Blue Jays suddenly 'in this now to win'

DUNEDIN, Fla. -- This is a team that already has set a modern spring-training record for Most Players Asking Directions to Just About Everywhere.

This is a team that spent the winter spending its way back onto the baseball radar screen.

This is a team that could win the AL East and (miracle of miracles) not be named the Yankees or Red Sox.

This team is your 2006 Toronto Blue Jays. And they are an official baseball conversation piece again, after a relentless winter assault on the old transactions column.

"It was amazing," says center fielder Vernon Wells. "You'd wake up in the morning, look at the ticker on ESPN and see who we signed now."

Well, they didn't quite pull off a signing every morning. But it felt like it.

Signed: A big-time starter (A.J. Burnett), a punchout closer (B.J. Ryan) and an all-star catcher (Bengie Molina).

Traded for: A proven masher (Troy Glaus) and a polished left-handed bat (Lyle Overbay).

That, friends, is offseason transacting at its finest, even if it wasn't exactly at bargain rates.

But the story of the 2006 Blue Jays actually began four years before the turbo-driven general manager, J.P. Ricciardi, started handing out five-year contracts the way some people hand out business cards.

In fact, this is a tale that began before Ricciardi was even employed by the Blue Jays.

It was November 2001. Ricciardi and team president/CEO Paul Godfrey were having the first face-to-face conversation of their lives. The technical term for this conversation, we believe, would be "job interview."

This was how J.P. Ricciardi laid out his blueprint for the future of a team that had just won 80 games -- only two fewer than the Red Sox: "You need to blow up your whole organization and start over."

And Paul Godfrey's response (more or less) was: "You're hired."

So Ricciardi began steering this reeling franchise down the winding road that would lead it to this time and place: Guillotining face-of-the-franchise players. Firing managers, coaches, scouts and executives -- many of them holdovers from the fading glory days. Chopping payroll. Blowing up the entire player-development philosophy.

And taking the heat he and Godfrey both knew would be coming -- with all of it.

"That was the other thing I said to Paul [four years ago]," Ricciardi says now. "I said, 'We're going to get criticized. We're going to take our lumps in the media. It'll be open season.' "

But they rope-a-doped their way through it, convinced they were doing what had to be done. Then their owner, Ted Rogers, dumped a major slew of Canadian dollars into Ricciardi's lap and said: "OK, now go win."

So here they are, talking that winning talk. Nevertheless, it's safe to say that not everyone in baseball thinks the Blue Jays are ready to go win -- no matter how many checks they wrote this winter.

"To me," says one scout, "they're just a pretty stalking horse" -- for (who else?) New York and Boston.

But it's tough to name another team on the American League map that improved at five positions (third base, first base, catcher, rotation and bullpen). And while it's true we're talking about a club that won fewer games last year (80) than the Brewers (81), we're also talking about a club that was a line drive off its ace's shin away from possibly winning a lot more than that.

Yes, when Roy Halladay had his Cy Young season rudely interrupted (and ended) by a Kevin Mench sniper shot off his left leg July 8, the Blue Jays had as many wins (44) as the Yankees. You can look that up.

So why can't this team win 90 to 95 games, now that Halladay is back and they've added all these new luminaries? Stranger things have happened.

In a world conditioned to think of the AL East as the Yankees, Red Sox and Those Other Teams, lots of folks still need to be convinced. But whatever the world might think, it's clear what the occupants of this clubhouse think.

"Now," says Wells, "we're not hoping to win. We're playing to win. And there's definitely a difference."

But this is also a team that might have to win to zip the lips of all those skeptics who think it paid way too much for way too little.

Before "five" became Burnett and Ryan's magic number, no pitcher had gotten a five-year contract since the infamous Chan Ho Park (in December, 2001). Then Ricciardi handed out two five-year deals in a week and a half.

We don't know yet whether he's a genius or a madman for doing that. But "we'll only know that," the GM says, "at the end of the contracts."

Right now, though, we do know this: The Blue Jays were not going to sign either of those guys if they hadn't tossed in that fifth year, not to mention a few more dollar bills than everyone else.

"Let me ask you this," says an NL executive who sees Toronto's side in this. "If A.J. Burnett grows up a Cardinals fan, and the Cardinals are offering him four years at about $10 million a year, and the Blue Jays are offering him four years at $11 million, where's he going to sign? It's not going to be in Toronto. The only way Toronto gets the player they want is to go that extra year."

Exactly right. It's easy to debate what a player deserves to get paid, or what constitutes economic sanity, if you're sitting around a think tank. But it's a whole different deal in actual life.

"One thing I learned a long time ago," Ricciardi says, "is that everyone's situation is different. In our situation, we have to do certain things that are right for our ball club. So I'm not going to apologize for trying. I'm not going to apologize for making our club better."

Luckily, his CEO isn't asking for any apologies. For one thing, Godfrey says, this team has to compete in a division with "two spending giants" (guess who). For Thing No. 2, he understands that "it's tough to get a player to say, 'I want to play in Canada.' "

Nothing sells like money, naturally, unless it's more money. But all you need to know about the state of baseball in Toronto before this winter is that it took more than all that money for the Blue Jays to sell these players into saying yes.

