By: Dan Grant
September 2nd is my birthday.
It always seems to happen around this time of year.
That might seem like a silly thing to say, because of course it does. I guess what I mean is that certain things are always happening at this time of year.
Summer is holding on for dear life.
School is either back or about to be back.
And the Blue Jays are breaking hearts around the city.
The last statement might be a bit of an exaggeration, if only because there have most certainly been seasons where the Jays have been completely irrelevant by September 2nd. But in those seasons when they had a shot or seemed like the just might make some noise, it was around now that things always began to feel increasingly unlikely.
The phrase ‘meaningful September baseball’ is one you hear on call-in shows and Twitter throughout the year. It’s bandied about like it has some type of special significance, like it would be a small victory for a team that has been mired in mediocrity for 20 years now. ‘I don’t expect greatness, all I want is to see meaningful September baseball!’ The fans moan it and chirp it and hope it and scream it. It hasn’t worked yet. It doesn’t seem to be working now.
For the past two years, I’ve written columns based around the two halves of my sports fan brain. These columns came in the guise of ‘Regular Dan’ and ‘Pessimistic Dan’. For the uninitiated, the running joke is that Pessimistic Dan has been spewed forth from years of torture as a Toronto sports fan- the Jays, Leafs and Raptors all equally playing into his creation and sustenance. Regular Dan tries to talk him off the ledge and the two hammer away at one another, each vying for ultimate dominance of my brain.
After the Jays posted an abysmal 9-17 record in the month of August, burying themselves 5.5 games behind the second wild card position, it might seem like this would be the ideal time for Pessimistic Dan to surface, to rage, to froth at the mouth.
I’ve covered what there is to be covered, honestly. Regular Dan and Pessimistic Dan are going to sit this one out. This team is what it is. In my (fake) interview with Alex Anthopoulos two weeks ago, we discussed all the reasons to be positive moving forward. The continued excellence of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. The relative health of Jose Reyes. The big salaries coming off the books as of 2016. The affordable and top level young pitching coming through the system. The steadiness of Dioner Navarro. The rebound of Melky Cabrera. And of course, for every strength, there is seemingly a weakness. I’m not going to list those here. It’s all been hashed and re-hashed to the point of no-return. Get over it already.
We know what this team is. We know those strengths and weaknesses.
It’s good, but not great.
And it’s streaky as hell.
So instead of worrying about how September is going to go, lets just not. We all want this team to succeed and we all have every precedent and every reason to believe that it won’t. Realistically, the team will probably need to win about 18- 20 games (out of 26) this month to make the playoffs. Could it happen? Sure. Will it happen? It’s baseball. Which means it ain’t over until the fat lady sings. Which means, who the hell knows? St. Louis and Boston in 2011 are just the most recent examples of epic comebacks and collapses in September, to say nothing of the 1987 Blue Jays. All the games count the same, whether in April or right now.
Instead of bathing in the minutiae of every Jays move, let me just tell you a story. Stories are what make baseball fun.
Anyone who is reading this will certainly remember the great Roy Halladay. He is, for my money, the greatest Jays pitcher of all time. I grew up watching him dominate the American League East – then the toughest division in baseball – toiling away on many of those teams rendered if not irrelevant, then inconsequential, by early September.
Someone you may not remember is Halladay’s only competition for that title: the Jays first true ace, Dave Stieb.
Stieb was a workhorse for the 1980’s Blue Jays – a seven time All-Star who is oft forgotten because he was injured mid-way through the 1992 season and was never a big part of either World Series team for Toronto. He was, however, a big part of what first made Toronto relevant in the baseball world. He won the American League ERA title in the Jays first playoff year of 1985. He had a fine if not Hall of Fame career, forever made more interesting by his legendary pursuit of a no-hitter.
It began in 1985. On August 24th, against the White Sox, Stieb took a no hitter into the 9th inning – it was broken up by back to back home runs and Stieb exited the game. Too bad, but not so strange yet.
Then things got a bit weirder.
On September 24th, 1988, Stieb took a perfect game into the 8th inning against Cleveland. With two outs in the eighth, he hit a batter, ruining the perfect game. He still carried the no hitter through 8 2/3 innings until Julio Franco, who would have been the final batter, singled to break it up.
In his very next start on September 30th, this time against Baltimore, Stieb again took a no hitter into the 9th inning, with only a hit batter in the 4th inning preventing it from being a perfect game. With 8 2/3 innings complete, pinch hitter Jim Traber singled, spoiling Stieb’s no-hit bid for the second time in a week. Crazy. But we’re not done yet.
On August 4th, 1989, Stieb took a perfect game into the 9th inning, against the New York Yankees. No hit batters this time, just pure perfection through eight innings. In the 9th, he struck out the first two batters he faced, pinch hitters Hal Morris and Frank Costanza’s nemesis, Ken Phelps. Roberto Kelly then stepped up and ruined everything again, by doubling to left field.
On September 2nd, 1990, I turned five years old. It was a Sunday, which means there was only one more day before school started. I went with my mom, grandparents and cousin to the CNE. I remember my cousin James getting sick and my grandparents having to take him home. It was just me and my mom walking around the Ex, on my birthday. Things don’t get much better than that when you’re five. I remember asking her to play an impossible midway game, the one where they load the baseball onto a gun and you have to shoot it and knock down the cans that are stacked in a pyramid. It’s a sucker game, a variation on the old ‘milk bottles’ scam. I’ve never seen anyone win at it and I’ve certainly never been able to do it.
Except that day. That day I dummied the cans on my first shot. I won a massive stuffed unicorn that occupied a spot in my room and then our basement for years. It was bigger than me at the time. I remember it vividly. I remember the shock on the look of the face of the woman running the game when I dazedly handed her back the gun and said ‘I’m done!’ I remember my mom laughing and giving me a hug and the woman telling me I could choose any prize I wanted. I remember feeling like I had done something great.
On that day, anything seemed possible.
On that day, in Cleveland, Dave Stieb finally threw his no hitter. No joke.
I guess the point I’m trying to make is that sports, like life, sometimes seem impossible. No matter how close we get, or how often we fail in the attempt – to get to the playoffs, to knock down the milk bottles, to throw a no hitter – we keep coming back for another try. Because we know that one time it works out, that one time everything breaks exactly our way, we’re going to be dazed and feel like something great is happening.
While summer might be winding down, to me this time of year has always felt like a new beginning. This Blue Jays team is streaky – that’s been proven beyond argument. They won against Tampa last night, bringing a current minor win streak to three, keeping pace with their competition. And to me, being 5.5 games back with 25 to play is just the kind of challenge a streaky team needs. ‘Meaningful September baseball’ doesn’t have to mean front-running.
Pessimistic Dan is a dick anyway. Maybe something great is about to happen. Maybe we’re going to be allowed to choose any prize we want.