Growing up near Toronto it’s little surprise I am a loyal Blue Jays fan. It’s hard to imagine it any other way. I feel lucky that I am, in a couple of ways. First, the team, while frustrating for sure, has generally been a fairly good one through the years. At least I’ve gotten to see them win a couple of World Series and make the playoffs in the last decade… something fans of their sister-team the Mariners (who entered the majors at the same time as Toronto) can’t say.
Secondly though, I actually like Toronto’s team name and image. Perhaps I’m biased, but I think the Jays logo of the slightly stylized bird’s head with the red maple leaf is pretty cool and looks great on the royal blue cap or jersey. It makes me glad that I didn’t grow up near Denver for instance, with their boring as dirt black caps with a straight-forward white (or at times attempted silver) CR printed on it. And I can’t help but think that the Indians brass might’ve decided to give a collective middle finger to the fans and critics alike when they gave in to protests and retired their controversial “Chief Wahoo” mascot and logo. They of course, replaced him with the most uninspired, dare I say ugly and drab non-color blue-black cap with a squared-off capital C on it.
And then there’s the name itself. “Blue Jays” seems a great name for Toronto’s ball club. Now a secret here. The club, back at its inception, was owned by Labatt’s, a Canadian brewery. They ran a contest to name the team, and most suggest the reason Blue Jays prevailed was that the brewery’s flagship product was a beer called “Labatt’s Blue.” They saw obvious potential for advertising tie-ins and hoped that the fans would be lazy and just call the team “the blues.” As it turned out, the fans were lazy and soon were calling them “the Jays”, forgetting the “blue” as often as not.
That notwithstanding, Blue Jays is still a great name really. The bird the Blue Jay is a common, year-round resident in Toronto. They’re noisy, bold and adaptable. They’ll eat almost anything, from sunflower seeds at a feeder to big insects to acorns to baby mice. An omnivore to rival those known as “humans”! They originally were native to hardwood forests, but soon found they could do well in towns, around farms, even in parks in downtowns of huge cities. And they’re not afraid of a challenge. Jays are known to attack predators like bobcats or hawks, trying to drive them away to keep their families and neighbors, as it were safe. Pretty good traits for a ball team, if you think about it. Able to adapt to different situations, not afraid of a challenge, bold and lively. Compare that to Baltimore Orioles (yes, there is a real bird named that), a very pretty orange and black bird which is scary only to caterpillars or small flying insects, tries to hide and blend in in tall trees to not be seen and, tellingly migrates south, meaning they’re nowhere to be seen in Maryland come October. Rather like their ball club of late.
Anyhow, that all came to mind because yesterday, MLB ran a quiz about team names on their website. MLB is having an understandably tough time finding interesting things to put up on their site day by day given that we’re now in week nine of no actual baseball to report on. Some of the team names had unusual origins. Like Pittsburgh’s.
The Pirates sound tough and dominating, so it’s not a bad name and you never go wrong with a little alliteration but who knew where the name came from? I assumed they just looked for a menacing word that would sound good next to “Pittsburgh” but that’s not quite it. Nor did they look for a specifically nautical theme to highlight the city’s position at the junction of three rivers. Nope, they became “Pirates” after Philadelphia insulting referred to them as such, in response to Pittsburgh “poaching two of their players.”
Likewise, the Kansas City Royals name origin is obscure and odd. I figured it was just an attempt to make them sound important, elites among other teams of mere mortals. The quiz offered the idea that the name was an homage to the city’s famous Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro League. Good idea, but not correct. Instead, the team got the “Royals” as a tip of the cap to the town’s “American Royal Livestock Show” that it hosted. So every KC player can know his team is comparing him to cows and pigs with their blue and gold.
If you wondered about Wrigley Field’s iconic team, you might think they were trying to tie their team brand into the football one in town. Bears, Cubs. Although the Bears didn’t become “the bears” until 1922, years after the Cubs arrived. (In fact, it’s suggested the football team took that name to honor the baseball counterparts,not the reverse.) But turns out, the Chicago Colts had a very young roster in 1902, and some sportswriter called them “cubs” because of their youth. The team liked that nickname better.
Padres is a weird name for a team, but the Major League one took that name to reflect the city’s baseball history. The city had a AAA club before called the Padres – they won the minor league crown in 1937 with Ted Williams playing for them – so they carried the name over. The minor league team chose the name because SD was founded by Franciscan friars. Perhaps being named after men of the cloth who spend a lot of time sitting, reflecting on the word of God and avoiding conflicts might go aways towards explaining their 14 winning seasons over their first 50 years… and lack of World Series rings.
And what about those Dodgers? Obviously, the name went west with the team when they moved from Brooklyn to L.A., but why “dodgers”. What were they trying to dodge? Taxes? The draft? Seeing Rob Schneider movies? Beanballs tossed by opposing pitchers? Nope, turns out trolleys. Baseball report that as Brooklyn grew, trolleys went in and were well-used, and “trolley dodging” became a necessary way of crossing the road or driving your Model A. At least a dodger should be able to avoid the tag at second base.
Time to don my stylish blue cap with the bird and trot over to the minor league website to try and figure out what the heck an “iron pig” is…
A decade comes to a close and while Blue Jays fans have had a number of things to grumble about – 26 years and counting since the last championship high among those – there have been highlights and things to cheer of course. No World Series but at least we hit the post-season in back to back years which automatically makes it a bit better decade than the one it followed.
For a little recap, here’s my Top 5 Moments To Remember for the team this past decade.
Maybe he was the best Blue Jay yet, maybe not. He certainly had charisma and took the town by storm in his brief five years here. And got under the skin of opposition pitchers in a way no one else until a certain rightfielder two decades later. Not to mention being a cornerstone of the two Blue Jays World Series teams. So seeing Roberto Alomar Inducted Into The Baseball Hall Of Fame , the first player to do so representing the team, was pretty special.
