After a turbulent decade, the Jays (and Jays fans) are slowly coming back to life, thanks to the shrewd moves of wunderkind GM Alex Anthopoulos.
A sleeping baseball field is an eerily beautiful place. Two hours before the Blue Jays’ 35th home game of the season starts, a mower languidly traces circles near the warm-up pen, the sound of its motor washing over the vacant stands and echoing down from the closed dome. The AstroTurf looks like velvet, the bases like pearls, and the dirt is impeccably clean, without the whisper of a heel print.
The stadium’s management box, on the other hand, is a considerably less beautiful place. Nestled in the 200 level, smack-dab behind home plate, it is a study in grey—grey carpet, grey walls, clunky grey phones—and roughly the size of a condo balcony. A single bookshelf holds assorted tupperware full of different nuts, media guides to most of the 29 other teams and, intriguingly, a thick 2009 edition of Martin’s Annual Criminal Code. The mini-fridge contains pop, a pyramid of Bud Light cans and an impressive array of condiments.
When Alex Anthopoulos, the Jays’ 34-year-old general manager, steps into the room (putting a prompt end to my mini-fridge snooping), he immediately fills its grey confines. Decked in a blue button-down and black pants, Anthopoulos is not a huge guy, but his gesticulating hands and restless legs take up a lot of space, and his words, which pour from him at a prodigious rate, seem to spill out of the box and descend upon the empty field.
Over the course of our interview—wherein Anthopoulos will talk about scouting, development, sustainability and the performance-enhancing powers of José Bautista’s beard—that empty field comes remarkably alive. The dome slides open and sunlight streams through, making the bases unbearably bright. Vendors and attendants emerge en masse, music thunders through the park and the smell of fresh, salty popcorn is suddenly consuming.
Hey, thanks, Rogers Centre: Journalists are eternally reaching for a decent metaphor, and considering what’s happening in this organization, the awakening-baseball-field one will do just fine. After eight turbulent, unproductive years under former GM J.P. Ricciardi, during which attendance dwindled and fans slipped into indifference, Anthopoulos is once again giving the city a reason to hope. His year-and-a-half tenure as GM has been defined by a whole whack of shrewd deals and ostensibly impossible trades. And he’s also the guy who, while still assistant GM, brokered the exchange that brought slugger José Bautista from the Pittsburgh Pirates—leading, in Bautista’s second season, to a mindboggling 54 home runs.
Anthopoulos’ blueprint for a baseball renaissance isn’t the sexiest, and it isn’t going to produce the fastest results, but it is a strategy that Toronto sports fans haven’t seen in ages: scout players well, get ’em young, build ’em up internally, secure their places on the roster and, ultimately, put together a team that’s designed not for a last-minute playoff run but for continuous success. “It’s a master plan of laying a rock-solid foundation of young players,” he says. “We’re not going to have one good year and then tear it down. It needs to be that we get there and it keeps going and we don’t stop.”
At the moment, the team is 8.5 games back in their division, barely playing .500 ball—but .500 ball has rarely been more fun to watch. And it feels like there’s some excitement in these stands, with bloggers and cab drivers and former season’s-ticket holders getting caught up in it, too. Somewhere outside the stadium’s management box, a siren wails: It’s Fire Safety Day, and firefighters are on hand to distribute baseball cards with helpful safety tips. Then the gates are thrown open on this afternoon game and, as if purely to emphasize Anthopoulos’ future-focussed point, 20,000 school children stream into the building.
Full disclosure: I was raised a Leafs fan. Mostly, I emptied my adolescent lungs shouting at the television, but sometimes I went to Maple Leaf Gardens, where I shouted at the team itself. In the early ’90s, I, like most people in this city, elbowed my way onto the Blue Jays bandwagon. I remember where I was in October 1992, when Joe Carter caught the World Series–winning out, and again in 1993, when he launched that three-run homer into left field. But then the playoff drought began—at 17 years, it is now the fourth-longest in the league—and the Jays, with their fruitless free-agent signings and middling play, failed to hold my attention, which summarily returned to barking obscenities at Tie Domi. (Tie Domi’s name, incidentally, is an anagram for Me Idiot.)
