It’s a hell of a strange thing seeing J.P. Ricciardi as the wise centre of a piece on the state of 2014 Blue Jays and the bizarre off-season this club, and its ownership, has just taken fans through, but that’s how I felt watching the just-released Stephen Brunt narrated video essay from Sportsnet, Alex Anthopoulos: State of the Franchise, which is the second of their four part series Blue Jays In Focus.
Most likely it simply comes down to presentation and his lack of a vested interest to protect, or maybe that those of us who follow the minutiae have seen all of the other stuff before ad nauseam, but it’s the former GM who, for me, gave off the clearest signal of any of the interview subjects in the piece, standing in stark contrast to the noise emanating out of the typically coy hypertension of his successor, and the doddering of Paul Beeston.
It’s not entirely fair to place so much of my focus in reviewing the piece on Ricciardi, who has comparatively little screen time, and not Anthopoulos himself, who — along with the way Brunt’s interviews are woven together to make a compelling story out of the club’s disaffecting winter — is the star of the show. But it’s awfully telling about how things are going for the Blue Jays right now that a man once so vilified in this market can appear so much the calm, thoughtful veteran sailing through thick seas swirling with Anthopoulos and Beeston’s usual shtick.
Or at least, in certain moments, that’s how I saw it. For example, when Beeston confusingly hailed his new GM — absent even the smallest grain of rye-soaked context — for having the “rare” combination of both “intelligence” and “smarts.”
But then we’re cut immediately to Ricciardi making concrete what Beeston looked to the ether for, explaining that “there’s a fine line to walk there, if you’ve never been a guy to get a locker room, whether it’s never playing, or scouting, or coaching. So there’s a fine line — guys still look at people like you’re an outsider coming in — but I think Alex really handled that part of it well.”
It may have entirely been my own nostalgia, but there was a sharpness and a forthrightness to Ricciardi’s words that stood out as refreshing. At one point Anthopoulos, harried and sarcastic, attempted to explain ways that business simply cannot be done, blowing past any notion of actually trying to make a club better – ”Tanaka wants $175-million? Let’s give him $200-million! It doesn’t matter,” he deadpanned. “We’ll backload it, we’ll defer the money, we’ll do ten years, we’ll all be gone by the time — you can’t do it that way just because we want to create some buzz and some hype.” Ricciardi later countered with a window into the reality of the position:
“As a general manager, you may only have one chance to go for it. And that one chance is probably going to come from an ownership directive,” he explained. “And if you don’t take your chance you’re going to sit there and always say to yourself, ‘Jeez, I had that one opportunity to may go out and trade guys and do things.’ So I was really excited for him [last winter].”
It is, of course, a crazy thought that for all the building and work that GMs do, Ricciardi thinks ultimately that it’s ownership directive that will bring about the real game-changing moments — but then we’re taken back to Beeston, and straight into the most maddening part of his sales pitch so quickly that we almost forget what we just heard.
“Everyone’s lost perspective of the fact, that was not a one-year venture,” Beeston admonishes. “That decision was made for a sustainable period of time to put us to where we want to be. We have the support, this team wasn’t built for one year. And there’s nobody who didn’t think it wasn’t great moves at the time. So, what, all of the sudden it became dumb? All of the sudden he lost his initiative? That’s not Alex.”
These would be truly emphatic and inspiring words if anybody actually believed that Anthopoulos had lost his initiative to make the club better, or if the idea that everybody thought the moves of last winter were unequivocally, unconditionally great at the time wasn’t a load of horseshit.
The day that Marlins deal broke, November 14th of 2012, here’s something I wrote:
More impressively– aka the kicker, if you’re Rogers, or the thing that will haunt your dreams, if you’re a fan worried about Rogers one day suddenly reneging on this spirit-buoying burst of goodwill– is the fact that Buehrle’s deal escalates to $19-million for 2014 and $20-million for 2015, while Reyes goes to $16-million in 2014 (making him and his turf-beaten knees the highest paid position player on the club), then $22-million in each of 2015, ’16, and ’17.
Yes, one of the most amazing things about Rogers’ decade-plus of stewardship of this club is that even on a night like this– a night of tremendous optimism for the franchise and fans– we can’t get away from questions about how long this commitment might last. Without question, Rogers has earned that doubt. And putting their money where their mouth is only stems it so much. But I’ll say this: today, for once, those are some difficult words to stammer out, and that’s fucking huge.
So huge, in fact, that it papers over a lot of warts we might otherwise be seeing all over this deal. Johnson has big health red flags, having missed much of 2007 with elbow trouble, 2008 with Tommy John, and 2011 with shoulder inflammation; Buehrle is aging and expensive; Reyes, though mystifyingly seven months younger than Escobar, may not age well on turf and costs about a bajillion dollars more; and the prospects headed Miami’s way still have a great deal of upside.
Would have been real nice to have been wrong about those reservations, eh?
There are certainly more highlights to the piece than the few I’ve picked out — one of them being J.P. Arencibia’s full-on egotism shining through as he spoke kindly of how Anthopoulos handled his contract situation following a disastrous 2013, explaining, “A lot of the players said there’s no chance you’ll be non-tendered, it wouldn’t be smart. But… I know there was a lot of upset people in that clubhouse when that happened.” — and it’s well worth a watch (which you can do at the bottom of this post). But Ricciardi stands out as a perfect foil here for the current regime, and that’s a hell of an interesting and uncomfortable thing to think about, isn’t it?
I’m probably in the minority on all that — as I am, and always was, on my entire view of Ricciardi and his work as GM of this club (at the time I conceded that his firing was necessary, but “as much a PR move as a baseball move,” largely because of “how completely any faith in Ricciardi’s abilities has been, rightly or wrongly, destroyed in the minds of much of the fan base”) — and for the pangs of wistfulness I feel seeing the man who is now an assistant GM to Sandy Alderson, helping to build the pitching-rich New York Mets. But as was made abundantly clear by the central point of the entire piece, things can change very quickly in this business. What was being hailed a year ago — perhaps in less hazy terms than Beeston might use — can be now viewed as extremely suspect. What would have felt impossible — admiration more for the wizened Ricciardi than his ninja successor — is turned on its head.
All of it is illustrative of what a pivotal moment this is for the Anthopoulos-Beeston era of this franchise, and it’s only too natural that above the fray sits the smirking Ricciardi, understanding far too much for anyone’s good about gasping for air, trying to run a baseball team from inside the dunderheaded Lennie Small grip of the corporate whim.