Friday, June 3, 2011

Fame and fortune

Aren't rebuilding seasons supposed to be boring and disappointing? Throughout my baseball-watching career, I've watched the Royals and Pirates from a safe distance, aware of the occasional highlight (Zack Greinke! 2003! Come to think of it, I can't think of anything Pirates-related) only because they stand in such stark contrast to the usual misery that surrounds such teams. It's for fear of the negative karma that such "rebuilding" teams project that many teams - such as the Blue Jays - use weasel words like "building" and "long-term plans" in an effort to avoid any associations with a 20-year death spiral.

But this season - which, in spite of the best efforts of the team on the field and the voices in the front office, should absolutely be considered the ebb of a (hopefully quick) rebuilding process - has been anything but slow. In fact, compared to the doldrums of some leaner Ricciardi years, when Lyle Overbay's bland personality and Vernon Wells' carefree attitude lended a mediocre team the air of stagnation, this season has been all about Kid Dynamite. Highs and lows: no-hitters, three homer games. Walkoff wins and blowouts - both in the offensive sense and the bullpen sense. There's been Octavio Dotel striking out Jeff Mathis with the winning run one ball away, there's been Yunel turning a loss into a win, and there's been a little too much of Frank Francisco.

The first two months of the season have been about the youth movement. They've been about upside, potential, and hope. Rookies. Major league debuts. And they've been about failure. After putting up cartoon stats in Vegas, first David Cooper then Eric Thames have gotten a lesson in major league pitching. Cooper couldn't handle it, though Thames has survived fairly well (despite being eaten alive in selective at-bats). And any day now, Brett Lawrie will make his debut after posting the best AAA OPS of the lot. This season has been a coming-out party for Kyle Drabek and JP Arencibia. We've seen terrible players play well (Corey Patterson), and supposedly good players play terribly (Brett Cecil, Travis Snider, Aaron Hill).

But none of that is too far out of the ordinary. They're great subplots, but I could have written many of the same types of things in 2002 about Eric Hinske, Vernon Wells, Josh Phelps and Roy Halladay. What makes this season fascinating, as Blue Jays seasons go, is Jose Bautista.

I guess it could be argued that in the wake of the past decade I had forgotten what the title Home Run King used to mean in the baseball vernacular. Before everyone got sick to death of ubermenchen McGwire and Bonds, the guy who led the league in homers every year was a bona fide superstar. When Cecil Fielder hit 51 home runs in 1990 it was a big deal. When Kid Griffey was hitting 40 a year in the mid-90s, he was considered the best player in baseball. SI covers, commercials, what-have-you - he was the face of baseball. Everyone knew who Griffey was, and it didn't matter that he played for an up-and-coming team in the Pacific Northwest (or pretty much as far as you can get from the nearest major league baseball city...aside from San Juan, I suppose).
I thought I'd seen superstars in Toronto. Clemens had two of the best years of his career here, albeit as a mercenary. Roy Halladay developed into the best pitcher in baseball. Carlos Delgado hit .344 with 41 home runs in 2000. But none of them really got noticed. Pedro's '99-'00 put Clemens in the dust, and he was always destined to be remembered as a Red Sox/Yankee rather than Blue Jay anyway. Halladay was a beast, but a beast who had to be seen to be appreciated. "Santana's better," people would say; then, after Santana went to the other league, it was "hotshot so-and-so has a better ERA. Halladay's a good pitcher, but..." And by 2000, great hitter seasons had become the norm; Delgado didn't even start the All Star Game, much less win the MVP.

Jose Bautista is different. Jose Bautista is mid-career Griffey. He's getting articles in Time. He's leading the world in All-Star votes, which is something I thought I'd never see before I saw the Jays in the playoffs again. He's the best player in baseball, italics necessary. The heir apparent. He's Pujolsing Pujols, who took that mantle from Bonds. He's getting namedropped on virtually every baseball podcast or website south of the border. Halladay's great seasons got footnotes, but Bautista is the headline right now. He had a couple of words with an 0-8 pitcher and it became a story. If he can maintain anything close to the numbers he's produced in the first half of 2011, then we won't have to worry about media coverage in Toronto for a whole lot longer. Before the season, Bautista's fame score might have been in the lower quadrant, but right now he's about a Yankee jersey behind ARod in the baseball world's awareness.

It seems that every day over the past couple of weeks, there's been a different story coming into focus in Blue Jay-land. Jojo Reyes winning; a superprosepct being demoted or promoted; a near-fight on the field; yet another Player-of-the-Month award. It's almost like we're a real team with all that stuff real teams (you know, like the Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox and White Sox) have - melodrama, tension, post-game press conferences. Everything.

Over at GROF, there's a post about how it's cool to be a Blue Jays fan right now. I'm too far away from Toronto these days to know if it's true or merely a projection, but if so, maybe it's a little sad that it takes one measly player leading the world in a overrated stat like homers to make it so. But at the same time, I can't argue with more fans supporting my team on a larger scale. The times, they be a-changing.

1 comment:

  1. attendance numbers are still terribly low