It's been almost a year since Clint Hurdle sat in his office and regaled reporters with stories of how Pittsburgh's run to the playoffs was striking a chord with so many success-starved Pirates fans. One day, Hurdle went to the local supermarket and encountered a senior citizen who offered him some impromptu hitting tips for Starling Marte. The next day, he showed up at a Starbucks outlet and received a standing ovation from the assembled patrons for his role in bringing a winner back to the city.
Toronto manager John Gibbons has no such tales to tell about his quest to become the Clint Hurdle of 2014. The next round of applause Gibbons receives while passing through customs will be a first.
"We haven't done enough yet, and I'm not that popular to begin with," Gibbons said, laughing. "I don't care what happens."
The Blue Jays don't have a Francisco Cabrera-Sid Bream moment of suffering or two decades worth of sub-.500 seasons to galvanize them like the Pirates had, but they've endured a long, fallow stretch since Joe Carter danced around the bases in celebration of his World Series-winning home run off Mitch Williams in 1993.
Over the past 20 seasons, the New York Yankees have won 14 division titles and five World Series. Boston has been to the playoffs 10 times and won three titles. Tampa Bay has been hailed as a paragon of small-market efficiency while making four postseason appearances since 2008. And even the Baltimore Orioles, who've had a rough go of it during the Peter Angelos regime, went to the playoffs in 1996, 1997 and 2012.
The Blue Jays, meanwhile, are working on a streak of 20 years without a playoff appearance, and they're one of only four teams -- along with Seattle, Kansas City and Miami -- to fail to make the playoffs over the past 10 seasons. Factor in a 47-year Stanley Cup drought for the Maple Leafs and only six playoff appearances in 19 years for the NBA's Raptors, and Toronto sports fans have ample reason to feel they're overdue.
Could this be the year for the Blue Jays? They sent a jolt of optimism through the populace when they went on a 25-7 run through early June to take a six-game lead in the division. But the Jays have lost six of nine since June 4 -- mostly due to a stagnant offense -- and now they head to New York for a three-game series at Yankee Stadium, where they went 0-9 last season. Even more daunting, they'll send rookie Marcus Stroman to the mound Tuesday night against Masahiro Tanaka, whose transition to America from Japan has been seamless, to put it mildly.
In sports lingo, this is "gut check" time for the Blue Jays. They play the Yankees six times in the next nine days, and the results will either energize or discourage Toronto fans who refuse to get euphoric just because coolstandings.com gives their team an 82.1 percent chance to reach the postseason.
"There's definitely a buzz up there right now," said Blue Jays first baseman Adam Lind. "You see a lot of people in jerseys and T-shirts and hats walking around town. They want to believe, but they're still trying to figure out if they should. Especially after last year, when everybody was emotionally invested and we had the ultimate meltdown."
A window of opportunity
Oh yeah -- last year. The Jays entered the 2013 season with a huge buildup after general manager Alex Anthopoulos went on a shopping and trading binge and added Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and reigning NL Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey to the roster. But the promise of spring quickly gave way to a sense of fatalism and here-we-go-again-itis. The defining moment of that Blue Jays season came early. In mid-April, Reyes tore up his ankle on a slide and had to be helped off the field as a tear rolled down his cheek.
The landscape in the AL East is a lot more forgiving this season. The Yankees have played well, but they have an aging lineup and major questions with their rotation after Tanaka. Boston can't seem to get any traction and is a baffling 18-19 at home. While the Orioles are intriguing, catcher Matt Wieters just went down for Tommy John surgery and the pitching is mediocre. And Tampa Bay has essentially buried itself with a 28-43 start.
Toronto, surprisingly, is the only team in the division with a positive run differential.
"Normally by this time, the Red Sox and Yankees are sitting 15 games over .500 at least," Gibbons said. "You can have a good team, but if you don't have that little extra, you're not catching that."
Talk to the Toronto players, and you get a sense they're starting to believe. But this team is a mixed bag, and some questions will have to be answered for a playoff berth to become a reality.
• The offense is fine. The Blue Jays lead the majors with 92 home runs, and they're third in runs scored (334) and second to Colorado with a .765 team OPS. They're also fifth in the majors with a .410 slugging percentage on the road, so it's not simply a case of bashing opponents into submission at the Rogers Centre.
The Jays have a seasoned 1-2 combination in Reyes and Melky Cabrera and a punishing middle of the order with Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Lind in the 3-4-5 spots. They're also taking a more nuanced approach under new hitting coach Kevin Seitzer, who replaced Chad Mottola in October. Seitzer is a nonstop communicator who favors the all-fields approach, and the Jays have become a more selective and opportunistic team without sacrificing power. They're eighth among MLB teams in walks after ranking 13th in that category in 2013.
