Spring training games are upon us, and while they mean a lot to the players fighting to make the 25-man roster, one could argue that the outcome of the games are somewhat inconsequential. Statistically speaking, the Blue Jays ‘won’ spring training in 2012, and finished one game under .500 last season, only to end up second-last and in the basement respectively at the end of the regular season. Last year’s World Champion Red Sox only had a .500 record last spring.
But on Saturday, as the Baltimore Orioles faced off against the Blue Jays, they only had one thing in mind – win. An unusual goal for a game that statistically has no meaning. However, this game meant a great deal to many Oriole players, the managers, and the organization.
I accidentally came across the Baltimore broadcast when settling in to watch the game yesterday. During the first inning, while Orioles skipper Buck Showalter was being interviewed, he revealed that the Orioles PR Director, Monica Pence Barlow had passed away the previous morning from cancer. Describing what a big part of the Oriole family Monica had been, Buck finished his interview by saying they were going to try to beat the Jays, and win this one for Monica.
In a statement earlier that day, Showalter had released the following statement:
“We lost a feather from the Oriole today. Monica embodied everything we strive to be about. Her passion, loyalty and tenacity set a great example for everyone in the organization. She was so courageous in continuing to do her job the last few years despite her pain. This is an especially tough day for those of us that worked with her on a daily basis. It was a blessing to have her in my life. She made our jobs so much easier. We won’t be able to replace Monica. We will only try to carry on. I am going to miss her as a colleague and a friend. She was a rock.”
Some of the Oriole players wore arm bands during the game, in memory of Monica. As Baltimore regulars exited the game, they were interviewed and asked about special memories of Monica. Slugger Chris Davis reminisced about pouring champagne over Monica’s head after clinching the 2012 Wild Card.
While the focus in professional baseball is usually on the players, the statistics, and the big-money contracts, it can be easy to forget how many people behind the scenes are instrumental in so many important elements of the game. Monica was one of those many.
In the 8th inning the Blue Jays were up 7-2, yet I had a funny feeling about Baltimore staging a rally. Sure enough, they started chipping away – for Monica. Fast-forward in the inning to two out and the Orioles back within one. A ground ball to second that should have ended the inning but was an error by the infielder Chris Getz, loaded the bases and kept the momentum going. The next batter with the bases loaded, smacked a triple to the gap in right-centre, completing the 7-run rally and putting the O’s up by two. For the first time in my life, this hardcore Jays fan (I bleed blue) was ok with the opposition beating my hometown favourite. I’m certain, after hearing the stories from numerous Oriole players, that Monica had Oriole-orange flowing through her veins.
It’s not uncommon for a player to dedicate a game to the memory of a passed loved one. Many Toronto fans remember the emotional home run by John McDonald on father’s day, following the passing of his father. And then there’s the even more incredible feat of promising a home run for someone during a game. Babe Ruth hit not one, but three HR’s for a sick child during the 1926 World Series. But this was different. This was an entire team playing in memory of someone who was family.
Toronto aims to be playing “meaningful baseball games” this September.
The Orioles, as a team, played what was possibly the club’s first meaningful baseball game in March.
Regardless of the time of year, or how high the stakes are, every game has meaning to someone.
This game had meaning to many.
Rest in peace Monica.
At roughly this point in time one year ago, Toronto baseball fans were excited.
Way too excited.
Following a series of moves and acquisitions, Alex Anthopoulos had put together a group of players that immediately moved everyone’s perception of the Blue Jays from a struggling franchise to not just a playoff contender, but a favourite to win the World Series. ESPN’s Dan Shulman wasn’t fooled. I discussed the Blue Jays collapse with Dan last year, you can find that interview here.
Oh how excited we all were.
Ticket sales were up. Merchandise sales were drastically up. New, royal-blue caps became very noticible throughout Toronto streets, bars, and of course Rogers Centre. Spring training was a media frenzy, with much focus being on the two biggest names Anthopoulos had acquired, being Reyes and Dickey. Suddenly, it was cool to be a Blue Jays fan again.
