Why does the casual fan watch the Blue Jays this season?

I don’t remember my first Blue Jays game. It was 1997… or was it 1998? A family trip down to Florida was a fairly common occurrence, and this one included a pit stop at Jays spring training in Dunedin. It wasn’t until I was ten or so until I realized not everyone went to Florida regularly. At the tender age of one (or two), there’s not much to really recall.

Four (or five) years later, I experienced the “real thing”, if you will — a regular season game at the SkyDome as a treat for my seventh birthday party.

Here’s the box score, from that game, if you’re curious. A 1-0 loss to the eventual World Series Champion Anaheim Angels, about ten screaming kids in the 500s, and one of them lucky enough to be given a game ball by a team rep from an eight-inning outing from Roy Halladay. Though I wasn’t sure he sure he was the pitcher who used it, I’d always like to think it was a Doc ball. (I’ve also got the Hot Wheels knockoff car that came as a pre-game promotion, if you’re into that stuff.)

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So growing up in Toronto, I ended up going back a lot. It was a big moment when my parents finally let me attend a game without any adult supervision. It was an easy $13 to spend: $9 for the ticket, $4 for the transit, and obviously it was far too expensive to buy food on my allowance, while the ability to buy alcohol was still over half a decade away. Once I hit 19, it made games a little less cost-effective, but a little more manageable when they didn’t pull it out. Most of my story isn’t overly unique, and isn’t meant to be.

I remember a lot of little moments from Jays games over the years I was lucky enough to see live: Jose Bautista’s first homer as a Jay, Justin Verlander’s no-hitter, THAT Rajai Davis catch, among countless others.

I remember thinking it was a great idea before the series began to spend $300 a night for games 4 and 5 of Jays in the 2016 ALCS, when you could pick up tickets under face value once they dropped down 3-0 in Cleveland to start the series off. I’d estimate the number at about 75 trips I’ve made to the ballpark in Toronto, and I’m at 10 other MLB stadiums so far.

I remember AJ Burnett’s return to Toronto to face off against, yep, Roy Halladay.

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Once the projected starters had come out and buzz began to pick up around this game, my friends and I began planning around it. I guess I mentioned it in passing to my parents at one point, came home from school all ready to head down to the dome and buy the cheapest tickets I could.

It was a gem for Halladay, as he went the distance in a 5-1 victory over the Yankees.  The crowd of 43,737 was the biggest non-home opener crowd in recent memory.

My parents didn’t let me go.

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I think their reasoning was I’d been to a game the week earlier and would be too tired, or something like that.

My friends didn’t get in until the fourth inning, but they got there just in time for the Jays to score their first three runs. It was a crowd experience unlike anything I’d get for several more seasons, and it took me a long time to let missing that one go.

But the one I think I’ll remember most that I did go to from my childhood: surprise, another Roy Halladay start in September 2003. Looking for his 22nd victory of the season to set a Jays record, Doc was thrown out of the game for hitting Rocco Baldelli with a pitch in the fifth inning, long before his expected pull time. The Jays lost 5-2, in front of an upset and confused crowd.

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(That box score is here.)

From the CBC game story:

Halladay had plunked Damian Rolls earlier in the game.

“I’m trying to do the best I can to get out of the inning,” Halladay explained. “I cannot see why they think I would try to hit somebody right there.

“I don’t really know. It all kind of happened really fast.

“I think they thought we were retaliating for something, but I don’t know what. I still don’t really understand it.”

We’d gotten tickets in the nicest seats I’d had to that point: about 25 rows behind home plate, given to us from a family member. Early in the start, Halladay tossed a pitch towards home, like he’d done thousands of other times: except this one was fouled off and came straight at my dad and I.

This wasn’t your Hollywood “kid catches a loopy fly ball” story. This was “Jesus H. CHRIST that baseball is fast” story.

It nailed my dad right in his hands, and he was convinced he’d broken his thumb. I think the ball might’ve bounced around into his lap, but hey, it was our baseball! Second time in as many years I’d picked up a baseball from a game Halladay pitched. I’ve, of course, still got both of them.

