(A very happy Thanksgiving to everyone that I've come in contact with through this blog. On the ultimate Appreciation Holiday, I hope everyone is thankful for the people they have in their lives. I know I am. This is Cardboard Appreciation. It is the 91st in a series):
You may have gathered that I'm not a fan of expansion teams. I think they dilute major league talent. I think they water down the game. I think they play in areas of the country that can't necessarily support the team.
However, I do understand why people feel a connection to an expansion team.
I felt that connection in 1977.
For me, the Toronto Blue Jays were "mine" in the sense that I was a witness to their birth. All of those other major league teams had been around long before I was born, or at least began when I was barely out of diapers. But the Blue Jays were different.
The Blue Jays presented the chance for me to chart the progress of a team from Day 1. I would be around for every moment, every milestone. The first player on an All-Star team. The first postseason appearance. No one would tell me, "this was before your time," because the Blue Jays were OF my time. It was like seeing the birth of your own child. I would watch this team learn to crawl, walk, drive and leave for college.
The Blue Jays instantly became one of my favorites. It helped that they were now the closest team to me. And in April of 1977, I was in Buffalo at my grandmother's where you could watch Canadian television. I was seated on the floor of the living room in my grandmother's apartment to view the Blue Jays' first game in franchise history.
It was April 7. Easter time. I distinctly remember looking up at the television and watching the snowflakes fly across the screen as the Blue Jays and White Sox began play at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto. It was a frigid day for baseball, but the game was played and the Blue Jays won their organizational debut.
Doug Ault, a player that I had never heard of before, hit two home runs in that game. He became an instant Blue Jays hero. He was one of the expansion team's better players that season, and I adopted him as my favorite player on one of my new favorite teams.
When Ault's 1978 Topps card came out, I didn't notice Thurman Munson squatting behind the plate in the photo. My eyes were focused on Ault, as he gazed toward the pitcher, and on the rookie cup in the bottom right corner. It was one of my favorite cards from the set. The card was filled with promise -- as all cards with a rookie cup are -- but this one was different. I was a witness to that promise. I saw his two-homer game in the snow on opening day.
Surely greatness waited for Ault because I was there at the beginning. I looked forward to greater achievements and greater cards that Topps would make of Ault in the future.
But in 1978, Ault played in only half the games that he did in 1977. He didn't play in the majors at all in '79, and he hit .194 for Toronto in 1980.
His major league career was over.
Ault later coached and managed in the Blue Jays' organization. I remember him being named the manager of Toronto's Triple A team in Syracuse. The thought of seeing him so close to my home again made me smile. "I remember when he hit two home runs in the snow," I'd say.
Ault disappeared from my consciousness after that. I didn't hear much about him until news of his death came just before Christmas six years ago. He was 54. He killed himself while seated in his car in the driveway of his Florida home. He left a suicide note for his wife.
This article documents Ault's spiral into hopelessness in painful detail. A gregarious, impulsive individual, Ault endured tragedy after tragedy. He became addicted to pain killers, which basically ended his career. His loved ones -- a wife and two sisters -- died too young. Eventually, Ault couldn't see a way out and left everyone behind.
Ault never had the career that I had expected of him. During that 1977 season, I charted every home run I saw, and I still remember writing "Doug Ault, Blue Jays, vs. White Sox, 1st inning, April 7" as the first homer I documented that year. But as the seasons went on, I got older, and Ault's career grew colder. I stopped paying attention. I pulled his card in the 1979 Topps set and scolded myself. The guy wasn't very good anymore. What an idiot I had been in 1977.
It's been more than 30 years. My grandmother is gone. Doug Ault is gone. I don't like the Blue Jays as much as I once did. I don't like expansion teams as much as I once did.
I still have the 1978 Ault card. But what it says to me is different, too. Instead of the promise of greatness to come it says this:
Be thankful for what you have now.