Why can’t the Toronto Blue Jays be a titan again? For all of those who’ve forgotten, the Blue Jays built an excellent farm system in the 1980s on their way to fighting for the American League East title. In 1987, they battled the Detroit Tigers right down to the end; in 1988, they were nosed out by the Boston Red Sox; in 1989, they broke the “Why Not?” hearts of the Baltimore Orioles.
1989 also featured the the opening of Skydome, the Blue Jays’ groundbreaking multi-purpose palace, with its retractable roof and a hotel situated beyond center field. Blue-clad rooters now packed in to cheer on their Jays in record numbers. Toronto led the Major Leagues in attendance from 1989 through 1992, capping things off with the franchise’s first World Series championship.
In 1993, the expansion Colorado Rockies welcomed 4,483,270 into Mile High Stadium to take over the Major League attendance lead. Though their streak was over, the Blue Jays didn’t fare so poorly themselves: 4,057,0947 fans in the regular season, most in the Junior Circuit, and a second consecutive World Series title.
This was no fluke. This was an honest-to-goodness powerhouse. In the last 30 years, the 1992-1993 Toronto Blue Jays and the 1998-2000 New York Yankees are the only teams to spray champagne on consecutive World Series trophies. Constructed by general manager Pat Gillick, the Jays built their championships on homegrown talent, astute trades, and aggressive free-agent signings. Dave Winfield and Jack Morris signed on for the ride in 1992, with Dave Stewart and Paul Molitor inking deals to join the party for the second title campaign.
According to USA Today’s salary database, the 1992 Jays boasted the third highest payroll in baseball, trailing only the Mets and Dodgers. The 1993 Jays ranked first, with the team’s $45,747,666 payroll nearly $3 million higher than second-place Cincinnati and nearly $37 million higher than the expansion Rockies. At the time, an outsider might well have declared that the Toronto Blue Jays were well-equipped to dominate the rest of the decade. Certainly there would be opposition arising here or there, but the Jays, with their great fan base and talent base, had to be considered among the frontrunners.
The strike-shortened 1994 season halted matters with the Blue Jays at a disappointing 55-60. (Toronto still topped the American League in attendance and ranked among the highest payrolls in the game.)
No matter, thought the faithful — 1995 would be different. The Blue Jays once again boasted the highest payroll in the game, led by $8 million bulldog starter David Cone and a lineup featuring Molitor, Joe Carter, John Olerud, Roberto Alomar, and Devon White, each receiving at least $4 million. Added together, the six men made more than all but seven of the other 28 Major League teams. Cone and Carter themselves received more than the entire talented but star-crossed Montreal Expos.
It all went wrong. The 1995 Blue Jays cratered to a 56-88 record, tied with Minnesota for the worst in baseball.
There was a changing of the guard in the mid-90s. The New York Yankees re-established themselves after a lengthy period of soul-searching. New ballparks had sparked renaissances in Baltimore and Cleveland. The Oakland Athletics, at one time the most feared team in the game, were now shedding all of their high-priced talent. The Blue Jays followed suit. David Cone was dealt away to the Yankees in July of 1995 for nobodies. Alomar departed as a free agent to Baltimore in the offseason, with White heading off to Florida and Molitor joining Minnesota. Thus ended the dynasty north of the border.
Toronto did not have any intention of going gently into the basement, though. The club spent considerable time in the later 1990s and into the 2000s attempting to revamp its image, changing up the classic jay’s head logo and taking chances on such free agents as Roger Clemens. Still, attendance dropped, losses piled, and a chasm developed in the American League East. On one side, there were the powerful, contending New York Yankees, joined soon by the Boston Red Sox. On the other side, there were the scuffling Jays, the miserable Orioles, and the laughable Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
The Rays exorcised their past in 2008, using a franchise makeover and a brilliant, resourceful braintrust to sweep themselves from the cellar. This past season the Baltimore Orioles did the same, bucking their punching bag stigma to attain their first playoff berth since 1997. The Blue Jays have been left facing the chasm alone.
The question is re-asked: Why can’t they also soar into A.L. East contention?
Last season, the Toronto Blue Jays returned to their classic blue, double-stenciled look of the glorious 1980s and early 1990s, bringing with it a tease of the bygone days of power. But the good feelings barely had time to set in before a spate of terrible injuries hit Toronto at all rungs of the organization ladder, felling three starters in four days, ending the seasons of top catching projects A.J. Jimenez and Travis d’Arnaud, and plaguing superstar Jose Bautista. Someone, possibly a Red Sox fan, had acquired a Blue Jays voodoo doll and was sticking it with fervor. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” longtime baseball man Mel Didier said to me.
General manager Alex Anthopoulos has determined that 2013 will be different in Toronto. This week has seen to that.
Last week Anthopoulos went pro-active, acquiring Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, and Mark Buerhle (and, yes, Emilio Bonifacio and John Buck, too) from the Marlins. In return, the Jays gave up Yunel Escobar and a package of young talent. The message is that it is the present that matters, and so Toronto is seizing the day. The Yankees have shown vulnerabilities, the Red Sox blew themselves up, the Orioles won with more nerve and heart than overwhelming ability, and the Rays find themselves perpetually at a crossroads.
There’s more, though. Toronto’s sports sentiments lie with the Maple Leafs, much the same way that Washington loves the Redskins more than anything else. Frustrating for the other teams as it may, a small amount of hockey news in Toronto trumps a large amount of Blue Jays or Raptors news.
With NHL on lockout, the Maple Leafs are on hiatus, and that slim Ontario opening for other sports news exists. With one trade, the Blue Jays grabbed the metropolitan’s attention. Any grumbling Torontoite, disinterested in basketball, disgruntled by the lack of hockey, is now invigorated. Are the Jays trying to contend? Yes, they are.
Think about it: 1992 and 1993, when the Toronto Blue Jays were on top of baseball, the most powerful, popular, high-paid team — was that really so long ago?
The 2013 Jays are ready to create fresh new memories, and an intrigued nation watches cautiously, looking for that motivation to pack the park once more.
Jesse Goldberg-Strassler is a Ballpark Digest contributing editor and the Voice of the Lansing Lugnuts, where he sees Blue Jays prospects in action. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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