The Toronto Racist Money Hoarders

On June 28th, 2003, the Toronto Star printed a story on its front page that attempted to correlate a lack of ethnic diversity on the Toronto Blue Jays’ roster to racist practices in the front office, connoting that J.P. Ricciardi, the team’s general manager, had purposely sought out to acquire white baseball players.

A study by the Star has found that this year’s edition of the Blue Jays had the fewest number of visible minorities on the opening-day roster of any of the 30 major-league teams. A Toronto club that boasted of its diversity in recent radio ads actually had the visible-minority players on its 25-man roster drop from 11 on opening day a year ago to only six this season.

It was a ridiculous accusation that caused laughter at first and then amazement. Unfortunately for the Star, it wasn’t the type of amazement for which they were aiming. A general sense of shock was caused not only by such a story being published in the most circulated newspaper in Canada, but that it was printed as front page material in a Saturday edition.

I believe Eric McErlain of Off Wing had the best summarizing description when he called the article “an embarassing episode of political correctness masquerading as cutting social observation, mixed with a deep misunderstanding of some of the trends that are changing the way baseball teams are put together and the way the game is played.” McErlain wasn’t alone in his opinion. The reaction to the piece from the team, the players and the public was almost universally negative.

So much so, that the Star’s baseball columnist, Richard Griffin, who wasn’t even the author of the original story, ill-advisedly attempted to defend the piece by saying:

Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi along with Oakland’s Billy Beane and other new-wavers believe in building offence through patience at the plate and taking no chances on the bases. That’s a pre-WWII style of play. Under those criteria, Jackie Robinson could not have played in the majors.

Yes, there you have it. Seeking high walk rates from players is synonymous with racism.

What Griffin didn’t mention or see happening, was that if anything was contributing to a lack of players from the Dominican Republic on the Toronto Blue Jays, it had far more to do with the old baseball adage, “You don’t walk off the island” than a racist general manager.

However, that’s a topic for another time. What I’d like to point out is that the author of the infamous White Jays story was the delightful Geoff Baker, who now writes for The Seattle Times. While his beat may have changed, the focus of his axe to grind hasn’t. Even on the other side of the continent, from time to time he’ll continue to exhale vitirol for the Toronto Blue Jays, or more specifically their front office and corporate ownership.

In a recent blog post on his newspaper’s website, Baker once again slags the franchise, asking his readers, largely Seattle Mariners fans, to:

Look at the Blue Jays. Not the for-public-consumption story of a little team trying to go up against the payroll giants of the AL East. No, I mean the real story of how baseball’s once top-spending team and two-time World Series champions degenerated into an afterthought on the baseball scene while its behemoth corporate owners consolidated a sports empire.

Instead of actually looking at this story, Baker continues from this paragraph with a nonsense fiction that disparages Rogers Communications, J.P. Ricciardi and the baseball fans in this city who hold a far more enlightened view of corporate ownership than the former Jays beat reporter.

He mentions how Toronto was the top spending team and two-time World Series champion at one time, but fails to show how they came to be such a franchise, likely because it doesn’t match his wavering narrative that reads more like sour grapes than valid points.

Aside: What on earth did J.P. Ricciardi do to the Toronto Star reporters when he became General Manager of the Toronto Blue Jays?

The truth of the matter is that few baseball franchises have ever spent money based on its ownership’s income. It spends money based on its team’s revenue. Yes, there is something to be said for the presumably financially unrecognized television ratings and marketing opportunities that the Blue Jays provide Rogers, but TV viewership has only recently gone up, and may very well have more to do with the new method for measuring such things than a wide spread revival of interest in baseball. Meanwhile, attendance at games continues to dwindle, so for all the blaring of Rogers products between innings, it’s not exactly reaching the largest audience possible.

If we look back to 1985, the year the Toronto Blue Jays won their first American League East pennant, we find a team that ranks 18th out of 26 teams in payroll, and they had the fifth largest average attendance in the game that year. By 1989, the year that the SkyDome was built, the team had the highest attendance in the league and the seventh highest payroll. In 1990, the team again had the highest attendance in the league, but let their payroll slip to 13th in the league. The next year, the Blue Jays set an attendance record as the first team to seat over 4 million paying customers in a season, and yet their payroll slipped to 18th in the league of 26 yet again.

