In the middle of September, smack in the heat of the American League East baseball pennant race, I wandered Manhattan in search of a place to watch the Toronto Blue Jays play the New York Yankees.
It didn’t go well. New York was not exactly in love with that particular Yankees team, and the bars were showing college football and soccer. Hours earlier, I had been outside Yankee Stadium, and though there were a lot of Yankee fans, as you’d expect, there was a shocking number of people wearing Toronto blue and white. Blue Jays jerseys were everywhere: Donaldson, Bautista, Encarnacion. Even one that said “De Ro” on the back. I was confused until I looked closer and determined the guy in the DeRo jersey was, in fact, Dwayne DeRosario, the former Toronto FC striker.
Later that night, with the Jays and Yankees still slogging through a rain-delayed doubleheader, I sat on a plane at LaGuardia airport. It seemed like every other person who boarded had come straight from Yankee Stadium. People furiously checked their phones for updates before the order came to shut them off. One woman proudly explained her subscription to an MLB app that allowed her to stream audio of the game. She cranked up the volume so others around her could hear it.
This was what the Blue Jays of 2015 had wrought: their late-season imitation of a wrecking ball had enraptured not just Toronto for the first time in a decade, not just a country that was setting television-ratings records, but a plane, sitting on the tarmac, in New York.
That seems a lifetime ago now. The magical run lasted well into October, with Jose Bautista taking his place alongside Robbie Alomar and Joe Carter as authors of the franchise’s signature moments, even if Bautista will be remembered less for the home run he hit in Game 5 against Texas and more for the remarkably violent bat flip that followed it.
The Blue Jays rolled to 93 wins, their best total since their World Series years in the early 1990s, and a string of sellouts pushed attendance to totals not seen since those years, either. They thumped opponents so regularly that their run differential for just the second half of the season (+139) was better than any other team compiled over the whole of 2015 (St. Louis, +122). It was no surprise the Blue Jays were an overwhelming choice as Postmedia’s Team of the Year.
The Jays outlasted the Rangers in their first playoff series in 22 years and gave Kansas City a stern test in the American League Championship Series, but the Royals had a few more big plays, which was enough to win it in six games. When it was over, and the Blue Jays sombrely picked at food and sipped beers in the visitors clubhouse at Kauffman Stadium, they said they knew they had a good enough team to win it all.
Indeed, the Royals went on to dispatch the New York Mets in five games in a World Series in which Kansas City continued its bizarre late-game heroics. The Royals scored 15 of their 22 runs against the Mets in the eighth inning or later. They were baseball’s vampires.
The 2015 season was very much about new blood. Other than the Royals, who had lost in the World Series in 2014, the other three LCS teams — Toronto, New York and the Chicago Cubs — ended long playoff droughts. None of them had monstrous payrolls; all were between 10th (Toronto) and 15th (New York) in the majors.
But as the calendar year ended, baseball’s behemoths asserted themselves again. The Boston Red Sox, fourth in payroll in 2015, gave US$217-million to two-month Blue Jay David Price. The Cubs gave a combined $272 million to outfielder Jason Heyward, infielder Ben Zobrist and pitcher John Lackey. The San Francisco Giants, with the third-highest payroll in 2015, still managed to spend $220 million on two starting pitchers: Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija. Even the small-market Arizona Diamondbacks got a little punchy, giving $34 million a year to pitcher Zack Greinke, scooping him from the L.A. Dodgers, which was thought to be the one team that couldn’t be outspent.
Once the fleet of Brinks trucks had been exhausted, the 2016 payroll leaders looked set to include the usual big-market teams: the Dodgers, the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Giants and now the Cubs. The Detroit Tigers also kept themselves in the upper payroll reaches, giving $22 million per year to Jordan Zimmermann to replace Price in their rotation. It was, again, a clear indication that the best way to ensure competitiveness in baseball is to spend wildly, even foolishly.
Will any of the long-term contracts just handed out look good in four or five years? Probably not. But the prevailing sentiment among baseball’s big fish is to spend now and worry about the consequences possibly never.
And so, Kansas City, the scrappy small-market darlings, loses Cueto, Zobrist, and reliever Ryan Madson from their championship team.
And so Toronto, the big-market team with a corporate owner in Rogers that decrees it spend like a biggish-market team, watches Price walk and instead spends $62 million on (welcome back) J.A. Happ and the returning Marco Estrada. New president Mark Shapiro and new GM Ross Atkins, both of whom arrived from Cleveland — total 2015 payroll of $42 million — talk not about making a splash like departed swashbucklers Alex Anthopoulos and Paul Beeston, but of spending prudently and cautiously.
For a time, the 2015 Blue Jays and their fans were drunk on ambition.
It is the chilly morning after now, and the team wants no more of that recklessness.