And then the Toronto Blue Jays won the 2013 World Series, we all held hands and sang Kumbaya, THE END.
…sorry, where was I? I must have been daydreaming again…
Obviously we all know how 2013 really ended for the Jays, and I find it painful and pointless drudging up the past. However, we can all learn something from history. The past gives us something to measure progress against. And progress is what the Jays could use, having come off a 74-win season (sorry, sometimes I rub salt in my own wounds).
Fast-forward to Spring training 2014. This off-season has been drastically different for Toronto. The addition of Dioner Navarro as AA’s only significant off-season acquirement pales in comparison to what he did last year. And as a result, the Blue Jays are now flying somewhat under the radar.
Florida is quieter this year, as far as the Jays are concerned. I spoke with Sportsnet’s Jamie Campbell, who said that there are significantly less reporters covering the Blue Jays this spring training. He also said it’s a welcome change for the players, considering the circus they dealt with last year. To listen to the entire interview with Jamie, click here.
Does less media mean fewer expectations?
Hardly. This is almost the same team fans were ecstatic about last year. Only healthy…so far. Think about this scenario: Brett Lawrie, Jose Reyes, Melky Cabrera, and R.A. Dickey stay healthy for the majority of the season. Let that sink in. Now feel the warmth of the Florida sun across your face as your smile grows bigger. Let us consider one more scenario: Brandon Morrow and J.A. Happ also stay healthy. Suddenly the rotation doesn’t look so bad, does it? I know, there were so many big-name starters available this off-season, of which Toronto acquired none. But perhaps they didn’t need to. At the 2014 State of the Franchise, Anthopoulos suggested it might be a possibility to add another starter late spring. That possibility seems to be slipping away. Jamie Campbell doesn’t see it as a concern. He and I discussed the expectations from Toronto fans regarding acquiring Ervin Santana, but he pointed out that Ervin has been battling injuries. Combine that with Ervin’s expectation of a $50 Million commitment, and suddenly Toronto’s current options seem somewhat more attractive. Waiting in the wings are a handful of hungry pitchers, with a significantly smaller price tag. Toronto also had a very dominant bullpen last season. Delabar and Cecil both had All-Star worthy performances through the first-half. And who doesn’t like a fairy-tale/David-vs-Goliath style story that could be Marcus Stroman?
Yes, I know I just painted a very colourful picture with a rather optimistic brush. What can I say? I bleed blue.
But “worst-to-first” isn’t an impossibility. Ask Boston, they know all too well (jeez that still stings, doesn’t it Toronto?)
So get excited again.
Why not? It’s baseball season.
Anything can, and usually does happen.
For more on Toronto’s current pitching situation, listen to my interview here with Sportsnet’s Jamie Campbell. We also discuss the home plate collision rule change by Major League Baseball, which should prove to make for some interesting calls this season!
Follow Jamie Campbell on Twitter: @SportsnetJamie
At the 2014 Toronto Blue Jays State of the Franchise, season ticket holders had emailed in questions ahead of time for Paul Beeston, Alex Anthopoulos, and John Gibbons.
Full Q & A session in the video above explores topics such as the Blue Jays playing on a grass surface at home, Roy Halladay joining the Level of Excellence, the ownership’s level of financial commitment and concerns surrounding financial obligations towards other sports (Maple Leafs and Toronto FC). Other topics discussed included Gibby’s predictions for players who will have break out seasons (spoiler alert – expect a lot from Melky, Lawrie, and Morrow this season), and Anthopoulos discusses the current position on pitching and if they plan on adding more before the start of the season.
For other videos such as the introductory speeches for this event, click here.
On Wednesday, January 29th, 2014, over 1,000 Toronto Blue Jays season ticket holders attended the annual “State of the Franchise” event at Rogers Centre. Guests were treated to a coctail party, complimentary food from the concession stands, and adult beverages from the bar. Following introductions of Paul Beeston, Alex Anthopoulos, and John Gibbons, Buck Martinez, the emcee for the evening directed everyone’s attention to the Jumbotron for the following Blue Jays 2013 highlight video:
Prior to the Q & A period, Beeston addressed the crowd, acknowledging the disappointing season of 2013:
Last year wasn’t what we wanted it to be. We got knocked down a bit. We hit the mat, and when you do, you can do one of two things. You can either stay down, or you can get back up and fight for another day. And that’s what we plan on doing. We don’t plan on just staying on the mat, we’re going to get up and do what we wanted to do, which is win the World Series…Last year’s team was not built for just one year.
