Blue Jays back to thinking big

TORONTO -- Alex Anthopoulos, the frothy, restless, Montreal-raised general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, is standing in traffic -- the thoroughfare of a hallway in the Rogers Centre press box that leads to the dining room -- before the final home series of the regular season begins. Pulses are quickening with high thoughts, for the Blue Jays have crawled through the desert seeking water longer than any team in baseball. Toronto hasn't made the playoffs since Joe Carter finished Mitch Williams and the Philadelphia Phillies to end the 1993 World Series, during Bill Clinton's first term as president. The factoid has become the torture stat for an entire generation.

The Tampa Bay Rays are in town, the ending of the wait nears and Anthopoulos is trying to focus. But he cannot. The questions keep coming breathlessly from every angle. It's as if it were Christmas Eve in Toronto.

Is there champagne in the building?
Is the team going to watch the late game to celebrate after?
If you win the World Series, do you think Price will re-sign?
Seriously, there's gotta be champagne on ice somewhere, right?

Anthopoulos is trying to remain calm while the heartbeats flutter around him ("I don't want to think about it, but it gives me chills just talking about it," he says). He was 16 when the Blue Jays beat the New York Yankees by seven games to win the American League East in 1993, and each moment of belief feels not unlike quicksand, because nothing is certain in baseball and dreaming big is usually when the floor caves in.

Playoff tickets have been printed. The Rally Towels have been ordered. In the manager's office downstairs, John Gibbons is asked about being back in the postseason, though the Blue Jays have yet to clinch even a wild-card spot. Privately, the team has agreed to respond modestly to clinching a playoff spot: a toast among players and coaches, saving the real celebration for winning the AL East and avoiding the poison of playing a one-game, winner-take-all playoff as a wild-card team.

"We know what disappointment feels like around here," Anthopoulos says in an unsuccessful attempt to caution the headiness around him because he himself cannot contain a radiant smile. Even though the people in town remember 1987, when the Blue Jays held a five-game lead in the final week, didn't win another game and lost the division to the Detroit Tigers. Even though a collapse is happening in real time to the Houston Astros, a team once even more in command this season than Toronto, currently fighting for its postseason lives.

So much of everything is tied into a pending exhalation. Anthopoulos traded 12 pitchers at the July 31 trade deadline to find the right alchemy to reach the finish line, and along the way, he admitted a philosophical departure from the cold efficiency of analytics ("I had to admit I was wrong. Character matters," he says). Gibbons was fired after five years as Blue Jays manager in 2008 and was managing Double-A San Antonio ("Mowing my lawn in the morning and coming to the ballpark in the afternoon," he says) when he got the call from Anthopoulos to try Toronto again.

"I was hoping I would get another shot at the big leagues," Gibbons says. "But I never, ever thought it would be here. This was the last place I thought I'd be."

'A little swagger'

THE WEEKEND PROGRESSES and, as it turns out, there is nothing to fear. The Blue Jays run to the finish line, crushing Tampa Bay in a dramatic sweep -- each victory highlighting an element of this season-long revival: Friday night, Josh Donaldson, acquired in a trade from Oakland, hits his 40th home run, hurtling unexpectedly toward the American League Most Valuable Player award and further validating Anthopoulos as one of the rising executive stars in the game.

Saturday, David Price wins his 18th game of the season, and his blockbuster arrival at the trade deadline from the Tigers sent the message throughout the league that Toronto was willing to push its chips to the center of the table. "All in," as they say. The Price deal, along with the acquisition of shortstop Troy Tulowitzki from Colorado, was so big that even his boss, team president Paul Beeston, laughed off Anthopoulos's ambition. ("I'm with you, but it ain't gonna happen," Beeston says he told Anthopoulos). That same afternoon, Jose Bautista, veteran of 1,399 regular-season games without a playoff appearance, hits two home runs, adding to the team's league-leading season total of 223 and underscoring the smash-and-bash way the Blue Jays have done business in 2015.

"We're going to put ourselves in a position where we can hopefully have a little swagger - not arrogance, but swagger. We can be proud. Our chest can be out. Our chin can be high and we are the Toronto Blue Jays." Blue Jays president Paul Beeston

True to the agreement, Gibbons entered the Saturday postgame interview with a small plastic glass of champagne in celebration of reaching the postseason.

"We all want to enjoy it, just not get carried away," Gibbons says. "We want to save that for a later date in the near future. Wait? Was that a Yogi-ism?" In the clubhouse, the muted façade crumbles as Price organizes the players into a full-on playoff-clinch bacchanal, winners pouring magnums of champagne into open mouths, showering each other with beer and smoking Cohibas, the legendary Cuban cigar, yet another perk of being in Canada.

