Photo Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
In the replay of Edwin Encarnacion’s eleventh inning, Wild Card game-winning home run, there is a shot of a smiling woman in the stands, exuberantly clutching a homemade sign that reads, “Never Say Die.”
It’s a phrase that best characterizes everything we’ve endured during the Jays 2016 season up until this point. It’s a description of a couple of months of baseball that have, on any given game day, felt painfully up in the air, if not hanging by a thread. That feeling, of course, has its own inherent reward; if things ultimately go well, you get to feel the way I’m sure a lot of us were feeling after Tuesday’s game. Elation. Joy. Hope. Gratitude. The experience of anything being possible.
“It was pretty similar to [Bautista’s] home run last year, to be honest.” Osuna commented on Encarnacion’s blast. “It was unbelievable.”
Unbelievable is definitely a good word to use to describe what happened in the final moments of that Wild Card game. Much like the now mythic game five of last year’s ALDS, the drama felt scripted, even cliché, as if it was an inspirational film plot constructed solely for maximum impact. It was baseball at its most emotionally manipulative, leaving us blissfully exhausted and psychologically hungover. After dealing with the occasional temptation to question why I love this game so much, especially when it has such a capacity to disappoint, now I definitely have my answer.
I’m okay with admitting that when I nervously put on my blue cap and t-shirt Tuesday afternoon I wasn’t totally comfortable that Jays would be able squeeze their way into the ALDS. That doesn’t mean I didn’t have my signature optimism, and my unwavering belief in the aforementioned “never say die” attitude of this team. It just means I was wholly terrified and sufficiently tortured through all those scoreless innings, innings that felt like they may drag on into an exhausting oblivion. It means I prayed, and I wished, and I concentrated real hard, like somehow my personal, unwavering conviction would somehow have an effect on the result.
And then, after all that waiting, Edwin tossed his bat away, and threw his hands above his head in glorious triumph.
I’ve long thought that one of the cruelest (yet necessary) things about the game of baseball is that it’s always at its very best when the lead up to victory is a terrible onslaught of uncertainty. When the unbelievable struggles its way into becoming believable. If that game had at any point felt in the bag, if the lead was safe, secure, and inevitable, the outcome just would not have been as delicious. We are better for how hard it was, despite the fact that we may not have felt that way when the game went into extra innings.
Amidst the fervor, frenzy and fear that filled Rogers Stadium, there was a tiny, quiet gasp of a moment, just before the ball sailed over the outfield wall in the bottom of the eleventh inning. Edwin connected, and he stood there, taking it all in, and we just knew. He knew, and the entire Jays dugout knew, and 49,934 fans knew. We knew that the painful road to October has in fact been well worth the slog, because we get to be a part of this incredible—and incredibly rare—experience, one where we consistently see our team never, ever say die. After all that doubt and insecurity, all that lamenting the fact that the AL East slipped from our grasp, we have started to let ourselves dream about the World Series again.
Those pesky questions about whether or not the Jays should have popped some bubbly, dumped out some Bud Light, and celebrated going to the wildcard game just seem silly now. The petty conjecture about supposed clubhouse toxicity, and juvenile media conflicts frankly seem ridiculous. Witnessing Troy Tulowitzki get vertical air as he leapt into the circle of his huddled teammates, seeing Josh Donaldson emotively hug Devon Travis in relieved celebration—it made all of that useless noise disappear. When you scroll through images of these incredibly happy men wholly embracing each other, the general griping, whining, and complaining just slips away into something so much better.
The Blue Jays have good reason to celebrate, and so do we. Their starting pitching was solid, the bullpen didn’t implode, and the bats were working. (Sure, they could have worked more comfortably, but they worked nonetheless.) I’m not even willing to entertain the notion that the win was solely dependent on Buck Showalter’s management failures, or that if he had put in ace closer Zach Britton the end result would have been that much different, because frankly I think that diminishes what was achieved. The Jays have been admirably relentless, valiantly coming back from what had the potential to be demoralizing end to their season. They deserve all the credit for that.
The Wild Card game reaffirmed for me that it doesn’t matter how many times you tune in, you’ll always find that baseball has the capacity to surprise you. As my friend Chris Turner so aptly put it, “You can watch 100,000 games, and it will still deliver magic when you least expect it.” Those final moments were indeed the best kind of baseball magic, the kind that you just know you’ll be recounting to your loved ones for years to come. Sure, that may sound cliché, but funny thing is, it turns out cliché is the best kind of baseball.
As the Toronto Blue Jays prepare to fight another day against their old rivals in Texas, there’s a lot to be grateful for, and a great deal of electric energy to relish in. They still have a long way to go before their work here is done, but for now find some solace amidst the worry of what’s to come. We are lucky. We were blessed. We got to be a part of the best baseball has to offer. We got to see our team make the unbelievable believable.