The diving catches on line drives. The big home runs. The 123 RBI and .568 slugging percentage. Getting the team to within a couple of games of the World Series. That interesting haircut. He made fans forget about homegrown Third Baseman Brett Lawrie. Josh Donaldson winning the AL MVP was a decent consolation prize after the Royals stopped the team in October. Kansas City had its first World Series in 30 years but at least Toronto had its first MVP winner since George Bell in 1987.
The season passed was in many ways a total flop. there’s no way to put a very positive spin on 95 losses, nor disguise the fan reaction shown by the second straight year of league-high drops in attendance. However, on April 26 when Vladimir Guerrero Jr. made his long-awaited MLB debut, fans had reason to watch again and to feel some optimism at least. For years the team sported a lacklustre farm system and unrealistically-promoted low-level prospects as “the next BIG thing” but this time, VG2 was being touted by the league itself as the “next BIG thing”… and had the minor league numbers to back it. His season might not have been quite all expected, but he smiled a lot, was darn good for a 20 year old and was soon joined in the infield by two other sons of stars with close-to as good credentials : Cavan Biggio and Bo Bichette. Real reason to think Toronto has a chance at a much better decade ahead than behind.
A woman speaking on a lawn as a top baseball moment? It was for Jays fans this past summer and there was nary a dry eye on the lawns in Cooperstown that day as widow Brandy accepted the induction of Roy Halladay into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Few, if any players have worked so hard and been so popular with the Blue Jays as “Doc” so even if his family didn’t want to have him illustrated in either a blue “bird” or a red “P” cap in the Hall (so as not to alineate fans in either of the cities he played in) it was a huge moment for Toronto fans everywhere. Not to mention a good finish to the great story of his which got cut so prematurely short in a plane accident.
Hard to believe this was so spark-provoking only four years back, now that MLB itself does things like rank the “best” ten of the year,many of which take place in meaningless situations and games. But that blast in Game 5 of the ALDS against Texas was anything but meaningless. the team felt the umpires were blatantly biased against them, the Rangers were arrogant and convinced they had pulled off a huge comeback after scoring a run when the ball appeared to be dead and not in play. Number 19 had different ideas. Always a clutch performer, Jose Bautista’s Bat Flip is as iconic an image in Canada as soldiers raising a flag in Iwo Jima in to the South.
Well, bring on the 2020s! Maybe ten years from now I’ll be posting a photo of Vlad hoisting that World Series trophy!
Well, a star was born this week, in the eyes of the American media at least. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. put on quite a show at the All Star Game’s Home Run Derby, setting a new record for the event with 91 dingers. Even though he came runner-up to another rookie phenom, Pete Alonso of the Mets, USA Today declared VG “the real winner” and it was clear by and large the media and fans were rooting for our #27. It was a great reminder as to the potential this young guy holds and why with a bit of pitching help, Toronto could be back in the thick of things soon. In the meantime, let’s finish off the list of Toronto’s best-ever and today we go off field.
Toronto has had 16 managers through the years, give or take. Counting them isn’t quite as simple as you might think, given several of them, including Cito, have come back for a second kick at the can, and others have been short-term or “interim” – remember Cookie Rojas, manager? No, neither do most fans (wonder if Cookie himself does?), but he was listed as manager for three days in 2001. Similarly, catcher Russell Martin is not included officially but was given the job of managing the final game last season after the Jays and John Gibbons had parted ways.
Speaking of “Gibby”, he merits consideration. He spent two tours in the Toronto dugout, has managed the second-most games and won the second-most (793), having a better than .500 record through his 11 full or partial seasons in charge. He took over from a redoubtable Carlos Tosca in 2004 and turned the season around, then came back in 2013 when surly John Farrell asked to leave town and go to his beloved Boston organization. Gibbons was a breath of fresh air, approachable and having a great balance of being easy-going and a buddy to his players with an iron fist when needed.
Likewise, Bobby Cox, who went on to greatness in Atlanta, deserves notice too, for being the manager that helped Toronto rise to greatness and in fact won the team’s only Manager of the Year award, in 1985 (the first time the Jays made the post-season.) His .549 winning percentage was best among managers who stuck around for a year or more, but his four years here don’t quite rank with Gibbons and his fellow San Antonionian – Clarence “Cito” Gaston.
Gaston was somewhat unusual among Toronto managers in coming from a pretty decent playing career. He was an outfielder from 1967-78, mostly with San Diego and Atlanta and he was a 1970 All Star, when he hit .318 with 29 home runs. All of which seemed to make him an ideal hitting instructor, which he was for the Jays for several seasons. His eye for detail and quiet nature paid dividends in the improvements in the hitting of Jesse Barfield, George Bell, Damo Garcia and others in the early years of winning. He was still doing that in spring 1989. But the team got off to a dismal start (12-24) seemed disinterested and at least a few players in the clubhouse seemed to have given up on Jimy Williams. The team asked Gaston to become manager. “When I was offered the job as manager, I didn’t want it. I was happy working as the hitting instructor,” he later told a magazine. But he got talked into it, and the Blue Jays rocketed up the division, going 77-49 the rest of the way under Cito and winning their second division title. Another followed in 1991, then ’92 and ’93, the pair of years he wears World Series rings from. By 1997, ownership had changed, the payroll had been cut and the Skydome was no longer drawing 4 million fans a year as the Jays fell from contention. He was fired in the last week of the season, replaced (also seemingly less than willingly) by pitching coach Mel Queen, who’d win four games in his managerial career.
