Yesterday the Blue Jays took a five run lead into the 8th, but gave it up almost as soon as Roy Halladay stopped pitching. Later that game, in the 11th inning, they would take a two-run lead into the eleventh inning and still lose 11-10. It was their ninth loss in a row, a quick reversal for a team that spent the first one and half months in first place of the AL East, and looked, despite assertions to the contrary by everyone who thought their team would have been in first place, like a serious contender. In the minds of those who doubted, their dreams have become reality, and reality has fizzled into dreams. For Blue Jay fans, and I’m only being a little bit facetious here, “these are the times that try men’s souls.”
But if the Blue Jays must continue losing, perhaps it’s better that their success has returned to the land of dreams, because, after all, that is where their “winning” can be the most satisfying. Last year, after finishing a disappointing fourth in the AL East, Jays fans consoled themselves with the fact that the Jays were a really good team that just seemed to have terrible luck, and they actually played much better than their record indicated: in fact, they were probably the fourth best team in the American League, not just the American League East. The 2008 team played on in their fan’s imaginations, not only as they actually played, but also in scenarios where they had tremendous luck, not just what they needed to get their “deserved” Pythagorean amount of wins (94), but well above that– and extending into the post-season, where they won the World Series. While it isn’t the same as having actually won it, imaginary wins can be more satisfying because they don’t come with all of the baggage that usually appends reality: questions of whether or not they really deserved it, whether they could do it again in the same circumstances, whether their winning actually ‘means anything’ for those who don’t play professional baseball for a living, etc. Like ballast, these questions drag against reality and, for some, dampen the realisation of the dream. But in an “illusory win” they rarely occur, simply because it never occurs to the dreamer to “realise” them.
One of the greatest examples of these sorts of collective hallucinations is the Montreal Expos’ team of the strike-shortened 1994 season. The Expos had been moderately successful for a while, but in that season they came out nowhere and led the major leagues with a record of 74-40, a tremendous feat they accomplished with veteran starting pitching and surprising young hitting. Could they have sustained that through the rest of the season, into the post-season, and won? It’s hard to say. In ’94 I remember reading a MAD magazine “article” about the strike that suggested the Cleveland Indians would have won that year. The Indians’ season wasn’t spectacular, but they certainly could have won. But few remember their season, or that of any other potential playoff team, because it has been, over time, almost unanimously decided that the Expos really “won”. You have to admit, it makes a great story: the team was broken up shortly after, Montreal never regained its pre-strike levels of attendance (supposedly due to the collective heartbreak of Expos fans), and eventually the team moved to Washington. It was the last chance for the Expos, and the MLB blew it. But the ’94 World Series stands as the only World Series not tainted by anterior questions. The Expos won, and few question it. It’s almost like a fairy tale– and probably one more satisfying than if the Expos had won and the team been moved anyway.
I am not saying that Blue Jays fans should be glad for the current losing streak because it will allow them to dream about what might have happened to the Blue Jays without it. It’s a long season and who knows what storylines will emerge, or how the final standings will look. I say only that the illusory season before the losing streak, the one that caused fans to expect wins every night, and to talk casually about the playoffs, still existed, just as it still exists. A nine, or even eighteen-game losing streak can’t take that away. And in some ways maybe it will end up even sweeter in the mind than the season of whichever team (to its own fans) eventually does win it, because, after all, these are only games, and they have little-or-no bearing on real life. Winning is a let-down, because what do you do after? But in the mind their need not be such questions if the wins were only possibilities to begin with.