After three years of having the highest attendance in the league and a below average payroll, the Blue Jays, as a business entity took full advantage of their new, largely taxpayer built stadium, and used their profits to put together a roster that would cost more than any other’s in baseball for the 1992 season. They won the World Series. Ditto for 1993, although attendance did slip to number two overall with the expansion Colorado Rockies playing in a football stadium.

In 1994, the team’s payroll was barely surpassed by two teams, but the Blue Jays’ attendance continued to be strong. Then of course, the season was cut short by a labour dispute. In 1995, the team came back to have the highest payroll in baseball, but unfortunately they had a lousy year and combined with the ill will caused by the labour dispute, attendance slipped to fourth overall. And from there, the trend continued. While payroll began to lessen a little, the next five years saw attendance have a much sharper decline.

Rogers bought the team in 2000, and inspired by what Billy Beane had done with the Oakland A’s, hired J.P. Ricciardi, one of Beane’s lieutenants, to be the team’s general manager and find success on a limited budget.

Baker would have us believe that Ricciardi was hired instead of assistant GM at the time Dave Stewart because the former pitcher’s plan called for more money to be spent than the cheap ownership group was willing to put into the team. The truth of the matter is that Stewart’s plan wasn’t a whole lot different from former GM Gord Ash’s, which saw the team accumulate a losing record from 1995-2000 while still maintaining a top ten payroll in three of the six years Ash was in charge. A change in approach was necessary.

The limited budget part worked, but finding the same type of success that the A’s found in the American League West proved to be far more difficult in the American League East with the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. Nonetheless, it’s not as though the Blue Jays have been a waste of a franchise. Since 2000, Toronto has accumulated the eleventh most wins in baseball, in what is undoubtedly the toughest division in the game, smashing Baker’s assurances that:

[Ricciardi's] moves didn’t make the Blue Jays any better on the field.

They were much improved from the teams that Ash put together. And in fact, Baker’s exaggeration of the first three years of Ricciardi’s reign, is more of an indictment on the players left over from Ash’s tenure. The Blue Jays payroll was ranked the tenth highest in 2001 and the eleventh highest in 2002. The payroll cuts started to take effect in 2003, but that team had the second highest winning percentage of any Toronto squad since the 1993 World Series victory. The 2004 team was bad, but no team can be bad enough to force the sale of the stadium they play in as Baker would once again have us believe.

The goal was to gain control of the ballpark. The Chicago consortium that owned the SkyDome was losing money yearly in operating a venue where it did not control the tenant team. And the Blue Jays were losing out on huge revenue opportunities by having a team with no ballpark.

It was a matter of who would blink first. And in the meantime, the goal of Rogers was to trim annual deficits for the ballclub and keep the budget as balanced as possible until it gained control of the stadium. Rogers never actually said this out loud to baseball fans, who remained under the impression the final goal was to actually win something. No, the cost-cutting and money stockpiling and franchise value maintenance was sold as a cost-efficient way to win in baseball. The same virtues that attracted people to Moneyball and the Oakland A’s were exploited heavily in order to buy time for Rogers to gain a ballpark in Toronto.

Anyhow, in late 2004, bleeding money from all sides, the Chicago consortium that owned the ballpark finally caved and sold the SkyDome to Rogers for pennies on the dollar. A ballpark that cost taxpayers more than $300 million in the late 1980s was sold to Rogers for only $25 million. Initially, the consortium had wanted well over $100 million. But Rogers merely waited them out to get the bargain basement price, sacrificing a half-decade of Toronto baseball in the process (a fifth year was spent getting the stadium up to snuff before the team began signing free agents in earnest).

It’s a nice piece of conspiracy theory fiction that Baker has woven here, but not accurate in the least.

