Jordan Heath-Rawlings: This is the strangest year in a long time. So it’s only fitting that any league attempting to play sports in a pandemic would be having its strangest season. And of all the teams having strange years during strange times, the Toronto Blue Jays are probably having the strangest.
Baseball announcer: Two out, shipped off to the right and a one, two pitch. Swing and a miss to finish the ball game. And for the first time in four years, the Toronto Blue Jays are going back to the post season.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: If you haven’t been paying attention and there’s a lot going on, so you can be forgiven for that, the major league baseball playoffs start today and the Toronto Blue Jays will be playing in them. The same Blue Jays who played exactly zero baseball games in Toronto this season. The same team that clinched a playoff spot that’s never been clinched before because this is the only season in which that playoff spot has existed. The same Blue Jays who were thought by basically everyone except them to be young and talented, but still a year or two away from being good.
Baseball announcer: Bases are loaded. The three, one swing at a high fly ball out to left centre field and that ball is gone.
Second baseball announcer: Gurriel gets into one and sends it a long way to left field, and this is going to go all of the sudden…
Third baseball announcer: And now Lourdes Gurriel Jr. steps in. The pitch is hit high in the air out to the deep left field, and you can forget it. That ball is long gone.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: And now that team has the opportunity to make their weird year even weirder, and to maybe give a country a lift in the process, or at least a badly needed distraction. So who are the Blue Jays? What the hell happened this season and what happens next?
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings . This is the Big Story. Arden Zwelling is a senior writer at Sportsnet. He covers the Blue Jays among other things. He also talks about them and the rest of baseball on a podcast called At the Letters. Hey Arden.
Arden Zwelling: Jordan, how you doing man? Long time.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: It has been awhile since our Sportsnet days, and I’m glad that we could get you to walk us through this really strange year.
Arden Zwelling: Yeah, absolutely. From, front to back, basically from the day that they shut down spring training in March, it has been just nonstop weirdness, but we made it to the wall close to the finish line.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Well, take me back to before this whole year went off the rails. When spring training was opening before the pandemic, what was this year supposed to be like for the Blue Jays?
Arden Zwelling: Well, the Blue Jays came into 2020 in the before times, as he said before the pandemic, as a young team, a team that’s coming out of a rebuild process that has seen them lose 95 games last season, nearly 90 the season before that. Quite a few lean years as some of the players that Blue Jays fans from 2015 and 2016 were familiar with such as Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Marcus Stroman, Aaron Sanchez, as those players were, were cast away and jettisoned in favour of younger future talent and as the club’s president Mark Shapiro and its general manager, Ross Atkins, underwent a process to basically overhaul the entire organization. Make it younger in their mind, to make it more athletic, make it better positioned to be successful long term and to create sustainable success going forward. Those 2015 and 2016 teams that were built on veterans were not built to last.That was really the last gasp for a lot of those players. You think about it. Bautista no longer in the game, Russell Martin no longer in the game, David Price didn’t pitch this year, and is very much on the last legs of his career. So the Blue Jays drafted, developed, traded for young players and came into this season trying to kind of come out of that process, start winning again. They weren’t expected to reach the postseason, but they were expected to be more competitive than they have been in recent years. I think most objective projections had them around .500, which is a feat in baseball. You play 162 games. That’s 81 wins. That’s where the Blue Jays were expected to be, and then 2021 was anticipated to be the year when it was go time and time to win and all in, and time to make some, some moves to bolster a major league roster and turn this thing around.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: What happened to this team and how did they handle it? As baseball started to come back after, I guess, four months of total inactivity. And, it was starting to become clear there would be a shortened season of some form, what was going on around the Jays at that point?
