And no, I don't mean that in a "Vernon Wells won't leave the table until he's finished his third double-cheeseburger" kind of way. I'm talking about overall team scrappiness and a never say die attitude that has translated into gutsy team performances and come from behind wins.
There were several times when this particular edition of the Blue Jays could have folded, when it would've been easy to flip the switch off and let the season get away. The back-to-back ninth inning meltdowns against Tampa in early June, the two losses to start the series against the St.Louis Cardinals later in the month, and more recently, heading into Yankee stadium after being swept by the lowly Cleveland Indians all come to mind.
But each time the Jays faced the prospect of being completely buried in the standings they responded and came away with a much-needed win. For a team with extremely low preseason expectations, that means something. Actually, it means everything. Entering a 'rebuilding phase' is basically another way of telling your fans your going to lose. But if you can actually rebuild without turning into the Pittsburgh Pirates for a few seasons, it allows you to potentially speed up the process because your players haven't forgotten how to win. That can make the transition from up and coming to legitimate far less bumpy.
Normally you would point to the manager as a specific reason or a major contributor in developing successful team qualities and characteristics, but Cito Gaston was brought back to sell tickets, not to be a Major League manager. His atrocious handling of the bullpen, stubborn refusal to alter a stagnant line-up, and total neglect for his bench has cost the Jays far more than any gentle whispers of encouragement to the younger players has helped.
Which leads us to the person who has really put his fingerprints on this operation: Alex Anthopoulos, the boy wonder GM who took control of the franchise, at least from a player development standpoint, last fall. After 15 years of trying to patch holes with mediocre free agents when what this team clearly needed was an entirely new foundation, Anthopoulos has Jays fans eagerly jumping on his bandwagon by presenting a blueprint that actually make sense: Stockpile starting pitching and positional prospects, let them develop together, and then add through free agency when it's time to go over the top. So what if I've been trumpeting the exact same game plan in this space for years? (Really, I'm happy that Anthopoulos, a guy who is only a few years older than me, gets to make 10 times more money than I do, travel around North America in a private jet, stay in five star hotels and talk baseball everyday. I'm not bitter at all, not a bit. Hold on a sec...just have to scream into my pillow here. Okay, all good.)
Anthopoulos began his tenure by making what appears to be a good trade under difficult circumstances when he moved fan-favourite Roy Halladay for a package that included Kyle Drabek and Michael Wallace. Both are big-time prospects with high ceilings who should see playing time in Toronto later this year and both could be full-time big leaguers in 2011. Rather than caving in to the (not outrageous but still unacceptable) contract demands of Marco Scutaro, Anthopoulos smartly chose to replace him with Alex Gonzalez, who leads all shortstops in home runs and RBI. He also stole Brandon Morrow from Seattle, signed John Buck for the bargain price of $2 million and claimed Fred Lewis off waivers. Those moves prove that after only nine months on the job, Anthopoulos has earned our trust.
With a cupboard full of young and talented pitchers accumulated by the previous regime and an ownership-endorsed organizational shift in team-building philosophy, Toronto is finally properly positioned to follow the Tampa Bay model and sneak up on the Red Sox and Yankees in a few years.