Jeff Pearlman

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It’s a New Ballgame in Toronto, by Jonah Birenbaum

Here at jeffpearlman.com we enjoy allowing others writers to flex their muscles. Today Jonah Birenbaum, a journalism student at Carleton University, explains why hope has returned to Toronto Blue Jays fans. One can follow Jonah on Twitter here, and visit his blog here.

It’s been 19 seasons since Joe Carter’s historic blast signaled the end of baseball’s halcyon days in Toronto. It was a fitting end to two seasons of unimaginable success; a ceremonious farewell to baseball’s esteemed position in the city’s sports consciousness.

The Toronto Blue Jays haven’t played a single playoff game since Carter’s spastic trip around the bases. In fact, since 1993 the Blue Jays have finished better than third place in the American League East just once.

For two decades, it’s been more or less the same story every year. Sure, the names have changed and the AstroTurf has evolved, but the narrative has remained consistent. It’s the same pedestrian team, the same dismal attendance and the same offseason posturing.

And, ostensibly, 2013 appeared to be the next chapter of the same depressing tale.

With a relatively lackluster free agent market—one replete with unappealing or unattainable upgrades—many Jays fans were preparing to brace themselves for another October of watching other teams vie for baseball’s top prize.

But then Alex Anthopoulos picked up the phone and brokered the biggest deal in the history of the franchise. In one monumental evening, the Blue Jays’ 35-year-old GM consummated a deal with the Miami Marlins that saw shortstop Jose Reyes and starters Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle highlight a package that instantly revived a decidedly moribund roster. On a seemingly uneventful Tuesday evening, Anthopoulos increased his payroll by more than $150 million in a dramatic overhaul that not only changed the complexion of the organization, but also whet the appetite of an increasingly impatient and disillusioned fanbase.

With his rotation in a state of disrepair, Anthopoulos picked up two pitchers who make Toronto’s staff a formidable unit for the first time in years. Disillusioned with the performance (and, presumably, character) of Toronto’s incumbent shortstop Yunel Escobar, Anthopoulos replaced him with a younger, more versatile middleman, who also happens to represent the team’s first bona fide leadoff hitter in years.

But wait.  There’s more.

Just hours after completing the deal with the Marlins, Anthopoulos went out and hired Melky Cabrera—one of baseball’s recent PED pariahs—to a two-year deal, effectively filling Toronto’s left field void.

In a dramatic departure from his usual M.O, Anthopoulos engineered an offseason overhaul that runs contrary to the principles that have defined his tenure as the Blue Jays’ general manager. Since assuming control of the team, Anthopoulos has worked to develop his team from within—cultivating a bountiful farm system, stocking his organization with high-ceiling prospects and refusing to offer exorbitant contracts to free agents.

But this offseason changed things. It’s a different ballgame now. While we’re always looking toward the future, 2013 is, in many ways, Anthopoulos’ magnum opus. The newly acquired Johnson in only under contract for one season.  At 32, Jose Bautista is approaching the end of his prime, and Edwin Encarnacion, who belted 42 homeruns last season, is right in the midst of his.

Don’t get me wrong—the Jays have a bright future ahead of them beyond 2013. They were fortunate not to have parted with their top prospect, Travis d’Arnaud, and boast a wealth of exciting young talent down in the minor leagues. They can also look forward to the return of guys like Drew Hutchison and Kyle Drabek—young hurlers whose developments have been stalled by Tommy John surgery. And it should be noted that the team’s newfound financial commitments beyond 2015 aren’t as cumbersome as some have suggested.

But nevertheless, the farther we look down the road, the foggier our vision becomes. It’s difficult to predict what we’ll have in three, four, five years. But with the talent currently in place, we have a reasonably solid understanding of what we have. And for the first time in recent memory, what we have is actually, kinda, really good.

That’s why, for even the most cynical Blue Jays fans traumatized by years of mediocrity,  2013 is a reason for optimism. And, ideally, 2013 will provide opportunities for us younger Jays fans to forge memories our own glory days instead of clinging to the nostalgia of Joe Carter.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life