Ten years ago, a 23-year-old from Montreal approached veteran scout Mike Toomey at an Expos game at Olympic Stadium. "Mr. Toomey,'' the 23-year-old said, "my name is Alex Anthopoulos. I want to learn everything I can about scouting. Can you please help me?'' Anthopoulos watched a few games with Toomey, who bought him a book on scouting called "Dollar Sign on the Muscle" and signed it, knowing, "There is something about this kid.''
Now, Anthopoulos, 32, is the general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays. And, with the support of club president Paul Beeston and assistant GM Tony LaCava, Anthopoulos is attempting to rebuild the Blue Jays through scouting and player development, a plan many teams claim to employ but on which they rarely follow through. The Blue Jays are completely committed, much like they are committed to Anthopoulos.
"The first time I met him, I thought, 'Where did we get him?''' Beeston said. "He was different. He was more worldly. He thought outside the box. He was street smart and intelligent. And he never stopped asking questions. I thought, 'This is the package.' We've added a lot of veteran scouts like Mel Didier. Alex is very deferential to the older guys.''
The Blue Jays have added 39 scouts -- 18 on the amateur side, 21 on the professional side -- in the past few months. They have decreased the area in which each scout has to travel and the number of days a scout has to work. "This is Alex and Tony's mandate, their blueprint, on how to build,'' Beeston said. "We are 100 percent behind it. This is not new, not novel, but we can't do it any other way. It's going to take time, but we think we can fast forward it.''
While in the same division as the Yankees and Red Sox, who are in the business of winning, the Blue Jays can't compete in the same free-agent market. So, as Anthopoulos said, "If we can't sign CC Sabathia, then we have to find him and develop him. We have to find as many high-ceiling guys as we can find. We have to look harder, then hit it and hit it hard.''
Anthopoulos was an area scout for a year. "What I learned is that you don't get to see the player often enough or go to every single home if you have to jump in your car and drive 14 hours to see another player,'' he said. "There was too much time spent in a car. With more scouts [covering smaller areas], we might get to see a kid pitch 15 innings instead of five or get 18 at-bats instead of six. You're going to get a better look at the player.''
Anthopoulos said he would like to keep scouts at home for at least 10 days a month. "Scouts love their jobs; they might go 80 straight days on the road, they'll work themselves to death,'' he said. "But they have families. A pipe breaks at home, the wife is there alone with the kids and she has to take care of it while the scout is away. That's a tough thing. We want to make this the best, or one of the best, places in the major leagues to work. Then we can attract the best people. And the best people are going to find the best players.''
The Jays have allotted a tremendous amount of money for the June draft. Beeston says with a hearty laugh, "We can't screw it up.'' The Jays didn't sign their sandwich pick, their No. 2 pick or their No. 3 pick from last year, giving them three extra picks in the first three rounds this year. They got two draft picks for the loss of shortstop Marco Scutaro in free agency and will get one pick for the loss of free-agent catcher Rod Barajas once he signs. They will have seven picks in the first two rounds and nine picks in the first three rounds.
"We've done a lot of research on this -- basically one out of every 30 drafted players becomes an above-average major league player,'' Anthropoulos said. "That's not a very high number. Maybe instead of developing one out of 30 into above-average major leaguers, maybe we can make it two out of 30. And that would make all the difference for us.''
The first time I met him, I thought, 'Where did we get him?' He was different. He was more worldly. He thought outside the box. He was street smart and intelligent. And he never stopped asking questions.
”-- Blue Jays president Paul
Beeston on Alex Anthopoulos
The goal for the Blue Jays is to return to the days of the early 1990s when they were back-to-back World Series champions (1992 and 1993), and were a team that sold out its ballpark virtually every night.
"We have slipped a long, long way,'' Beeston said. "But we're still either the fourth or fifth largest market in North America. I have no hesitancy bringing free agents to Toronto, but we can't get them here if we have no chance of winning. Winning changes everything. We don't want to contend; we want to win. And that's why we're doing it this way. That's why we're bringing all of our scouts together to ask, 'Where did we go wrong? What did they see that we didn't see?' We're sending scouts out there to see what you can't see on a computer.''
And that's why Anthopoulos is in charge. His story is remarkable. As a 23-year-old, he called then-Expos GM Jim Beattie looking for a job. Beattie, not a secretary, answered the phone. "I was so nervous,'' Anthopolous said, "I hung up. As soon as I hung up, I said to myself, 'I can't be scared. I have to talk to him.''' He called Beattie back and asked for any job -- "mopping the floor, anything'' -- to get inside the organization, to learn the game of baseball.
He was hired as an intern who came in on weekends to handle fan mail. "I'd go through Michael Barrett's mail, [Vladimir Guerrero's] mail, picking out things they needed to sign,'' Anthopoulos said. "Then I got my first job in media relations, making $7 an hour.''
It was then that he met Toomey. Very quickly, Anthopoulos moved from an assistant in international scouting to a scouting coordinator to assistant GM, and now to GM.
"The day he got the job,'' Toomey said, "he called me to thank me. He didn't have to do that.''
According to Anthopoulos, making that phone call was a must.
"I read the book. I still have it, and I remember what Tooms wrote in the book -- it said, 'Best of luck in your baseball career,'" Anthopoulos said. "I didn't have a career; I was a nobody. But he took the time to talk to me, to teach me.''
Now, he's a somebody. He's a GM with a plan to return the Blue Jays to prominence through his first love, scouting and development.
Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.