My first ever baseball game was a 2003 matchup between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks at Dodgers Stadium. I went with my aunt and cousins, who are mostly Dodgers fans. I enjoyed the game, even though we left in the 7th inning. I didn’t understand why we did that until a year later, after attending a Dodgers-Expos game, when we were stuck in traffic for over an hour.
Anyway, in 2004, I went to my first Blue Jays game. It’s a shame that I don’t remember all the details, since it was not a memorable game and my interest in sports was in its infancy. All I remembered was the Jays losing. I was living in Camarillo, California, at the time, visiting family members in Toronto. Next year, for my birthday, my family gave me a package for the 2005 season, where I could go to 10 Blue Jays games. This was something I would cherish for a long time. Two of those 10 games would spark my interest in the Jays, even before I moved to Toronto in 2006.
On July 28, 2005, I attended what was at the time the longest game in Blue Jays history. An 18-inning affair against the Angels, one of two of my hometown’s team at the time. Although the Angels represented my home city, I felt the energy in the stadium and rooted for the Blue Jays. After 14 innings, I had to leave (I was young at the time and my family expected me home at a specific time). I came home and realized that the game was still going. As I watched, I witnessed Shea Hillenbrand walk it off for the Jays against Scot Shields. Current Jays pitching coach Pete Walker was the winning pitcher of that game.
The other game was on August 10, 2005, the last game of my 10-game package. It was a matchup between the Jays and Tigers. For most fans, it would seem to be a game where nothing special happened. For me? It was the first game I ever witnessed a walk-off home run, coming off the bat of Orlando Hudson. The energy I got from this game continued into 2006, where I made Toronto my permanent residence. As well, I finally found an MLB team to root for. I felt closer to this team than I ever did with the Dodgers or Angels. The Jays would finish this season 2nd in the AL East, their first season finishing higher than 3rd place in the division since 1993. Roy Halladay was a treat to watch, instantly becoming my favorite player on the team and in the league. Optimism was sky high!
Then, 2007 came and went. In 2008, I was hopeful with Cito’s return, being the young fan that I was at the time. Dustin McGowan and Shaun Marcum showed promise, until injuries came in. In 2009, the Jays would constantly frustrate me with their mediocrity, inconsistency, injuries, and wasting the years that Doc was here. I knew his time with the Jays was over, but I wished the Jays made it at least one year while he was here. Instead, he was traded to the Phillies for a package that has now (sort of) become Kyle Drabek (bust), R.A. Dickey (still with the team), Josh Thole (still with the team), and Devon Travis (promising 2B).
However, during those years of disappointment, something was quietly building in the shadows. In 2008, J.P. Ricciardi traded "Catcher of the Future" Robinzon Diaz for a little-known 27 year-old utility player named Jose Bautista from the Pittsburgh Pirates. I’ll admit, I was not a fan of the trade at the time, but more on the results of that trade later. In 2009, during his last hurrah as the Jays general manager, Ricciardi traded Scott Rolen for Edwin Encarnacion, Josh Roenicke, and Zach Stewart. The prize at the time was thought to be pitching prospect Zach Stewart, highly touted at the time. Everyone else was an afterthought. More on this later! Right before the season ended, Ricciardi was fired and replaced with the young Alex Anthopoulos.
2010 arrives, and so does Jose Bautista with his new swing. Going from 13 home runs in 2009 to 54(!) in 2010, it swept everyone by surprise. People thought it was merely a hot streak. He kept hitting. People thought pitchers would adjust to him. He kept hitting. People thought he was having a fluke season on par with Brady Anderson’s 1996 season. He still kept hitting. As he continued hitting dingers, people tried to explain away his sudden improvements with the bat, ranging from luck to steroids. Eventually, people came to accept Jose Bautista for who he was – an all-star power bat with a great arm. He proved everybody wrong, including myself.
As well, 2010 showed us excellent performances from Brandon Morrow, whose 17-strikeout near no-hitter gave Jays fans a glance of his potential. Ricky Romero played his best season as a Jay. Shaun Marcum returned from Tommy John surgery with an excellent season (3.6 fWAR; 195.1 IP). In the offseason, AA made headlines with a shocking trade. He traded Vernon Wells and his "untradeable" contract to the Angels for something. As much as I liked Vernon Wells and his personality, I knew his contract was an issue.
