On Thursday, I'm going to get to see something I haven't seen, well, something none of us have seen, in 22 years.
It has been a long time since the Jays have won the AL East. If you would have told me, back in 1993, that I would have to wait 22 years to see it again, I wouldn't have believed you. Back in 1993, we had finished first 5 times in the previous 9 years, and when we didn't win, we were generally in the race. The team was very well run. The Skydome was new and was sold out every game. We didn't think it would end.
Not only did the good times end, but they ended with a thump.
1994 was one of the lockout/strike seasons, so when the team finished below .500, we weren't too worried, the season really didn't count. And, when they cancelled the World Series, who really cared about baseball anymore. I mean if the people running the game didn't care enough to finish out the season, why should we care.
1995 came and the season started late, players and owners still were fighting. Fans were slow to come back to the game. The Jays finished 3rd in attendance. There were worrying signs. Pat Gillick left the team. Gord Ash moved up to the GM role. And the team finished last. Dead last. We hadn't finished last since 1981 (the other time that a season was shortened because of a strike). The players, who were so good, just a couple of years before, suddenly, very suddenly, became old.
There was some excitement, heading in the 1997 season. Gord Ash signed Roger Clemens. At the time of the signing, it was kind of muted excitement. Roger hadn't been great for a few years, he looked like he was on the downhill side of his career. He got to Toronto and he was better than ever (wonder how that happened), unfortunately the rest of the team (with the odd exception) was terrible and we still finished last.
The move that captures the Gord Ash years perfectly is the trade of John Olerud to the Mets for a pitcher named Robert Person. Joe Carter's knees had fallen apart to the point where he could no long play the outfield and we had Carlos Delgado, who needed a position. With only first base and DH available, someone had to go. Most teams who had spent the last couple of years at the bottom of their division would try to dump the 37 year old, but Ash and Cito had an attachment to Carter, and Cito was never a member of the John Olerud fanclub. Olerud would go on to have a very nice career. Robert Person would go on to have a 6.18 ERA as a Blue Jay.
Gord Ash would remain GM until after the 2001 season and the team would continue to be mediocre.
J.P. Ricciardi was hired. JP had worked in Oakland, with Billy Beane. At that time everyone wanted in on the Beane's Moneyball ways. Ricciardi sold the Jays on the idea that he could win while spending far less money than other AL East teams and less than the Jays were spending at the time. He soon found out he couldn't.
JP went to Rogers, before the 2005 season, and said he needed more money if he was expected to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox. He would go on to add Lyle Overbay, Troy Glaus, A.J. Burnett, B.J. Ryan and several others to the team. He did get us a second place finish in 2006, but inconsistent support from Rogers, poor drafting, poor player development and some bad luck with injuries had us finishing 4th for several years in a row.
And then came Alex, but let's have a separate post about Alex. Before that, let's talk about some of the managers we've had in the past 22 years. Some were less than marvelous.
Cito managed the team to our two World Series wins. He was the right manager for those teams. He was very loyal to his players and they seemed to play their best for him. He seemed to have an ability to make players believe in themselves. He wasn't big on ‘in game strategies', he didn't bunt, hit and run, pinch hit, but then, then you have the team he had, it's best not to do any of those things.
When the team aged, and wasn't quite as talented as the World Series teams, Cito wasn't the right manager. The loyalty that he showed his players, that was a strength when they were young and very good, became a weakness when the same players aged past their best before dates.
Tim Johnson replaced Cito in 1998. Johnson led the team to an 88-74 (the last time we would get to 88 win until this year). Tim ran his spring training game like an army boot camp. He told the players that he was a Vietnam veteran. Unfortunately, that was a lie. The Jays had to fire him. There are some things you can't lie about.
