The Tampa Bay Rays have some structural disadvantages.
They play in an airless, concrete tomb. No one in Tampa likes them. Their owner is a carpetbagging miser pulled straight from Dickens.
From a business perspective, the club has been falling apart for 20 years – the entirety of its existence. Each off-season, the Rays strip the best parts from their operation, sell them cheap and replace those good players with cut-rate facsimiles.
Nevertheless, Tampa doesn’t tank. If it did, its attendance would sink from abysmal to zero. Market conditions force the Rays to go for it every season.
Based on current best practices in Major League Baseball, this shouldn’t work. But it does. The Rays are in the playoffs while 22 better-funded, better-loved and better-staffed teams are not.
So either the people who run the Rays are smarter than everyone else, or everyone else is dumber than them.
Which brings us to the Toronto Blue Jays.
The Jays management has been making its rounds this week, explaining why the Jays being bad at baseball is a good thing.
“When we look back on 2019 … we’re going to look back on it as an integral part to building upon a sustainable winner,” Jays general manager Ross Atkins said.
There. Don’t you feel better now about wasting a year of your baseball life? You were there on the ground floor of something theoretically special. The windows hadn’t been installed and the furnace didn’t work, but you were there.
Trying to pin either Atkins or team president Mark Shapiro down on whether the Jays will do the most obvious thing they can to improve things – spend money – is like trying to grab a fistful of Jell-O. They talked around, over and under the topic, never quite dismissing it, but not explicitly endorsing it either.
The upshot is that the Jays are not saying they won’t try to be better next year, but they’re not not saying that. Clear?
Toronto is prepared to be good if that magically happens, in much the same way that you are prepared to be rich if a drug cartel gets an address wrong and leaves a fridge box full of cash on your porch.
Every time you hear this line of thought – you can’t do it every year; you have to lose to win; these things require money we don’t have; risks have no reward – you look over at the Tampa Bay Rays and think, “Seriously?”
In attempting to explain the approach, Jays president Mark Shapiro put it like this: “We want to take that next step, from competing to winning.”
The suggestion is that the Jays are currently competing. But that isn’t the case. At the pro level, you are not competing unless you are doing everything in your power in order to win.
People don’t mind you losing. That happens most of the time to most of the teams. But they should mind if losing is treated as an unavoidable consequence of making money.
It’s clear the Rays are better at acquiring undervalued talent than anyone else in the game, and maybe in all of team sports.
But the thing that separates them from the Blue Jays is that they try.
Hard times have forced the Tampa organization into a no-excuses mindset, during an era in which the average fan is more prepared to accept excuses than he or she ever has before.
In the old, mathless days, before a bad baseball team could be made to look like a sneakily good one through the magic of Sabermetrics, trying was a requisite.
It’s still a requisite in markets such as Tampa, St. Louis, Boston and New York. The circumstances are different, but the reason is the same – fans there won’t accept a loser. They won’t watch a loser. They won’t abide a loser.
Thirty years ago, if a Toronto GM had come out after a 95-loss season and declared himself “very excited” about what he’d seen, as Atkins did this week, fans would have excited him further by burning the stadium down.
Nowadays, a lot of people nod along as though this makes sense. Hey, when you really think about it, maybe losing is a sort of winning? Maybe the answer is losing more? Maybe my team should stop trying altogether and soon we’ll have all 100 of Baseball America’s top 100 prospects? Then we can trade them for more picks and keep losing.
This isn’t a baseball strategy. It’s a business plan. And business is the one thing that continues to be good for the Toronto Blue Jays.
Two things have failed here, one as important as the other.
Jays management has failed because, robbed of their ability to spend, they still haven’t built the Tampa Bay Rays. That’s the benchmark. If Tampa can do it then, by definition, anyone can. It’s not as though they have access to a different trade wire in Florida. They are seeking to acquire the same commodities as everyone else. And they are demonstrably better at it.
There’s no good excuse for failing to meet that standard if you work for the Jays (or the Giants or the Angels or whomever). Someone is doing your job better than you.
The other thing that’s failing is the fans. Because they have accepted this nonsense. Bought into it, even. They empowered management and ownership to set down an endless path to nowhere.
They keep paying to go, watching on TV, buying T-shirts and wearing those T-shirts out of doors where people can see them.
Of course, you are very welcome to do all those things. You probably feel resentful at the suggestion that, just because the Jays are awful, you should deny yourself something you enjoy – baseball.
But when you buy tickets and wear the T-shirts and watch the games, it tells Jays ownership that you’re okay with mediocrity. You’re not super pumped at the idea, but you’ll put up with it. That’s how you end up with a 20-year rebuild.
Nobody can make the Jays good except the Jays. But as long as you keep trying, the Jays don’t have to.