The promise of a young Toronto Blue Jays roster has us thinking about the future-but should also have you thinking about 1983
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The 2020 Toronto Blue Jays baseball season is back on track (we think), following an unscheduled extended civic holiday weekend spent in quarantine and a “home opener” seemingly on schedule to finally be played at Sahlen Field in Buffalo NY (we hope). Actual on-field results have given us reason for hope, mixed with remedies for heartburn. What seems like a lifetime away from the back-to-back playoff appearances of 2015-16 may have you dreaming of the “good ol’days”, but should have you focusing on the promises of 1983.
Why 1983? Aside from the back-to-back world championship teams of 1992 & 1993, no season in Blue Jay annals was more important than 1983. Because in the Year of Our Jays 7 A.E. (After Expansion), our Toronto Blue Jays finished with a winning record of 89-73 – a franchise first and the first of 11 consecutive winning seasons. The roster was choc-ful-o rising young stars on the verge of turning promise into performance. Proudly displaying the talents of a shiny new free agent starter, the real staff ace was a confident young pitcher who knew how to put his fastball where his mouth was. A second-year manager took advantage of the tools at his disposal and found a way to win games in spite of criticism of his strategies and long-term future in the Jays dugout.
In this article, we are going to shy away from sabermetrics and projections and focus in on the perceptions Toronto baseball fans formed about their suddenly-relevant roster.
STARS IN THE INFIELD
No one loves to hype young prospects more than I. But no team from any era could compare with the hoopla surrounding the incremental arrival of shortstop Bo Bichette, second baseman Cavan Biggio and third turned first sacker Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in 2019. Going into this season, the Three Offspring seemed destined for highlight reel antics and unrealistic expectations. Nothing can compare to these guys, right? Look at the 1983 roster, and you will find three players who did not have as much hype, but certainly inspired an equal amount of hope.
Damaso Garcia was a Yankeee cast-off who became a steady, if not flashy second baseman. Batting .310 in 1982, Garcia was awarded the Silver Slugger while stealing 54 bases and displaying the uncanny ability to get on base when team needed it most. Fellow Dominican Alfredo Griffin showed his promise by sharing the 1980 AL Rookie of the Year award, tying a major league record for triples in a season, but had no peer in the field among AL shortstops. His range and flair for the acrobatic saved developing Blue Jays pitching from the affects of ERA inflation. Both players earned their assists by throwing to a “bat before glove” first baseman in Willie Upshaw. His 21 Homer, 75 RBI first season as a regular in ’82 seriously raised expectation for Upshaw in 1983, which he met by becoming the first Blue Jay to drive in 100 runs (104) and batted .306 despite early struggles (Vlad critics take note). Even the third basemen platoon of Rance Mulliniks and Garth Iorg inspired a sense of confidence, with both guys batting .275 and making the plays they were expected to make.
MAKING A PITCH TOWARDS RESPECTABILITY
Thirty three year old Hyun-jin Ryu has already shown to be a popular free-agent signing with fans who has made it clear that he came to the team to win, not just for the money. Ryu was coming off a magical 2019 season and his signing made it clear that the Blue Jays were no longer satisfied with incremental improvement. When Doyle Alexander played with Toronto in June of 1983, manager Bobby Cox (for whom Alexander had played for in Atlanta in 1980) hailed the move as “the type of pitcher this team needs to be a serious contender.” The back-end of the rotation featured developing young arms in Jim Clancy, Luis Leal and Jim Gott would never be Cy Young winners or lights-out fireballers, but they did last deep into games, stayed healthy, and kept their team in ballgames.
But it is the supreme, dazzling talents of the 1983 Blue Jays staff ace where the comparison is most stark. I promised the editorial staff to make efforts to put a governor on my praise for Nate Pearson. But with an explosive fastball, developing slider and curveball, and confidence and poise beyond his 23 years, it is hard to dispute the future is brighter than Sahlen Field lighting for Person. The 1983 version of the Jays had their own savior in the form of 25 year-old Dave Stieb. Stieb had already been a member of the Toronto rotation for 3+years in 1983, but his electric fastball and even less hittable slider had won him the Sporting News AL Pitcher of the Year honors for 1982 and Stieb was the primary reason Toronto finished above .500 for the first time in franchise history.
A less comforting comparison can be made with the bullpens as well, where patience was often not rewarded but flashes of consistency made it an imperative to listen or watch an ’83 Jays game until the final out. Injuries and inconsistency saw presumptive closer Randy Moffit turn those duties over to a hard-throwing but unproven Roy Lee Jackson. Much like the current bullpen, an array of young, promising arms provided as many questions for fans to ponder than fan prayers answered.
SECOND YEAR MANAGERS LOOKING FOR RESPECT
The managerial situation in 1983 and 2020 is perhaps the most unsettling. When Bobby Cox took over the helm after a stint in the Ted Turner circus of Atlanta, there were emerging pieces who had established their long-term values and a plethora of young talent that needed equal amounts of confidence and ass-kicking. His predecessor Bobby Mattick seemed content with a course of player development first thinking, for which he was widely hailed for as an executive and scout before venturing into the dugout. When Cox took over in 1982, his firm hand seemed to instill a young team with more confidence with each win, though those wins were still not as regular as fans had hoped. In dealings with the media, it quickly became apparent that beat writers and pundits were not going to let Cox forget why he was fired by Atlanta.
Questionable bullpen management and an unwavering commitment to platooning, which he was exposed to cutting his teeth as a player and minor league manager in the Yankees system, seemed to overshadow every positive flight his young Blue Jays took. This passive- aggressive appreciation of his successes led to an end of a winning tenure in the Blue Jays dugout. Charlie Montoyo was plucked from the management breeding ground of Tampa Bay and finished his first year managing 67 wins and 95 losses. It is those losses that fans and critics seem to have latched onto with the most gusto, with his sense of Stat-o-Matic dice rolling in game strategy and “everybody should get a chance” bullpen management of particular negative focus.
Through 7 games, the 1983 Blue Jays and the 2020 Blue Jays records stood at 3-4, with a maddening penchant for win one, lose one performances. But the 1983 Jays finished with a record 89-73, with a deep core of young talent that would lead the franchise to the promised land of the playoffs and multiple World Series. Our 2020 Blue Jays have (perhaps) an even deeper pool of players who so far are on target for leading the team to Buffalo and finishing ahead of the Red Sox and Orioles. In 1983, franchise classic theme song “OK Blue Jays” was born from the promise of a bright future. It’s too early to predict whether the 2020 thematic thread will be “Told you so” or “better luck next year”.
*Featured Image Courtesy Of DaveMe Images. Prints Available For Purchase.
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