Opening Day is cause for celebration; it’s a blank slate and a fresh beginning, the one day on the Major League Baseball calendar when everybody’s on the level and when anything seems possible. And while it’s likely to be a long year for Toronto baseball fans, that won’t diminish the sense of occasion inside Rogers Centre tomorrow evening.
Barring a miracle, the Blue Jays won’t be competitive in 2009. But let’s not blame embattled general manager J.P. Ricciardi; we’ll leave that to Richard Griffin, who’s already stoking the anti-Ricciardi fires (see his March 11 mailbag). Instead, let’s acknowledge that much of the team’s plight is still largely down to bad luck. They’re in the unfortunate position of sharing a division with the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, whose off-season arms races are beginning to sap the enjoyment out of being a baseball fan in general and a Blue Jays fan in particular. (The Yankees sign A.J. Burnett and CC Sabathia, the Blue Jays sign Matt Clement; the Yankees sign Mark Texeira, the Blue Jays sign Kevin Millar, erstwhile “King of the Idiots” for the 2004 Boston Red Sox. And so it goes.) The sudden (albeit not unexpected) rise of the Tampa Bay Rays suggests money doesn’t necessarily equate with success—but the Rays were bad for so long it was really only a matter of time until their youngsters blossomed into a competitive unit. In that sense, the Jays might’ve simply missed their opportunity when they didn’t make the playoffs in 2006. With the defection of Burnett and the growing ineffectiveness of Lyle Overbay and B.J. Ryan, it’d appear as though that particular window is now shut.
Given that, it’s probably best if we keep our expectations in check. There’s absolutely no reason to expect the Blue Jays to be competitive this year; if they are, it’s a bonus. This season is going to be yet another building block, a step towards a theoretically brighter future. We’re as fed up of interminable rebuilding as anyone, but this year it’s understandable. The team’s pitching staff has been decimated; Dustin McGowan’s health seems destined to be a season-long question mark, while Shaun Marcum will be lucky to pitch again before 2010. It’s to Ricciardi’s credit that he didn’t spend a tonne of money on any stop-gap measures (see: David Eckstein in 2008), and instead seems happy to stick with what he’s got. That strategy likely won’t appease the people calling in to Mike Wilner’s postgame show, but it’ll give the team’s youngsters an opportunity to prove themselves (and we see Travis Snider making some noise in the American League Rookie of the Year race). We know that’s becoming a tired refrain here in Toronto—but if the Blue Jays aren’t going to be competitive this year, why not give the younger players a chance? The team’s offense isn’t going to outslug many teams, especially if Vernon Wells and Alex Rios struggle, but if the starting rotation can stay relatively healthy there’s no reason the Jays can’t finish above .500 this year.
But for now, none of that matters; what matters is the fresh start, the sense of optimism Opening Day invariably stirs up in even the most cynical baseball fans. Who cares how the standings look in October? Bring on the new season!