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…
We’re in the midst of something truly historic in baseball this year. We may be seeing the best crop of young players to come into the league ever. That’s not to say that someone new on the diamond this season is going to become the “best-ever”, but that the incredible volume of great rookies and sophomores collectively may never have been surpassed.
Almost every year, one or two kids come up and have great seasons. Many of them go onto bigger and better; some will find their way to Cooperstown a couple of decades or so down the road. This year however, the list that potentially fit that category is long, and spans at least half the teams in the Majors. It’s so amazing that players like outfielders Bryan Reynolds (with Pittsburgh) and Alex Verdugo (Dodgers) are going almost unnoticed. Reynolds is hitting .322 with 83 runs scored and 16 homers. Verdugo, .294 with a WAR of 3.1 before being shut down with a back injury last month. This week, MLB ranked him as the 10th best “young” (under 25) rookie so far this year. Makes it hard to imagine times like 2004 when Bobby Crosby of Oakland won the Rookie of the Year award with a .239 average and 70 runs scored, or 2009 NL winner Chris Coghlan from the Marlins whose career WAR was 0.2.
In a dismal season so far for Toronto, fans have been able to get excited about their rookie contingent including Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette. MLB still rank Guerrero as the best rookie, although noting he likely won’t win the Rookie of the Year and suggest his “offensive upside ranks with any prospect in recent memory”, while Bichette is ranked 5th, they point out traling only Alex Rodriguez and rookie classmate Fernando Tatis Jr. of San Diego for best slugging percentage for a rookie shortstop under 22 years old – .592.
In between the two Jays are the aforementioned Tatis (.317 with 22 HR in 83 games), Astros OF Yordan Alvaraez , (.315, 25 HR, 75 RBI in 77 games, plus 48 walks resulting in an OPS an extraordinary 78% better than league average), and Eloy Jimenez of the White Sox (28 HR.) Somehow, Pete Alonso of the Mets, with his NL rookie record 47 homers, comes in only 8th on the MLB list! Fans in cities like Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Washington all have new faces putting in remarkable performances.
While the ranks of pitchers aren’t being filled with so many budding superstars, we can’t discard the importance of the likes of Chris Paddack of San Diego and Mike Soroka of Atlanta can’t be discarded. Soroka is considered the top rookie pitcher, a 21 year old who’s 14-5 with a 2.70 ERA and 190 innings logged for the Braves so far. His WAR is 5.6.
Compound all these players in with last year’s rookie stars – Atlanta’s Ronald Acuna, Washington’s Juan Soto and Dodgers pitcher Walker Buehler and you have a remarkable class of newcomers who are dominating the game after only a few months on the field.
This may lead to problems for the league not too far down the road. The past couple of seasons have already seen a slower market for free agents, with fewer teams bidding and some veterans who were still capable of playing fairly decently (think Dallas Keuchel, Evan Gattis) missing out entirely by the start of the year. The union is quick to call “collusion”’ savvy owners have pointed out that more and more value is being added by young, low-paid players and too many long-term contracts to veterans have come back to bite them.
The end result of this is that the next labor negotiations after 2021’s season, could be quite nasty and contentious. The union is going to be bitter, young stars are going to want a bigger piece of the pie and veterans are going to be fighting for rules to protect their ground. But that’s in the future.
For now, MLB has a unique opportunity. Never have so many young players on so many teams given their fans cause to celebrate. To root on the home team, buy new jerseys and learn a whole roster full of new names.
Basketball leaped forward in popularity with Michael Jordan; the NHL became popular in sunny Hollywood with Wayne Gretzky on ice and Tiger Woods made golf popular TV viewing for Gen X-ers. It’s been widely noted that baseball has failed to capitalize similarly on the great nature and outstanding performance of Mike Trout If it can’t sell one superstar, perhaps it can with eight or ten.
Job One for Rob Manfred this off-season should be getting together with PR consultants to figure out how to do just that. Because the MLB has a golden egg right now… they need to keep that goose healthy. If baseball can’t skyrocket in public interest by marketing Mike Trout, let’s hope it can with the combined effects of Guerrero, Tatis, Alonso, Bichette, Acuna and Alvaraez. The long-term well-being of the sport may rest on it being able to do so.