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culture

Full Count Chronicles the Blue Jays’ Fall From Grace

Full Count, a new book by veteran sports journalist Jeff Blair, tells the story of the Blue Jays' decline in the 20 years after the team's World Series wins.

Photo by  xbeta from the  Torontoist Flickr Pool

Photo by xbeta from the Torontoist Flickr Pool

If you’re a Toronto sports fan, you have suffered. Neither the Leafs nor the Jays have given you real reason to hope since the Clinton administration. The Raptors took a couple of steps towards respectability before losing franchise players and collapsing into a perennial abyss. Meanwhile, TFC barely scores goals, while the Argos pinball between Grey Cup championships and utter mediocrity.

But it’s 2013 and there is hope! Hope tempered with reality and history, but hope nonetheless. The Raptors stumbled to another ignominious finish, but rumours are swirling that legendary coach Phil Jackson will come to fix them. The Leafs are in the playoffs! And the Jays made a series of trades that brought A-list talent to town for the first time in a generation! Sure, they played horribly in April but it’s not too late, right?

“I can’t say I’m optimistic,” says Jeff Blair. “It should at least be fun team to watch when José Reyes comes back [from injury, in July] but I don’t think they have a chance.”

Oh, well nevermind then. Blair would know, having covered the team as a sports reporter for more than a decade. (He writes primarily for the Globe and Mail and also does a daily show on Sportsnet.)

It’s in the midst of this year’s mixture of hope and anxiety that his new book, Full Count: Four Decades of Blue Jays Baseball, arrives on shelves. It was initially set to come out around Father’s Day, but got moved up to the start of the season when the Jays made their blockbuster trades. This fortuitous turn of events has given the subject matter an unexpected momentum.

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Amusingly, just a few weeks ago Blair said his primary concerns about the Jays were the fact that don’t have a closer (which hasn’t really been an issue since closers don’t pitch unless you’re leading) and that All-Star lead-off man José Reyes would get hurt (which happened quickly). He figured the Jays were the team to beat unless they beat themselves and, oh, have they ever.

It’s hardly the first time the team has spun out of contention before the All-Star break, but the combination of high expectations, strong marketing, and a vocal social-media contingent has made the early season foibles seem far worse than usual. “It’s a fan base that was almost tailor-made to be fickle and you had kind of a perfect storm here,” Blair says. Today’s Jays supporters consist mainly of two groups: those yearning for a return to the glory years, and bandwagon jumpers who never experienced them.

It’s the latter group who are primarily the target audience for Full Count. The title of the book indicates that it’s about “four decades of Blue Jays baseball,” but the focus is on the 20 years since the team last won the World Series. (Some of the earlier history has already been covered in a book by Stephen Brunt.)

Blair begins with the franchise’s zenith, and the hit he considers to be the most important in the Jays’ history: Robbie Alomar’s home run off Dennis Eckersley in the 1992 ALCS. He also reminds us that the 1993 championship team was surprisingly different from the 1992 version, with players like Tom Henke and Dave Winfield swapped out for Duane Ward, Paul Molitor, and Dave Stewart. Then came the strike-shortened 1994 season and a long slide into mediocrity.

There’s no real consensus about exactly when things went south, but Blair says he and many of the era’s players pin it on Duane Ward’s mysterious arm injury in 1994-95. The ace closer was never the same, and the team hasn’t been competitive since.

And so Blair has his work cut out for him. He has to spin a 20-year narrative about third- and fourth-place finishes interspersed with occasional wrong turns. Remember when the team had Roger Clemens for two Cy Young seasons? Remember how hopeful you were when they signed A.J Burnett? B.J. Ryan? Cory Koskie? Yeah, we’ve blocked those memories too.

Your appreciation for the book may depend on how interested you are in hearing about front-office machinations. Full Count gets into hirings, firings, and payroll changes, but doesn’t address behind-the-scenes details, like how players got along behind closed doors. The book’s index gives a good sense of where the focus is at. Early golden-era players get few shout-outs (Dave Stieb is mentioned three times, Jimmy Key and Jesse Barfield once each, and George Bell only seven times), while former GM Gord Ash has 22 references and Keith Law—who worked for J.P. Riccardi and now blogs for ESPN—gets nine.

