The Toronto Blue Jays must be sold this winter.
Not in terms of changing ownership - the recent words of Nadir Mohamed and Paul Beeston ought to have eradicated that concern in all but the grassiest of knolls - but rather in the sense of selling the public on a pursuit that too often seems pointless: chasing the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox. Impossibility. Catch The Fever!
And now that we're in the final homestand - John McDonald Appreciation Week, apparently - the question is how on earth will a new president and chief executive officer sell a city that is more skeptical than ever of a team that could very well be worse in 2010? Back-to-Back Celebrations of Back-to-Back World Series, anyone?
Manager Cito Gaston was asked this very question yesterday, and his answer won't have them lining up at the ticket wickets. What it said, essentially, was that maybe possibly perhaps the team won't be all that much worse, although let's see what happens to Roy Halladay. Yikes.
"The fact we're probably going to get [Shaun]Marcum back next year and Jesse [Litsch]" Gaston responded, when asked how he'd sell the team to fans. "We will have more experienced pitchers than this year, and some of the kids this year will make the club and, uh, who knows what's going to happen next season as far as acquiring other pitchers?"
Look, the only player-related development that could possibly be marketed - aside from the promise of Aaron Hill and Adam Lind - would be a long-term contract for Halladay, the Jays' ace. After that? It's going to have to be about change - but change that is properly managed.
The intriguing question, frankly, isn't general manager J.P. Ricciardi. It's Gaston. Ricciardi can be dealt with easily enough. Beeston has his replacement as president and CEO, it seems (Beeston is out of town on vacation until the middle of next week), and it's pretty clear the new president could give the fan base its pound of flesh by simply firing Ricciardi before the expiration of his contract next fall. I'm concerned about any plan that would get rid of Ricciardi just to bring in somebody new and have that person's first responsibility be trading Halladay. ("Congratulations on the new job! Now go trade the best pitcher in franchise history! Don't worry that everybody in baseball knows you have to do it!") But it is a quick and easy way to mollify the masses.
If the Blue Jays want a plan to follow, they might look to the Toronto Maple Leafs. True, the fan bases are different: One is deeply skeptical, the other … oh hell, we don't have enough time or space. Just work with me on this, okay? At any rate, the Maple Leafs made it pretty clear to anyone last year that they were going to stink. That was especially the case when Brian Burke was finally extricated from the Anaheim Ducks to become president and GM of the Leafs. And while that was being finalized, Leafs senior adviser Cliff Fletcher helped carry out some of the trash. It was a plan: tough love, to be sure. But a plan nonetheless, and one of the key tenets of that plan was the knowledge that, whatever the fallout, the guy who was going to be head coach when it was all settled was Ron Wilson.
This is what the Blue Jays must now do. It's not enough to have interim CEO Beeston saying that ownership is prepared to raise payroll to $120-million (U.S.) when the time is right. Off-the-record nudges and winks and corporate-speak are no good any more.
It's not enough to simply fire the GM and keep the manager. That isn't a house-cleaning; it's vacuuming the living room. Leaving aside the hints that Gaston is not exactly universally loved in the clubhouse, the Blue Jays ownership must bring in a new manager to run the field operations.
Change must be complete. It can't be half-assed. The Flashback Fridays stuff? A generation doesn't care any more. Sorry, that's just the way it is.
Perhaps that's been the plan all along. Perhaps what we've seen the past year and a half was a transition that was side-tracked slightly by the Blue Jays' remarkable start to the 2009 season. Perhaps a baseball version of Burke and Wilson are already packing their bags in some distant locale right now, given the high sign by a new president and CEO in much the same way that Gene Tenace and Nick Leyva were tipped off by Gaston that he was bringing them back to Toronto with him because he was replacing John Gibbons.
Maybe the new president will let Ricciardi and Gaston absorb the slings and arrows for another year and continue the culling. Although that would be counterintuitive - not to mention brutally cold.
The Jays aren't the Leafs, but they need to show their fan base that the imminent change will be properly managed. The road map is available just down the street.