Watch the full speech from Paul Beeston:
Next, attendees were treated to a video highlighting the Blue Jays Winter Tour. I attended the Mississauga event, hosted by the Erin Mills Town Centre. Click here to read about that event.
Watch the Winter Tour highlight video:
Q & A Session:
Buck began by asking Alex about the contrast between the busy off-season last year, and the relatively quiet one this year. Alex said he’s hopeful they will add to the ballclub, and that there are still some great quality free agents available. He went on to say that they’re still having active dialogues, and still discussing trades as well. “We’re definitely not done trying to add, we’re going to look to add, we just need to find the right deal”. Alex went on to say he felt like they may even add players into spring training.
Watch the full video of Alex discussing plans moving into the 2014 season:
Next, Buck addressed Gibby, asking him how he would conduct spring training this year, implying the approach may be different since 2013 was a World Baseball Classic year where some key players missed significant time with the ball club. Gibby, in his typical ultra-relaxed style, first replied with a good-natured ”Duck Dynasty” joke, aimed at Colby Rasmus. Once the laughter had died down, he reassured fans that this is a good ball club and to stick by them. He suggested that some “minor tinkering” might be necessary, but the real mission would be to get off to a good start early this year. One month into the 2013 season the Jays occupied the basement already 7 games under .500, and 8.5 games behind the first-place Red Sox.
Watch the full video of Gibby discussing spring training plans:
The standard (and expected) questions surrounding financial commitments and trade rumours followed. I’m actually surprised that there was no mention of Tanaka (other than the brief reference by Anthopoulos when he suggested that it had held up the free agent market action). While I never actually expected Toronto to have a legitimate shot at the Japanese super-star, it would have been interesting to know if they were ever “in the running”. Not that I’d ever expect Anthopoulos to say so either way. The man plays his cards close to his chest. Let’s hope he’s got an ace up his sleeve. The Jays could use a little help in this increasingly-stacked division this season. Then again, that’s the beauty of baseball. The mystique of the unknown. The Morrow of old could return and blow the roof off. I remain hopeful that at least one of either McGowan, Drabek, or Hutchison will be back to make an impact. Young studs like Sean Nolin and Marcus Stroman, albeit both dark-horses, could perform above expectations and either could make the rotation as a 5th starter. Yes it’s unlikely, but who predicted Happ would pitch like he did last season? While fans still have the bitter taste in their mouths from a high-expectation filled season gone bad, let’s not forget that for a time in 2013, the Jays bullpen was one of the most dominant in baseball, and played a significant role in the 11-game win streak they enjoyed in June. Thinking about that puts a smile on my face, how about you?
For the full video with Q & A from season ticket holders, click here.
Outside the Erin Mills Town Centre, the effects of the polar vortex were evident – endless mounds of snow and blistering, frigid winds made for an uncomfortable walk from the car. But inside the mall, on this Saturday, Jan 18th, 2014, over 1,000 excited baseball fans gathered with warmer thoughts on their minds. They anxiously awaited the arrival of some of their favourite Blue Jays players, for their last stop on the Winter Tour.
Some fans arrived as early as 9:00 am for the 2:00 pm event. Over 700 fans were able to meet and get autographs from Esmil Rogers, Todd Redmond, Brandon Morrow, Dustin McGowan, and fan favourite, Colby Rasmus. Hundreds more were turned away, as the line of fans endlessly snaked through the crowded mall.