Arden Zwelling: Well, a lot of uncertainty is the way that, that I would put it. When baseball started coming back to life again, essentially in late, June, all the Blue Jays players reported to Dunedin, Florida, which is where the Blue Jays spring training facility is. And at that point, they had no idea where they were going to conduct what was sort of unofficially deemed summer camp, which was like spring training 2.0, which was basically an abbreviated training camp to get prepared for. As you mentioned, this strange 60 game season that was going to be played amidst a pandemic. And the Blue Jays front office and their, you know, executives and the business ops people and their events people, they were going through quite a process just to figure out one ,where spring training would be held, whether it’s going to be there in Dunedin with Blue Jays at their facilities, whether it was going to be in Toronto at Rogers Centre. And then two, where the Blue Jays were going to play their home schedule and their regular season games. When you’re talking about crossing the border between Canada and the United States, which was closed at the time due to the pandemic, and having clubs coming into Toronto, to play games from places such as St. Pete, Florida, and Miami, Florida, which were at the time raging epicentres of the pandemic. Having clubs coming in from New York as well and Boston, it was concerning to Canadian governmental officials. So, the first step was getting spring training approved to play in Toronto and the Blue Jays got that. So, eventually most of the Blue Jays flew north to Toronto for spring training. Some of them had to be left behind because there actually was a positive COVID test among the Blue Jays. Most of the Blue Jays went to Toronto and lived at the Rogers Centre. They stayed at the hotel at the Rogers Centre, they didn’t leave the building they weren’t permitted to leave the building. You know, via the quarantine act, they could have been technically, they could have been in prison if they did, you know, they could have been fined up to $750,000 if they did. So, the Blue Jays lived in Rogers Centre throughout, quote on quote, summer camp as the front office, tried to figure out where the at your season games are going to be played. And the Blue Jays had a lot of hope that that was going to happen in Toronto. They prepared a document of codes and procedures that they were going to follow in order to do that as safely as possible. It was over a hundred pages, hours, and days and weeks of work went into that. And it was all for naught because the Canadian federal government did not give the Blue Jays permission to play their regular season games in Toronto. So the next step was, where are we going to go? And the Blue Jays explored an opportunity to play in Baltimore, the Camden yards along with the Orioles, didn’t get approval to do that. They explored an opportunity to play in Pittsburgh at PNC park, with the Pirates, didn’t get approval to do that. As the Blue Jays headed out to begin their season, they did not know where their home games were going to be played and they actually ended up spending about the first three weeks of the season on an extended road trip playing home games in other teams’ ballparks because they didn’t have a home of their own. Ultimately, the Blue Jays ended up in Buffalo, which is the home of their Triple A franchise, the Bisons, the Triple A affiliate. The Bisons, and that’s where they ended up playing their home games. It was strange and weird, and it created a lot of adversity for the players. But obviously they were up to the task because they have gotten through this season and all the challenges that have been thrown their way in a playoff position.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Tell me about those few weeks when the season was starting, the Jays were on the road and kind of still looking for a place to play. I mean, you covered the team, you’re talking to people in and around the club. How out of control or scrambling was it? Because I know for those of us kind of hearing the updates day by day, it sounded like it nobody knew what was going to happen.
Arden Zwelling: It was a roller coaster, not only for us watching this play out from a distance, but for the players because the players have signed up for this 60 game season amidst a pandemic with all kinds of procedures and policies that they have to follow and all kinds of rules about which public spaces you can and cannot go to. And obviously, mask wearing and sanitization rules over how much time you can spend at the ballpark and this, that and the other, but you think about it,all these players have families. Many of them have young children, many of them have wives and partners. And, they weren’t sure when they were going to be able to see their families again, also, they weren’t sure where they were going to be in a few weeks. So that made it really difficult, I think on the players, I think that made it really a grind. I think about Hyun-jin Ryu in particular, who was Toronto’s free agent splash in the off-season. They gave him a four-year $80 million contract. He’s a South Korean pitcher who had spent most of his, or the entirety of his MLB career with Los Angeles Dodgers. Well, the Blue Jays signed pre-pandemic and at the time his wife, who is a sports reporter in South Korea, was pregnant. And she was due around March or April and Hyun-jin Ryu had worked with the Blue Jays to create a plan for her to give birth in Toronto at a hospital in Toronto. This is all pre-pandemic. Suddenly, pandemic hits, the Blue Jays aren’t going to Toronto anymore. Hyun-jin Ryu and his wife are in Dunedin, Florida, which is where the Blue Jays rolled in spring training , and Hyun-jin Ryu actually ended up spending the shutdown and the pandemic in Dunedin living at Russell Martin’s house, Russell Martin, his friend from his Los Angeles Dodgers days. And his wife actually ended up giving birth in Dunedin, which was never the plan. And after that, she went home back to South Korea with their new daughter, and Hyun-jin Ryu did not see them for months at a time. So I think there were, there was a lot of challenges and adversity that went into this beyond what you might just see on the field.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: How did they do amidst that adversity for the first part of the season?
