When Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Marcus Stroman said recently that his team is “terrible,” he got one bit wrong.
Instead of shouting it in the midst of a tantrum, he ought to have done it at a news conference. It would have been a unique instance of scripted straight talk from someone in the organization.
Instead, what we get is a hailstorm of buzzwords and a generalized hopefulness for a better future. How we might get there is not explained.
As we stagger toward the end of another lost season, it’s becoming clear that the Jays' leadership operates with one goal in mind – maintaining the leadership.
The team is run more like a political party in power than a baseball franchise. You might call it the Parliament Hill-style of sports management.
(This is quite distinct from the current Queen’s Park style, which would involve eliminating the half of the roster you don’t like and fielding a team of five players.)
Full credit to two Americans – club president Mark Shapiro and general manager Ross Atkins – for mastering local customs so adeptly.
In the Parliament Hill model, you take it as a given that you’ve got a few years after the election before anyone begins to think seriously about replacing you.
You do the dirty business up front – jettison your predecessor, cleanse the old guard and bring in a bunch of cronies. That will upset people, but in the usual fray of arrival it just might go unremarked. If it doesn’t, you’ve got ages to live it down.
Having scorched the earth, your next move is to settle in for a nice, long period of doing nothing. It is important here that you make very few decisions because decisions will eventually be held against you. The less you do, the less you can do wrong. That’s the motto of legislatures everywhere.
Instead, talk about staying the course – even if the course is pointing you toward the edge of a waterfall. Only move when other people move. It makes you look resolute.
Whatever you do, stay as vague as possible. If, after a year or two, you have a chance to start over, do not under any circumstances take it. Though the time might be right, it will only encourage people to think that this change will be followed by other change. That would be bad.
After three years, people will start to notice that nothing is getting better. In fact, it may be getting a lot worse. Now you have to change. Just don’t call it “change.” Call it an “opportunity.”
Spend half a season figuring out if you want to trade your best pitcher, and in the end do it for a couple of guys who are too old to be called prospects, but not yet good enough to be major-league regulars. Make sure that the better of them is something you already have too much of – mediocre infielding.
Since none of your infielders is especially great, having too many of them doesn’t do you a whole lot of good.
A smart politician turns his/her weaknesses into strengths. According to Atkins, the Jays have so many mediocre fielders that it “will be really hard to upgrade” in that regard. Let the opposition try to spin that one.
Now that Atkins has the hitting/fielding part of a team that’s 20-odd games out of first place taken care of, the next order of business is acquiring a bunch of good, controllable pitching.
That’s a lovely idea, but it’s like me walking into work on a Monday morning and announcing that my next professional goal is getting very rich and quickly.
How, exactly, will I accomplish that? Great question. I’ll make my next order of business figuring out how to accomplish my first order of business, and so on. Eventually, I will be no richer, but I will have created a to-do list of remarkable length and detail that very closely resembles real work.
This is how politics is done: lots of policy talk; very little actual policy.
Shapiro and Atkins still have a couple of seasons left in which they don’t have to do much and can continue to call it progress.
Fans will spend the next while obsessing about the arrival of super-prospect Vlad Guerrero, Jr. (a player Shapiro and Atkins had nothing to do with acquiring).
If Guerrero is any good at all, we’ll spend next season hearing a lot about “learning curves.”
The team will still be terrible, but they will be learning. In fairness, it is better than whatever they’re doing right now, which appears to be un-learning how to play baseball.
In 2020, if things break just right for brass, they might still be learning. Maybe they can give everyone glasses or make them read books in the dugout.
By the end of 2020, the Shapiro-Atkins mandate will have passed and the time for panic will have arrived. That’s when a whole bunch of money is miraculously discovered sitting around in an unused office. Then the vote buying begins.
What makes this process so frustrating is that it’s needless. Everyone knows the Jays are terrible (which is why Stroman got a pass for rubbishing his own team). The bosses must know it, too. Refusing to admit something is not the same thing as refuting it.
But there has never been a more forgiving time in sports for bad franchises. The word “rebuilding” has become a sort of compliment.
A sudden outburst of transparency might delight people – “Yes, we are terrible.” Then again, having waited so long to give it a try, it might enrage them.
So we will continue on as we have: pretending things are getting better by talking up a bright future that might never arrive; putting all the weight on one 19-year-old kid; hoping things break just right, but not taking a single risk that might help matters along.
The irony here is that this approach doesn’t buy you more time. Every franchise executive has a five-year mandate, give or take, in which to prove it can win. A lot of wild flopping around at the end buys you a season or two more, but it eventually ends the same way.
All the Parliament Hill approach does is embolden the next regime to go the same, overcalculated, overcautious route. Then you wake up one day and you haven’t made the playoffs in 20 years.