Then, just like an old TV show found by Netflix, Cito came back. With the team heading towards the 2008 All Star break lethargic and below .500, they fired John Gibbons and brought back Gaston. Like before, he turned the team around and they went 51-35 the rest of the way and fans once again cheered. After a losing 2009 followed by a winning 2010 he retired (and yes, three years later, like the cat in the hat, John Gibbons returned to the job!).
Through the years, he not only was the longest-serving manager for Toronto, he won the most games(894) and still presides over the only two World Series championships for the team. He had a .516 winning percentage, which included time managing a great, highly paid team and other seasons with lesser-talented teams and smaller payrolls.
It would be incomplete to speak of Gaston the manager and not mention that he did have something of a chip on his shoulder. While he got along with most of his players well – particularly the veterans whom he let do their thing and shine – he at times was cranky with the press and didn’t like the MLB offices, accusing both of racism at several points during his career. While I personally don’t think that his race was the reason, it is true he didn’t get a great deal of respect on the national level during Toronto’s glory years. He never won the Manager of the Year award despite the back-to-back championships. I ascribe this to a belief that he didn’t have to “work” with a team loaded with the likes of Roberto Alomar, Paul Molitor and Joe Carter but that ignores the job of dealing with a lot of egos in the clubhouse, working around injuries and actually managing at bat by at bat through the post season to win it all. Gaston was under-rated as a manager, although Toronto has tried to rectify that by putting him on their Level of Excellence (in effect the club’s Hall of Fame.)
As a person who’s spent time in Texas and have visited the state Sport Hall of Fame in Waco, I am surprised Gaston – born and raised, and still residing in San Antonio – hasn’t been enshrined there. If you think he should be, add your name to the petition!
Bring on the “Second half” of the season!
With the All Star break only a few days off now, we notice that the only representative of the Jays there for the actual game will be pitcher Marcus Stroman. Fitting perhaps, as while the Jays have long been classed as a “hitting machine”, historically they’re more respected for their pitching (4 Cy Youngs) than their hitting (one batting championship, two MVPs both of whom were position players.) So, carrying on, back to our ongoing look at the best Blue Jays ever. Today, more pitchers.
LEFT-HANDED STARTING PITCHER:
First, let me say I never quite understood separating southpaws from righties. After all, a good pitcher will have to face hitters on both sides of the plate and get them out, and they are doing the same thing, albeit looking at a different side of the crowd doing so. But I’ll divide the starters into left and right, because it’s customary… and gives us a chance to talk about a few more greats that way.
Watching Key in the ’80s or ’90s would bring to mind the word “unassuming.” He was quiet off the mound and didn’t blow batters away on it. As his pitching coach Al Widmar said at the height of Key’s success, he had an “average fastball.” But also “a good sinker and curveball, and he knows how to change speeds…his control is outstanding.” Key was a finesse pitcher, one who could thread a needle with his pitches and outthink hitters.
He came up as a bullpen arm in 1984, and joined the rotation the next year, being a regular up until sipping champagne after winning the ’92 World Series. He then went on to some good years with New York and Baltimore, but he logged more innings for the Canucks than the other teams combined. Through the 9 years, 8 in the starting rote, he went 116-81 with a 3.42 ERA over 1696 innings and 317 games. He also nabbed 10 saves in the ’84 rookie year.
Evidence of his finesse rather than raw power is that he only struck out 944- about 5 per 9 innings. He got the ground ball outs and relied on great infielders to let him win, and win regularly. As well as his aforementioned control. He walked a mere 404, not much more than one an outing. He was a two-time All Star, in 1985, and 1991, but surprisingly not in 1987. That year he balloted behind only Roger Clemens in Cy Young voting, going 17-8, with a league-leading 2.76 ERA through 261 innings. His WAR that year was a remarkable 7.4! On his Toronto career, it was 30. He only had one losing season here and logged 200+ innings 6 times.
He left Toronto on a high note, with the World Series, during which he won one game he started and the clinching Game 6, in which he got 4 outs from the bullpen as the game dragged to 11 innings. He had a 3.03 ERA in 7 post-season games for the Jays.
RIGHT-HANDED STARTING PITCHER
Trying to pick the best Blue Jays starting pitcher is always a great invitation to a lively debate over Molsons’ at the hot stove in Canada. Roger Clemens name usually comes up at some point, and with good reason. He easily won Cy Youngs both years he pitched for Toronto with some of the most dominant stretches we’ve ever witnessed. In all he went 21-7, 2.05 and 20-6, 2.65 in ’97-98, and led the league in wins and ERA both times as well as setting a club record with 292 strikeouts in ’97 when his WAR was a mind-boggling 11.9! Since the team struggled to win 76 that year, it suggests they would have played sub-.400 baseball had he not signed with them. But- two years does not a career make. And there’s that cloud of steroid suspicion hanging over his head not to mention the rather cold way he all but forced his way out of Canada and onto the Yankees roster for 1999 (demanding a trade while dangling a loophole in his contract that would let him walk.) Clemens may go down as the player whose popularity lagged furthest behind his talent in Blue Jays history.
Which leaves us with two options. Dave Stieb or the one I pick, “Doc.” Both were intense, both were always up for Big Games and both may have been the best pitchers of their decade.
Stieb didn’t overpower like Halladay would, being smaller (an average 6′, 180 guy) who Sporting News noted as having a good sinker, a high fastball and an “awesome slider, a curveball and a changeup and (he) isn’t afraid to throw any of them for strikes.” He was hard on himself and hard on teammates who made mistakes (Lord knows what he would have done if he had pitched in the age of social media!) … but he was outstanding.
A consummate Blue Jay, he was a cornerstone of the rotation from 1979 through an injury-shortened 1992, pitching just 4 games after that in White Sox black-and-white before retiring. Many Toronto fans will remember the post-script. Invited to the spring training in ’98 to give some pointers to young pitchers, he looked better than some of the kids when he was showing them how, and at age 40 came back and pitched out of the Jays bullpen that year!
