Skip to main content

Atlanta Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos, seen here during spring training in Kissimmee, Fla., last month, says he is at peace in how his time with Toronto came to an end.Curtis Compton

In the reception area of the administration offices at the Atlanta Braves spring training facility at Champion Stadium, one of the walls has been painted to resemble the inside of a baseball clubhouse.

The floor-to-ceiling rendering is of five side-by-side lockers with the jerseys of former franchise greats Greg Maddux (No. 31), John Smoltz (29), Chipper Jones (10) and Tom Glavine (47) neatly hanging from the stalls.

The other locker also shows a jersey hanging in it, but with no accompanying name. There is no need.

The No. 44 on the back is immediately recognizable to anybody with even a passing interest in the game as the jersey worn by former Braves icon Hank Aaron, baseball's home-run king before Barry Bonds assaulted the record.

The painting harkens to the glory days of the franchise, to the one that steamrolled to a record 14 consecutive National League East titles between 1991 and 2005. The Braves appeared in five World Series over that span, winning in 1995.

Alex Anthopoulos can't help but see the art when he arrives for work at spring training each day. It is a stark reminder of the sizable job ahead as he takes over as the executive vice-president and general manager of a team that has fallen on wretched times.

The former Toronto Blue Jays GM is inheriting an organization that has lost at least 90 games in each of the past three seasons. Only the Philadelphia Phillies (286) and Cincinnati Reds (286) have lost more games than the Braves' 278 since 2015.

Add to that the embarrassing scandal from last season in which, after an investigation by Major League Baseball, the Braves were found to be in violation of the rules for signing international players. Clearly, the once-proud franchise was in turmoil.

Despite this, Anthopoulos was not deterred from taking over as Atlanta's GM, entrusted with guiding the Braves back to respectability, both on and off the diamond.

"It's as good a job as you're going to find in sports," the eternally optimistic 40-year-old said during a recent interview.

His enthusiasm is bolstered by the No. 1-rating Baseball America gave to Atlanta's farm system, led by 20-year-old outfielder Ronald Acuna, who is already drawing comparisons to Roberto Clemente.

Playing in the new SunTrust Park just north of Atlanta in Cobb County is another cause for Anthopoulos's optimism. Despite the team's recent struggles, it drew more than 2.5 million fans to its home games last year, a respectable average of just less than 31,000 a game.

Anthopoulos signed a four-year contract with the Braves in November, taking over from John Coppolella, who resigned his GM's post in early October after the illegal international player signings first came to light. Coppolella was later banned for life from baseball.

After his abrupt departure from the Blue Jays, Anthopoulos had been working in Los Angeles with the Dodgers as their vice-president of baseball operations. Life was good.

The Dodgers had made the playoffs the two years he was there and came within a victory of capturing the World Series against the Houston Astros in 2017 after winning a league-high 104 regular-season games.

He was living, appropriately enough, in the city of La Canada Flintridge, just north of Pasadena, Calif., with his Toronto-born wife, Christina, and their two young children, Julia and John.

Anthopoulos insists he was happy playing second banana to L.A. GM Farhan Zaidi, another Canadian ex-patriot, and was not seeking to uproot his family for the Holy Grail of another general manager's job.

"You don't apply for these jobs, you don't express interest," Anthopoulos said. "We were in the playoffs, we were in the World Series, and [L.A. president] Andrew Friedman told me, he got a phone call from [Braves president] John Hart.

"When I'd gone out to L.A. they told me they'll have me as long as they can. We understand you might go and it was kind of an agreement – and I didn't ask for this, they just said it – the minute a GM's job comes up you want to explore, you have the ability to do that. Which was really generous."

Anthopoulos interviewed for the Atlanta job and was officially hired Nov. 13.

"Our daughter, when we told her, just bawled," Anthopoulos recalled about the reaction of 7-year-old Julia.

Once she composed herself, Julia insisted on passing the news to her younger brother, John, who is 5. "Daddy got traded," is how she phrased it.

The Montreal-born Anthopoulos still exudes the same boyish enthusiasm that endeared him to Canadians while wheeling and dealing the Blue Jays back into postseason prominence in 2015 following a 22-year absence.

His voice on this day early on in spring training was hoarse from all his media responsibilities over the past 24 hours. The interview occurs in the administration office's lunch room at Champion Stadium and Anthopoulos takes advantage, making himself a coffee in the hopes it might help soothe his aching vocal cords before pulling up a chair.

For the next 45 minutes, Anthopoulos bounces from subject to subject to the point that he gets nervous he might have inadvertently revealed some deep, dark secret that might land him in hot water.

About 10 hours after the interview ends, Anthopoulos calls this reporter, just to make sure none of his comments aren't misconstrued as potentially controversial.

He speaks fondly of the 12 years he spent in the Toronto organization, the last six as GM where his adventuresome nature in the trade market finally paid off with the Blue Jays winning the American League East in 2015.

