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Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Roy Halladay throws against the Tampa Bay Rays. (MIKE CASSESE)
Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Roy Halladay throws against the Tampa Bay Rays. (MIKE CASSESE)

Stephen Brunt

Whole new ball game Add to ...

Something has changed around the Toronto Blue Jays.

On the field, obviously, with that glorious, unexpected start to the season now a fading memory, but the biggest shift seems to have taken place several blocks north of the Rogers Centre, at the corner of Mount Pleasant and Bloor, where the team's corporate masters maintain their headquarters.

The economic crash, coupled with the death of Ted Rogers, has altered the ownership's philosophy. That's not the only reason Roy Halladay, the best pitcher in baseball, is on the block as the postseason trade deadline nears - but it's certainly related.

The mixed messages coming from the front office, the new tone of uncertainty from interim Jays chief executive officer Paul Beeston and the apparent abandonment of any plans to go for broke and try to win something in 2010, has to be a reflection of orders from on high.

It's certainly not the first time in Jays history that this has happened. When the Belgian beer giant Interbrew inherited the ball club after it purchased the team's former owners, Labatt Brewing, in 1995, its discomfort with the baseball business was hard to miss.

Interbrew (now part of Anheuser-Busch InBev SA) never asked for the team, never wanted it, weren't sure what to do with it, and so they flailed around aimlessly, some years approving player budgets designed to give the Jays a chance of competing in the tough American League East, some years paring things down to the bare bone.

Their baseball people weren't given anywhere near the kind of latitude Beeston, Pat Gillick and company enjoyed under owners who bought the team for a relative song, hoped only to use it as a vehicle to sell beer, had a domed stadium built for them at public expense and, when franchise values exploded, saw their equity go through the retractable roof.

Rogers Communications Inc. - at least with Ted Rogers at the helm - was different.

They were local, for a start, and they were in part a media company, owners of an all-sports television network in need of summer programming, so the ball club had value beyond its own bottom line. The stadium, once acquired, became a place to trumpet the company name and showcase its products.

And Rogers himself, who was not just the CEO but the controlling shareholder and guiding spirit of the company, while no sports fan, believed in those synergies and exerted enormous clout both internally and with Bay Street. His track record as a business visionary - the Rogers board once famously voted 15-to-1 against getting into the wireless business, with the opposing vote being Ted's - gave him leeway to make decisions, to push the company in directions even if there were initial questions about the risk and reward.

In the past year, the world economy collapsed and Ted Rogers died, and those two events have undeniably changed the operating environment for the Toronto Blue Jays.

There is a reason the NFL forbids corporate ownership of its franchises. When the first duty is the protection of shareholders' interests and a sports franchise is but a single cog in a larger machine, decisions that can dramatically affect the product on the playing field can be mandated by issues far removed from sports.

Right now, the squeeze is on at Rogers, as it is in so many places. It is the responsibility and fiduciary duty of those managing the company to do what they can to improve the balance sheets. And while, under Ted Rogers, some aspects of the company may have been more protected than others, now all are viewed equally - including a baseball team that by itself loses money every year.

According to Rogers insiders, there is still an awareness of the team's larger value within the corporate framework, an acknowledgement that the Jays ought to be treated as more than a straight money-in, money-out proposition. But for the first time, the team is also being viewed, dispassionately, by professional managers as the business it is, during a time when nearly everything is being cut back.

That doesn't mean the team is for sale, or about to be.

"We remain obviously committed to the Blue Jays," Nadir Mohamed, the president and CEO of Rogers Communications said yesterday during a quarterly conference call with analysts.

But that commitment isn't romantic. It isn't unconditional. It isn't a fan's commitment. It can't include risking shareholders' money in a terrible economy for what might be a once-a-decade chance to push the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, or to keep the best pitcher in baseball in the fold.

That's why the front office sounds at sea right now. And that's why some dreams are being dashed.

 

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