Toronto, Ontario is a fine city. Loads of attractions, very pretty, friendly people, money to be made, high quality of life, film industry giant, Toronto has it all. That being said, I guess I can't blame professional baseball players too much for not wanting to go there to play for the long haul. After all, Toronto's baseball team, the Blue Jays, plays in the Skydome (no, I don't care that the name "Rogers Centre" is now plastered all over it; it will always and forever be the Skydome), one of the few fields left still in the habit of using astroturf, and a cavernous crib with lukewarm fans to whom baseball is lumped in with other sports as a distant second to hockey and all the intimacy of Central Park. The Blue Jays also have the misfortune of playing in the AL East, otherwise known as the New York Yankees/Boston Red Sox minefield, where they're just one of the other three teams regularly stuck in the crossfire.
Toronto was in the discussion as a potential Major League Baseball city way back starting in the 1880's, and no, that's not a typo. From 1896 to 1967, Toronto was fielding an International League team called the Maple Leafs. In 1976, the first real effort to get a team into Toronto was pushed by Horace Stoneham. Recognize that name? He owned the San Francisco Giants at the time, and yes, he had every intention of turning them into the Toronto Giants when he tried to sell them to Labatt Breweries of Canada - basically the Canadian version of Budweiser. A US court put the clamps on that deal, though, and the next year Bob Lurie came along, bought the Giants, and kept them in San Francisco. But by the time that happened, Toronto was already so convinced of the Giants' relocation that they had already built a baseball stadium, Exhibition Stadium, so perhaps out of embarrassment, they kept gunning for that baseball team. Labatt led the effort again, and in 1976 they managed to buy the rights to an MLB team, along with Seattle, which also got a new team for themselves. The placement of America's Pastime in Canada didn't sit well with a lot of Americans who thought Washington DC needed another new team, but those didn't amount to anything. Toronto kept their new team. The name came from a name the team contest from which over 4000 entries popped up.
The Blue Jays began play in 1977, when they Jays beat the Chicago White Sox in a minor snowstorm. That was the first victory for the Toronto Blue Jays, which was the first of 54 that year in a last place finish. The next season saw the Jays improve, shall I say, exponentially (sic). But hey, an improvement was an improvement, even if it was by only four and a half games. By the next season, let's just say…. Things were expected. Things happened, and the Jays finished last again, going 53-109. At least 1979 gave fans something to watch with rookie shortstop Alfredo Griffin, who was co-Rookie of the Year.
In baseball, finishing a season with over 100 losses once usually gets you axed. Doing it three straight times means the owner's daughter must love you. But in baseball, loss will overcome love, and the Jays' first manager, Roy Hartsfield, was let go. Bobby Mattick took over. The Jays…. Remained at the bottom. Standings didn't make the whole story that year, though, and despite finishing last again, the team showed a very substantial improvement with a 67-95 record. Jim Clancy led the pitching rotation with 13 wins and John Mayberry hit 30 homers.
It wasn't until 1982 that the Jays put up an effort which could easily be called solid. Bobby Cox came in to manage, and Toronto went 78-84. It was their first season not being in last. They came next to last, but that's splitting hairs, especially seeing as how the Blue Jays reeled off two very good years following. In 1983 and 1984, they ended the season finishing 89-73, coming in second place both years behind eventual World Series Champions in both years. In 1984, they also picked up a Dominican shortstop named Tony Fernandez, who stayed with the team for awhile and became a big fan favorite. In 1985, the Jays won the first of five division titles.
Yep, it's safe to say that by the late 80's, everything was comin' up Blue Jay. Jesse Barfield and George Bell were hitting home runs all over the place, Jimmy Key and Jim Clancy turned into good, reliable pitchers, the Skydome opened in 1989, and hitting coach Cito Gaston was promoted to regular manager that same year. In 1990, Dave Stieb pitched a no-hitter, the only one in the team's history. That was the year the Blue Jays began loading up. They traded Tony Fernandez and Fred McGriff to the San Diego Padres for Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar, grabbed Devon White from the California Angels, and in 1991 they became the first MLB team to draw over 4 million fans in a season, a number no doubt inflated by the Skydome's massive size.
In 1992, the Blue Jays went 96-66, and were never swept in any season series. They met the Oakland Athletics in the ALCS, which included a thrilling comeback win in game four in which the Jays rallied back from a 6-1 hole. They took the ALCS four games to two, won the Pennant, and brought the World Series outside the United States for the first time ever when they faced the Atlanta Braves. In game two of the World Series, the Jays won off a ninth-inning home run from Ed Sprague. Stellar individual efforts from Jimmy Key, Pat Borders, and Mike Timlin kept the Blue Jays in the Series. Ed Sprague and Dave Winfield came through in clutch moments, and the Toronto Blue Jays walked out of Atlanta on October 24, 1992 with Canada's first-ever World Series title. In 1993, the Blue Jays had seven players at the All-Star game. That happened en route to a 95-67 record and their second World Series title, this time against the Philadelphia Phillies.
