SportsCenter host Josh Elliot's cheery lead-in to the Yankee-Blue Jays highlight from the night before summed up the situation neatly: "This has been a tough patch of the Yankees schedule, but that wasn't supposed to include the Blue Jays."
The narrative seems fitting. The defending world champions have enjoyed the best record in baseball for the bulk of the 2010 season, and are currently sitting at 66-40 and only a game out of first. Their highest paid player is one homer away from 600 and they are first in the American League in runs and OPS. When the 2010 season comes to a close, the Yankees will have paid their roster over $134 million more than the Blue Jays squad.
And the Toronto Blue Jays are, after all, the Toronto Blue Jays. More recently than they've won two consecutive world series in the early 1990s, they've been managed by a crazy person who made up stories about fighting the Vietcong.
Except that this year, under the leadership of 33-year-old general manager Alex Anthopoulos and exhumed managing legend Cito Gaston, the Blue Jays have not been a laughingstock. Heading into play on August 4, the Blue Jays stand at five games over .500, good for a .523 winning percentage. In the American League East, that's just enough to leave the Jays 11.5 games behind the Tampa Bay Rays (and 10.5 games behind the now-Wild Card leading Yankees).
In the Central, however, the Blue Jays would be a more manageable 4.5 games back, with the meeker Twins and White Sox as competition. In the AL West, they would be 5.5 games behind the Texas Rangers. Moving over to the National League, the Blue Jays would be 4.5 behind the Atlanta Braves in the East, 3.5 behind the Cincinnati Reds in the Central and 7 games behind the San Diego Padres in the West. Certainly not lofty numbers, but definitely the thick of contention.
The Blue Jays have a better record than the LA Angels and Detroit Tigers, both buyers as of last Saturday's trade deadline. The Blue Jays, on the other hand, were targets of (not unfair) criticism for their unwillingness to throw in the towel and unload trade chips Scott Downs, Jason Frasor and Jose Bautista for anything but high-end prospects. In any other division, the Blue Jays would be a Moneyball darling; instead, they're talked about as if they're the slightly more dignified sibling of the Baltimore Orioles.
Great stories? The Jays are chock-full of them. Out-of-nowhere (well, Pittsburgh) journeyman outfielder Jose Bautista is on pace to finish the season with a Brady Andersonesque 50 homeruns and 130 runs batted in, and an OPS bordering on 1.000. 2005 top draft pick Ricky Romero is has burst on to the scene as a rotation workhorse with 9 wins and a 3.37 ERA, while ranking sixth in innings pitched and ninth in strikeouts.
The story of the offseason was the forced jettisoning of future Hall of Fame starter Roy Halladay; the resiliency and aplomb shown by the Jays in overcoming that loss would make the hardest-hearted Ewing Theory devotees proud. As a team, the Jays rank first in baseball in homeruns, and have seen resurgent seasons from a host of veterans previously left on the charnel heap: All Star Vernon Wells was placed on waivers last year; Bautista; former Cubs closer Kevin Gregg; veteran shortstop Alex Gonzalez, who was shrewdly dealt at peak value the Braves for a younger starter at the same position; and first baseman Lyle Overbay, among others.
Why haven't the Blue Jays caught on among baseball's pundit class? Maybe because the one thing they excel at more than anyone else -- hitting homeruns -- is so unromantic. Since the days of yore baseball writers have worshiped scrappers, praised speed and hustle to the heavens and fetishized the likes of David Eckstein. Unambiguous displays of effort have always been the easiest to praise; homeruns look too easy, are too un-subtle for those wishing to prove themselves to be no ingénues, and are oft-derided as "base-clogging" by those unwilling to subscribe to the contemporary school of thought that the single most productive thing a player can excel at is not making outs. And that all gets multiplied a hundred-fold in the wake of the mania over the "Steroids era."
What the 2010 Toronto Blue Jays have been, however, is the single greatest argument baseball has for their own version of radical realignment. And while action on that front has to be considered remote, they deserve the credit they've earned for competing at an elite level in the most grueling division MLB has to offer. And if he didn't die 15 years ago, one might even consider the Jays' success enough to earn Cito Gaston a contract extension.