"We had trouble in the past beating the better pitchers," Gibbons said. "We were basically a grip-it-and-rip-it offense, and the better pitchers don't make as many mistakes. Seitz brings more of a total approach to hitting. That doesn't mean you want to turn these guys into a bunch of Punch-and-Judy hitters. But there's a time and a place to shoot the ball the other way to move a runner or pick up a two-out RBI."
• Anthopoulos made a bid to upgrade the rotation in the offseason, only to come up short. The Blue Jays were particularly disappointed when their pursuit of Ervin Santana ended with his one-year, $14.1 million deal with Atlanta in February. The Jays also took a hit when Brandon Morrow went down with a torn tendon sheath in his finger in May.
Buehrle, Dickey, Drew Hutchison, J.A. Happ and the various starters who've passed through the No. 5 spot are a combined 33-20 with a 3.67 ERA, and they've logged the seventh-highest workload in the American League. Still, it's a baseball truism that power pitching wins in October, and the pressure is building on Anthopoulos to make an upgrade. Does he aim high and pursue Jeff Samardzija even though that might necessitate parting with Aaron Sanchez, Stroman or another of Toronto's top prospects? Or does he go for rotational depth (and a more reasonable asking price) and pursue a starter along the lines of the Cubs' Jason Hammel?
"Alex is still focused on trying to make the team better, and if that opportunity arises, I think he'll do it," Gibbons said. "But with the [pitchers] that everybody is talking about, there are a lot of teams that want them. So the teams with pitching to trade have all the leverage."
• Casey Janssen, Toronto's closer, averages a modest 89 mph with his fastball, but he's a relentless strike thrower, and the Jays have an abundance of reliable options in front of him. Toronto's two lefties, Aaron Loup and Brett Cecil, have issued too many walks this season, but they've also stranded 41 of their first 50 inherited runners.
• If the shared pain of last year's 74-88 record couldn't fray the clubhouse dynamic, a little AL East pennant rate isn't going to faze the Jays. So score one for intangibles.
"It was one of the worst years I've been a part of, but through all that we actually remained friends, and that's helped us out this year," Lind said. "We have such a large mix of Latin and American players and people say, 'Is that good for teams?' For us, it's been great."
Before the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004, Johnny Damon and his fellow "Idiots" chafed over the excessive scrutiny they faced in trying to bring the city its first title in 86 years. And who could blame them? They weren't even born when Johnny Pesky held that ball a tick too long against St. Louis in the 1946 World Series, and some of them were playing Babe Ruth ball when Mookie Wilson's grounder rolled through Bill Buckner's legs in '86 at Shea.
To a far less oppressive degree, the same burden by association has been thrust upon the Toronto players, who were just kids when Pat Gillick and Cito Gaston helped make Ontario the center of the baseball universe in the early 1990s. But they vicariously experience the old energy and baseball-mania in the city every time they watch Carter's 360-foot joyride on the JumboTron.
"I've seen it replayed so many times, I feel as if I was there," Janssen said. "They show it a lot and bring back someone every couple of months to throw out the first pitch. We'll talk jokingly as players about how we're tired of it. We don't want to be compared to them. We want to make our own mark and get out of that shadow. It's all we hear about."
Lind grew up in Indiana and went to college at South Alabama, but his wife is from Toronto, so he hears about the glory days from her family. And when he appears at the team's winter caravan or signs autographs along the dugout rail, the subject invariably comes up in conversation.
"Fans are like, 'I remember what it was like in '92 and '93 on Yonge Street,'" Lind said. "We get a lot of Yonge Street comments. It's not a burden to me, because it's a time in their life they were really happy about. They had a lot of joy. And that's the ultimate goal, right?"
It's left to Dickey -- author, mountain climber and baseball renaissance man -- to provide the historical perspective from the clubhouse. He was in his senior year at Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville and just a few months removed from being selected by Detroit in the 1993 draft when Carter homered off Williams and nearly blew the roof off the building that was then known as SkyDome.
Dickey watched that World Series unfold on television when he was 18. Over the next 20 years, he pitched for the University of Tennessee, got selected by Texas with the 18th overall pick in the 1996 draft, learned to his surprise that he had no ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow, began throwing a knuckleball as a last resort, drifted from Milwaukee to Minnesota to Seattle, crafted a heartwarming Cy Young Award story with the Mets and is now part of a determined team hoping to establish a legacy of its own in Toronto.
"I remember seeing a panoramic view of the city streets in Toronto after it went down and it looked like pandemonium -- in a good way," Dickey said. "I hope this team can bring back a lot of nostalgia for a lot of people. That would be really cool."
There's no better place to make a statement than a three-game series in New York. The fans back home in Toronto might not be ready to buy into what the 2014 Blue Jays are selling. But rest assured, they'll be watching.