Instead of Carter, Delgado, and Halladay, the main characters in Full Count are more along the lines of Paul Beeston, J.P. Ricciardi, and current ninja GM Alex Anthopoulos. It’s Ricciardi, in particular, who benefits from hindsight.

Team president Paul Godfrey brought Ricciardi in from Oakland hoping to replicate that team’s now-well-known “moneyball” tactics. While Ricciardi was accused by some of being one of those bean-counting sabermetricians, he was actually something of an old-school baseball guy, Blair points out.

“He was less a big-picture guy and more a nuts-and-bolts guy,” Blair says. “And I think he was miscast when he came in here.”

In retrospect it’s easy to see Ricciardi as a front for Rogers’ attempts to try to win without spending much money. Ricciardi had to help “streamline” what was once a robust scouting system, which didn’t help endear him to local sports writers (the scouts were sources for them, Blair points out) or to players who had been happy to sign contracts with the Jays back when the team was winning. “The Jays were seen as Cadillac of franchises and now, all through the game, you have this whispering about [Ricciardi] and how he’s gutting the Blue Jays,” Blair says.

Despite the front-office focus, the book contains plenty of tidbits from the interviews Blair conducted with players throughout the team’s history. Here are some:

  • Carlos Delgado, who just seems like the nicest guy ever, got a 1993 World Series ring even though he was a non-roster player working as bullpen catcher. He sometimes biked to games from his Yorkville home. If nothing else, the book reminds you how awesome he was.
  • When the Jays acquired Buck Martinez in a 1981 trade with Kansas City, part of his pay from the team was a Honda. The precise model is not named.
  • Martinez, at the start of his broadcasting career, called out Roberto Alomar for deciding not to play for a few games in 1995 because he was pissed about David Cone being traded. The book quotes Martinez as saying, “I told him it wasn’t an Alomar move, that it wasn’t how his father would want him to represent the name.”
  • Ted Rogers understood almost nothing at all about baseball. He sometimes walked across the field, during breaks in the game, to get from his dugout-area seat to the elevator up to his box. He also once stood up to cheer a Boston double because he only knew to watch what the fans were doing, and he once introduced himself to the Star’s Dave Perkins in the press box by saying, “Hello, I’m the village idiot.”
  • Oh, and he also thought “Rogers SkyDome” would be a better name than “Rogers Centre.” He was worried that people (um, like us) would keep calling it by its old name anyway. A staff member convinced him that no one remembers those old names, citing the oft-renamed Hummingbird/Sony/O’Keefe centre as an example.
  • It’s easy to be pissed that Ontario taxpayers paid $500 million to build the dome and that Rogers bought it for only $25 million, but you have to admire their business acumen. The previous owners, Sportsco, asked for $100 million and Rogers offered $50. Then they found out Sportsco owed the city three years of back taxes, lowered their offer to $15 million, and eventually compromised.
  • When he was assistant GM, Alex Anthopoulos made a paltry $38,500 salary. But, in fairness, it included season tickets and what we presume is a decent travel package.

Though it can seem a bit tangential, Blair also draws connections between the franchise (the country’s only MLB team since the Expos departed) and Canadian baseball in general. Baseball Canada has become a model program, producing the likes of Brett Lawrie in a country that everyone (Americans in particular) assumes produces nothing but hockey players. Former MVP Joey Votto is a local boy who didn’t merely choose baseball over hockey: he never even learned to skate.

The sport’s roots run nearly as deep here as in the United States, Blair reminds readers, and there’s something ironic in how the decline of pro baseball has been concurrent with the rise of the amateur sport. “While the major-league teams were withering, the talent level was flourishing,” Blair says.

That’s all fine and good, but what about our beleaguered Blue Jays? The team that was favoured by Vegas to win the World Series not so long ago? The team that’s now dead last in its division? Blair thinks the roster still needs some balancing. Still, he sees good omens in things like R.A Dickey signing a contract extension. Dickey is a major free agent, and he’s choosing to come north in a manner not seen in decades.

No matter the outcome, we can all enjoy the rest of the season. Meanwhile, remember that there was a time when 50,000 people came out to every game so they could make noise and watch a winning team. It could happen again.

Full Count is now available from Random House books.

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