Arden Zwelling: The results on field in the first part of the season were a struggle, certainly. The Blue Jays blew a number of winnable games. They got walked off, which means that, you know, the, the other team, the opposition of one in the bottom of the ninth inning. In three of their first 13 games, they had a bunch of dispiriting losses. They had a number of times where they had leads going into the seventh or eighth inning and ended up coughing them up. There was a lot of us writing articles at the time and saying these are the sort of things that could come back to bite the steam, especially in a 60 game season. It’s a third of the length of what a season normally would be. So if you are giving up winnable games early on, you might see the results of that for, you know, at the end, when you are one or two games out of the post season. And you’re thinking, man, if we’d only won that one in Philadelphia earlier on or in St. Pete against Tampa Bay earlier on. So it was certainly a struggle throughout that first third of the season, I would say. But it was like actually right around the 20 game mark when things really started to turn around.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: What was the turning point?
Arden Zwelling: I don’t know if there was a specific turning point. I think the Blue Jays just started to, A, pitch better. You know Hyun-jin Ryu actually started the season fairly slow. He had a few rough starts and in the early going. And I mean a rough start for him is a fine start for anybody else. But the standard for him is, is so, so high. And then, you know, right around, you know, mid-August, early August, even, he really turned things around and he started to look a lot more like the Cy Young caliber pitcher the Blue Jays thought that they were going to acquire. The club’s bullpen as well, really pulled itself out of some, some tough results in the first third of the season and ended up being quite a strength for the club. You know, a number of names that had been coming up through the minor league system, and who the Blue Jays had been developing for years, such as Ryan Borucki or Nate Pearson or, Patrick Murphy, Thomas Hatch, Anthony Kay, who was acquired in a trade for Marcus Stroman last season. They arrived in the majors and they excelled, and they were pitching very, very well, and the Blue Jays had one of baseball’s best bullpens, essentially through that second, third of the season. And also, in a funny way, there was a day I remember. It was a Sunday when the Blue Jays were playing the Tampa Bay Rays , and they not only lost the game, but they also lost Bo Bichette, who is their young emerging superstar shortstop. Yeah, he’s in his second year in the league, but he has put up phenomenal offensive numbers. He’s the son of Dante Bichette, who, you know, is a long time great for the Colorado Rockies and is now on the Blue Jays coach staff actually. They lost him to an injury, and it was an extended absence. You know, he was lost for quite a while, and when that happened, it was right when the Blue Jays were losing a lot of games and now they had lost a real offensive force in their lineup. And, you know, it was easy to look at it, say, wow, this is going to be tough for them to get over this and for them to come out of this, but they actually played really well without Bichette in the lineup.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So they are beginning the playoffs today, and before we sort of get into the matchups and what people should watch for, I know it might be harder because you haven’t been able to like be around the team the way you normally would, but what’s the personality of this group? If you had to kind of describe how these guys play, what their outlook is, et cetera, you know, who are they?
