Resident Jays lover Stacey May Fowles on what this year in Toronto baseball has to offer.
When I was asked to write a primer on falling in love with the 2016 Toronto Blue Jays, I realized I’d probably been given the easiest assignment ever. Not only is this team very easy to love, they haven’t changed all that much from last year (we miss you, Munenori Kawasaki). That means that if you got swept up by playoff fever in the fall, you’re pretty much all in this spring.
Blue caps are currently being donned all across the city. My social media feeds are surging with exuberant new fans. A pair of good StubHub tickets to the home opener will run you somewhere in the neighbourhood of $500. The Jays are a team made up of superstars, in which no one claims to be better than anyone else. They’ve got the rare qualities of camaraderie and chemistry, and always seem to be genuinely cheering each other on. There are no weird beefs, no antiquated hierarchies, no bad behavior (barring some recent comments from John Gibbons). Every last one of them is likable. They’re everything a city could want in a sports team.
But just in case you haven’t already come around on the myriad charms of Josh Donaldson, I offer you a guide to becoming a fan of what is now being referred to as “Canada’s Team.” It’s no secret I have all the love in the world for bandwagoners, and though you may be a little late, there’s still plenty of room on board.
I’ve long maintained that a favourite player is the gateway drug to baseball fandom, and the narrative diversity and richness of the Jays roster means that everyone is apt to find “their guy.” Ball players are human, after all, and if their impressive stats don’t sway you, their personalities and backstories definitely will.
If you like the strong, silent type, Troy Tulowitzki is your man. In fact, Blue Jays play-by-play announcer Buck Martinez recently likened the 31-year-old shortstop to Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. Tulo married his high school sweetheart, and got his son Taz’s name emblazoned on his personal bats. There are plenty of adorable pics online of Tulo kissing his baby boy, and last October, while the Jays were doing playoff things, the Gold Glover and Silver Slugger was shopping at Dufferin Mall like he’s not one of the best players in the game. Humble and incredible is always a great combination.
If you like someone a little showier, the Marcus Stroman story never ceases to disappoint. His phoenix-from-the-ashes tale is well known, coming back last year from what was supposed to be a season-ending injury and leading the Jays into the first October we’d seen in decades. At 5’8”, he’s one of only six pitchers shorter than 5’10” to make an MLB start in the 21st century—hence his trademarked catchphrase, “Height Doesn’t Measure Heart.” The stylish 24-year-old ace has been a blast to watch, and many have high hopes for what will be his first full season pitching in the rotation. Beyond that, you can always count on him for a good post-game tweet and a good dance session in the clubhouse after a big win.
Chris Colabello is the classic journeyman who rose to greatness, an underdog player who clawed himself up to the minors after seven seasons in independent ball. He made his Major League debut when he was just shy of 30, late by any ball-playing standards. He was recently dared by teammates to eat eight pounds of lobster mac and cheese, a rather disgusting request that he refused despite the $15,000 payout offer. Colabello is also the proud owner of what could now be regarded as the official team dog, a tiny black Frenchie named Clutch who boasts a highly entertaining Instagram presence.
Josh Donaldson’s liquid-hot swagger certainly hasn’t ceased and has only become more compelling with the addition of his American League MVP status. The offseason saw buzz around his upcoming acting debut on the History Channel’s Vikings and lots of fun talk about his ever-evolving hairstyle (I for one enjoyed the braid). During Spring Training, he warmed up on field with his pants rolled up and a speaker in his back pocket, and a few insiders have informed me he’s a universally beloved “goofball” with teammates. Donaldson also recently got serious about speaking out against domestic violence, joining teammate R.A. Dickey on the shortlist of players who use their personal experience to advocate for change. He’s a fascinating, exciting, and admirable athlete, and will be graced with his own MVP bobblehead giveaway on April 24. Bonus? The third basemen has generously approved references to him as Toronto’s “Charming Dirtbag Boyfriend.”
To some controversy, 21-year-old Roberto Osuna was recently named the club’s go-to ninth-inning closer. Armchair manager opinions aside, it was a wise choice. Osuna grew up in an impoverished drug-cartel-ridden area of Mexico, with all six of his family members sharing a single bedroom. He was four when he told his mother he would one day be a pro baseball player. At the age of 12, he quit school to support his family, picking vegetables with his father, and learning to pitch when the day was done. That effort got him into the Mexican league at the age of 16, and after last year’s MLB debut, he now pays for the schooling of his sister and his twin brothers. It’s the education he himself didn’t receive because of his sacrifice. If that doesn’t melt your cold cynical sports heart, you probably don’t have one.
The distressing reality is that this could be the last season we see Jose Bautista in blue and white, so now is the time to relish in every single one of his defiant home-run bat flips. “Best shape of his life” may be a sports cliché, but man, does Bautista ever look good. He’s both graceful and aggressive, invested in a sophisticated yoga regimen, and apparently now gluten free. In all the endless irritating arguments about old-school versus new-school baseball, with old-timers bashing the way Bautista plays the game, the factor that tends to get lost is how much fun he actually is as a player. This offseason, he coached the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game with Drake, and Spring Training saw him doing a fitness battle with the Phillie Phanatic. If this is indeed the last opportunity to enjoy local hero Jose as a Jay, it’s time you get yourself to the ballpark to soak the legend in.
We also have a few new faces to fall in love with this year.
Victoria-born Michael Saunders was out for a majority of last season after a torn meniscus, but now he’s back and looking beyond strong.
Late-inning expert Drew Storen came to us from the Washington Nationals and then promptly changed his Twitter bio to read “apparently now a Drake fan.” Fun fact? Storen once bought a retro payphone cover for the Nats bullpen, and decorated his house via Etsy. (“There was a guy on there selling a custom made bat suit,” he told the media. “I thought about it, but I didn’t do it. I still lose sleep over it.”)
Pitcher J.A. Happ has also returned to us after some time away with the Mariners and the Pirates, and though some critics are wary, he had a stellar latter half of last season. He also suffered one of the worst baseball injuries I’ve ever seen in person (full warning if you decide to click this), so I would more than love for him to have the best season of his life.
The Rogers Centre is also evolving, now boasting an all-dirt infield—something that some players and fans say is better for the game. The team is also taking a big exciting step towards the ultimate dream of grass. A University of Guelph “associate professor of turf grass science” has actually been commissioned to study whether it’s possible to grow it in our stadium and is working with labs funded by Canadian and European space agencies. (I promise, I’m not making this up.)
And finally, as if all of this excitement isn’t enough, the Rogers Centre is introducing chicken and waffles with a maple Sriracha drizzle to their game-day food offerings. If that can’t sway you, nothing will.
Many baseball pundits have predicted the Jays will be back in the playoffs this year, but I’m of the mind that forecasting seven months in advance is mostly useless—especially in a game as consistently surprising as this one. Besides, it’s way more fun to live in the now and to go into every game without mired expectations. What I am willing to say is that this team will keep charming us into the dog days of summer and, hopefully, deep into another fall. They’re driven, they’re talented, and most of all, they’re a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
And yes, the 2016 Toronto Blue Jays certainly have some unfinished business. I for one can’t wait to see them tend to it.