Anthopoulos leans in at the news of my defection. “You lost interest in the team? Yeah, I don’t blame you.” Now he wants to know when I returned to the game, wants to ask how I like first baseman Adam Lind, wants to posit that Lind’s recent 11th-inning walk-off home run “was awesome.” It is the most animated I’ve seen Anthopoulos so far, and it offers a glimpse into the GM as described by his colleagues and players: the tireless sports enthusiast, the thorough questioner (says team manager John Farrell, “We have so much dialogue back and forth”), the keen consensus-builder (no argument here, Lind’s walk-off home run was objectively awesome).
But it is just a glimpse, because if Anthopoulos is the promising face of this burgeoning team, he’s also the reluctant one, and his discomfort at the accolades and attention is manifest. “I’d rather just keep my head down, be below the radar, do my job,” he says tightly. “I know that I’m a young guy, and it’s a feel-good story—worked for free, did the fan-mail thing, not supposed to be sitting here. But I just haven’t done anything to get credit yet.”
He’s right, it is a feel-good story. But he’s also wrong: Anthopoulos has done plenty to win acclaim. He’s quick to demur and deflect, praising his predecessor or singling out his staff, but Anthopoulos’ actions have translated into rising attendance and viewership levels, and have not gone unnoticed by the league’s 29 other GMs.
First, the triumphant personal narrative: At 21, after his father died of a heart attack, the Montreal native was handed his family’s small heating and ventilation company. Anthopoulos dutifully ran the business, taking night classes to learn more about ventilation mechanics, while finishing his economics degree. And then, two years later, while living in his aunt’s house, came the early morning existential crisis. “I woke up and thought, Is this what I’m doing for the next 40 years of my life?” he says. “I was 23, and there was a finality to everything. This was it. So I thought, let me just try to get into baseball. I couldn’t scout, I didn’t play, but I believed enough in myself that I could do something—even if it was just typing reports into a computer.”
Actually, it was coming in on weekends and opening fan mail for the Expos. To take the unpaid internship, however, Anthopoulos turned down a $40,000 salary from Fidelity Investments in Toronto. It was a wise move—very quickly, he landed a job in media relations, then another within the scouting department. In 2003, he joined the Jays as their scouting co-ordinator, before being promoted to assistant general manager two years later and, in 2009, to general manager, after Ricciardi was finally sacked at the behest of team CEO Paul Beeston.
It was, again, a mixed inheritance: Ricciardi left behind a 75-87 season, scores of disgruntled fans, an agitated clubhouse, depleted scouts (he’d gone a bit pink-slip happy), a star pitcher in Roy Halladay who was itching for a trade and, in outfielder Vernon Wells, an albatross of a contract that consumed a fat chunk of the team’s payroll. Anthopoulos set to work.
That December, two-and-a-half months into his tenure, Anthopoulos traded the unhappy Halladay to the Philadelphia Phillies for a trio of prospects, including young pitcher Kyle Drabek. (The Phillies play Toronto on Friday; Halladay will start on Saturday—his first time pitching here since the trade.) “For a team that had lower and lower attendance figures to get rid of its big star, but still make it look like a good deal—that was very, very well-played by Anthopoulos,” says Dustin Parkes, editor of The Score’s baseball blog, Getting Blanked. “The Blue Jays didn’t have any other organization knocking at the door with a competitive offer for Halladay, and yet he was able to negotiate what appears to be a very good return.”
Unloading the unloadable has become something of a signature for the young GM. Baseball writer Jonah Keri, author of The Extra 2%, says, “Guys like me like to put together lists—the 10 worst contracts in baseball. And Vernon Wells was top three.” Wells had a no-trade clause, limiting the teams he’d accept to the Anaheim Angels and the Texas Rangers, who respectfully passed. Yet this January, Anthopoulos persuaded the Angels to take both Wells and $81 million of his four-year, $86-million contract. “The baseball community was flabbergasted,” Keri says. “That’s an untradeable contract. And I spoke to many GMs who just shook their heads and said, ‘Man, how’d he pull that off?’”
The available cash went immediately into locking down right-fielder (and occasional third-baseman) José Bautista. “There was a lot of risk signing him,” Anthopoulos admits. “If he didn’t perform, it would have been very easy for everyone to point and say, ‘It was only one [impressive] season.’” No one is saying that now: Bautista currently leads the majors in home runs, on-base percentage and All-Star voting (by a landslide, with half a million votes). “My goodness, that looks like a pretty good deal,” Keri enthuses. “Did Anthopoulos know José Bautista would be Babe Ruth? Of course not. But $64 million over five years is a bargain for one of the best players in the game.”
