From contender to sheer debacle

Sunday, July 30, 2006.
Fans of the Toronto Blue Jays should write this date down on a piece of paper and save it.
Why you ask?
It might very well turn out to be one of the most important dates in the club’s recent history.
That particular Sunday marked the end of the Blue Jays’ post-season aspirations this year. It also set into motion one of the most bizarre series of events ever experienced by a professional sports team.
For those of you without the rare ability to recall every event in the sports world over the past three months, let me help to refresh your memory.
The Jays were in the thick of the race for both the American League East division and the wild card.
They had just taken three of four games from the mighty N.Y. Yankees at the Rogers Centre. And A.J. Burnett, the prized pitching acquisition of the previous off-season, was set to return from a lengthy stay on the disabled list.
In short, things were good. Unfortunately, the good times wouldn’t last.
The Jays went west on a season-defining 10-game road trip that would see them stop in Seattle, Oakland, and New York.
They lost two of three games to the lowly Mariners, then dropped two of the first three games of a four-game set to the A’s.
Things were definitely not going well, but the season was far from lost at this point.
Then Sunday, July 30 arrived.
The Jays led 5-3 heading into the bottom of the ninth inning in the finale of the Oakland series—a game they had to have before heading back east to face the Yankees.
All-world closer B.J. Ryan was on the mound and that’s when the unthinkable happened. A’s outfielder Milton Bradley crushed a two-out, three-run walk-off home run to centrefield to give Oakland the improbable win.
The Jays never recovered.
The Yankees jumped all over the psychologically-fragile Jays and not only swept them, but pummelled them in the process.
A damaged Toronto team then returned to the Rogers Centre and promptly lost two of three to the Chicago White Sox—ending any hope they had of reaching the post-season in the process.
They saying winning solves everything. Well if that’s true, losing makes everything worse.
Reports began to swirl that catcher Bengie Molina no longer was happy with the amount of playing time he was receiving.
The Molina rumours were quickly overshadowed by the one that all-star centrefielder Vernon Wells was so unhappy in Toronto that there was no way he’d consider signing an extension to stay with the club once his contract expired at the end of the 2007 season.
Then came the coup de grace.
In an Aug. 22 game in Toronto, against the same Athletics team that started the misery a little less than a month earlier, Jays’ manager John Gibbons got into a physical altercation with starting pitcher Ted Lilly after he’d yanked him for allowing seven runs in an inning.
A manager fighting his own pitcher?
It would have been completely unfathomable to the average Jays fan had Gibbons not challenged former third baseman Shea Hillenbrand to put up his dukes back in mid-July.
What was once a promising ball club on the verge of success was now a complete and utter disaster.
Instead of doing the right thing and firing Gibbons for being an thug, Jays’ GM manager J.P. Ricciardi gave his bench boss a vote of confidence and dared upper-management to fire him if they didn’t like it.
Fantastic—nothing like responding to a serious situation with the same amount of maturity as could be found in a four-year old.
The Jays are in for some major shake-ups during the off-season.
I would be shocked if either Molina or Lilly, both of whom will be free agents, are back in Toronto come next season. Wells very well could be dealt if management decides he is serious about not signing an extension.
And you have to wonder what effect that will have on the team’s other marquee players and their ability to attract top-flight free agents.
Who would want to play for a manager who would just as soon beat you up as give you a compliment?
Sunday, July 30, 2006—a terrible day to be a Jays’ fan.

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