The first time Paul Beeston met Alex Anthopoulos, he was overwhelmed.
“Where did this guy come from?” he remembers thinking. “He thought differently. He asked questions that were different.” Anthopoulos was asking him about the stock market. The conversation slid into baseball. “What’s more important,” Anthopoulos asked him, “scouting or development? Who’s easier to get – a good scout or a good development person? How do you build a team?”
The conversation went on for 31/2 years. Beeston wasn’t even working for the Blue Jays then. He was back from New York, where he’d been the president and chief executive officer of Major League Baseball. The Blue Jays had given him an office in the Rogers Centre, but no title. Anthopoulos was an assistant general manager.
Today, they are the heart of the Blue Jays organization: Beeston, an accountant from Welland, Ont., who, given his chance decades ago, went on to become president and CEO during the World Series years of 1992 and 1993, and who came back to those jobs after the 2008 season; and Anthopoulos, who started out opening fan mail for the Montreal Expos and in less than a decade was chosen by Beeston to run the Blue Jays’ baseball operations. What the Blue Jays lost when they lost Pat Gillick, architect of those championship teams, and Beeston, they have once more.
“What they lacked most of all after the big split-up of Gillick and Beeston, and Beeston going to New York, was the emotional core, the moral authority in the front office,” says one former Jays insider.
As spring training begins in Florida, the air in Toronto is different. A city on a long losing streak in baseball, hockey and basketball senses the lost glory at hand. The team has been transformed. Starting pitching to die for – a strong bullpen – home run power – speed to salivate over – good defence.
Beeston and Anthopoulos changed the air.
“I can get Mark Buehrle, Josh Johnson, Jose Reyes,” Anthopoulos said to Beeston one day this past off-season. Buerhle and Johnson are outstanding starting pitchers. Reyes is one of the top two shortstops in baseball.
“Which one?” Beeston asked.
The Jays were a big-city team with a small-market budget – about $80-million last season. The Yankees have spent more than $200-million (all currency U.S.) on player salaries some years, and the Red Sox $160-million. Buerhle, Johnson and Reyes had big, guaranteed contracts.
“You gotta be [fooling] me,” Beeston said.
It would mean exploding the budget, and taking on the risk of expensive, long-term commitments. He wondered, “How are we going to do this?”
FOLLOWING A DREAM
Anthopoulos dreams big. Outside of his neighbourhood league as a child in Montreal, he had no baseball background. All he had was a passion for the sport. “I remember being in school and all my friends were going about their careers, and I thought ‘I’m just going to work with my Dad, and that will be my life,’” he says. He got his economics degree from McMaster University in Hamilton, and at 21, when his father died, ran the family heating and ventilation business. One day at 23 he woke up and thought, “I am just a miserable person. I’m going to take a shot at baseball.”
Like the poet T.S. Eliot, he supported his dream with a job as a bank teller. His weekend volunteer job opening fan mail for the Expos gave him a chance sit with the scouts behind home plate and ask questions. “I couldn’t get enough of it.” One day a scout, Fred Ferreira, now with the Baltimore Orioles, asked him if he’d like to do an internship at his baseball academy in Fort Lauderdale.
“I helped out when they ran the batting cages, picked guys up at the airport, went to get lunches,” Anthopoulos recalls. “I was on the field every day for about a year and a half. It was unbelievable, a whole other side was opened up to me. I got to go to Japan and the Dominican Republic. [Ferreira] used to bring me all his binders and books and I would just devour them.” Anthopoulos was unpaid; Ferreira picked up his food and hotel bills. Anthopoulos signed up for Spanish classes at night at a local college.
After that he went to Scout School in Arizona run by major-league baseball’s scouting bureau. The Expos sponsored him; he paid his own way. Eventually the Expos scouting director, Dana Brown, gave him his first paid baseball job in 2002-03, as scouting co-ordinator, for $25,000 a year.
“It was like I made $20-million,” he says.
Yearning to know as much as he could as fast as he could, he called the scouting bureau and asked for video on “every amateur player they ever had” the bureau keeps tabs on all prospects for each year’s amateur draft. “I used to go home at night after I was done at the stadium. I’d be sitting in bed. I had my laptop. I burnt everything on CD. I would pop CDs into my laptop and watch the 1998 draft year. The next day I’d ask Dana, ‘why did Joe Blow not pan out? What about this guy’s swing? What about that guy’s delivery?’ It was a great way to expedite learning how to evaluate players.”
The Expos were a dying franchise. Andrew Tinnish, a colleague, left to work for the Blue Jays, and recommended Anthopoulos. He joined the club after the 2003 season with the same title as his first paid job in Montreal – scouting co-ordinator.
“Being a general manager is a privilege,” he said this week from Florida, shortly after a scouting trip to the Dominican Republic. “But if you ask me what the greatest job in baseball is, it’s the scouting director. It’s so much fun because you get to go see players and you get to impact the organization immediately. I just love scouting.”
Beeston calls him a natural as a general manager.
“His most important quality is to recognize what he doesn’t know. He learns relentlessly.”
THE BEAST STAYS
Beeston is the whiz kid who never grew up enough to stop having fun. As a child he used to cross the border to Detroit with his father, an accountant who taught high school, to see the Tigers. He knew every baseball statistic there was. A friend of his, Peter Fowler, an orthopedic surgeon, lived next door to Don McDougall, the president of Labatt Breweries. McDougall hired him, partly on the strength of his apparent baseball knowledge, to be the Jays’ chief administrative officer. This was back in 1976, when Labatt’s expected to buy the San Francisco Giants. Beeston was the Jays’ first employee. He was 31 years old, one year younger than Anthopoulos when he chose him to run the baseball operations after the 2009 season.