Arden Zwelling: Confident is a word that I would say. You talk to guys like Bo Bichette, and Cavan Biggio, , also son of the big leaguer Greg Biggio, who is in the hall of fame. Very, very confident when you talk to those guys, even before the pandemic, even before the 60 game season, you know, when the Blue Jays were just coming into 2020 , you believing it was a 162 game season before social distancing was a word that we ever used. Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, players like that would tell you we’re better than everyone thinks we are. And we’re going to win. It’s something that has really materialized organically throughout the organization.When you’re talking about players, like Bichette and Biggio, and obviously Vladimir Guerrero jr, who was, you know, he was the top prospect in baseball coming out of the Blue Jays system. Again, son of a former big leaguer, son of a hall of Famer. You know, a guy who the Blue Jays signed out of the Dominican Republic and who made it to the big leagues at 20. All these players have known each other for a long time and have played together on minor league teams that have won.
They won a championship at high A with Dunedin. They won a championship at double A with New Hampshire. Their manager on those teams. John Schneider, is now on the Blue Jays coaching staff as a major league coach who works with the club’s catchers. So they have all really come up through the organization together and all they’ve done is win. They don’t understand the Blue Jays history that a lot of fans are familiar with where this team was out of the post season for more than two decades, and where 2015 and 2016 was this sort of great release of emotion and pent up frustration over the fact that this franchise just could not break through for so long. They don’t understand, you know, the seasons in 2017, 2018, 2019 when the team again wasn’t winning. All they understand is championships because that’s all they’ve done in their minor league careers. So they showed up and said, yeah, I don’t, we don’t see why it would be any different. We’re surrounded by all the same guys that we’ve played with. Sure, we’re at a higher level, but we’re confident that we can compete here. And in a lot of cases, they’ve shown that they can.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So as the series begins, I’m not going to ask you to make a prediction or anything, but what will you be watching for? What needs to happen in these games for the Jays to have a chance against the Tampa Bay Rays who are obviously the top seat in the league?
Arden Zwelling: I think they’ll have to play crisp baseball, which has been a little bit of another weakness for the Blue Jays this season, is that they are young and they are aggressive and that means that they make mistakes. And that can come on the base paths where you were trying to take an extra base when you shouldn’t and you get thrown out, or you’re trying to steal base in a situation when you probably shouldn’t. That can come defensively when players might over commit on a fly ball and it sails over their head, or maybe they’re a little hesitant around the wall or in an outfield corner, and it drops in. We’ve seen mistakes like that routinely from this club throughout the season because in a lot of ways they’re still developing, they’re still learning and they’re still getting accustomed to the standard of play at this level. So, I think the Blue Jays will have to tighten a lot of that up and to be fair, they have been better over I would say the final 25% of the season that they did tighten all those things up. And those things addressed, you know, quite directly by the coaching staff, by a little tradition that the blue Jays had after games in which, Caleb Joseph, who is sort of the club’s quote unquote third catcher. He’s not even on the roster is on, what’s called the taxi squad, which every club has in order to carry players in case, I don’t know, somebody comes down with COVID before the game, or when somebody gets hurt last minute, and you just need a catcher.
So he’s on there, their taxi squad. So he travels with the club but he’s not actually on their roster. And after every game he would award his three stars of the game and three stars would include something good, like I don’t know, Bo Bichette hit a go ahead home run, or, you know, Vladimir Guerrero Jr worked a very strong plate appearance to wear down a pitcher and get somebody else, a group fastball. Or it could be that Vladimir Guerrero Jr. tried to take third base when he shouldn’t have, and should have settled for a double. Or it could be when behind the plate, you know, a catcher got crossed up with a pitcher because he wasn’t, he didn’t have the signs down, you know, or he just wasn’t communicating enough or he wasn’t aware enough. They would point things like that out as well. And I think that has been part of the process of cleaning some of those things up. So going into the series with the Tampa Bay Rays who are a club that plays very, very well, very technically sound. A club that’s very innovative that uses information better than most other clubs do. A club will probably throw all kinds of crazy pitching deployments at the Blue Jays, just as they’re going to throw at them. A team with lots of position flexibility and can really mix and match with left handed or right handed hitters. I think the Blue Jays are going to have to play very crisp baseball if they want to get through this series because if they are making mistakes, and they are suffering from over aggressiveness, those runs they are allowing, or, you know, that eight ball they’re putting themselves behind could really be the factor that swings in Tampa’s favour.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Regardless of how these playoffs unfold, what will you take away from this season about this team? You know, was it a growing experience? But what’s going to matter going forward?
