DUNEDIN, Fla. -- It’s easier to list the teams that would never have taken a chance on a guy like Melky Cabrera than it is to list the teams that would.
Maybe because that second list very well might have looked like this:
The Toronto Blue Jays.
And that’s a wrap.
In theory, we live in a world where everyone believes in second chances. In theory.
But in real life, in the real world of baseball politics, you know and I know that when the Melk Man hit free agency last winter, most teams started sprinting in the other direction as fast as they could sprint.
Not the Blue Jays.
They weren’t just willing to invite Cabrera into camp, coming off a 50-game PED suspension. They were willing to give him a two-year deal. And 16 million guaranteed bucks.
And they were willing to do that even though, in truth, Melky Cabrera was guaranteeing them nothing in return. Other than a lot of words that sounded good at the time.
He made a mistake, he told them. He wouldn’t do it again, he told them. Everything that’s happened since is no one’s fault but his, he told them.
They’d love to believe him. They need to believe him. For the most part, clearly, they have to believe him. But do they have their doubts? Of course they do. How could they not?
“We understand the risk we took,” said their GM, Alex Anthopoulos, on Friday morning.
What his team is doing, he admitted, is hazarding nothing more than “an educated guess” that its new right fielder is clean, will continue to stay clean and is on a mission to prove that he can be a .346 hitter (or close) again while staying clean.
But the Blue Jays have “absolutely no guarantees” that any of that is true, Anthopoulos admitted.
So what’s a guy like Cabrera doing on a team like this? Excellent question.
He’s here, for one thing, because the Blue Jays weren’t only willing to give him a chance. He’s here because the Blue Jays are making a statement that men like him deserve a chance.
When it came time to make this decision, to sign this player or not, they had to debate this long and hard:
Is it right to “reward” a player who just tested positive with a guaranteed two-year deal? Is that sending a good message or a bad message -- to the sport, to its fans, to the other men who play it? Those are not easy questions for any team to answer.
“That was one of the debates,” Anthopoulos said. “You always talk about, sure, you want to win, but also, what does your organization stand for? What are you about? You are a social institution. All those things. So I think ultimately you talk about giving someone a second chance.”
But you don’t just give it to anyone, the GM conceded. He has been presented with many potential deals through the years for many troubled players, he said, about which he said “I can’t do it. I can’t bring that guy in.” So it’s fascinating, when you take a step back and think about this, that Cabrera wasn’t one of those guys.
And that wasn’t just because they were signing a .346 hitter for $40-50 million less than this guy was in line to collect if he hadn’t tested positive -- although that was a big part of it, too. It was because the Blue Jays did their best to check Cabrera out as thoroughly as they could -- without subpoenaing every record in Tony Bosch’s file cabinet, at least.
They talked to men Cabrera had played with, men he’d played against, front-office men he’d played for, coaches and managers he’d played for. They were amazed by the positive feedback they got.
“If it hadn’t been so overwhelmingly strong, we wouldn’t have gotten involved at all,” Anthopoulos said, “no matter how much talent he has or how much we might think he could help us win games.”
But they couldn’t stop there, of course.
Ultimately, the general manager had to talk to the player, one on one, and ask the questions that needed to be asked, starting with the big one:
“I asked the question,” Anthopoulos said. “Sure. Definitely. I have a right to know that. I asked all those things, and obviously I was satisfied.”
So how did Cabrera respond to those pointed questions? The GM wasn’t willing to say.
“I don’t think it’s right,” he said, “from a private conversation we had, to broadcast that conversation to the world.”
But in a way, he’s broadcasting it just by telling us he had that little chat -- and then decided to sign this player anyway, even though he still wonders sometimes whether he made the right call.
Anthopoulos sat in front of the same microphones Friday morning where Cabrera had sat an hour earlier. At one point, the Melk Man was asked whether he could promise the people of Toronto that he wouldn’t make the same “mistake” again.
Let’s just say the answer he gave could not be characterized as “Yes. I promise.”
“That was a mistake I made last year, in 2012,” Cabrera replied, through his interpreter, third-base coach Luis Rivera. “It’s 2013. I want to concentrate on being in the field, playing hard and help this team win a championship.”
An hour later, those words were still reverberating around the room so powerfully that a reporter asked Anthopoulos whether he was confident Cabrera wouldn’t make that same mistake again.
“Confident? Yes. Can I guarantee it? No,” the GM answered. “But sure. If I wasn’t, we wouldn’t have signed him.”
But then Anthopoulos kept talking. And the more he talked, the more he revealed the doubts that must exist in the minds of many in this organization.
“Not being naive or sticking my head in the sand, is there a guarantee? No,” he said. “Could it happen? Sure. And that’s part of the risk.”
So now, for the next two years, he has no other option but to live with this roll of the dice. If the Blue Jays get the Melky Cabrera of 2012 or even 2011, they’ve made a tremendous buy. If they get the Melky of 2010 who was so bad (he got non-tendered by the Braves) it won’t be looking so tremendous.
But that’s no longer in Anthopoulos’ hands. It’s in the hands now of the man who will single-handedly determine whether he deserved that second chance -- Melky himself.
“He doesn’t have a choice,” said Cabrera’s new GM. “He can either move forward or not.”