Stieb was a 7-time All Star, and after a crazy number of no-nos lost in the 9th inning, finally authored the first (and only to this point) Jays no-hitter in 1990. That year he won 18, a career high. Many of his career numbers are best for Toronto: 175 wins (134 losses for the record), a WAR of 57, 103 complete games. From 1982 through ’85, he hurled 260+ innings a season and in that latter season, his 2.48 ERA not only led the league, it was 71% ahead of the average.
As great as all that is, I give the nod to Halladay for several reasons. While Stieb’s overall numbers in some areas are better, he pitched in an era when 250 innings wasn’t unusual for a starter, and he never quite found ways to win as effectively as Roy did. Not to mention that, while fans admired Dave and liked him, he never quite “owned” the city in the way Halladay would two decades later.
The late, great Roy Halladay was a player that could have walked out of a Hollywood script. Highs, lows, and perseverence all in one handsome package that ended in a tragedy. After debuting in 1998 to great fanfare (and a close-to no hitter in his second game), he came back down to the ground with a so-so ’99 rookie campaign followed by a 2000 that was one for the history books, it was so bad. Suffice to say a 4-digit ERA is never a good thing. Demoted to the lowest levels of the minors the following spring, he was given an ultimatum: work with us, listen to the coaches, and you’ll be a star, or else just walk away. We know which he did. By mid-summer he was back in Toronto and finished 5-3 with a 3.16 ERA. He pitched with Toronto through 2009, after which (as every Toronto fan remembers) he was traded to the Phillies where he threw a perfect game in summer, then a no-hitter in his first ever playoff game.
Through the years in Toronto, he pitched 313 games, 287 of them starts, going 148-76 with an ERA at 3.43. Subtract that infamous 2000 season and you get 144-69, 3.20, which would rank him clearly tops among starters who’d been around here for more than two years. 2047 innnings, 1495 strikeouts and a miniscule 455 walks, as well as 49 complete games helped him be a 6-time All Star with the Jays and win 20 games twice. He won the 2003 Cy Young, when he was 22-7 with a 3.25 ERA, leading the league in wins and with 266 innings. He was second in Cy balloting in 2008. Through his time in Toronto, he had 4 years with an ERA under 3.00, three 200 K years. He seemed a throwback to a different era as well. At a time when bullpens were expanding and 6 innings was denoted as the mark of a “quality” start, Doc wanted to go out and finish what he started, most times appearing aggravated if he was pulled from the game. He led the league in complete games 5 times and there were years when he single-handedly pitched more CGs than the entire staffs of half the teams in the league.
His 2.41 ERA in ’05 was 85% better than the AL average and through his years with the team, his ERA was 33% better, another reason that gave him the slight edge of Stieb who posted approximately the same ERA but did so in a lower-scoring decade. Likewise, Halladay’s innings logged stood out in the 2000s; Stieb pitched a ton as well but then every pitcher worth his salt did so! There were years Stieb was behind teammate Jim Clancy in IP, although he almost always outshone Jim.
Put it all together and statheads rate Roy’s WAR as 48.4 for Toronto, including 8.1 in 2003 alone… a year when the team won 86 total. On the team leaderboard, Halladay is second in strikeouts, wins and shutouts, third in starts and innings and second to only Roger Clemens in winning percentage. His “adjusted ERA” (comparison to average) is best among starters with 500 or more innings… and he’s first in the hearts of Toronto fans. While steely and irritable on the mound, off the field he was pleasant, great with fans and a proud resident of the city. Although there are a few who are miffed his family decided not to have him in a specific cap on his Cooperstown plaque, most recognize it as a tip of the cap to the class act that he was. He’d want to give credit to all those who helped him get where he was both in Toronto and Philly and wouldn’t want anyone to feel snubbed.
Next time out, we’ll wrap up this “best of” feature.
With the All Star break only a week off, the Jays have already passed the halfway mark of the 2019 campaign. And while the bats have finally gotten reasonably hot with the weather of late, the pitching is still a sporting disaster by and large meaning Toronto would have to win 49 of 77 remaining games to merely finish at .500. So we’ll not spend too much time ruing over that this week, other than to point out my pick for the Blue Jays player of the month in June was Lourdes Gurriel. A short demotion to the minors seems to have done wonders for the kid brother of Houston’s first baseman Yuli. Gurriel has been shifted into the outfield and looks more at home than he did in the middle-infield and was leading the offensive charge for the team, hitting .340 with 10 home runs and a .700 slugging percentage over the month.
Now, back to our ongoing look at the best Blue Jays ever. Today, the pitchers.
Gotta admit, in my mind I remember Duane Ward to be the optimal of the hundreds who’ve come and gone through the Jays’ bullpen gates over the years. And at his best, he might have been… but that best was fairly brief. And while the small middle-reliever, Jason Frasor (who leads the team with the most pitching appearances on the career, 505) deserves notice as well, the huge, 6’5” Midwesterner has to get the nod.
Henke bookended his career with stints in Texas, but rose to stardom and put in the bulk of his pitching years in Toronto blue. He was a Blue Jay from 1985 through 1992, which you’ll note also corresponds to the team’s rise to prominence. It began with their first playoff season and ended with their first World Series. While he never quite matched Oakland’s Dennis Eckersley, Henke was the “closer” for the Jays just as that role was really coming into its own and appearing to be a necessity for a team that wanted to contend. He ended up pitching in 446 games here, primarily at the end of the contest, going 29-29 (not that the won-loss record is that meaningful with late inning relievers anyway) but nabbing a club record 217 saves and striking out 644 through 563 innings. (The savvy observer will notice that that averages out to close to 1 1/3 innings per outing; it was before the age when one inning was considered the outer limits of an arm from the ‘pen). He walked just 166, giving him the best ratio of K:BB in club annals, as was his stellar 2.48 ERA – tops among pitchers with 500+ innings for the team (take that Roger Clemens! Rocket’s ERA was 2.33 in his two years here but came in four outs short of 500 innings!).
