Will fans stay loyal as the Blue Jays rebuild?

Toronto Blue Jays MLB

Toronto Blue Jays MLBThe 2015 and 2016 Jays were wildly successful but that winning culture couldn’t be sustained. A new winning era will take time

By Bruce Dowbiggin

In retail, the time-honored phrase is “Under-promise and over-deliver.”

In sports, you might amend that to: “If you promise something, you’d better deliver.”

The history of sport is lined with examples of a fan base turning on a team that, just years earlier, it had worshipped. My book IceStorm catalogues the meteoric romance between the Vancouver Canucks of 2008 to 2013 and their fan base. The Canucks, under general manager Mike Gillis and coach Alain Vigneault, came within a single win of claiming the 2011 Stanley Cup.

The team was worshipped in 2011 but when it couldn’t follow up that moment, the fans turned on the team. Gillis and Vigneault were fired and the team sank into mediocrity under former Canuck captain Trevor Linden.

The low point was a vicious riot in the hours after the 2011 Stanley Cup loss in Vancouver.

While their fans haven’t reached the point of riot, the Toronto Blue Jays are a perfect example of teasing their fans with success, only to now see the magic potion dispersed to the four winds. The team made its unlikely run to glory in 2015, advancing to the American League Championship Series, becoming Canada’s darlings in the process. A return to the Championship Series in 2016 only cemented the relationship.

José Bautista’s dramatic home run and bat flip that clinched the 2015 round against Texas symbolized the delirious hold the team had on an entire country.

Sadly, the Jays couldn’t keep their mojo going. Now old and breaking down, the Jays are tanking by unloading the veterans of that exciting squad.

First, Edwin Encarnacion was allowed to leave via free agency. Bautista’s messy exit last winter followed. Stopper Roberto Osuna was dealt amidst a domestic-assault rap. Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki would have joined the high-priced refugees except he’s been injured almost every day since the 2016 heroics. Canadian GM Alex Anthopoulos also hit the highway when he couldn’t come to terms with the club in the winter following the 2015 heroics.

But the signal moment in this deterioration was probably this week’s untidy trade of fan favourite Josh Donaldson to Cleveland for a handful of maybe and a pinch of nevermore. The American League’s MVP in 2015, the third baseman epitomized the swagger of that team. Whether hitting bombs deep into the night or flinging himself into the stands to catch foul balls, Donaldson was a game changer after being acquired from Oakland in the winter of 2014-15.

He may be the greatest Blue Jay for any three-year stint with the team. But, like Tulowitzki and second baseman Devon Travis, Donaldson just couldn’t stay healthy enough after his 2016 season. A hip injury in 2016, then a strained calf in both 2017 and 2018 reduced him to a part-time player. With a new contract due at the end of 2018 and the Jays mired in a miserable season, it became abundantly clear that a trade was the best solution for Donaldson in Toronto.

The team hinted that Donaldson would be back from his calf injury but when he didn’t come back after April, fans grew discontented with both the club and Donaldson. Was the 32-year-old holding back to keep from more injury that would hurt his free agency? Was the management burying him?

According to Donaldson, he was being forced back into the lineup to get him ready for market. The team denied it. A final aborted rehab assignment in Florida went poorly. The inevitable trade-deadline deal to Cleveland left everyone with a sour taste. Donaldson feels abused before he can get a career-defining contract. Fans are left staring at an abyss of losing until phenom Vladimir Guerrero Jr. gets to town.

But the 2015-16 Jays were a team built for obsolescence. Fans had grown impatient with Rogers, the owners, for allegedly going cheap on the team as it tried to compete in the AL East with the high-priced Yankees, Red Sox and Orioles. When the outcry reached serious proportions in 2014, the owners allowed Anthopoulos to get an expensive veteran corps to supplement Bautista and Encarnacion, who were late-developing stars.

Enter Tulowitzki, Donaldson, Russell Martin, José Reyes, and pitcher David Price. All carried large contracts or – like Bautista and Encarnacion – were due to large contracts. Financially, it was a short-term gain, long-term pain equation that couldn’t last.

And it didn’t. This week was sayonara to all that. Guerrero and Dante Bichette Jr. will arrive next year to give hope. But faced with the loaded Red Sox and Yankees lineups, a playoff run like 2015-16 at any point in the near future is wishing and hoping.

The question for fans now is: If you had it to do all over again, would you trade 2015 and 2016 for a decade of losing?

We’ll get an answer to that at the Rogers Centre box office over the next few seasons.

Columnist Bruce Dowbiggin career includes successful stints in television, radio, and print., A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top television sports broadcaster, he is also the publisher of Not The Public Broadcaster.

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