Jim Fregosi was hired (quickly, spring training had started). He was a pro and we finished third 2 times in a row. Next we reached into the broadcast booth and hired Buck Martinez. That went about as well as you'd imagine hiring someone with no managing experience would go. In May of 2002, with the Jays sitting at 20-33, Buck was fired and Carlos Tosca was hired, the first managerial hiring by Ricciardi. Tosca made such an impression on me that I honestly couldn't tell you a thing about the guy. In his only full season as manager, 2003, he led us to a 86-76 record, good for 3rd in the AL East, but 2004 didn't go well and he was fired after 111 games, and a 47-64.
In came John Gibbons. We had a couple of good years with him at the helm. In 2006 we won 87 games, finishing second. But, in a division with a very good Yankees' team, that still left us 10 games back.
The 2008 season started with great expectations. We had some good young arms to back up Roy Halladay and A.J. Burnett. B.J. Ryan was coming back from injury. We had Scott Rolen, Frank Thomas (coming off a good season), Matt Stairs (coming off a good season). Aaron Hill (again, coming off a good season). We signed David Eckstein to play short. We had Vernon Wells, Alex Rios, Lyle Overbay. It really looked to be our year.
But then we got off to a slow start. Frank Thomas suddenly became old and forgot how to hit. Instead of waiting to see if he could work his way out of it, the team benched him and then released him, without a reasonable replacement in sight. Matt Stair's power disappeared. Eckstein showed he couldn't handle shortstop, and, to make matters worse, he accidentally elbowed Hill in the head, putting him out of the lineup for most of the season. Adam Lind was called up, had a handful of poor at bats and was sent back down. Instead we had the fun of watching Brad Wilkerson and Kevin Mench fail.
And John Gibbons was fired.
Which brought us to the return of Cito Gaston. Cito actually got the team back into the edge of the race, for a few moments. He did some good things, he got Adam Lind up and played him every day. One of Cito's strengths was that he could pick the guys he wanted to run with, show faith in them, play them every day and, often, they would reward him by playing great ball.
Unfortunately, he had 2 starting pitchers go down with major arm injuries, within a couple of days of each other (no I wasn't at the games). We wouldn't see Shaun Marcum on the mound again until 2010 and Dustin McGowan would never be the same pitcher again.
Even with all the injuries, the Jays finished 86-76, but, with the AL East being what it was, that was only good enough for a 4th place finish, the first of 5 straight years of 4th place finishes.
That season was a perfect example of how things went in the J.P. Ricciardi. He'd round up good, if fragile, front line talent but it seemed like we had paper thin depth. When injuries started happening, there was no quality replacements. He also was getting inconsistent financial support from Rogers. Beyond all that, he picked the wrong time to be in the AL East. The Yankees and Red Sox had excellent teams during those years.
22 years and no playoffs.
I'm not one who believes that, if you don't make the playoffs, it is a wasted year. Baseball is entertainment for me. We've had some very good, very entertaining players in the past 22 years. I loved watching Roy Halladay. Carlos Delgado was one of the very best players I've ever had the pleasure of watching grow into an All-Star. I'm very happy I've been lucky enough watch Shawn Green, Vernon Wells, Alex Rios, Aaron Hill, Orlando Hudson, Marco Scutaro, Reed Johnon, Yunel Escobar, Rickey Romero, A.J. Burnett, Ted Lilly and many others.
I have many great memories from those years. John McDonald hitting a home run, in his first at bat, after his father passed away is something I'll remember forever. Or J.P. Arencibia hitting 2 home runs in his first MLB game. Frank Thomas hit his 500th home run in a Blue Jays uniform. Brandon Morrow came within an out of a no-hitter, while getting 17 strikeouts. I was in Boston, in 2010, watching Jose Bautista hit his 48th and 49th home runs, on his way to 54.
22 years is a long time, but isn't like it's all been bad. Even in the worst of seasons, there are enough good moments to keep me coming back.
That said, if I had known, back in 1992 and 1993, that it would be 22 years before I'd see the Jays in playoffs again, I'd have enjoyed it more. I'm planning on enjoying every moment this time around. You never know how long it will be before we get to see this again.