Henke was an All Star in ’87, when he pitched 72 games and led the league with 34 saves. From 1986-90 inclusively and again in 1992, he logged 50+ appearances and he had four 30 save seasons. In the post season, he held his own as well. In a total of 15 appearances, he was 2-0 with 5 saves and kept opponents to a 1.83 ERA. Notable there was that he was credited with the only two post season wins against KC in 1985! Henke’s WAR was put at 16.8 over his Toronto years, twice being over 3 in a season, which certainly adds some bona fides to his credentials.
Ward, for the record, was acquired from Atlanta mid-season 1986, and initially was the setup man for Henke. He pitched almost his whole career in Toronto, effectively having it cut short by injuries after the ’93 World Series championship. Ward came back to pitch only 4 innings after that. but when he was hot, boy was he hot! In 1993, an All Star year, he took over the closer spot and led the league with 45 saves. From 1988-93 he put in 60+ games a season and he had five 100 inning campaigns, a number that nowadays seems unfathomable. His career WAR was 10.5, with it about 3 each in ’92 and ’93.
Next time, we look to the guys ahead of Henke, Ward, Giles & Co. – the starters.
So, we actually had a decent series in Beantown, and if our fate this season is to be “spoiler”, well whose post-season fates better to spoil than the Curt Schilling-bloodied Sox! Nevertheless, it’s been a disappointing season so far, so let’s look back on some of the good Jays days of the past. In the spirit of the All Star Game, I present to you the All Time Blue Jays All Star Team. The best of the best over the first 42 Toronto years…Last time we looked at our choices for best 3B and DH.. Today, we move around the diamond for three more standouts at their position, and today it’s the trio of positions out there we have had a number of good ones at – the outfield! I toyed with the idea of picking the best 3 outfielders period, but decided to break it down to individual spots since traditionally, Toronto hasn’t been one to switch their outfielders back and forth willy-nilly.
Yes, another LF hit the shot heard around the world (or Canada at least), and was a pretty good one for us for a good chunk of the ’90s – Joe Carter. But the guy who he replaced has to take the crown. Bell was a ground-breaker in many ways for the Jays – first big Dominican star for them (not inconsequential for a team that for years was with only the Dodgers as finders and perfectors of talent from the DR) , first Jay to win the AL MVP award, perhaps at his best the very first Toronto superstar. What he wasn’t, famously, was Toronto’s first gold-glover… Bell’s excellence always stemmed from his bat, not his glove, something that eventually led to his termination (as he made it clearly known he didn’t like the concept of being a full-time DH.)
But his bat was special. Bell came up as a youngster in 1981 and was with Toronto though ’90, playing 150+ games annually from ’84 to ’90. He retired a White Sox (Sock?) in 1993, making his Toronto time the bulk of, and the best of, his career. With the Blue Jays he logged 1181 games, knocked 1294 hits, 202 of them homers. He drove in 740. For his Jays career, he hit .286, with a .486 slugging percentage and .811 OPS (which was 19% above league average.) When he was young, he had surprising speed and gumption, stealing 21 bases in ’85 but primarily for George it was all about smacking that ball hard. His 1987 MVP season saw him hit .308, score 111 runs, hit a then-club record 47 longballs and drive in 134 runs, still the second-best tally ever for the team. He had 4 years of 25 HR and 5 of 90 or more RBI.
Bell was colorful, passionate, quick to rile and get riled, but a fan favorite of the early years of success, and one of the best-hitting outfielders the team’s ever seen.
This was one of the hardest positions to call. Four names quickly came to mind. Besides Wells, there was World Series-era Devon White, the only recently-departed Kevin Pillar and one of the first Jays’ stalwards, “Shaker” Llloyd Moseby. White and Pillar were somewhat alike in being only ordinary hitters, but brilliant, fleet-footed defensive stars who could be counted on for about one highlight reel catch (not infrequently scaling a wall to do so) per series. As good as their gloves were, I dropped both from the running largely due to their duration – both played between 600 and 700 games in blue-and-white, only about half of the number played by the other pair.
Moseby was reliable and spanned the entire decade of the ’80s here, playing 1392 games with 169 homers, and an All Star appearance in 1986. Impressive, but just a wee bit short of Wells, who in fact ended with one game more – 1393. Wells first arrived in 1999 at a young 20,but only played 3 games in the Bigs the next year. However, he was essentially the everyday CF from 2002 through ’10, racking up Gold Gloves from ’04-’06 and being a two-time All Star. At his best, although not a match for White or Pillar in highlight catches, he was fast and reliable as any defensive outfielder in the AL, with two full seasons without any errors (and over 350 total chances handled smoothly in each.) More notably, he was an above-average hitter in every respect. Through his Toronto years, he hit .280 with 223 HR and 813 RBI, all contributing to a WAR of 29 over the years. In his best season, 2006, he hit .303 with 32 homers, 106 RBI and a remarkable WAR of 6.2. It was one of his three 100 RBI campaigns. Through his career in Toronto, Wells is the team’s all-time leader in at bats (5470), and is second in hits (1529), doubles (339) and RBI (813.)
Wells was always a rather low-key, decent sort who got on well with fans and the media. In an unfortunate sort of Catch-22 situation, his final days in Toronto were rather unpopular due to the simple fact that the club had listened to the fans and signed him to keep him around. The result was a very big, long-term deal that paid him about $124M over 7 years. His numbers didn’t keep up with the contract, and there was palpable relief when the Jays traded him to Anaheim leading up to the 2011 season. He hit just .227 with a total of 47 homers in the last three years he played, between the Angels and Yankees. Of course, had he left in free agency in 2008, fans would have been riled up, and had he settled for considerably less money, fans would have probably remained squarely in his corner.