In comes 2011, with John Farrell as the new manager of the team. During the offseason, there was hope on the horizon as Shaun Marcum was traded for Canadian "super-prospect" Brett Lawrie. Again, there was hope on the horizon, but not in the way fans expected it to go down and both times directly/indirectly involving the same team.
Edwin Encarnacion was claimed off waivers in November of 2010 by the Oakland Athletics. The A’s non-tendered his contract, rendering him a free agent. He proceeded to sign and 1-year deal with the Blue Jays, much to the chagrin of Jays fans. I thought he was just here to play 3B while Lawrie developed in the minor leagues. His glove at third did not inspire confidence in me, even though I thought his bat was decent. Plus, Lawrie’s play in the minors and brief stint with the team gave me hope that he would be the Jays 3B of the future.
Then, 2012 arrives, and so does Edwin Encarnacion. After hitting 42 home runs and having a 4.3 fWAR season, I couldn’t have been more excited. Watching two diamonds in the rough blossom was something incredible to experience. Suddenly, the Jays have two threats in the lineup, both of whom almost nobody believed in.
The momentum continued into the offseason, where Alex Anthopoulos made two big splashes. First, he traded away Yunel Escobar, Henderson Alvarez, and prospects for Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, and Emilio Bonifacio. Immediately afterwards, I get the shock of my life as he trades away two top prospects (Noah Syndergaard and Travis d’Arnaud) for Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey. John Gibbons re-hired as Jays manager, much to the shock of many. I was so surprised and overwhelmed by the news, how could I not get swept up by the hype this offseason created? Here's my alternate take on that offseason.
As 2013 approaches, I nervously await the team making a run for the postseason for the first time since 1993. There was so much hope going into that season. Then, in his 10th game of the season, Jose Reyes goes on the DL for more than 2 months. This was just a part of the disappointment that was the 2013 season, finishing last place in the division.
2014 would be slightly better. What made it promising, however, was Marcus Stroman. His arsenal would baffle batters in a way I hadn’t seen since Doc. Hutchison showed potential, too.
The offseason would kick-off with a major trade – Josh Donaldson to the Jays for Brett Lawrie and prospects. Then, the Jays sign Russell Martin to a 5-year contract and trade J.A. Happ for Michael Saunders. The hype was rising again, but after my experience in 2013 I was cautious.
Finally, we arrive to 2015, which started off with horrible news – Marcus Stroman likely out for the season with an ACL tear, which occurred during a measly bunting drill. Then, an injury to Michael Saunders. At this point, all the hope drained away from me. So many years of frustrations and disappointments with the team’s performance did a major toll on me, reducing my motivation to watching Jays games to almost zero.
During the first half of the season, the team played pretty well, but their record wasn’t showing it. Unlike previous seasons, however, they were actually not too far behind in the playoff race. Still, I was cautious with this team. I didn’t want another heartbreak. I knew the kind of season Josh Donaldson was having was magical, as well as Devon Travis performing far beyond expectations, but I felt it would just become another good year wasted. That was, until the trade deadline.
Boom! Troy Tulowitzki!
Boom! David Price!
Boom! Ben Revere!
After these trades, I knew the Jays meant business. Boy howdy, did they mean business! The Jays went from 50-51 at the trade deadline to finishing with a 93-win season, their best season since 1993. Suddenly, no pitcher wanted to face this team. The team overcame injuries to Devon Travis and Troy Tulowitzki with the play of Ryan Goins. Even though the Jays were 8.0 GB at the time of the Tulowitzki trade, they figured the wild card wasn’t enough – they wanted the division! As such, the Jays played a 2nd half rarely seen in baseball, storming past the Yankees and clinching the AL East in Baltimore!
Josh Donaldson even hit a walk-off home run in the final home game of the regular season:
The next step – Playoffs!
As soon as I heard that the Jays would face off against the Rangers in the ALDS, I thought it may be an easy matchup even with their recent hot streak. The Rangers rotation mostly consisted of left-handed pitchers, which is not the recipe for success against a righty-heavy lineup. I was wrong.
Prior to Game 1, I was nervous as heck. I can’t imagine how nervous David Price and the team was on the field. The team takes the field, I’m pumped up for the first playoff Jays game I have ever watched, and… Jays lose 5-3. Just like that, the Jays were down 1-0 to the Rangers. David Price struggled against the Rangers lineup. However, still hopeful, I thought the team would take Game 2 and win it in Texas.