Sunday, the final home game of the season, the Blue Jays look hungover from too much cigar smoke and beer until Donaldson, with style points to spare, seals his MVP bona fides with a two-out, game-winning homer and sends the city into hysterics of joy and belief.

"We're going to put ourselves in a position where we can hopefully have a little swagger -- not arrogance, but swagger," Beeston says. "We can be proud. Our chest can be out. Our chin can be high, and we are the Toronto Blue Jays."

Donaldson's mic drop only continued that destined look for a team that enjoyed not one, but two 11-game win streaks, taking 13 of 19 from the Yankees, becoming players at the deadline, securing box-office names such as Price and Tulowitzki but also a Canadian star such as Russell Martin and bedrock role players such as Ben Revere.

Through it all, Toronto -- which clinched the AL East title Wednesday night -- is returning to the postseason by remembering how to think big, shedding the attitude that the financial capital of Canada could not compete in the money game. The players around the league knew that ownership was not committed to win, a truth Anthopoulos and Beeston were forced to confront. As Anthopoulos constructed his team, he heard the mantra of Beeston in his ear: "Think small and you'll be small."

"He kept saying it, over and over," Anthopoulos says. "And he was right. Who knows how far this thing is going to go, but we don't think small anymore."

The original boomtown

DURING THE APEX OF THE REIGN of the superpowers, the Yankees and the Red Sox, Toronto was a franchise broken of all swagger and ambition. The Yankees and Red Sox turned the rest of the American League East into the least desirable place to play in professional sports. In 10 seasons, from 1998 to 2007, only the Yankees and Red Sox reached the playoffs from the AL East. The two combined for 15 playoff appearances and five World Series titles, while Baltimore, Tampa Bay and Toronto were their personal piñatas, compiling a combined .395 winning percentage (462-707) against them.

Boston and New York not only crushed the rest of the division on the field, but in confidence, both inside the organizations and in the perception of the league.

"If you're not playing for the Red Sox or the Yankees, no one will ever come to the American League East," former Red Sox pitcher Derek Lowe once told me. "Because you have to play those bastards 38 times and then be perfect against the other two, and that never happens, because you always have that one bad team that has your number. If you play in Toronto, Baltimore, Tampa, you'll never make the playoffs."

It was an attitude that galled Beeston. It was one thing for Tampa Bay, all scouting and no money, to get clubbed by the Yankees and Red Sox, and painful for Baltimore with its championship pedigree dating back nearly 50 years. But being relegated to coach class was especially offensive to Beeston because Toronto is the biggest city in Canada and the fourth biggest city in North America, behind Mexico City, New York and Los Angeles.

Toronto was baseball's original boomtown, becoming in 1992 the first team in the sport's history to draw four million fans. That same year, Toronto for the first time held the highest payroll in baseball at $49.2 million. In 1993, the Blue Jays became the first team in MLB history to surpass $50 million. It was the Blue Jays who were the technical pioneers, the first team to build a stadium with a retractable roof, when SkyDome, now the Rogers Centre, opened in 1989. In less than a decade -- unlike the Marlins -- the Blue Jays were competing for pennants without the benefit of a wild card, coming close in 1985, 1987, 1989 and 1991. And in 1992, their 15th year as a franchise, they won the World Series eight years faster than the Yankees, who appeared in their first World Series in their 20th year and won their first championship in their 22nd.

"Everyone forgets that we had the highest payroll in baseball. We weren't a small market. We were the largest-grossing team in baseball," Beeston says. "I never worried about the revenue sharing, and then when I came back we were one of the largest recipients. We had a few fallow years, and ... it all spiraled down. Plus, the ballpark was too big. The loudness of those four million people became the biggest curse because you didn't have to buy tickets in advance. You could wait till the last minute. We have to get back to the situation where if you want a good ticket, you have to get one in advance -- but you need the product on the field. We never had that product on the field."

Lowe's critique illustrated a bitter fact: The Blue Jays, through a combination of the 1993-94 NHL lockout and 1994-95 baseball strike, had lost the public. The next two ownership groups, Interbrew and Rogers Communications, were reluctant to put money into baseball, especially with the public scarred. Beeston was fired in 1997 ("They say I wasn't fired. They gave a severance package. I was fired," he says). The team that enjoyed a $51 million payroll in 1993 won the World Series with future Hall of Famers Paul Molitor, Rickey Henderson and Roberto Alomar spent $58.8 million on payroll in 2003. Meanwhile, the Yankees' $48 million payroll in 1993 ballooned to $169.5 million a decade later.