With apologies to Jesse Barfield. Barfield was the RF for the team through most of the ’80s, the first Jay to hit 40 homers in a year (1986, when he led the majors and drove in 108 to boot) and whose cannon arm brought him Gold Gloves in ’86 and ’87. All the while being a thoroughly decent and likeable guy. But his stature has to be relegated to “silver medal” status by the guy who shares his initials and his talent, and became the face of the franchise this decade.
Bautista is one of baseball’s best “rags to riches” type stories. Not that Jose grew up in rags; he was one of the fortunate Dominicans to grow up in middle class surroundings and get a good education. However, his baseball career seemed tentative through the first decade of the 2000s, playing with little acclaim for, and easy disposal by, Tampa, Baltimore, Kansas City and Pittsburgh who traded him with little fanfare, to Toronto. At the time in 2008, fans shrugged and Bautista was seen as a run-of-the-mill backup infielder. It wasn’t until the following year, when Alex Rios started swearing at fans (becoming a detriment to the franchise) that “Joey Bats” got to play regularly… and in right field.
From there, there was little looking back. In 2010, the first season he was an everyday outfielder for the Jays he rocketed to the top of the league’s hitters, knocking 54 longballs, a record which still stands for Toronto, and the first player in three years to reach that number in the AL. He also drove in 124 that season, and not surprisingly, given his power, was walked 100 times. That was the first of 4 years he had triple digit walks, in 2011 he had 132 in just 149 games! He also led the league in homers that year, with 43.
When all was said and done and his Jays career was done, after 2017, he played 1235 games, hit .253 with a stellar .372 on base percentage due to his good eye and all those bases on balls. He hit 20 or more homers every year from ’10 on, tallying 288 with the team, second only to Carlos Delgado. Likewise his 790 runs scored and 803 walks; his 766 RBI puts him third. It all added up to a 37.3 WAR, just a fraction behind Tony Fernandez for best. He had an 8.3 in 2011 alone.
Like Barfield too, Bautista had a fantastic arm from the corner, although as he aged, his range began to diminish some. He assisted throwing out 86 runners through the years from RF… and when called upon played third base quite acceptably as well.
No surprise that he was a 6-time All Star or was in the top 10 for MVP voting four times. And like most sports superstars, Jose didn’t shrink away from pressure. In 2015-16, the first Toronto teams to make it to the post-season since the early-’90s, he had a .364 on base percentage and drove in 16 in 20 games. He opened the scoring in the 2016 Wild Card game with a homer but of course, is ever beloved in Canada for another homer, that 3-run blast “bat flip” against Texas in the deciding game 5 of the 2015 ALDS. Time and time again when the pressure was on, Bautista would rise to the occasion, making him one of the most popular Jays of all-time.
Next up, we’ll start to look at some of the best pitchers ever for Toronto…
So, instead of focusing on yesterday’s shellacking to the Angels courtesy the arm of Edwin Jackson, (still on the roster with his 12+ ERA last I looked today) let’s look back on some of the good Jays days of the past. In the spirit of the All Star Game, I present to you the All Time Blue Jays All Star Team. The best of the best over the first 42 Toronto years…Last time we looked at Roberto Alomar and Tony Fernandez. Today, we move around the diamond for two more standouts at their position, albeit neither one quite as open and shut as some of the previous positions we looked at.
If all goes as projected and hoped for, if we revisit this in about five years, we’ll have a new name here – Vladimir Guerrero Jr. In the meantime… every team seems to have its bugaboo position – the one they never seem to fill that well. For Toronto, that would be the “hot corner”. Now, it’s not fair to say the Jays have never been strong at third, but it clearly is a position which through most of their 42 seasons, they’ve been average at best. That notwithstanding, it would seem that the magic of the World Series years continues on this list as Gruber would be the team’s best third bagger.
Now, I readily concede that current Atlanta star Josh Donaldson had a stellar 2015 in Toronto, deserved his MVP and was a very large part of the team’s first trip to the post-season in over two decades. But when all was said and done, Josh stayed here for just three full seasons and a bit, putting in 462 games… about half of Kelly’s 921.
Gruber was a true blue Jay, of that there can be no argument. He was with Toronto 1984 through ’92 and only played a grand total of 18 games elsewhere, with California in 1993 before retiring. He was the team’s everyday third baseman from ’87 to ’92, injuries excepted. And while there seems like there was a perception he was balsa-boned and oft-injured (and the infamous pictures of him out waterskiing while on the DL still come up in many a hot stove debate in Ontario sports bars) he actually missed a pretty acceptable number of games – from ’87 through ’90 inclusive he played a minimum of 135 games a season at third. Not Cal Ripken but still, a guy who showed up most of the time. And like beloved players at the position who followed like Brett Lawrie and the aforementioned Donaldson, he played all out, all the time. He didn’t have quite the raw talent of those two, but he was still quite a decent infielder. He actually won a Gold Glove in his stand out 1990 campaign and his career fielding percentage was .955 compared to the league average of .949 through that period. In 1988 he pulled off 35 double plays.
At the plate he was, at his best further above average than he was with his glove. Without the short weeks with Angels counted in, he hit .259 with 114 homers, 434 RBI and a .738 OPS. All that added up to a WAR of 16 – no Hall of Fame numbers, but pretty decent. He was a two time All Star, most clearly in 1990 when he set career highs in homers (31), doubles (36), RBI (118) and slugging percentage (.512).