The late Peter Hardy, a Labatt’s chairman who became chairman of the ball club’s board, was a mentor. Hardy took over when team president Peter Bavasi stepped aside in 1981, though without the title. “He was clearly the conscience” of the organization, Beeston says. “This was a man of incredible integrity, a world of experience and he made sure we did things properly.” The two travelled together each season to visit all the minor-league teams so they didn’t feel forgotten.
It was Hardy who appointed him president “when a lot of people would have thought that was a leap,” says Herb Solway, a former chairman of the ball club and another mentor. “Hardy was clearly right. He saw something in him.”
Beeston, now 67, is the whiz kid who never grew up enough to stop having fun.
When Beeston chose Anthopoulos as general manager, “it was an act of historical repetition,” Solway says. Beeston was playing Peter Hardy to a young version of himself.
There was one difference: Beeston was just an interim president when he hired Anthopoulos. It was Anthopoulos who asked him to stay.
IT’S MORE THAN MONEY
Money is not the key to the Blue Jays’ resurgence, says Bart Given, who was an assistant general manager for the Blue Jays alongside Anthopoulos. “It’s more about player-development acumen and dedicating resources to it. The most prudent tactic from Alex was getting Rogers to spend more on scouting and development.”
When Anthopoulos became general manager, the organization was ranked 28th out of 30 in the quality of its prospects. It hired 35 scouts, added a farm team and about 10 development people – instructors, coaches, managers. The team has three former general managers working as scouts: Jim Beattie, who ran the Expos; Ed Lynch, formerly with the Cubs; and Chuck LaMar, Tampa Bay’s first general manager. Three years ago it brought in Mel Didier, now 87, who was an assistant general manager.
By last season, its prospects were ranked fifth among franchises.
“We needed to accumulate as many assets as we could,” Anthopoulos said. “Ownership gave us significant dollars to spend in the amateur draft and Latin America. Young players and prospects are currency in this game.”
Then came a chance to spend that currency. The Miami Marlins wanted to shed expensive contracts. But they wanted a boatload of promising young players in return for their established stars.
“We might have given up two or three Hall of Famers, who knows,” Beeston says. “But that’s why the guy is good. When the opportunity presented itself, he was able to switch gears.”
A current insider puts it another way: “They stocked the shelf with prospects and then all of a sudden Alex woke up and said, ‘you know, having too many prospects is overrated.’”
Not everyone in the organization wanted to go ahead with the 12-player trade with the Miami Marlins, Beeston says. The Jays gave up five young players –pitcher Henderson Alvarez and shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria from the Jays, and prospects Jake Marisnick, Justin Nicolino and Anthony DeSclafani.
Anthopoulos said that he wouldn’t have been able to make that trade even a year ago, but that he had learned to be decisive and trust himself, rather than always seeking consensus.
“I don’t want to have regrets and say I didn’t make the decision I wanted to make because I was scared or influenced by somebody else. Sometimes I have to remind myself, there’s a reason I’m in this position. Right or wrong, I’m going to live and die with my decisions. I hate talking that way – I-I, me-me – but my greatest regrets in this job are when I went against my instincts in making a decision. I’ve made plenty of mistakes with my instincts, but it’s easier to sleep at night when you knew that they were your instincts that were wrong.”
SWINGING THE DEAL
Beeston thought the team was set. Anthopoulos had signed free-agent outfielder Melky Cabrera, the National League’s batting leader until he was suspended for elevated testosterone levels, to play left field. He signed free-agent Maicer Izturis to play second. Everywhere you looked the team was solid, even stunning.
Anthopoulos said, “We can use one starting pitcher. We can really use an ace. I can get [R.A.] Dickey.” Dickey was a 38-year-old knuckleballer who had just won the Cy Young Award playing for the New York Mets.
“There is not a chance they’re going to trade him,” Beeston replied.
Anthopoulos reached back to his shrinking shelf of prospects, and handed over up the team’s top position-player prospect, Travis d’Arnaud, and a highly rated young pitcher, Noah Syndergaard. Dickey’s two-year contract would cost the Jays $25-million.
THE ARITHMETIC OF SUCCESS
For each big-name player a certain number of additional fans would come, Beeston told the Blue Jays’ board. The club’s budget had been headed for $100-million this season. He wanted to take it to $125-million.
“It’s a guess, it’s a feel,” Beeston says of the boost in attendance he projected. The board might not have bought his guess if it was just one player. “But it was player x, y and z,” he says.
“It was a matter of giving people a reason to come to the ballpark.”
The board gave him a hearing unlike the one accorded Brian Burke, then the general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs, by the Rogers and Bell directors at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.
“You can’t even compare the two,” an insider says. “When Burke spoke it was like listening to a scene out of Slap Shot,” the slapstick hockey movie. “Listening to Beeston and Alex speak was like listening to Moneyball . Beeston does a very good job in instilling confidence in the board.”
Saying yes to the plan was an obvious decision, the insider says.
“Starting from the top, Edward [Rogers], they were saying, ‘look we’ve got the money, let’s spend.’ If the team starts winning, you fill up the stands, people spend more money, there’s more people watching at home, more people listening on the radio, the more times the Rogers Centre is mentioned. It’s just such a domino effect.”
Most important of all to the owners was the timing. Beeston and Anthopoulos explained that the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox are not at their best. But those teams can spend their way out of their problems in the next couple of years. Now was the opportunity.
“Once we become competitive it becomes a self-sustaining model,” the insider paraphrased Beeston and Anthopoulos as telling the board. “You’ve just got to make a couple of tweaks here and there and you can have a competitive team for the next 10 years.”
“There’s smart money and there’s stupid money,” Beeston says. “We think this is smart money.”