Opinion | Blue Jays fans can find hope for the near future in the past

A little ahead of schedule, the Blue Jays made an exciting run led by a Cy Young-worthy starting pitcher and young, heralded first baseman but ultimately fell short and wound up a disappointing fourth in the American League East.

The next season, with all of the stars-in-waiting a year older and more experienced, the Jays were ready to take a big step forward but settled for second place. A record start by a division foe meant the AL East was never really in play, though they did close the gap enough at one point to think it might be.

Sound familiar?

It’s absolutely the story of the 2021 and ’22 Jays. But it’s also the story of the 1983 and ’84 clubs. The similarities are eerie.

Of course, you had to win your division to make the playoffs back then, but the ’83 team had the fifth-best record in the AL and the ’84 team was second only to the 104-win Detroit Tigers, who got off to that historic 35-5 start. Both Jays teams of old would have made the playoffs under the current format — with 89 wins, fewer than this season’s 92 and last year’s 91.

In the early to mid-1980s, the Jays were a young team on the rise as they are now. They broke through in 1985 to win the AL East — nobody who was around then can forget the sight of George Bell catching a Ron Hassey fly ball in left field and dropping to his knees as Tony Fernandez rushed over for a high-five, or Doyle Alexander, who threw a complete game (with no strikeouts!) in that clincher over the Yankees on the season’s final Saturday, being carried off the field on teammates’ shoulders.

The ’85 Jays posted 99 wins, still the franchise record. Only the NL West champion St. Louis Cardinals, who ultimately lost to Kansas City in the World Series, were better with 101. The Cards, just as the Jays did, led the Royals three games to one and couldn’t close it out.

If past is prelude, the Jays will win the division next season and also win a playoff game, something they haven’t done in their last five tries.

But as good as that ’85 team was, and the ones that made great strides earlier, it would still be seven years until the Jays advanced past the first round — winning the World Series in their first try in 1992, with a team that bore very little resemblance to that first post-season squad.

Dave Stieb — who should have won at least three Cy Youngs during his Jays tenure, starting in 1983 — was still on the 1992 club, though sadly a non-factor. He made just 14 starts that year with a 5.04 ERA, a career worst to that point. His last outing that season came on Aug. 8 before an elbow injury shut him down.

The only other players on both the ’83 team that started it all and the ’92 squad that reached the promised land were infielders Rance Mulliniks (who played only three games all year because of back problems and wasn’t on the playoff roster, either) and Alfredo Griffin (a linchpin of the ’83 and ’84 teams and back as a bench player after seven years with the A’s and Dodgers).

By the time the Jays celebrated a championship, all the major pieces from the early days were gone.

  • First baseman Willie Upshaw was pushed aside for Fred McGriff, who later gave way to John Olerud.
  • Centre-fielder Lloyd Moseby was replaced by Devon White.
  • Bell and Jesse Barfield begat Joe Carter and Candy Maldonado.
  • Pat Borders was behind the plate, following Buck Martinez and Ernie Whitt.

Never mind the pitching staff. There was no Duane Ward and Tom Henke in ’83 and ’84; Jimmy Key wasn’t a starter until ’85; Juan Guzmán and Jack Morris didn’t come along until ’91; David Cone, Pat Hentgen and Dave Stewart until ’92.

Using the past as a guide, this doesn’t mean Jays fans should expect to get their hopes up only to see them come crashing down for a few years until the current core turns over. Or even that a franchise-altering trade — like the one that saw Fernández and McGriff moved to San Diego for Alomar and Carter in December of 1990 — is required.

The major difference between then and now, of course, is the lowering of the bar for entry into the post-season. In the glory days, only four teams made it. That number has since tripled.

The Jays were a playoff team in 1985, 1989 and 1991 before winning the World Series the next two years.

Had the current system been in place then, they would have made the playoffs every year from 1983 to 1993: winning the division seven times (thanks to the Tigers being in the AL Central), the top wild-card once (1990), the second wild-card once (1983) and the third wild-card twice (1986, 1988).

The more chances you get in the playoffs, the more big-game experience you acquire and the more likely it is that things will roll your way.

This version of the Jays, like the one four decades ago in whose footsteps they appear to be following, is likely to get a ticket to the dance on a regular basis.

Watching a team go through growing pains in real time is rarely fun, but that growth has been accelerated with the expanded playoff field, and the wait for a deep post-season run in Toronto shouldn’t be nearly as long this time around.

Mike Wilner is a Toronto-based baseball columnist for the Star and host of the baseball podcast “Deep Left Field.” Follow him on Twitter: @wilnerness


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