While still owned by the province, the stadium was horribly mismanaged. The majority of the 161 Skyboxes that the SkyDome held were leased out for ten years all at the same time. When those leases began to come up, interest in the baseball team was at an all-time low thanks to poor performances and the labour dispute. Not helping matters at all was that just down the street, the Air Canada Centre was under construction. Companies simply weren’t willing to renew their Skybox lease.

So, in November of 1998, the stadium filed for bankruptcy protection. The poor hoodwinked Chicago consortium that Baker writes of actually purchased the stadium in 1998 out of bankruptcy protection for a mere $85 million. Then after six years of low corporate interest in suites and having the Blue Jays and Argos as its only tenants, the stadium was purchased by Rogers for $25 million in 2004. The truth of the matter is that the stadium was a bad investment long before the Blue Jays had a below .500 season that year.

After this, that greedy corporate owner Rogers shelled out money to fix the stadium up and invest in the team, giving an ill advised extension to Vernon Wells as well as putting up the dough to bring free agent signings A.J. Burnett, B.J. Ryan and Frank Thomas to Toronto, along with added salary in trades. These teams came close, finishing in second place in 2006 and third again in 2007.

During this period, the value of the team doubled in value from 2004 to 2009. Rogers used the newly christened Rogers Centre as more of a multi-purpose stadium than previous ownership groups, holding everything from U2 concerts to monster truck rallies at the venue, while turning it into a money maker.

Here is where I think the large gaps in understanding exist between someone who is understanding of the slowness with which the Blue Jays are adding payroll, represented by me, and someone else who wants the team to spend money immediately, as represented by Geoff Baker. Rogers making money, even through businesses closely related to the Toronto Blue Jays isn’t the same thing as the Toronto Blue Jays making money. Wealthy corporate ownership doesn’t translate into high payrolls, and nor should it. As we’ve seen with the Toronto Blue Jays original rise to power from the mid-eighties to the early-nineties, raising payroll was done responsibly after attendance had already increased, as a means of putting together a winning ball club.

Despite this, Baker insists with his obvious limited understanding of investment in currency futures and how MLB earnings are calculated that Rogers is continuing to hoodwink the fans of Toronto by taking advantage of the stronger Canadian dollar to pay less money while making it look as though it’s more.

The Blue Jays fielded a payroll of roughly $50 million in 2003 at the height of Moneyball hysteria. Every dollar of that cost the team roughly $1.50 in Canadian funds because of the exchange rate.

In other words, they spent $75 million Canadian on that year’s payroll.

This is simply not true. An organization as big as the Blue Jays, owned by an even bigger company in Rogers, would be heavily invested in currency futures as a means of mitigating potential shifts in the value of the Canadian dollar. It’s also not taking into account that the team’s own gate revenue is the only thing that comes in Canadian dollars. Income from Major League Baseball would all be in U.S. dollars as would the special currency exchange fund that was set up by MLB to help the Blue Jays deal with disparities between the U.S. and Canadian dollars.

This year’s Blue Jays opened with a payroll of roughly $70 million. But the Canadian dollar at the time was now — at worst — on-par with the U.S. greenback. In plain English, it spent roughly $70 million Canadian on this year’s team.

So, in terms of real money spent, the present-day Blue Jays with their new stadium and all are spending even less money than they were in their cheapest of the cheap years under Ricciardi and his Moneyball-likened cost slashing.

Not only do Baker’s figures not take into account everything mentioned above, they blatantly ignore that while payroll is down under new GM Alex Anthopoulos, the money spent on draft pick signing bonuses, international free agents and the cash included in trades for prospects is way up.

I would like to thank Baker though, who at the end of his fiction, condescendingly encourages his readers to:

Make sure you’re looking at the stuff that matters. Start at the very top and work your way on down. No, it’s not as easy as venturing to a website and adding up all the pertinent numbers. Nor as easy as watching the latest Brad Pitt movie. Sometimes, it takes some real legwork to find the answers and they won’t become apparent right away.

But that’s OK. We’re not all experts in every realm. The best we can do is try to stay better informed about the issues that matter.

I couldn’t agree more.