TORONTO — No matter how you break it down, one thing is certain: The Toronto Blue Jays have been gone far too long.
Or maybe you prefer 670 days, the number that immediately crossed club president/CEO Mark Shapiro’s mind when he received word on July 16 that the Jays were being given permission by the federal government to hop the border and come home.
When the Jays take to the brand-new seamless turf at Rogers Centre on Friday night, they’ll look like a much, much different team than the one Toronto baseball fans last saw finishing off a 95-loss season on Sept. 29, 2019.
While debates can be had about how legitimate of a contender this club is down the stretch, they’re a contender nonetheless.
In the time this franchise has been gone from Toronto due to COVID-19 health restrictions, they’ve morphed from rebuilder to win-now in fairly quick fashion.
There are a lot of teams around baseball that would love a relatively small three-year down period, as the Jays went through from 2017-19.
When it comes to baseball rebuilds, that’s F1 speed.
Ask the Baltimore Orioles.
Since squaring off with the Jays — and losing, thanks to Edwin Encarnacion’s wild walk-off — in the 2016 wild-card game, they’ve gone on to finish 75-87, 47-115, 54-108, 25-35, and are currently 35-66 and well on their way to another top-three pick in next year’s draft.
There’s some impact talent on the way thanks to those finishes, sure, but it’s a rebuild that’s light years behind the Blue Jays’ quick turnaround.
With a group of elite, young talent that was quickly surrounded by marquee free-agent additions like Hyun Jin Ryu, handed $80 million in December of 2019 just prior to the pandemic, and George Springer, lured for a franchise-record $150 million in January, Jays fans are in for a treat.
It may not end the way they hope simply because winning rings is very, very hard to do, but the entertainment value when the Jays finally return home Friday night for their traditional 7:07 p.m. first pitch is off the charts.
With a deep farm system and more financial resources expected to be poured into the roster this winter, this franchise is as healthy as it's been since Joe Carter was walking off Mitch Williams and the Philadelphia Phillies.
As the Jays wrapped up in Boston on Thursday night and made their way onto the charter to Toronto, it’s a sigh-of-relief moment for the entire club, one that hasn’t felt any sort of true homefield advantage in a long time.
While Ryu will have to wait until at least Tuesday to make his Toronto debut, Springer’s will without a doubt come Friday night against the Kansas City Royals.
“The fans,” Springer said of what he’s looking forward to most. “Everything. The fans are awesome. I can’t wait to hear the excitement, to see the excitement in the stands. Like we’ve said, there’s no place like home and we know where home is.”
It’s certain Rogers’ bottom line has been affected by the time away, but manager Charlie Montoyo’s group waded through the adversity to play pretty good baseball in their temporary Buffalo, then Dunedin, then Buffalo again digs over the past calendar year.
In 2020, they surged to a 17-9 mark at Sahlen Field, earning a spot in the expanded postseason with a 34-28 record.
This season, you could see the uncertainty and unenviable situations take a toll, but the Jays have battled to a 22-22 mark at TD Ballpark and Sahlen Field.
With division-rival Tampa so close to Dunedin and the Red Sox Nation entrenched up the road in Fort Myers, Fla., the early-season stint at their spring training ballpark was a tough one.
They were far too often the road team and heckled at home.
Bo Bichette is looking forward to one thing.
“Having a real homefield,” Bichette said. “Not a lot of people realize, but it really feels like we’ve been on the road for four months now. So to be able to kind of find a home and have our own fans in the stadium … when we’re playing the Red Sox and Yankees, we’re not wondering who’s going to be in the stands, we know it’s going to be Blue Jays fans. That will be big for us and hopefully we can take advantage of it.”
With Ryu starting Thursday’s important division game in Boston, 2020 trade deadline acquisition Ross Stripling will get the ball for the Jays on Friday.
“I don’t take that lightly at all,” Stripling said. “Like you said, a country that hasn’t seen live baseball in two years so a lot of people are going to be fired up and obviously we’re going to have some fans in the stands.
“Man, that place is going to be buzzing.”
The 10-game homestand that kicks off is a crucial one.
“As we were walking through the process, that was monumental,” Shapiro said. “That wasn’t small. It’s a 10-game homestand on July 30. That’s more than 25 per cent of our remaining games. That’s almost 10 per cent of our entire home schedule.
“To be able to get back in the heat of a race for playoffs for a crucial 10-game homestand — hopefully, after we’ve added to our team, as well, in the days leading up to that return — to me is about as big a competitive swing as you can possibly have.”
It will take time to digest everything that’s happened over the past year and a half, but there’s no doubt Friday — and the date July 30 — will be remembered for a long time.
Game 100 of the Jays’ 2021 campaign isn’t just another nine innings.
“I know it’s going to be special,” Shapiro said. “I’m not someone who tends to think about moments being symbolic or moments being big, I tend to think about the journey more than any individual moment. Yet, right after this decision was made, my thoughts did turn to what, potentially, July 30 could be and what it could mean. I’ve always kind of felt like baseball’s played a role in history, in the recovery from adversity and from challenges. Whether it’s wars, 9/11, different times, baseball seems to have been one of those symbols of continuity, of return to normalcy. I really feel like it’s going to be a celebratory moment for the country, for the city.”
And a night to remember for the lucky 15,000 that get to celebrate not only the return of Major League Baseball to Toronto, but a return to contention, too.