This has been one ugly season for the Blue Jays. They've spent years trying to figure out a way to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox in the American League East, and then the Rays came out of nowhere to make a World Series and become perennial contenders. Now the Orioles look like they're headed for October baseball. Suddenly, the Bisons' new parent is simply trying to stay out of last place.
There's been injuries, poor play, the roof of the Rogers Centre crawling to a close during a game as fans got soaked in the rain and the homophobic eye-black message shortstop Yunel Escobar was busted for wearing last week.
So the smiles of Jays officials Friday in Coca-Cola Field were even wider than you might have expected.
"This has been one of the highlights of the year, there's no doubt," Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos said after the Jays signed their new working agreement with the Bisons. "I'll walk in and the security guard will come up to me in Toronto and say, ‘Wow, great job on that deal with the Bisons.' Everyone in the organization knows how excited we are."
In the second half, there's been little excitement under the big dome by Lake Ontario. Injuries to the pitching staff and then to big bats like Jose Bautista, Brett Lawrie and J.P. Arencibia KO'd the season. Coming out of spring training, the Blue Jays were a chic playoff pick by many national experts.
The Jays, remember, had an 11-year run from 1983-93 where they were in contention every year. They won the AL East five times (1985, 1989, 1991-93), lost the division in the final days three other years (1987, 1988, 1990) and finally broke through to win the World Series in 1992 and 1993.
They were also a model franchise off the field, drawing 4 million fans a year to a futuristic stadium and having the highest payroll in the game in ‘93. Then came the strike of ‘94, the devaluation of the Canadian dollar, the exodus of fans and the absence of wins. When the Nationals clinched a playoff berth last week, it left the Blue Jays with the third-longest postseason drought in baseball, ahead of only the Pirates (1992) and Royals (1985).
"We have to turn that around. It's not fun, not fun at all," Jays president and CEO Paul Beeston told this corner Friday. "But it's not quick to change either. It takes time. We've put a lot of money into the minor-league system, scouting and development. We think we have some real strong pieces there, some athletic players in the major leagues so we can get there.
"As an organization, we feel very positive. But we can talk all we want, we have to prove it by going out on the field and winning. That's up to us."
While the Blue Jays seem to need a lot of offseason work to retool for next year, Beeston is still shaking his head over what's happened in 2012.
"We're disappointed. There's no question about it," he said. "But there were injuries that were hard to overcome. Pitchers went down and we were still scoring a lot of runs but when Bautista went down, Lawrie went down and Arencibia went down, all of a sudden you're taking 60-70 home runs out of the lineup. It makes it difficult. We believe with the players we have in the minors, some changes we make in the offseason and getting some of the injured players back, we can make a quick turnaround."
Former manager Cito Gaston, who led Toronto through its championship glory days and is now a consultant for the organization, admitted here Friday that everyone felt the good times would last indefinitely.
"You did have that feeling it was going to go on forever but people get older and people move on," Gaston said. "That's what happens. And people forget that from ‘92 to ‘93, we changed 14 guys from one World Series team to the next. That was quite a change. I think with Alex and Paul's leadership we're on the right track.
"We just had so many injuries. Everyone has them but we had a lot to our pitching. The Rays have a great staff, then you see what Baltimore has done and the pitching is why they've turned it around. Then you see the times the Yankees are struggling and it's because they don't have the pitching they used to have. But they're hanging in from the know-how of their veteran players."
The Blue Jays have to improve their pitching for next season, both in the rotation and the bullpen. They have to decide if Ricky Romero's 13-game losing streak is a half-year blip or the start to an alarming decline. They have to decide if they're going to dive into free agency, either for another bat or an arm like Zack Greinke. They even have to decide if they're going to extend manager John Farrell's contract or let him slip away to the Red Sox and perhaps hold up Boston for heavy compensation.
"It's real difficult to see the team losing so many games," said Hall of Fame second baseman Roberto Alomar, who joined Gaston and former Cy Young winner Pat Hentgen at the press conference. "But on the other hand, I think we're going in the right direction. Unfortunately, we had a lot of injuries and you can't deny that. It's part of the game. We have a lot of guys who put out some great performances in the minor leagues.
"But from now on, I don't think there can be any more excuses. I saw Paul did an interview where he said we're ready to not be called a rebuilding ballclub any more. We are a big-league team that has to be ready to play in 2013."
Last word on Mets
The Mets have taken a lot of flak from this corner and from Bisons fans for the club's performance the last four years. The Buffalo front office hasn't been shy to state its opinion privately as well but the Bisons didn't kick the Mets out the door without some deserved praise for the effort the Amazins put in for trying to build a winning club this year.
If players like Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Vinny Rottino, Omar Quintanilla and Bobby Scales had stayed all year, there's no question manager Wally Backman's contention the Herd was a playoff team would have been valid.
"I don't for one minute take our record the last four years and say the Mets don't care," said Bisons GM Mike Buczkowski. "Even the first year when things were so bad [a 2-16 start in 2009], they changed [hitting] coaches, got guys like Wily Mo Pena in here to play. I never got the feeling the Mets don't care. Last year, I was worried about [manager] Tim Teufel, about how hard he was taking it. They made an effort, a real effort. At the end of the day, the results are just the results."
The Bisons liked all three Mets-era managers (Ken Oberkfell, Teufel and Wally Backman). Backman, in particular, was more of a preparation freak than anyone imagined.
"You know he was a passionate guy, a gritty-hard nosed guy who got by by playing the game right," Buczkowski said. "But he's there watching video on opposing pitchers before the game, getting scouting reports, calling people he knows. He can find out anything from anybody. He's looking at how a guy pitched against him in Binghamton. The guy was a student of the game and used all the information that's available to him."
Owner Bob Rich Jr. agreed that this year was the most frustrating one with the Mets.
"We would have thought going into year four that we would have had a winning club in here," Rich said. "I know there were injuries and callups but that's part of baseball. You just make your decisions on four-year relationships. They've had their issues off the field too which have been well-chronicled (a reference to the Madoff-related troubles of the Wilpon family ownership), but hopefully they're coming out of it.
"We don't complain about callups. That's a structural part of the game. We celebrate them for that player. But we also want to see people stepping up from Double-A having their celebrations to get here because they're one step closer. That's where joining an organization with a strong farm system like the Blue Jays is really important for us at the end of the day."
*Buczkowski took to his Twitter feed Friday to ask Bisons fans about what Canadian food they might want to see at ballpark concession stands. Something tells me we might be in for some poutine, that scrumptious concoction of french fries topped with brown gravy and cheese curds.
*On Twitter at @benwag247, Bisons announcer Ben Wagner dumped his avatar that pictured him sitting on a boat for a simple map of the Niagara Peninsula that had a big red dot marking Toronto and another big red one marking Buffalo.
*Infielder Josh Satin, who finished the season with the Bisons, is playing on Israel's entry in the World Baseball Classic qualifying tournament in Jupiter, Fla. "I'm happy to be playing for Israel but it's kind of bizarre too," Satin, a native Californian, told the New York Times. "No one from my family has even been there."
*It was a solid first professional season for former University at Buffalo catcher Tom Murphy, the third-round pick of the Colorado Rockies in June. Murphy batted .288 in 55 games for the Tri-City Dust Devils of the Class A Northwest League, adding six homers and 38 RBIs. Murphy had a 20-game hitting streak in one stretch for Tri-City, located in Pasco, Wash. He led the team with a .462 slugging percentage and an .811 OPS. The Dust Devils finished 32-44.