To get Burnett interested -- seriously interested -- the Blue Jays had to fly him to Toronto on a private plane. And recruit Halladay to show him around town and take him to a Raptors game. And bring in former Blue Jay Pat Hentgen to tell him what life used to be like when this team was good. And stage a reunion with his old pitching coach in Florida (and current Toronto coach), Brad Arnsberg. And generally make Burnett feel as if the entire fate of the Blue Jays universe depended on his decision.

"It was amazing," Burnett says, "how wanted I felt."

After two hours on that plane with Ricciardi, listening to his vision of the future, Burnett says, "I was totally sold. Just hearing him say, 'We want to do this and we want to do that,' I felt it all kind of sinking in. I was down there in the quicksand, feeling like I was sinking in more and more."

Sure, there were 55 million other reasons for him to feel wanted. But all those people who think he just grabbed the most cash on the counter are "people who don't know me," Burnett grumbles.

"I admit," he says, "that if you look at the difference in dollars between what St. Louis offered [a backloaded $38 million for four years] and Toronto, it was kind of a no-brainer -- whether it was about the money or not. But people who don't know me don't know I'm not a flashy guy. I don't need a whole lot of attention. I'm just a quiet guy who was looking for a place to play that's comfortable for me and my family. ...

"Nothing against [Jack] McKeon or the Marlins organization. But just the way my six-year tenure ended there, I needed a new start. Now I'm the new dude here. It's like the first day of class. And this just seemed like the right place to do it. New league. New everything."

Ryan had other options himself, of course. The Yankees, for one, tried to recruit him as Mariano Rivera's No. 1 setup man, and were willing to pay him closer dollars.

But Ryan decided he was too hooked on that ninth-inning adrenaline to go back to setting up. So his only question was where. And after one visit to Toronto -- a dinner, a tour, lunch the next day -- "I just got a good feeling about this place," he says.

No, he didn't get the same sales-pitch razzle or dazzle Burnett got -- but only because he didn't want one.

"I'm not some big freaking high-maintenance guy," says Ryan, whose mammoth strikeout rate last year (12.8 per 9 IP) was second only to Brad Lidge's (13.1). "I'm the kind of guy, I just want to go out and get something to eat and hang out. I get to know you. You get to know me."

And after 24 hours of hanging -- before they'd even talked money, believe it or not -- "I'd already made a decision," Ryan says. All right, so he waited for the cash to hit the table to announce it. But he clearly saw more than green here.

"Look," he says, "I got a great deal. I don't know what I would have gotten from other places. ... But these guys were interested. I liked what I heard. And I went with my gut feeling."

Ryan was the first of this group to sign, in the last week of November. His signing set off two immediate thunderclaps in the baseball heavens: (1) the predictable "five-years-for-a-guy-who's-only-closed-one-bleeping-year" moaning and (2) the less-predictable "uh-oh-those-Blue-Jays-ain't-messing-around" groaning.

"What it did," says Godfrey, "is, it showed we were serious."

It showed Burnett, for one. And after he signed, Glaus was less reluctant to drop his no-trade. And eventually, all those other additions convinced Molina to head through customs, even though he took less money than the Dodgers offered.

"Those four guys had choices, and they chose to come here," Ricciardi says. "It's not like somebody else wouldn't have given Ryan or Burnett money. I think they came here because of the atmosphere and the direction we are going."

Now the Blue Jays are finally through adding players. But their sales job isn't done. Now comes the hard part: They still have a city full of former baseball fans to sell.

"You know," Godfrey says, "it's been a long, deep breath since Joe Carter hit that ball over the left-field fence."

Yeah, he meant that ball. It was October, 1993 -- 12½ years ago. The Blue Jays haven't been the same since.

Carter's Mazeroski-esque home run made them baseball's first back-to-back champions since the 1977-78 Yankees. They'd just become the first franchise in the history of North American sports to draw 4 million fans in three straight seasons.

So what has happened to them since would have seemed almost inconceivable back then. Maybe even as inconceivable as the thought of handing a five-year, $55-million contract to a pitcher who had never won 13 games in a season.

Since Carter's homer, this team hasn't played a postseason game. It has also misplaced 2.1 million customers a year -- which comes to 25,000 missing people a night. So finding those missing people -- and luring them back -- is what this is really all about.

"Maple Leaf hockey in Toronto is more a religion than a sport," Godfrey says. "To overcome religion, you have to do something dramatic. And the way to do it is the way we did it in 1992 and '93 -- start winning."

The Red Sox and Yankees -- and their combined $320 million worth of payrolls -- still stand in the way of that. And Ricciardi is the first to concede that "until we do something to get them off the top, we haven't done anything."

Still, the Blue Jays' mind-boggling winter has given those two teams something to think about beside each other. And that just makes the most magnetic division in baseball even more charismatic. Which isn't a bad thing. It's a great thing.

"We want to be all about winning as we go forward," Ricciardi says. "Are we going to win the World Series? I have no idea. But at least we're in this now to win."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.