"I was very at peace [leaving Toronto]," Anthopoulos said. "I felt like the organization was in a good place. I was proud of what was achieved. I was proud of the attendance, I was proud of the talent on the field, I was proud of the talent in the minor leagues, I was proud of the staff we had – just proud of baseball over all in Canada.

"I was part of that."

Anthopoulos's fingerprints were all over the success of the Blue Jays that year, beginning with the highway-robbery acquisition of third baseman Josh Donaldson from the Oakland Athletics before the season started.

Brett Lawrie, the hyperactive and oft-injured third baseman, was the only major-league asset Toronto had to surrender in the deal. Lawrie is out of baseball, while Donaldson went on to enjoy a most-valuable-player season in 2015 and remains a cornerstone of the Blue Jays.

With Toronto spinning its wheels in a wide-open AL East race as the July 31 trade deadline approached, Anthopoulos got busy.

Over a three-day stretch he obtained stalwart shortstop Troy Tulowitzki from Colorado, Cy Young winning pitcher David Price from Detroit, solid outfielder Ben Revere from Philadelphia and veteran bullpen arm Mark Lowe from Seattle.

The Blue Jays, who were third in the AL East on July 28, 7 1/2 games back of the Yankees, went on a tear, winning 43 of their final 61 games to win the East by six games.

There were plenty of highlights along the way, but the one that shines brightest for Anthopoulos was a game against the Tampa Bay Rays before a packed Sunday afternoon crowd at Rogers Centre on Sept. 27.

The Blue Jays won 5-4 when Donaldson whacked a ninth-inning, two-run, walk-off home run.

"And that was just kind of like, 'we're going to do this,'" Anthopoulos said. "I still get the chills when I talk about it. That game, that moment – the walk off, electric crowd – that was the best win for me."

It was a second-half run that captivated not only the city, but the country. And when the Blue Jays clinched the division-winning title in Baltimore on Sept. 30, Anthopoulos's status was approaching that of a rock star.

As he sat in the stands behind the Toronto dugout witnessing that 15-2 blowout, the large contingent of Blue Jays fans at the game started chanting "Thank you, Alex."

"I'll remember that forever," Anthopoulos said.

But storm clouds were already starting to hover over the seemingly idyllic situation.

Paul Beeston, Toronto's long-time president and chief executive officer and confidant to Anthopoulos, announced during the season he was stepping down at the end of the year. On Aug. 31, club ownership at Rogers Communications announced that Mark Shapiro of the Cleveland Indians would be Beeston's replacement.

After Toronto beat Texas in the opening round of the playoffs, before falling to the Kansas City Royals in the AL Championship Series, it was assumed by most that Anthopoulos would remain in the Blue Jays front office.

But Anthopoulos was already having reservations about his future, even as the team started churning upward in the standing after the trade deadline.

"You know what, I enjoyed the month of August the most," he said. "At that point there was no scenario out there that I might not be coming back. In my mind, everything was great. I was there, I was going to be there for a long time. I was really excited.

"Once the calendar shifted to September it was the first time ever I thought I might not be there."

On Oct. 29, six days after the Blue Jays were eliminated by the Royals, Anthopoulos said he was quitting the organization. It came on the same day he was honoured by The Sporting News as baseball's executive of the year in a vote by his peers.

In leaving, he spurned a lucrative five-year contract extension from team ownership, led by club chairman Edward Rogers and president of the media-business unit, Rick Brace.

Although speculation was rampant that Anthopoulos's decision was based on him being uncomfortable with the new hierarchy, he remains guarded as to the exact reasons behind his departure.

"I was treated exceptionally well, I was treated with honesty the whole way," Anthopoulos said. "I respected that, I appreciated that. That was from Mark [Shapiro], that's from Edward, that's from Rick Brace. I was treated with complete honesty, complete transparity, and I thank them all for that. But ultimately it was my decision.

"I knew there was a lot of speculation, things that people went crazy with. But yeah, I was just uncomfortable with what the potential role was going forward, which was totally fine. I wasn't owed a thing. I owed everything to the club. The only thing I would have expected, and I got, was the honest part. And I got the honesty."

Anthopoulos said he could have just as easily accepted the new contract and would probably still be the Blue Jays GM.

But he ultimately decided otherwise.

"It wouldn't have been fair to the club if I stayed and my heart wasn't in it," he said. "I tell my kids all the time, you shouldn't make decisions just because of money. I have never chased the money in my life. I initially worked for free when I broke into the game with the Expos and I took a pay cut when I left Montreal to join the Blue Jays.

"Paul Beeston would always say, don't follow the money, the money will follow you."

And it has – all the way to Atlanta.

After former NBA star Charles Barkley picked the Toronto Raptors to win the NBA Eastern Conference, coach Dwane Casey says his focus is elsewhere. Casey says the playoffs-bound Raptors need to compete and not 'listen to the noise.'

The Canadian Press

Interact with The Globe