically but a new core had been formed and could it hit!
But the doubt was still there. Young superstar-to-be and planned opening day starter Marcus Stroman blew out his knee on a fielding drill. New team mate Michael Saunders tore his knee to shreds on a sprinkler head in the field. Even Kevin Pillar ended up hurt from a sneeze. This was starting to feel more like a curse. Ritualistic sacrifices were planned and exorcisms were requested.
The team started the season with a group of either very young or very old pitchers they hoped would lead them to the promised land.
At the All-Star break they were a team that had lost a lot of 1-run games and flirted with .500 despite an extremely potent lineup. The city was preparing for the worst. Another team of talented players, flawed in one place, destined to finish out of the post season. I had even wrote that maybe they should consider becoming sellers at the deadline.
As hope was lying on a stretcher on life support, the city was dealing with a Maple Leafs team that was a total disaster and a Raptors team that had just been embarrassingly swept out of the NBA playoffs. Toronto sports fans had settled into accepting that this, once again, was not their year with no real idea of when “that year” would come.
Alex Anthopoulos saw more. He still had faith in the team. They had shown the ability to blow the doors off opposing pitching. They hadn’t put themselves out of contention, they just weren’t a threat yet. Talent had got them this far but they needed a leap of faith.
The hope that came out of the darkness was one of the most impressive sets of trade deadline acquisitions ever assembled. In came David Price, the team’s first true ace since “Doc” Halladay and Troy Tulowitzki, a player the Jays passed over once upon a time to draft Ricky Romero (“Tulo” went the pick after Romero). Along with a full set of soldiers to fill voids or improve different aspects of the game, the Blue Jays had arrived.
Rogers Centere tickets couldn’t be had. Season ticket holders became everyone’s best friend. Jerseys, hats and t-shirts were bought or dusted off and the sleeping giant that was the Blue Jays fanbase came alive in full force. A fanbase that was now truly a national one after the team had done years of coast-to-coast fan events and tours, not taking anyone in the country for granted. 35 million people were all courted to cheer for one team.
Famously, during their run in 1992, then Blue Jay Dave Winfield once asked fans to get off their hands and cheer. The city had become accustomed to winning and were criticized for being too quiet and not hyped enough for what was happening.
This 2015 edition of the team had ESPN technical staff saying they’ve never recorded a crowd as loud as the one at the Rogers Centre. Ratings were off the charts across Canada.
But there was still some doubt, they had a lot of ground to make up the winning streaks alone wouldn’t be enough. They would have to play well above where they had been to challenge the division leading Yankees.
Heroes and saviors had arrived before, but this team had the longest streak of not making the playoffs of any team in pro sports. Fans feared they knew what their hope would deliver at the seasons end. After getting coal in their stockings for years, it was hard to imagine there would be a present waiting for them.
The win streaks, the outrageous power output, the return of Marcus Stroman along with the ace performance of David Price, the dominance of the Yankees head to head, capped with an MVP caliber performance from Josh Donaldson had all led to one day. The day when hope and faith became the 2015 American League East champs.
Stories that had been told by people who remember “Timlin to Carter” or the famous “touch ‘em all Joe” radio call from Hall of Famer Tom Cheek became a real possibility for millions of fans who have never even seen this team play a postseason game.
No one knows what tomorrow will bring, but for now hope reigns supreme in the hearts of Toronto sports fans. They believe in this team and as the victory champagne sprayed in the locker room dries up, Toronto and all of Canada have locked in for the next big step: hoping they can watch a Toronto Blue Jays team, once again, win it all.