by Evan Thomas Cummings
In an at-bat that would snap a 2 for 24 cold streak, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. slapped a ball that carried well over New York Yankee center fielder Brett Gardner’s head, and with a pubic hair of park left to clear, the ball clipped the lip of the outfield wall and came back into play.
At the time it was a massive, lead-seizing RBI double in a must-win September game for the MVP-caliber slugger of the young Toronto club, but the metaphor of it all loomed much larger.
Never in MLB history has a primary second baseman hit more home runs in a single season than Blue Jay’s two-bagger, and impending free agent, Marcus Semien did this year. No middle infield duo has ever hit more combined home runs in a season than shortstop Bo Bichette and Semien did this year. No 22 year old has ever hit more home runs than Vladimir Guerrero Jr. did this year. Another All-Star bat in Teoscar Hernandez, and every fifth day, the four 100+ RBI hitters played defense behind a presumptive Cy Young winner in Robbie Ray.
And with a pubic hair of park left to clear, the ball clipped the lip of the outfield wall and came back into play.
The 2021 Toronto Blue Jays were so close.
And they were the team no one (except Kevin Keirmaier) wanted to play.
"Resilient," a word George Springer used to describe the club he helped to energize with a 16 for 30 line in the final week of the season, & at the tail end of a stretch of what seemed like fourteen must-win games in a row. "Resilient," it’s not an empty superlative from Toronto’s 125 million dollar man, either. The Blue Jay’s clawed their way to a 91 win season while playing in three different "home ballparks" throughout the year given international travel restrictions.
The crowds they drew during the Florida and New York stretches of the early season were hostile at best, and the Jays limped to a combined .500 "home" record in the Dunedin and Buffalo parks. Reflecting on the difficult start to his first 162 game season, Bichette recalled, "Losing with fans cheering against you at home… After the game, you’d come in and it sucked more than a normal May loss. Proud of how everyone fought through it."
It’s hard to have an identity without a home park. A home crowd. "Home cooking," as Springer called it in front of a sell-out* Rogers Centre crowd moments after the Jays won game 162, and mere seconds before a Rafael Devers 2 run, 9th inning blast in Washington would put Boston up for good, and cook Toronto’s bird for the ‘21 season.
Sportsnet columnist Shi Davidi asked Blue Jays’ skipper Charlie Montoyo after the playoffs had been decided, "What," given the minuscule margin they missed the bracket by, "kind of things will you look back on and wonder, ‘what if?’" Without missing a beat, Montoyo said "Nothing." the chuckle that accompanied his response broke through to the other side of the platitude. You could tell he was being sincere. "Playing on the road for 200-something days… 91 wins. First time in history that a division’s got four teams with over 90 wins. What are you gonna do? We played great. I’m so proud of this team."
And he should be. But as one does when seasons end, it’s time to look forward. "This team," will, in one way or another, never be the same again. It’s a cliché in locker rooms from peewee to pros and it’s a fact. So what does Toronto do from here? How, with the promise of 81 games in what is quietly one of the loudest ballparks in baseball, will the Blue Jays retain their pop & pitching with two of their premier players likely to command top dollar in free agency?
Just over a week ago, Semien said he still views himself as a shortstop. Whether this was an off-the-cuff remark on his mentality or a harbinger of his departure this offseason remains to be seen, but a certain high payroll division rival had their struggles at the position Semien played professionally for nearly a decade before his one year deal with Toronto.
As for Robbie Ray, how much stock can be placed in the Pete Walker effect? In the COVID shortened 2020 season, Ray led the National League in walks given up as a member of the Arizona Diamondbacks, and much was made of the talented lefty’s issues with command. He came to Toronto on a one-year deal, and his subsequent ascension to Cy Young favorite happened so quickly Ray didn’t even represent the Blue Jays in the 2021 All-Star game.
And some credit has to be given to Walker. He also helped to tweak starter Jose Berríos' windup after the team acquired him from the Minnesota Twins, eliminating an over-the-head elevation of his arms, and it resulted in marked improvements, statistically, to Berríos’ outings.
Perhaps the presence of Walker keeps this staff together. Perhaps the youth and talent in the clubhouse are too promising to watch from afar. And though they missed the playoffs this season, the Blue Jays are undoubtedly in "win now" mode. In the trade for Berríos, the Blue Jays sent two of their top prospects to the Twins: shortstop and center fielder Austin Martin, who was the fifth overall selection by the Jays in the 2020 MLB draft and is currently the No. 16 prospect in all of baseball, and pitcher Simeon Woods-Richardson who is ranked at No. 68.
In some ways, it’s a chips-to-the-middle move. It certainly speaks to an organizational faith that this young and "rebuilding" team is either approaching or upon a championship window. After this season, Berríos has one year of arbitration left before he becomes a free agent in 2023.
Will Rogers give the front office an increased payroll? Paul Bagnell, Anchor for Bloomberg reported in July that the Blue Jays’ return to Rogers Centre, "contributed to an 84 percent increase in revenue in [Rogers Communications’] media segment." With the Blue Jays affecting the bottom line, perhaps the team becomes a product worthy of a larger investment via team payroll. It would certainly help the Jays’ chances at bringing back two of the club’s most consistent and impressive performers this season.
For now, the playoffs are lucky; the Jays won’t be there.