While Gruber was the 3B for the Jays first World Series, Ed Sprague had pretty much taken the job the next year for the team’s second, and Sprague might be the player who came closest to Kelly career-wise as a Toronto third baseman, playing 888 games through ’98, hitting .245 with 113 home runs. Unlike Gruber, his fielding came in a bit below the league norm, perhaps in no small part to his beginning his career as a catcher rather than infielder.
Hands down. Now, some might be saying I’m being inconsistent here since I just said a few paragraphs back that Josh Donaldson didn’t really merit consideration for best Third Baseman and he played just over three full seasons with Toronto. “Molly” played just three – and one of those was the infamous, strike-shortened 1994. My reaction to that is A) it’s my blog and I can be inconsistent if I want to, and also B) DH is an unusual position since Toronto has seldom rostered a full-time one – quite unlike 3B, or other field positions. Most years the DH role is shared by a number of outfielders and often first baseman having a “half day off” on a rotating basis.
But one of the exceptions to that was 1993-95, when Toronto ponied up the cash for former-Milwaukee superstar Molitor. He was 36 when he arrived, and not quite agile enough to take on the role of everyday infielder he’d done for so long with the Brewers (Toronto did occasionally start him at first, but his primary role was to hit … and that he did!). He had the unenviable task of replacing crowd favorite Dave Winfield, who performed great and helped Toronto win their first championship in his one campaign for the Jays in ’92. After a few months fans were asking “Dave who?”.
Molitor might just have been the best pure hitter, and clutch hitter ever to don the birdy shirt. In his first year with the team, he led the league in plate appearances (725) and hits (211) and came second to teammate John Olerud with a .332 batting average. The average and the hits both rank as the third-best one year totals ever for the Jays. He drove in 111 and had a .911 OPS, a full 43% above league average. If you were going to define “designated hitter”, you could do well by just pointing to Paul that year.
In ’94, he seemed to be on an even better roll before the season came to a crashing halt, hitting .341 with 155 hits in only 115 games. In all, Molitor hit .315 with 246 RBI, 73 stolen bases (not bad for an “old” guy) and a WAR of 12 in his three years. His three regular season years that is. If his regular season performance wasn’t already enough, Molitor endeared himself to the crowds by his superhuman performance in the ’93 playoffs. After going 9 for 23 in the ALCS, he simply dominated the Phillies pitching staff in the World Series (which he was the MVP of), going 12 for 24 with two homers and 8 RBI. He scored the tying run in front of Joe Carter’s epic walk-off blast in the winning game, after having a double and a two run homer earlier in the game. With the team down in the 9th, and one out, he’d singled Rickey Henderson over with a sturdy line drive off Mitch Williams, setting the stage for Carter’s blast heard around the world… or at least around Canada!
Next time out, we’ll go out to the outfield, spots Toronto has had its share of greats in.
So, instead of focussing on tonight’s shellacking to Houston, let’s look back on some of the good Jays days of the past. In the spirit of the All Star Game, I present to you the All Time Blue Jays All Star Team. The best of the best over the first 42 Toronto years…Last time we looked at Ernie Whitt and Carlos Delgado. Tonight, we move around the diamond for two more “no brainers”.
It would be hard not to name Alomar on the All-time Jays team given that as of now, he’s the one and only person you’ll see honored in Cooperstown wearing a Blue Jays cap. Yet, that doesn’t mean I didn’t pause to consider this one. It’s by no means worth suggesting Alomar wasn’t great with Toronto, but it does bear noting he only played five years here. That said, the brief greatness of Aaron Hill or the very decent but less-than-spectacular long years put in by Damaso Garcia in the early days don’t match up to Robbie.
Alomar came up with San Diego in 1988 and came over to the Jays in the winter of 1990, in perhaps the biggest trade in Blue Jays history. As soon as he arrived (along with Joe Carter), the team’s prospects rose, with them winning the AL East for the first three seasons after, and of course, the two World Series wins in ’92-93. Alomar played for Toronto only 1991-95, but that was still a longer stretch than he put in with any of his other teams before he retired after 2004. He had no hesitation going into the Hall of Fame representing Toronto, which has to win him some added respect in Canada!
A career .300 hitter and the only 10 time Gold Glove winner at second base in MLB history had some decent years with Cleveland and Baltimore, he played his greatest games with Toronto. In his five years in Jays’ blue (Gold Glove each season) , he hit .307 with 206 stolen bases, 342 RBI and an .833 OPS. In the ’93 championship season, he hit .326 with 93 RBI and a .900 OPS. He was fast, he was smart, he could lay down a bunt like few others then or now.But there was more to him than that.
Alomar was brash, confident, some might say “cocky”, and was the defacto team captain in the Championship years. He has a career .313 average in the post season, in the Jays tenure it was .373. Never was he bigger than the 1992 ALCS, in which he hit a homer against (equally cocky) Dennis Eckersley effectively sinking the A’s and making Roberto the series MVP. Going 11 for 26 with 5 steals in 6 games will do that!
Then there was the glove. Alomar had range and grace like few other middle infielders – hence the Gold Gloves – despite the absolutely impossible to explain Baseball-Reference calculation that show him as being a negative dWAR during those five years (which is to say they feel his defence cost the team games compared to if he was replaced with a minor leaguer!). Which surely tells more about the computations that result in the “WAR” statistic than they do about Robbie! Because those of us who remember seeing Alomar play second know how good he was and are not going to believe that opponents would rather see him out there than some no-name minor league player!
A player similar to but also the polar opposite of Alomar. A great, Latin American defensive star.Unlike Alomar however, Fernandez seemed a little introverted and was taken for being aloof and unfriendly although those who knew him would suggest he was probably just shy and not too comfortable speaking in English.