The strike turned out to be a good thing for the Blue Jays because, despite high expectations going with, you know, back to back World Series titles, they started to slump. In 1995, those titles started to take their toll, and the Blue Jays started developing an endless case of World Series hangover. The 1995 team had most of the same cast as their World Series teams, but they finished 56-88, good enough for last. 1996 wasn't quite that bad a write-off. The Blue Jays did get solid years out of pitcher Pat Hentgen, who won the Cy Young, and Ed Sprague. Those didn't prevent them from winning only 74 games and finishing fourth. 1997 began with higher hopes than the previous couple of years because the Boston Red Sox once had a hell of an ace pitcher named Roger Clemens. Although Clemens had been bad over the previous few seasons with Boston and the Red Sox had every good reason to let him go, Clemens decided to teach Boston a lesson by showing up in good shape in Toronto. He won the Cy Young and the Pitchers' Triple Crown, leading the league in record, ERA, and strikeouts. It wasn't enough to lift the Jays back into contention, and Cito Gaston was fired with five more games left in the season.
That actually became sort of the theme of the Toronto Blue Jays for the next couple of years. In 1998, they got Randy Myers and Jose Canseco. They did much better, going 88-74, but that was only good for third while the New York Yankees posted 114 wins that year. In 1999, they got David Wells, Homer Bush, and Graeme Lloyd. But they also fired their manager, Tim Johnson, because he lied about a lot of things apparently to motivate his players. Jim Fregosi was a capable replacement - hell, even David Wells liked him - but the Jays couldn't make up for having Clemens traded to the Yankees. In 2000, the Jays had a great hitting lineup with Carlos Delgado, Tony Batista, Jose Cruz Jr., Raul Mondesi, and a bunch of others. It was another winning season, but not quite winning enough. By 2001, the Jays were back under the even break mark.
The Toronto Blue Jays since then have been respectable. They've had more winning seasons than losing seasons, but they've never cracked 90 wins, and mostly they seem stuck in 80-win territory no matter what their record looks like. They've played some great players: Ted Lilly, Roy Halladay, Vernon Wells, Troy Glaus, Alex Rios, and Frank Thomas have all been Blue Jays since the millennium. They've had some fun All-Stars. These haven't translated to very much. Perhaps if the Blue Jays were an AL Central team, they could have done a bit more damage, won a couple of division titles, and returned to the postseason and maybe even the World Series. Unfortunately, the eternal soap opera between the Yankees and Red Sox has been stealing both the talent and the attention. The Blue Jays are trying very, very hard to be as good as they were in the late 80's and early 90's again. If anything shows that, it's this current offseason. When the Miami Marlins decided to dump all their players again, it was Toronto that caught their biggest: Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle, Jose Reyes, Emilio Bonifacio. As I write this, it's two days after the Jays also made a trade with the New York Mets which netted RA Dickey, who is coming off a spectacular season for an underperforming Mets team in which he won the Cy Young, one of the few knuckleball pitchers to ever do that.
Roberto Alomar, Pat Gillick, Rickey Henderson, Phil Niekro, Dave Winfield, and Paul Molitor are the Blue Jays enshrined in Cooperstown. Only Alomar is in the Hall wearing the Blue Jays logo. Tony Fernandez, George Bell Boberto Alomar, Carlos Delgado, Joe Carter, Dave Stieb, Cito Gaston, Tom Cheek, Paul Beeston, and Pat Gillick are all honored with numbers in the 400 level of the Skydome, which is called the Level of Excellence. Delgado's enshrinement there hasn't happened just yet; it will occur next year, on July 21. These numbers, however, aren't actually retired.
Outside of the Cito Gaston years with five division titles and two World Series titles, there's not a lot of big defining moments which people identify exclusively with the Blue Jays. They are identified primarily by the fact that they're the only Canadian team in Major League baseball, Montreal having lost the Expos in 2005. The Blue Jays are the only MLB team covered through all of Canada, although their only exclusive territory is in Ontario, Quebec, and Newfoundland, and the territories (Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, and Yukon). They share New Brunswick and Nova Scotia with the Boston Red Sox. Manitoba and Saskatchewan are the shared territory of the Minnesota Twins, while Alberta and British Columbia also have Toronto's expansion mates, the Seattle Mariners.
It's also very difficult to identify rivalries for the Blue Jays. Technically, they have to spend the most time dealing with the Yankees, Red Sox, Baltimore Orioles, and Tampa Bay Rays. But hell, that's their division, the AL East, and everything there takes a backseat to the constant mudslinging between the Yankees and Red Sox. Even the recently-powerful Rays and resurgent Orioles still find themselves ducking under the crossfire in the Boston/New York arms race taking place twelve months every year.
You have to like the Toronto Blue Jays. They're trying to make noise in a division which has baseball's two loudest noisemakers. You have to believe in the city of Toronto, Canada's cultural, economic response to New York City. The Jays, I'm sure, will keep fighting for their recognition, as well as for the next World Series title which it always seems to have potential to take.