Jose Reyes, standing 10 feet from third base and itching to score, had the gall to taunt Fernando Rodney. He danced down the line, daring Rodney to pay attention, hoping he’d throw him off his game. Reyes’ team, the Toronto Blue Jays, was down a run. This was the final game of the year. Their shot at a pennant died weeks ago, even months ago, and a win only meant one less loss. Swagger had no place on that field. But there was Reyes, the lovable Blue Jays shortstop, playing mind games at third base.
The crowd of 44,551 was on its feet for much of that eighth inning. Rodney, the Tampa Bay Rays’ reliable closer, seemed rattled. He walked Brett Lawrie, the Jays’ frenetic third baseman, to load the bases with two outs. Moises Sierra stepped to the plate. He fouled off pitch after pitch, unable to find the ball. The crowd with nothing to cheer for tomorrow only cared about today, and prayed for a base hit. Sierra struck out swinging, and today ended with a 7-6 loss to the Rays.
Reyes was supposed to spend a lot more time taunting pitchers from third base. The crowd was supposed to spend more time on its feet. The summer was supposed to be more fun inside the city’s biggest dome. Not this year. The Jays finished dead last in their division, 23 games out of first place, miles from the playoffs.
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There were glimmers, speckled about the season. After a distinctly disappointing 10 weeks to start the campaign, something went right on June 11.
The Jays were a dozen games out of first place. They’d played 63 games, and won only 28. They were losing 5-4 in the top of the ninth, down to their final out. That’s when treasured slugger Jose Bautista, facing two strikes, tied the game with a solo home run. In extra innings, speedy outfielder Rajai Davis stole home and took the lead. The Jays won, 7-5.
They won the next 10 games, too, outscoring opponents 70-27 during the run. Their pitchers couldn’t lose, and their batters couldn’t miss. Fans noticed. On June 17, a crowd of just over 20,000 witnessed a 2-0 shutout of the Colorado Rockies. Six days later, a sellout crowd watched as the home team scored 13 runs in a laugher against the Baltimore Orioles. When the lights went out that night, the Jays sat just five games out of the division lead. The city smelled a winner, and its hopes were up.
Reality hurt. The next day, Toronto headed to Tampa Bay, where an anemic crowd of 11,407 at Tropicana Field watched their Rays win 4-1. Two days later, knuckleballer R.A. Dickey pitched a complete-game shutout that, in another season, might have launched another improbable winning streak. Not this year. The Jays lost 13 of their next 20 games and spent the All-Star break wondering how the hell to fix whatever had gone wrong. The six-game losing streak that followed the break wasn’t much help. Injuries and mistakes piled up, and that was it for 2013.
When second baseman Ryan Goins lined out to left field to end the Jays’ season, the batting lineup barely resembled its distant cousin from Opening Day. Reyes and Lawrie, as well as pinch-hitter Adam Lind, remained. The rest of the names were, like so many late-season rosters in the Major Leagues, riddled with next year’s prospects: Gose, Sierra, Langerhans, Thole, Goins and Pillar. John Gibbons, the manager entrusted with a city’s great expectations, found himself scrounging for pride at the back of the dugout.
“The guys hung in there and we made a run late. They had a shot,” Gibbons told reporters after the last game of the year. “So I’m pretty proud of them for that.”
A big-league manager proud of his team for trying. That’s how the season ends.
As fans filed out of Rogers Centre, vendors hurried to sell merchandise to willing customers. One staffer, arm stuck in the air, waved a copy of the documentary that captured the magic of the 1993 World Series. He was selling it for $1. Anyone who bought it, and hoped to watch it, required a VCR. In that building, at that moment, glory never seemed so far away.
Once again, Toronto’s baseball fans have no team in October. They’re left to dream about the swagger that never really was. Those glimmers, for a couple of weeks way back in June when the Jays forgot how to lose, were real. For a fortnight, all the moments went their way. Until they didn’t. They just didn’t have it.
Tomorrow, the die-hard among those fans, those who can’t help but treasure split seconds of glory, will mark their calendars: April 4, 2014, the next time they come back for more.