I’ve had a lot of great Jays memories over the years, and you don’t need another thinkpiece on what the 2015 ALDS Game 5 meant for a long-time struggling Toronto sports fan kid.

But despite all these memories and the time and money I’ve invested in the team, I still can’t really classify myself as anything more than a casual Jays fan. I wouldn’t throw myself in the bandwagon category, but if you’d like to, go ahead.

By about late June each year, I wouldn’t find myself rushing to turn the TV on for the Jays like I was on Opening Day. Nothing else going on? The Jays were always there. But it seemed like about a week before Labour Day was the end of the Jays’ season, where we’d start getting columns about how the team was finally out of the playoff hunt they never had much of a shot being in anyway, despite having thirty-odd games to play. September baseball?  Hell, even preseason hockey seems more appetizing than watching the Jays pick up loss #86 on the season.

I’ve given up on the Jays… about 14 times now. And like I said earlier, I don’t think my story is all that unique.

It’s not like I ever picked a different team or stopped wanting them to succeed. It’s not like I ever fell out of love with baseball or tuned out of the playoffs.

I just stopped watching the Jays almost cold turkey several times, because, well, mostly all the reasons were gone. And it’s hard to get pissed off when you’re so used to it. It’s even harder to really believe in them.

Including 2015 and 2016, when you could watch the Jays every day just because they were, those Jays, the team has finished second or higher in the AL East just three times in the time I’ve been watching them. We’ve been fed narratives about how it’s hard to win and compete in a division with New York and Boston, only to see Baltimore (in 2014) and Tampa Bay (in 2008 and 2010) break open that narrative. Sure, it might be the exception, rather than the rule, but when you show up to watch a team wearing throwback uniforms of the the 92-93 Jays your entire childhood, it starts to push you away a little when they play like the *gestures at a two-decade playoff hiatus* Blue Jays.

If you wanted to watch the Jays, there was always something worth following, but it was almost never a playoff push.

For a long time, it was Doc’s starts.  But that’s once a week, twice if you’re really lucky. There’s four or five other games you’d have to get through, and they were often excruciating. Remember Jo-Jo Reyes? Josh Towers?  Despite the perpetual mediocrity, there were always reasons to be positive, even if you were lying to yourself a little bit about how much it mattered.

Whether it was Jose’s home run push, or… Jose’s other home run push…or the surprise all-star emergence of (insert breakout season here) yep, we’ve definitely had some moments!

But for every time there’s been something to get excited about, there’s been another letdown. Remember the acquisition of Sergio Santos, the stabilizing force to the Jays’ bullpen woes? The return of Cito Gaston for his second stint as manager that would turn around the franchise? BJ Ryan? The winter 2012 blockbuster trade with Miami, where the Jays then ended up finishing… 5th in the AL East the following year? Travis Snider as a dark-horse MVP candidate? (Okay, that last one was just me being a dumbass who bought into a few early home runs.) Caring about 162 games of mostly nonsense year after year? Does it reflect on me poorly if I can’t be up for that?

And so right now I’m searching for that something, just one rational cause to rally behind.

I’d love for it to be Vlad Guerrero Jr.’s emergence as a top-tier talent. I’d love to never hear the term “Vlad Jr.’s service time” again in a few months and see him invoke fear in pitchers around the league.

I’d love for Charlie Montoyo to come in and immediately shock the league with his performance as a first-year manager. I’d love for Billy McKinney to become an All-Star out of nowhere. I’d love for Aaron Sanchez or Marcus Stroman to come back with a vengeance and become a Cy Young candidate.

I’ll be there at least ten times this year, and I’ll have their broadcasts on most nights, at least in the background. I’d love to keep watching intently by September and be having arguments about their bullpen usage.

I don’t think anyone really expects much of the Blue Jays this year. I don’t have a grand analysis of when, or if, they’ll be competing for a playoff spot again. I don’t have a grand opinion on the pros and cons of Russ Atkins and Mark Shapiro’s vision for the team.

But if this casual fan can ask for anything, it’s for the Jays to give me a reason to keep watching until game 162.