Instead, I got a more frustrating Game 2, both from the calls and the play on the field. Marcus Stroman pitched a good game, but the lead was erased in the 8th inning when Mike Napoli drove in the game-tying run. Just to add insult to injury (no pun intended), Brett Cecil gets Mike Napoli in a run-down, but tears his calf in the process. Suddenly, the Jays only lefty relief pitcher is Aaron Loup. I had to leave after the 9th inning, as I had to take a bus to Toronto. That was the most nerve-wracking bus ride of my life, only to end in despair when I learned that the Rangers took a 6-4 lead in the top of the 14th inning after a controversial call. 2-0 Rangers. While on the bus, I told my partner, "It’s over." Even though he tried to comfort me by telling me there were still 3 games remaining, I knew the chances were low. Less than 20%, more precisely. I had never watched a Toronto sports team win a playoff series, and I felt that would continue after this series was over.
Game 3 arrives, and so do Marco Estrada and Troy Tulowitzki. 2-1 Rangers. A little hope, especially with Derek Holland pitching the next game, but still down. In comes Game 4, and the bats surge for 3 home runs in the first 3 innings by Josh Donaldson, Chris Colabello, and Kevin Pillar. 2-2 tie heading back to the Rogers Centre. Suddenly, my hopes are up again, even with Price out for Game 5 after 3 innings of relief in Game 4.
As Game 5 nears, I check the pitching matchup to see whether either pitcher statistically matches up well or poorly against the opposing lineup. The numbers seemed to be slightly in the Jays favour, but I also knew that Cole Hamels would not be easy. Still, I had hope Marcus Stroman would help this team move on into the ALCS.
The first 5 innings of the game were somewhat frustrating, especially with the botched strike call to Troy Tulowitzki with men on first and second, none out. Rangers come out to an early 2-0 lead on a Fielder RBI and a Choo solo home run. I knew the Jays had the offense to come back, but I was still worried. Then, Encarnacion’s moon shot tied the ball game, giving me hope again.
That hope was temporarily diminished in the top of the 7th inning, when a fluke play allowed Odor to score from 3rd base (ruled an error on the catcher). Initially, the umpire ruled the play dead, but they convened and overturned the call allowing Odor to score. The Rogers Centre crowd was livid, throwing beer cans onto the field, even hitting children in the lower deck. I tweeted my thought on the whole series of events:
Not like this— y - AND (@Frag_IDMA) October 14, 2015
Sanchez ended that inning with a strikeout to Choo, and I thought that was it. Luckily, that ended quickly in the bottom-half of that inning, when Andrus/Moreland committed 3-straight errors to load the bases. Donaldson tied the game with an RBI "fielder’s choice", which Odor should have caught. Jose Bautista to the plate, with men on 1st and 3rd, 2 outs, where history was made:
I jumped out of my sofa and nearly hit the light above me. My screams were heard all across my house. I didn’t care. I knew I just experienced something I have only read about in books or watched in old clips. I always heard my aunt’s story of how she felt when watching the 1988 Dodgers win the World Series, and I wanted to experience that myself. It felt like almost 10 years of frustration, disappointment, and despair as a Jays and Leafs fan washed away with his home run, the so-called ‘Bat Flip Heard around the World’. This was the moment I had been waiting for my whole life as a baseball fan, and the playoffs are not even over yet. That inning, "The Big 7th" as I would call it, will never be forgotten. It may not be the Joe Carter or the Kirk Gibson walk-off home runs, but it was a special home run to me.
Of course, the Jays had to finish the game. 20 year-old Roberto Osuna comes into the game with two men on, one out. He finishes off the game with 4 strikeouts in 5 batters, and the Jays comeback from a 2-0 deficit was complete.
They are now heading to Kansas City to face-off against the Royals in the American League Championship Series, a "rematch" of the 1985 ALCS. I will root for the Jays throughout these playoffs and beyond. Even if the team loses to the Royals, this season has been a magical one. I hope the rest of you, especially younger Jays fans, will cherish it as much as I will. This is a season that doesn’t happen too often, especially in Toronto.
I wish the Jays the best of luck in the ALCS and, hopefully, beyond that. I only wonder how much my heart can handle more playoff baseball.
GO JAYS GO!