Having just avoided salary arbitration the day prior by inking a one-year, $7 million deal, Rasmus seemed relaxed as we chatted. But the topic of conversation wasn’t about money. I was more interested in re-hashing the past, where during the 2013 season, Colby found himself in a major league match-up more rare than a perfect game, batting against his younger brother Cory, who in the game at Toronto on May 27th took the mound in the 7th inning for the Atlanta Braves. The Blue Jays centre fielder got the better of his brother in the at-bat, taking him opposite-field for a double.
Colby mentioned that Cory had given him some hitting tips – suggestions for his swing a couple of days prior to their possible match-up. While inevitably with brothers there will always be competition, the modest Rasmus simply stated that “it was a crazy time”, but when I asked about the dialogue with Cory after the game, he said there really wasn’t any since he’s not the kind to rub it in. Cory has since been moved to the Angels organization, and there is a possibility of a re-match this season, as the Jays will face LA for a 4-game home set in May, and again for a 3-game set on the road in July. Colby remarked,“a few guys have been talking about it. John Gibbons joked about it saying we might get another brother-brother match-up”.
The Mississauga location marked the end of the Jays Winter Tour, which stayed within Ontario this year, having gone cross-country the previous year. Mal Romanin, Manager of Baseball Information and Stephen Brooks, Senior VP, Business Operations for the Jays were both on site, overseeing the successful event. Toronto pitchers and catchers have their first spring training workout in just under three weeks. Even though the snow seems like it may never melt, baseball is in the air.
Torontonians in the winter months must brave everything from frigid temperatures to ice storms and loss of hydro. For many, summer sports such as baseball couldn’t be further from their minds (even though Spring Training is less than a mere 50 days away). But for a select few Blue Jays fans (45 to be exact), on January 9th, 2014 they donned their baseball gear and took to the field at Rogers Centre, having the rare opportunity to interact with baseball greats such as Pat Tabler, Jesse Barfield, Lloyd Moseby, and the most decorated Blue Jays player, Roberto Alomar. The special occasion? Another successful fundraising effort by the Jays Care Foundation, WINTER TRAINING DAY.
The official charitable arm of the Blue Jays was the 2012 recipient of the MLB Commissioner’s Award for Philanthropic Excellence, as well as the 2013 recipient of the Beyond Sport Sports Team of the Year Award. The mission of the organization is to focus energy and resources toward community-based endeavours that develop baseball programs and help children in need to excel academically, get active, and lead healthy lives. To date, Jays Care has invested over $8.2 million in Canadian children and communities. This Winter Training Day raised over $38,000!
Greeted by a young and cheerful staff, myself and my cameraman made our way down onto the field. The participants were being taken through warm-up drills. Safety first, of course. We spoke for several minutes with Pat Tabler, who would spend a good portion of the day at the soft-toss station, giving hitting tips. In speaking with Tabby about his success in pressure situations (hitting nearly .500 with the bases loaded over his career), he attributed it to “being mentally tough”.
We then connected with the Executive Director of the Jays Care Foundation, Danielle Bedasse for a short interview:
While sitting in the dugout, I had the opportunity to speak with several participants, one admittedly in awe at moments, especially of Alomar. For baseball fans – and Blue Jays fans, it’s hard not to be. One fan approached Alomar, shook his hand, and said “I was at the game where you hit back-to-back homeruns from opposite sides of the plate”. Alomar’s eyes lit up, and responded, “right, against Chicago”. Even Hall-of-Famers have their favourite moments. This was obviously one of them.
Alomar looked on while men and women took batting practice throws from Tabler and Moseby. After one participant fouled off a few pitches, Moseby could be heard from the mound saying, “I’ll stay here all day until you hit one hard, baby”. Everyone’s “baby” to Lloyd. Super-friendly with a large grin, Moseby threw pitch after pitch for what must have been half-an-hour. Before interviewing Moseby, we were warned that he had come straight from the airport, and had no sleep. “Could have fooled me”, I thought. His energy is infectious. We reminisced about Lloyd’s infamous base-running blunder, back in 1987 when he stole second base, then in a moment of confusion ran back to first (as the ball had sailed into centre field). The errant throw from the centre fielder by-passed the first baseman, thus allowing Moseby to steal second again! “I’m suing major league baseball for airing that footage” Moseby joked.
