Spring training games are upon us, and while they mean a lot to the players fighting to make the 25-man roster, one could argue that the outcome of the games are somewhat inconsequential. Statistically speaking, the Blue Jays ‘won’ spring training in 2012, and finished one game under .500 last season, only to end up second-last and in the basement respectively at the end of the regular season. Last year’s World Champion Red Sox only had a .500 record last spring.
But on Saturday, as the Baltimore Orioles faced off against the Blue Jays, they only had one thing in mind – win. An unusual goal for a game that statistically has no meaning. However, this game meant a great deal to many Oriole players, the managers, and the organization.
I accidentally came across the Baltimore broadcast when settling in to watch the game yesterday. During the first inning, while Orioles skipper Buck Showalter was being interviewed, he revealed that the Orioles PR Director, Monica Pence Barlow had passed away the previous morning from cancer. Describing what a big part of the Oriole family Monica had been, Buck finished his interview by saying they were going to try to beat the Jays, and win this one for Monica.
In a statement earlier that day, Showalter had released the following statement:
“We lost a feather from the Oriole today. Monica embodied everything we strive to be about. Her passion, loyalty and tenacity set a great example for everyone in the organization. She was so courageous in continuing to do her job the last few years despite her pain. This is an especially tough day for those of us that worked with her on a daily basis. It was a blessing to have her in my life. She made our jobs so much easier. We won’t be able to replace Monica. We will only try to carry on. I am going to miss her as a colleague and a friend. She was a rock.”
Some of the Oriole players wore arm bands during the game, in memory of Monica. As Baltimore regulars exited the game, they were interviewed and asked about special memories of Monica. Slugger Chris Davis reminisced about pouring champagne over Monica’s head after clinching the 2012 Wild Card.
While the focus in professional baseball is usually on the players, the statistics, and the big-money contracts, it can be easy to forget how many people behind the scenes are instrumental in so many important elements of the game. Monica was one of those many.
In the 8th inning the Blue Jays were up 7-2, yet I had a funny feeling about Baltimore staging a rally. Sure enough, they started chipping away – for Monica. Fast-forward in the inning to two out and the Orioles back within one. A ground ball to second that should have ended the inning but was an error by the infielder Chris Getz, loaded the bases and kept the momentum going. The next batter with the bases loaded, smacked a triple to the gap in right-centre, completing the 7-run rally and putting the O’s up by two. For the first time in my life, this hardcore Jays fan (I bleed blue) was ok with the opposition beating my hometown favourite. I’m certain, after hearing the stories from numerous Oriole players, that Monica had Oriole-orange flowing through her veins.
It’s not uncommon for a player to dedicate a game to the memory of a passed loved one. Many Toronto fans remember the emotional home run by John McDonald on father’s day, following the passing of his father. And then there’s the even more incredible feat of promising a home run for someone during a game. Babe Ruth hit not one, but three HR’s for a sick child during the 1926 World Series. But this was different. This was an entire team playing in memory of someone who was family.
Toronto aims to be playing “meaningful baseball games” this September.
The Orioles, as a team, played what was possibly the club’s first meaningful baseball game in March.
Regardless of the time of year, or how high the stakes are, every game has meaning to someone.
This game had meaning to many.
Rest in peace Monica.
At roughly this point in time one year ago, Toronto baseball fans were excited.
Way too excited.
Following a series of moves and acquisitions, Alex Anthopoulos had put together a group of players that immediately moved everyone’s perception of the Blue Jays from a struggling franchise to not just a playoff contender, but a favourite to win the World Series. ESPN’s Dan Shulman wasn’t fooled. I discussed the Blue Jays collapse with Dan last year, you can find that interview here.
Oh how excited we all were.
Ticket sales were up. Merchandise sales were drastically up. New, royal-blue caps became very noticible throughout Toronto streets, bars, and of course Rogers Centre. Spring training was a media frenzy, with much focus being on the two biggest names Anthopoulos had acquired, being Reyes and Dickey. Suddenly, it was cool to be a Blue Jays fan again.
And then the Toronto Blue Jays won the 2013 World Series, we all held hands and sang Kumbaya, THE END.
…sorry, where was I? I must have been daydreaming again…
Obviously we all know how 2013 really ended for the Jays, and I find it painful and pointless drudging up the past. However, we can all learn something from history. The past gives us something to measure progress against. And progress is what the Jays could use, having come off a 74-win season (sorry, sometimes I rub salt in my own wounds).
Fast-forward to Spring training 2014. This off-season has been drastically different for Toronto. The addition of Dioner Navarro as AA’s only significant off-season acquirement pales in comparison to what he did last year. And as a result, the Blue Jays are now flying somewhat under the radar.
Florida is quieter this year, as far as the Jays are concerned. I spoke with Sportsnet’s Jamie Campbell, who said that there are significantly less reporters covering the Blue Jays this spring training. He also said it’s a welcome change for the players, considering the circus they dealt with last year. To listen to the entire interview with Jamie, click here.
Does less media mean fewer expectations?
Hardly. This is almost the same team fans were ecstatic about last year. Only healthy…so far. Think about this scenario: Brett Lawrie, Jose Reyes, Melky Cabrera, and R.A. Dickey stay healthy for the majority of the season. Let that sink in. Now feel the warmth of the Florida sun across your face as your smile grows bigger. Let us consider one more scenario: Brandon Morrow and J.A. Happ also stay healthy. Suddenly the rotation doesn’t look so bad, does it? I know, there were so many big-name starters available this off-season, of which Toronto acquired none. But perhaps they didn’t need to. At the 2014 State of the Franchise, Anthopoulos suggested it might be a possibility to add another starter late spring. That possibility seems to be slipping away. Jamie Campbell doesn’t see it as a concern. He and I discussed the expectations from Toronto fans regarding acquiring Ervin Santana, but he pointed out that Ervin has been battling injuries. Combine that with Ervin’s expectation of a $50 Million commitment, and suddenly Toronto’s current options seem somewhat more attractive. Waiting in the wings are a handful of hungry pitchers, with a significantly smaller price tag. Toronto also had a very dominant bullpen last season. Delabar and Cecil both had All-Star worthy performances through the first-half. And who doesn’t like a fairy-tale/David-vs-Goliath style story that could be Marcus Stroman?
Yes, I know I just painted a very colourful picture with a rather optimistic brush. What can I say? I bleed blue.
But “worst-to-first” isn’t an impossibility. Ask Boston, they know all too well (jeez that still stings, doesn’t it Toronto?)
So get excited again.
Why not? It’s baseball season.
Anything can, and usually does happen.
For more on Toronto’s current pitching situation, listen to my interview here with Sportsnet’s Jamie Campbell. We also discuss the home plate collision rule change by Major League Baseball, which should prove to make for some interesting calls this season!
Follow Jamie Campbell on Twitter: @SNETCampbell