And Anthopoulos is as aggressively committed to unearthing the game’s next best players. He added 39 scouts to the organization, doubling the size of the department, which now outnumbers that of any other team; June’s first-round draft pick, pitcher Tyler Beede, was so thoroughly vetted that the Jays spoke not just to his coaches but to his high-school teachers and guidance counsellors.
Thirty-one of Anthopoulos’ 55 recent draft picks, in fact, were high-schoolers, who can be more difficult to sign and project than college kids, but whose potential is great. “Anthopoulos has a willingness to take risks and spend money in order to obtain the most elite talent,” Parkes says. “Other teams are usually scared of these players, so he’s taking advantage of a market inefficiency.”
He’s already shown a proven eye for talent. Last year, under his watch, the Jays farm team jumped from 28th on Baseball America’s talent rankings to fourth. “Not all of the players we’ve signed that are in the minor leagues are going to pan out,” Anthopoulos says. “Some of them will get here and be stars; some of them will be used in trade to improve the club on the field. We have to get to the point where we have one of the best player-development programs in the game all the time. It won’t need to be replenished, because we’ll constantly be ahead of the curve.”
Those who are original draft choices and who do stay with the Jays—like pitcher Ricky Romero and catcher J.P. Arencibia—develop an intangible chemistry, as they learn to compete together at different levels for the same team; these valuable relationships then play out on the field once the rookies are called to the majors. “The players also gain ownership of the team at a very young age, and when they get up here, this is their organization,” Farrell says. “People might think that’s pillow talk, but it becomes the fabric of who they are as players, and the city of Toronto on their chests has a definite meaning.”
It’s not going to happen overnight. Baseball is a slow game—it takes a long time for those nine innings to unfold, and it takes a long time for a player to develop. LeBron James was drafted in 2003 and debuted with the Cavaliers approximately 14 seconds later; Nazem Kadri made his first appearance in a Leafs uniform a year or so after he signed with the team. There aren’t nearly as many teenage phenoms in baseball, where a player might spend seven years in the minors before his major-league call-up.
So Anthopoulos is prepared to be patient. “I’m not going to go crazy with Band-Aids, spending $40 million for two years on Joe Blow, who’s 34 and not that good but sounds like a star player,” he says. “If you have a great 25-man roster that’s only built for a year or two, at some point it’s going to collapse. And we’d be better allocating those resources to signing a draft pick or a player in Latin America that we could have for six years.”
At some point, of course, the future for which Anthopoulos is building must arrive. Though he won’t put a date on it, he is very aware of the need to produce. He keeps a close eye on Jays prospects like third-baseman Brett Lawrie and outfielder Eric Thames, making sure they’re developing solidly, and hands out contracts so star players like Bautista, Lind and shortstop Yunel Escobar are committed to the team for several more years. “The biggest thing is making sure we time it right. If we don’t have a competitive team until Bautista’s in the last year of his contract, then what did we do for those years he was great?” Anthopoulos’ voice rises slightly here. “We wasted those years. So we’ve got to go through our growing pains now.”
And fans have, by and large, shown their willingness to wait it out. Chalk it up, perhaps, to the novelty of a Toronto sports team focusing on youth and ascendancy, or to the fact that watching Bautista right now is still ridiculously fun. Or it might be that this strategy has already worked plenty well for the Tampa Bay Rays—a Jays division rival who built young and smart and managed to win the division twice in three years, knocking off those bloated dynasties, the Yankees and the Red Sox.
That’s not to say there aren’t limitations to this team: Their bullpen kind of sucks lately, their bats can tend to get cold and reliever Jon Rauch has an appalling neck tattoo. But—aside from the tat—these problems don’t seem unsolvable, especially for a savvy steward like this general manager. It feels foreign to have faith in a Toronto team’s front office, but there’s a palpable sense that Anthopoulos has got this, that—having delivered on so many other deals—soon enough he will actually hand our city an exciting playoff run.
In the meantime, he leaves me with the following image: “We have a candle and a wick, and we need to do the right things to spark it. But once we do, that candle will be burning for a long time.” A flame metaphor on Fire Safety Day? This Jays team keeps on giving. •
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