Mr. Blue Jay seemed to play just about forever, and was much-traveled but played his best for, and always seemed to come home to, Toronto. The lanky Dominican (6’2”, generally around 160 pounds through most of his career) came up with the team just as they were getting competitive, in 1983, and played through 1990 after which he was traded to San Diego (for Alomar etc, see above). He came back from the Mets mid-season 1993 to give the team a post-season boost, played with them again in ’98-99 before finishing his big league career here at the tail end of 2001. When all was said and done, he was the team’s all-time leader in games (1450), hits (1583) and triples (72) and he was a four time All Star. His 17 triples in ’90 was a single season high for them as was his 16 pinch hits, when pushing 40 years old, in 2001. He had six .300 years with them, none more memorable than 1999, when at age 37 he carried a .400 almost to the All Star break (he dropped below .400 in game 79). During the regular seasons he hit .297 with Toronto but during the post-seasons, he rose to the occasion as greats do, hitting .333 with 29 hits and drove in 13 through 24 games.
While late in his career he was shifted to third base, where he was average, in his prime he was a graceful shortstop with great range as well, winning Gold Gloves in 1986-89 inclusively, after committing only 6 errors in 140 games in 1985.
Alomar and Fernandez, two very different but also strikingly similar middle infielders who were huge pieces of the puzzle that was Blue Jays’ World Series. Next up, we’ll look at the other infield position…
Last night the Blue Jays looked like world-beaters, from the Rowdy Tellez grand slam to the adequately decent 5-inning performance from much-traveled veteran Edwin Jackson which brought his ERA down to 10.22. But the cold water in the face is that they were playing the most pathetic of baseball birds, the Orioles, much the same team that lost 115 games last year. All in all, it’s been a long season for the Blue Jays and us fans…and it’s still about a month to the All Star Game.
So, instead of focusing on that, let’s look back on some of the good Jays days of the past. In the spirit of the All Star Game, I present to you the All Time Blue Jays All Star Team. The best of the best over the first 42 Toronto years… The first two are both more or less “no brainers”.
Benito Santiago might be the catcher who came closest to Cooperstown who caught for the Blue Jays, but his meagre two years here were in fact one forgettable season and a lost year due to a car accident. Whitt is simply the only real true-blue, long-term star catcher the team’s ever had. After a handful of appearances with Boston in 1976, he was one of the initial Jays in ’77 and stayed until 1989. Few even remember his short post-Toronto career in Baltimore. He was the man behind the plate as the team came of age, through their first playoff appearance (1985) and when all was said and done, he’d logged 1218 games for the team, sixth best overall and by far the most for any catcher. Durability? In that magical ’85 season he played 139 games, making fans love him as much for his grittiness as his talent. Breaking two ribs in the final week of the 1987 season, sliding into second, seemed the final nail in the coffin of a team that had a 3-and-a-half game lead in their division with a week to go. After his ribs cracked on the final Tuesday, Toronto failed to win another and ended up out of the playoffs.
While he wasn’t flashy at the plate nor behind it, he was consistently good. He was an All Star in ’85 and with Toronto hit .253 with 131 homers, 518 RBI and even got away with 22 stolen bases. He hit 19 homers twice (at that point, a record for Toronto catchers), drove in 75 in 1987 and had a career WAR (with Jays only) of 19.2. His defensive WAR alone was 1.7 in ’83 and while he didn’t have the finest of throwing arms, he worked magic with the pitching staff as can be guessed by looking at the successes of pitchers like Dave Stieb, Jimmy Key and Tom Henke during his tenure as catcher.
Final bonus points for the moustached one: even though from Michigan, he embraced Toronto and Canada like few other players and for years was involved in amateur baseball in Canada. In 2004 he managed Canada’s Olympic team and in 2011, guided them to a Pan Am games gold.
One of the most under-rated players of the Steroid era, all the more lamentable given that Carlos was one of a very few home run hitters of the late-’90s not implicated in steroid scandals, let alone failing any drug tests.
Delgado, at his best, may have been the best-ever Blue Jays hitter. Surprisingly, he came through the system as a catcher but his size and wise heads in front office knew he’d never become a great backstop but that role would limit his at bats and arguably shorten his career. So, First Base it would be, and while he never shone there, he was perfectly adequate. Carlos was the last remnant of the World Series glory days with the team in the 21st Century; he made his debut at the very tail end of the 1993 championship season and played in T.O. through 2004 before ill-advised budget cutting saw him move on to Florida. In all, he played 1423 games for the Jays, including all 162 in both 2000 and ’01. Only Tony Fernandez has taken the field more with the crested bird on his cap.
Remarkably he was only an AL All star twice (see “under-rated”!) despite having eight 30HR seasons and 6 triple digit RBI campaigns. In 2003, he was runner up for AL MVP, a year many fans marked that award with an asterisk, as he came second to Alex Rodriguez, who later admitted to violating the PED steroids rules that year. That 2003 year, he hit .302 with 42 homers and 145 RBI, a number which still stands as the all-time single season record for the team. As good as that year was, it actually paled a little beside 2000 when he had a team record .664 slugging percentage and 123 walks (with a .664 slugging, no doubt pitchers were wary of giving him many down the middle of the plate) or 2001 when his OPS was a mind-boggling 1.134.
Through his Toronto run, he hit .282, averaged 75 walks a season, had a .392 on base percentage and .556 slugging percentage. That makes for a .949 OPS, fully 42% above league norm for that period. His 57 doubles in 2000 still stands as a team record as does the 4-homer game he had against Tampa in ’03. He also has more put outs – 10 333- than anyone else in team history and put all together, a WAR of 44.
A few might possibly argue John Olerud had a better single season with his batting championship ’93 (and its .363 average) but it’s pretty much impossible to suggest anyone has come close, before or since, to big #25’s career performance at first.
Up next, we’ll look at some of the best-ever middle infielders …