"So why did it go down? It went down because there wasn't that product on the field," Beeston says. "There wasn't that success. And it wasn't for lack of trying or doing the right thing. You can't just set a budget and say, 'This is what our team is going to be.' This isn't fantasy baseball. This is real-life baseball, and if you have that opportunity, you see what you can do to put a team that not only gives you a chance to maximize revenue, but gives you a chance to win."

It is one thing to talk about the power of a metro area with seven million people and quite another to act on it. J.P. Ricciardi was the Toronto GM during the tough years, when the Yankees and Red Sox rose to power and left the rest of the division behind. Ricciardi hired Anthopoulos in 2004 ("I love Alex like a little brother"), recalled his high acumen and enthusiasm and realized quickly he was "too good" for his position as assistant scouting director and promoted him to assistant GM.

"I was there during the greatest period in the history of the American League East. It was a monster, monster division," Ricciardi said. "We did a lot of good things, but it wasn't going to happen. You can't 'Moneyball' your way in the AL East. Those two play Moneyball -- with money."

It was Ricciardi who first hired Gibbons (the two were roommates with Shelby in the South Atlantic League in 1981), and it was Ricciardi, now special assistant to Sandy Alderson with the New York Mets, who carried out the mission of an ownership group whose primary ambition was not to win baseball games, but to win baseball games at an exceedingly difficult price point.

"We drafted 50 guys who played in the big leagues," he said. "We got [Edwin] Encarnacion when he was down in the dumps in Cincinnati. We traded for [Jose] Bautista when no one knew who Bautista was. Neither Alex nor I thought he would hit 50 home runs, but we thought he was good for 13-20. We were competitive. In 2006, we won 87 games. The Cardinals won the World Series that year winning fewer games than we did. Our evaluations were good. I'll put that up against anyone's. We went up against Manny, Ortiz, Pedro, Schilling, A-Rod, Matsui, Jeter, and during my tenure my payroll averaged $70 million a year.

"Rogers was happy to have the identity of the team. Rogers was happy to have the team so it could broadcast the games. But Rogers didn't want to lose money. I really don't think Rogers knew what they were getting into. When I arrived in 2002, I inherited an $88 million payroll and was ordered to get it down as low as we could. We got it down to $64 million and still won 78 games. We did what we were told to do. We tried to plan out, and when they pulled the rug out from under us, we tried to adjust. The thing I learned in that job is you're only as good as your ownership and only as good as your ownership wants to be. I have no sour grapes. Rogers gave me a chance to be a GM, but the thing you learn is this: When you have marching orders, you follow them. Paul Beeston was in charge, and he didn't say 'keep spending money.' He was doing what they told us to do."

The Blue Jays, in financially muscular Toronto, were part of baseball's charity class. In 2001, owner Paul Godfrey petitioned then-commissioner Bud Selig for a "currency adjustment," where in addition to revenue sharing checks, the Blue Jays would also receive millions from Major League Baseball to offset the weak Canadian dollar. Beeston was offended. When he returned in 2009, he told the commissioner's office he wouldn't accept their charity money: "We don't apologize for being Canadian. The currency is bad for all sports teams, but it's good for manufacturing and tourism and good for the economy and the country. But I'm not going to apologize for our dollar being low and say that we can't compete.

"It is absolutely an attitudinal thing. It's what we are. It's who we are and we're going to manage this thing. Yes, we do have a currency problem, but do you want a currency problem or work as a small-market [team] that has a revenue problem? We shouldn't have a revenue problem. We've got television revenue. We've got a 48,000-seat stadium. We have the ability if we win to charge some good prices. Can we charge New York prices? No, but we can probably charge the same as any place other than New York."

The Blue Jays were so down that even their history -- the one element that kept fans coming to the ballpark during lean years -- had become too burdensome for its current players. The Blue Jays kept their glory close in the face of losses with a project called "Flashback Fridays," in which the team would show highlights from the big days -- of Alomar and the 1992 rallying cry "Winfield Wants Noise," David Wells and John Olerud. The ghosts were so smothering that in 2009 two players, Kevin Millar and Vernon Wells, engineered an insurrection, handing out T-shirts that read "Turn the Page" to be worn every Tuesday. Live in the now, went the message, but since 1993, the Blue Jays have finished at least 10 games out of first place in 20 of 21 seasons.

"As a player, you're never a part of the curses or the past. You just want to play in the present and believe in the group you have in front of you," Millar wrote in an e-mail. "All we heard about was 1992 and 1993, teams that were awesome. and in 2009, we were not that awesome, but it was time to turn the page. So, 'Turn the Page Tuesdays' it was!!!"

