By: Dan Grant
When I was a kid I had a book that was entitled ‘The Greatest World Series of All-Time’. I’m actually pretty sure I still have it somewhere. It was published in 1994 and perhaps biasedly, it included written accounts of the 1991, 1992 and 1993 (the most recent) World Series, as well as four other World Series chosen from the previous 90 years or so. The young Blue Jays fan in me loved the fact that both Blue Jays World Series wins were included; it gave a historical validity to the wins, and while nine year old me didn’t really know what that meant, I knew that being included in a book about the greatest of all time was good and I loved the fact that my team was in there.
With the massive Blue Jays-Marlins trade, the signing of Melky Cabrera and the re-introduction of John Gibbons as Blue Jays manager, all in the past week, I’ve been thinking a lot about that book. However, I’ve not really been thinking about the two Blue Jays World Series that are in the book as one might assume. Rather, I’ve been thinking about the first account in the book, that of the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers.
In the early days of MLB, New York boasted three teams. In the National League the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers battled for supremacy with Stan Musial’s St. Louis Cardinals and various other upstarts. In the American League, as ever, the New York Yankees reigned supreme. The Dodgers won the National League pennant in 1941, 1947, 1949, 1952, and 1953, meeting the Yankees in the World Series each time and each time meeting defeat. It was at this point the slogan ‘Wait ‘til next year!’ became the unofficial mantra of the Dodgers faithful.
Rogers Communications own my favourite sports franchises. They own the Blue Jays outright and they, in conjunction with Bell, own 75% of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, who in turn own the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Toronto Raptors. In essence, they own Toronto sports, or at least the current version of it. In the NHL and the NBA, there are salary caps and Rogers/MLSE has, to this point at least, allowed their teams to spend up the cap when necessary and not really interfered with the running of the franchises, for better or for worse. However, MLB is a different animal, as there is no salary cap, just a loose luxury tax threshold that really only affects the heavy hitters who are spending close to $200 million per year on payroll. Rogers put up money for JP Ricciardi’s ill-fated signings of AJ Burnett and BJ Ryan and allowed him to bloat payroll up over $110 million with ill-considered signings in the pursuit of short term success. When this failed, after a reasonable (some say longer than reasonable) period, they jettisoned Ricciardi and made what has turned out to be one of the savviest hires in recent sports history, turning the reigns over to Alex Anthopolous.
In just over three years on the job, ‘AA’ as he’s known, has made several Svengali like moves, getting the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim County, Los Angeles, California, United States, World, to take on the legendarily bad contract of Vernon Wells, extending Jose Bautista’s contract at a point which would make his contract infinitely more palatable in the long term, scooping high-upside talent Colby Rasmus from the St Louis Cardinals for spare parts and most recently, pillaging the Miami Marlins of their big-name talent, mainly using pieces from a vaunted farm system that AA has built nearly from scratch during his time on the job. AA has shown, throughout these moves, that public perception means little to him and that he will always do what he feels is best for the club as opposed to giving in to any sort of public pressure. He has, in short, been getting things done. Online bloggers frequently compare him to a ‘ninja’ in that he’s impossible to track and he frequently makes deadly moves that nobody sees coming. This comparison seems apt. Everything AA did in his first years on the job made sense; each move seemed better than the last and built my personal trust in what his vision for the franchise was, namely, that he actually had a vision and that it was something he intended to see through. And the one thing AA always said was that when the time came to spend, be it through trades or free agency, Rogers Communications had given him assurances that they would be supportive and that they would raise the payroll when he deemed appropriate.
After the lean post World Series years with international conglomerate Interbrew, and the short sighted (if well intentioned) mistakes of JP Ricciardi, this assurance, at times, seemed empty. Big name players came and went but AA always had an answer. This player wasn’t a good fit, that player wanted too long a commitment, this player wasn’t going to put us over the top, we’re more likely to acquire through trades than free agency. These were the constant assurances from the man behind the curtain. But always, always with the caveat ‘when it comes time to spend, we’ll spend. We’re not going to spend money just to spend money’. This wasn’t about satisfying the fans in the short term. This was about winning in the long term. Many casual fans or just impatient fans were critical of AA at times, while AA’s biggest fans, myself included, defended the ‘process’, preaching patience and to wait until ‘next year’.
In 2012, the Toronto Blue Jays finally put their money where their mouth was. They spent it the right way, filling positions of need with large contracts, but not unreasonable deals, in relative terms. The longest contract acquired is four years. They added potential All-Stars in Jose Reyes and Josh Johnson, they added a solid starter in Mark Buehrle and they added positional flexibility and blazing speed in Emilio Bonifacio. They added a solid all-around veteran player at a discount, in Melky Cabrera. And they added a manager on their own terms in the massively underrated and underappreciated skipper John Gibbons. They added, they added, they added, all while giving up little, except money. The farm system, while weakened, is still rich with talent. And while there are still holes, the big club is looking as good as it has in years.
For the detractors, I’ll say this: are we overpaying for some of these players? Of course we are. That’s how baseball works. In professional sports, you’re forced to pay what the market dictates. When there’s no salary cap, this is even more of a truth. But Reyes is a singular talent when healthy, and while he is prone to ‘big years’ and ‘down years’, his down years are better than any shortstop we’ve had since Tony Fernandez in the 80’s and any leadoff hitter we’ve had since Shannon Stewart. Josh Johnson is on a one year deal, so the risk is minimal, even if the money is not. Mark Buehrle is a mid-to-front of the rotation starter at best and an eminently moveable trade piece at worst, if for some reason his pit-bull love overshadows his desire to play for a potential playoff team, which I find massively unlikely. Cabrera, PED usage aside, plays a solid defensive outfield, gives decent speed on the base paths and hits well to the gaps, something that will be especially effective on the turf in Toronto. And Gibby is Gibby. A hard-nosed, no nonsense manager who embraces platoons and sabermetrics, understands how to manage a bullpen and, just like his new boss, Mr. Anthopolous, doesn’t seem to give a hoot what anyone else thinks. He was Ricciardi’s scapegoat for front office failings and now he’s getting a well-deserved second chance.
I don’t think the moves are over (though the biggest ones likely are) and I have to say, I’m more excited for this Blue Jays season than I’ve been in a long time. You can ask ‘what happens if this doesn’t work?’ but at some point you have to take your shot. With the Yankees aging and injured, the Red Sox struggling to rebuild and the Rays feeling the crush of payroll constraints, this was as good a year as any.
In 1955, the Brooklyn Dodgers finally toppled the mighty Yankees. Led by Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider and young hotshot Johnny Podres, they beat the Bronx Bombers in 7 games to win their first World Series. The joyful headline in the newspaper the next day read ‘THIS YEAR IS NEXT YEAR!’ Are we going to win it all? I have no idea. Probably not, in fact. We might not even make the playoffs. But I don’t care. I feel like one of my favourite teams has come through for me. I feel like they care and like they’re going for it. One way or the other, the waiting is over. The penny has dropped. This year is next year.