TORONTO (Oct. 3) — Yes, it would have been exciting for Toronto baseball fans to see the Blue Jays in the playoffs. The 2021 team, in my view, could have challenged for the World Series… and that’s coming from an ex–radio reporter who covered the championship clubs of 1992 and 1993. This was, for my money, the second–best club in franchise history, only to the 1985 edition that won a record 99 games and coughed up a 3–1 series lead against Kansas City in the American League Championship Series. That team was even superior to the back–to–back titlists, but Hall–of–Famer George Brett wouldn’t allow the Royals to lose. With such young stars as Lloyd Moseby, Jesse Barfield, George Bell, Tony Fernandez and Willie Upshaw — and the best starting pitcher in the Majors, Dave Stieb — the ’85 Blue Jays were the cream of the franchise crop… best resembled by the current posse of sluggers: Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Bo Bichette, Teoscar Hernandez and not–so–young Marcus Semien.
Add in a starting rotation that rivals any in the 44–year history of the ball club, buttressed by American League Cy Young probable Robbie Ray, and the Blue Jays would have been a headache for any opponent this Autumn.
TODAY LOOKED PROMISING FOR THE BLUE JAYS WITH ANOTHER ROUT OF THE DOUBLE–A–CALIBER ORIOLES AT ROGERS CENTRE. BUT, BOSTON RALLIED FROM A 5–2 DEFICIT IN WASHINGTON TO ELIMINATE TORONTO WITH A 7–5 TRIUMPH AT NATIONALS PARK. TORONTO STAR PHOTO
It is therefore a shame for local sports fans that the team missed out by a hair when the Boston Red Sox rallied to victory at Washington early this evening. Which sets up a New York at Boston A.L. wild card game on Tuesday. Though Toronto was technically eliminated by the 7–5 BoSox triumph, the club effectively lost its bid by dropping two of three games at home to the Yankees earlier in the week. That was the Blue Jays’ shot… and they couldn’t control the two–headed monster in the middle of the New York line–up: Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton. It also must be said that if the Blue Jays had been able to play all of their home games at Rogers Centre this season, we wouldn’t be discussing the 11th–hour anxiety. Though Dunedin and Buffalo were wonderful pandemic hosts, a full schedule of games in their own city would have been worth at least four or five more wins to the Blue Jays. Rendering today all but irrelevant. The most–recent Toronto playoff clubs — even with Jose Bautista, Josh Donaldson, Edwin Encarnacion and Troy Tulowitzki; all at the tail–end of their careers — weren’t as good as the current team. A wild card game is, of course, a crapshoot. But, the Blue Jays, playing and pitching as they did through most of September, would have been terribly difficult to subdue in a best–of–five or best–of–seven series.
Harder, it says here, than the clubs of 2015 and 2016.
So, now, local sports enthusiasts can turn their full attention (gulp!) to the Maple Leafs, who begin the 2021–22 National Hockey League season ten nights from now, against (double–gulp!) the Canadiens. Even on one of the most–suspenseful days in Blue Jays history, the Toronto Sun (below) chose to highlight the All or Nothing documentary series about the Leafs from the playoffs last spring. Which could just as easily have been entitled Rinse… And Repeat. Auston Matthews is pictured on the front of the Sunday tabloid mouthing the franchise mantra that nothing we’ve witnessed in the past five years from the club will happen in the playoff tournament of Year 6. Which is nearly identical to the vows made after Years 3 and 4. As such, whatever the Leafs accomplish during the 82–game regular schedule will carry minimal weight… unless, of course, not enough is accomplished to make the playoffs for a sixth consecutive season. Which is hardly out of the question with the club returning to the tough Atlantic Division alongside Tampa Bay, Boston, Florida, Montreal and rapidly improving Ottawa.
The extending of coach Sheldon Keefe’s contract was handled unprofessionally by the Maple Leafs, who were forced to confirm a story broken on Thursday by Pierre LeBrun of TSN. Turns out the two–year deal was signed earlier in the summer. Rather than proudly trumpeting support for the coach, the Leafs chose to keep the extension under wraps. That, plus the meager term, doesn’t exactly speak volumes for Keefe. Brendan Shanahan makes the important decisions in the Toronto hockey office… the same Brendan Shanahan — in concert with all the bigwigs at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment — who tripped over himself welcoming Mike Babcock to town in 2015. We saw how that worked out, perhaps engendering the silence that surrounded Keefe’s second contract.
Whatever the case, the Leafs have rewarded failure, hope and irrelevance.
Keefe stood behind the bench when the Leafs couldn’t score against Columbus in the qualifying playoff round of August 2020. And, he presided over the monumental collapse from a 3–1 series stranglehold on Montreal last May (failure). Keefe is only 41 years of age and the Leafs have hired and fired 20 coaches in the post–1967 era. He deserves a full, 82–game season uninterrupted by the COVID–19 pandemic (hope). Sheldon’s record in 103 regular–season games in a sterling 62–29–12 (irrelevance). The Leafs are routinely competent between October and April but haven’t ventured beyond the opening Stanley Cup round since 2003–04, when Keefe was 24 and playing for Hershey of the American Hockey League. It also provided insulation for the team and the coach. If the Leafs either fail to make the playoffs this season, or get bounced again in the opening series, Dubas, Keefe and, quite possibly, Shanahan will be fired, thereby compelling the club to pay only one extra year of Keefe’s salary.
Goodbye baseball. Hello hockey.