After the backhanded compliment of "winning the winter" by acquiring R.A. Dickey and Jose Reyes in 2013 and 2014, only to win 74 and 83 games, respectively, the Blue Jays were flummoxed for much of the 2015 season. The moves were working. The stats said so. On July 25, Toronto was 50-49, but its run differential was nearly a plus-100 -- double that of the Yankees and proof the Blue Jays were a better team than their record indicated, yet they trailed New York by 5½ games. Other statistics were more damning. The team was 10-20 in one-run games and 7-39 in games in which they scored four runs or less. Something had to be done.

'Prove me wrong'

BEESTON TOLD ANTHOPOULOS there was no way he could get Tulowitzki and there was no way Price, a 20-game and Cy Young winner, would come to Toronto. In the back of his mind, Anthopoulos was thinking of 2011, of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who rolled through the season after having not made the postseason, having not been .500 since Barry Bonds left after the 1992 season. Pittsburgh stood pat at the trade deadline and wound up under .500. He was not going to allow that to happen in Toronto.

Think small and you'll be small.

In the offseason, he beat out the Los Angeles Dodgers to get Martin, staking his reputation that he could land a fellow Montrealer. "I told Russell: 'You're coming here. There's no way we're not getting this deal done. If I can't convince Russell Martin to be part of this, in Canada, then there's something wrong with me. Let's end it right now."

Anthopoulos told Beeston he was going after Tulowitzki, a five-time All-Star, two-time Gold Glover and two-time Silver Slugger award winner who led Colorado improbably to the 2007 World Series when the Rockies lost to the Red Sox. Beeston laughed.

After two months of negotiating, Anthopoulos acquired Tulowitzki and veteran relief pitcher LaTroy Hawkins on July 28 for three prospects and Reyes.

"I didn't believe Colorado would let him go. The Monforts [the primary owners of the Rockies] are heavily engaged there, and Tulowitzki was a drafted player, face of the franchise and I just didn't believe they were going to do it," Beeston says. "From the point of view of the owner getting involved and saying, 'That's my player,' I didn't think they would do it. I told him: 'Not gonna happen, but good luck. I'm with you 100 percent of the way. Prove me wrong.'

"Back in 2013, when he did the Reyes, [Mark] Buerhle, Josh Johnson, Bonifacio deal, I said, 'You can't get that one done, either.' And then he pulled that one off and I said you gotta be [expletive] me. And then he did the Dickey deal and I said, '[The Mets] aren't going to trade the reigning Cy Young Award winner. That is not gonna happen.' And then I said, you gotta be [expletive] me."

Anthopoulos had the bats. What he didn't have was the ace. Gibbons loved his lineup, but he had been fretting over Toronto's inability to scratch out the close games, and games like those were the ones that defined the postseason. Anthopoulos acquired Price.

"The Price one, I just didn't think Detroit would pack it in that early," Beeston says. "I mean, that had nothing to do with good luck. You have a chance to get David Price, I will go over there, drive him back, fly him back. I don't care how he gets there. If you can get David Price, I'm telling you, Alex, I don't care how you do it. But good luck, OK, because he ain't coming."

"I don't know, maybe it was because [Miguel] Cabrera was hurt, and that's where luck comes in," Beeston says. "If Cabrera had been healthy the entire year, would Detroit have won five more games, and if they win five more games they'd be up by three and Price is still there, and so the bottom line was I didn't think it was going to happen. As I've said all along, you gotta figure on Price for next year. I don't know if we can do it, but who knows? Maybe there's a chance to keep him."

'We're all in'

HISTORY ISN'T EXACTLY ON TORONTO'S SIDE. The Blue Jays lead the league in home runs and runs scored, and over the past 50 years only three of those teams -- the 1976 Reds, 1984 Tigers and 2009 Yankees -- have gone on to win the World Series. Of competing teams, Toronto has the fewest wins scoring four runs or less -- as of Oct. 1, they are 16-54 -- and Gibbons views the stat evenly.

"On the one hand, it's a challenge," he says. "On the other, with a record like that, we should be 15 games out, not going to the playoffs. Kinda says a lot about the character on this club. We'll give you a fight."

The wait is over and now the leaves will change in Canada with baseball being played. The ghosts will take a seat to the now, without T-shirts suggesting their time has passed. At 70 years old, Beeston has his wish. The past has become the present.

"Even the fans who were highly critical of some of the moves after they didn't work out two years ago also in reflection said at least they tried, and that was my thing. We're trying to win this thing. We're now [more than] 20 years [since making the postseason]. We can't continue on. We gotta give it a shot.

"Now that we've made the trades, now that we've committed the dollars, now that we've set our future so that we're not gonna be the Yankees, Boston or the Dodgers, but we're also not going to be Oakland or Tampa Bay, either. We're not going to be at the bottom," he says. "We're in there. We actually played our cards, OK? We're all in."