Arden Zwelling: The biggest thing I’ll take away is actually, it’s more global to baseball that they pulled this off at all, because there were times when I did not believe that this was ever going to get to the finish line. When MLB came back with a plan of travelling between various hot spots in the United States, which was the raging epicentre of the pandemic at the time when they were starting back up in July and August, I thought there’s no chance. And if anything, I underestimated MLB’s ability to persevere through multiple outbreaks. The Miami Marlins side, you know, a massive outbreak in their clubhouse and ended up missing weeks of games not playing for awhile is they got everybody just, they, they contained everybody in contact traced and got everything under control.
They actually brought in a number of players who wouldn’t have been in MLB at all, who would have been minor leaguers or who were cast offs from other rosters to come and play their games because they had so many players missing due to the outbreak. And the Miami Marlins are in the playoffs, they made the post season.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Just a weird, weird year.
Arden Zwelling: Right? So that, that weirdness, and the fact that it will be pulled it off at all is the biggest thing I’ll take away just from a global perspective.From a Blue Jays perspective, it’s that this team is getting good and it’s getting good sooner than any of us expected. I did not think coming into this year, even coming into the 60 game season, I did not believe that the Blue Jays were going to reach the post season. I didn’t believe they were going to crack 500. When I looked at a 60 game schedule with a three week road trip at the beginning of it, uncertainty over where their home games are going to be played, then the fact that their home games were going to be played at a minor league ballpark, which was going to have, it was not going to have the luxuries that they were used to and the training and rehab facilities that they were accustomed to.And players were going to be pretty salty about having to spend, you know, their much of their summers in Buffalo, and away from the place that they thought they were going to live often without their families. When I looked at that, when I looked at their strength of schedule and how often they were playing the Tampa Bay Rays, who were the best team in the American league, how often they were playing the New York Yankees who are always a force, I did not expect the Blue Jays to be where they are right now. But like they said throughout it all, they’ve said we think we’re better than everyone else does. Clearly they are. So I think that the rebuild has been accelerated this year. And I think the Blue Jays head into this upcoming off season, regardless of what happens in the playoffs, if they lose in two games, Tampa Bay, or if they beat Tampa Bay and go on to a divisional series, maybe even play their way into a championship series, which would really be something else. I think, regardless of what happens, they enter the 2020-2021 off season as a real player for big time for the agents as a team that needs to be looking to make trades to win now. As a club that in 2021 could be, you know, a contender, they were right. They were further ahead than anybody thought they would. And did they benefit from the fact there’s only a 60 game season? Sure. If it was a 162 game season over six months, would the Blue Jays have ended up at that .500 record projection that most people had them at? Maybe, but you play what’s in front of you. You play the rules that you have. And it was a 60 game year with expanded playoffs and the Blue Jays got one of those playoffs spots, so good for them.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Hopefully next year, they’ll get to play back at home in Toronto. Thank you for this Arden.
Arden Zwelling: Hey, anytime man.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Arden Zwelling of Sportsnet. That was the Big Story. More big stories are as email@example.com. They’re also in your favourite podcast player, Apple, Google, Stitcher, Spotify. Doesn’t matter. Unless you can leave us a review, then it matters and you should. You can email us at the Big Story podcast, all one word, all firstname.lastname@example.org. And of course, talk to us on Twitter at the big story. FPN. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings . Let’s go Blue Jays and we’ll talk tomorrow.
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