Attention to detail and terrific organization was apparent within the entire Winter Training Day event. Announcements over the PA system signaled the rotation of groups between stations (batting practice, soft-toss, hitting instruction, and shagging flies). I can only imagine (as participants experienced) what a thrill it would be to hear your name called over the sound system in Rogers Centre.
Walking beyond the left field wall that Joe Carter’s famous homerun sailed over, we headed down a ramp and into the Jays batting cages where participants would be taking hitting instruction from Jesse Barfield. Always good for a story, Jesse re-enacted a moment in a game where an opposing team’s fan relentlessly heckled him from the stands in right field. Barfield’s response to the fan? A monstrous homerun. The fan never spoke another word.
Upon quietly observing the event from the dugout, I noticed how much fun everyone was having – staff included. The Jays Care Foundation appears to be in great hands. The dedicated team had put together an event that everyone in attendance was bound to remember, for years to come. After all, at the end of a baseball game all you are left with are memories and experiences. It’s even better when they are special ones.
It took some serious consideration before I clicked publish, re-reading and re-naming the title of this post several times. Boston was the one team I didn’t want to see win. After all, John Farrell who had left the Jays for his “dream job” was now hoisting the World Series trophy above his head. Yes, Toronto had a miserably disappointing season. But as a baseball fan, this was one of the more exciting World Series I can remember in years. A good friend of mine said he wished the series would go 14 games. I wondered, would Papi’s injuries have gotten the better of him by then, or would he have been hitting 26-for-32?
The Red Sox showed us several things this year. They showed us how powerful a team can be when they function together. They showed us what the proper leadership can foster (I’m talking about Big Papi, not Farrell…ok, maybe Farrell as well). They showed us how an entire city can rally together to overcome adversity (Boston Strong). And they showed us that they can grow some kick-ass beards. Seriously, how can you not be impressed by this?
How about us Toronto fans take away a few positives from this Boston Championship win? Who in Toronto didn’t want to see John MacDonald and Brian Butterfield get a World Series ring? I know, they’re wearing the wrong uniforms…I digress.
At the end of a LONG 162-game season, a select and fortunate group of players get to play baseball in October. Likely already nursing injuries, some of the ones who can grit their teeth and bare the pain for one more month can be elevated to baseball hero status (even if only for one game). Few become legend. Papi took it to a whole new level. Call him an icon. Call him a beast. He was in a zone even he had never experienced (though he joked that he did it all season long). Papi was the definition of do what I say, and lead by example (it’s rare that both of those happen together). He was a leader through words, and actions. Think it was coincidental that moments after Papi’s game-4 pep-talk in the dugout, that Johnny Gomes hit a home-run which would prove to be the game-winner (and likely the turning point in the series)? Perhaps, but I think if you ask any of the Boston players what impact Papi had on the team morale, energy, and composure, I’m sure you would receive a unanimous answer.
Putting things in perspective, Boston had the season Toronto expected/dreamed of having. The storybook, worst-to-first, against all odds, in the face of adversity kind of season. And as much as you can envy or hate them for it, I have to give credit where credit is due. Thank you Boston for giving us baseball fans a World Series to remember. Never have we experienced one like it (possibly the only thing it was missing was a hidden-ball trick, although the Cards had already been burned by it earlier in the season). Thank you for being gracious winners (and not peeing in the opposing teams pool). And thank you for showing Toronto that worst-to-first is possible. After all, spring training is only 115 days away…
Click here to listen to: Brock discuss the match-up between Tampa and Texas for the remaining Wild Card Spot.
Sometimes 162 games aren’t enough. Game 163 will be the tie-breaker that decides whether Tampa or Texas get a shot at a one-game playoff vs Cleveland for the official Wild Card spot in the AL.
In a one-game scenario, most stats go out the window. It will likely come down to who pitches a gem tonight, Price or Perez.
Both have the potential to throw un-godly stuff.
Baseball fans should be in for a real treat.
Getting an extra game, “Bonus Baseball” if you will, is a treat in itself.
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