Every team establishes a beat during the run-up to and through the course of baseball's winter meetings. Some clubs – Boston, Arizona and the Cubs prime among them – went to Nashville this past week opting for a drum roll. The Jays came out slowly banging a funeral gong.
Whatever magic Toronto had coming out of the 2015 season has been bled off by corporate bafflegab and an executive haircut that leaves nothing above the shoulders. This is still a very good ball club. But, man, it doesn't feel that way anymore.
Instead of confetti, Toronto's tour of the Dream Factory ends with eight hours spent going blind over spreadsheets down in Accounting. To hear Blue Jays president and new, de facto face-of-the-franchise Mark Shapiro tell it, if you want an idea of where his team is heading, you're in the wrong section of the newspaper.
"I think a lot of that is going to be dependent on how we do this year and how we perform as a business unit as well," Shapiro told MLB.com on the subject of the payroll. "It is a business. Like any business, we've got to increase revenue and grow revenue to increase expenses, and the expenses are player payroll when it comes to a major-league team. If we have a great year this year, that's certainly going to afford us the ability to grow player payroll and player expenses."
Shapiro's been on the job for a month and the guy's already moved beyond 'next year' talk to 'the year after next year' talk. That is some solid businessing right there. If Rogers has an employee-orientation handbook, it ought to be titled What Sisyphus Can Teach You About Management.
Also, what's a "great year"? Does he mean wins? Or are they going to start passing around an offering plate during the seventh-inning stretch? "Just give whatever your conscience tells you … (takes a look at what you're giving) … No, no. Your conscience isn't enough. We're going to need you to cough up a little more conscience." The problem isn't that the Jays want to make money. That's a given. It's that they want to make money while constantly banging on about being the best they can be. The two ideas are incompatible.
You don't swan into a Mercedes dealership and say, "I'd like to purchase the most expensive car you have. And I'd like to pay eighteen grand for it."
If you want the best, it costs.
This logical disconnect isn't new. The Jays have been selling it forever.
As recently as a year ago, ex-CEO Paul Beeston and ex-GM Alex Anthopoulos were the ones forced to endorse The Wealthy Barber-school of roster building. All that's changed are the messengers. But that's changed everything.
Beeston and Anthopoulos had two huge advantages – they were of us, and they seemed pained as Rogers tugged on the financial straitjacket.
One never doubted that either man felt a deep connection to this club. Both are Canadians. Both had been weaned by the organization and have the gift of sincerity. Neither talked as though he was reading off a teleprompter.
"I understand I won't be in this chair forever, but I will be a fan of this team and I'm going to live in this city," Anthopoulos said. "So I want to see this team do well. If I'm part of it, great, but if I'm not here to see it, that's fine."
He said it five years ago, shortly after he got the job. It rang true at the time and, now that he's gone, it still does.
Beeston and Anthopoulos said that when the right moment presented itself, they'd be willing to risk a lot more. They said that when they decided to pull the money chute, Rogers would back their play. Both things happened.
Mid-October, every actor in this play (finally!) looked golden. That was the warning. It was too good to last.
In retrospect, Shapiro should have travelled to Toronto in a Borg cube. He's here to assimilate our culture.
He dangled Tony LaCava and then hired his old assistant, Ross Atkins, as the team's new general manager. He ensured John Gibbons's job, but is reportedly close to hiring former Indians manager Eric Wedge in some loosey-goosey consulting capacity. That would mean Wedge is there to take the manager's job as soon as they can figure out a reason to fire Gibbons.
Shapiro isn't turning this club into Cleveland North or Cleveland 2.0. That suggests there's some difference between the two. All Shapiro's done is ask everyone in the Cleveland head office to drive a little further to work. Five hours more.
Whether it's a good idea, it's a terrible look.
In their hearts, most American baseball people believe Toronto and Canada are markets that want to be saved, no matter how well we're doing. It's the Manifest Destiny in them. One need only recall the sneer that would creep into former GM J.P. Ricciardi's voice as he said "Toronto," as though he were manning some log outpost in unmapped territory.
Shapiro is not Ricciardi, but he has the same tendency to pander. In his introductory presser, the new president stuck in the tired, foreign line about Toronto as a "dynamic, diverse, growing city." Asked a few minutes later to name a single specific thing he liked about it, he couldn't come up with one. Did it just look "dynamic" as he flew over it?
You can't fake being from here. Beeston and Anthopoulos didn't have to.
More and more, Toronto's sports identity is as an outsider. Thank the Raptors and "We the North" for that. That marketing campaign has evolved into a civic ethos.
Anybody who would like to fit has to do more than put on the colours. He/she has to show they know what they mean.
Instead, Shapiro has arrived Amerisplaining the world to us. It's not his fault. He doesn't know the city. It's Rogers's fault. Letting Anthopoulos wander off was dumb enough. Replacing him as team spokesman with a slick, transparently calculating, polar opposite was dumb squared.
The Jays didn't need a saviour. They didn't want a walking, talking MBA. So Rogers gave them both.
The sort of personality most Americans read as "competent and assured," most Canadians will see as "suspiciously ambitious." Shapiro's style would work well in many major-league towns. Thus far, it hasn't worked here.
Having so badly blown the introductions, the smart play would have been to make a bold move, a small gesture of appeasement. So at the winter meetings, the Jays re-signed utility infielder Darwin Barney, and made it clear that in a perfect world, he will never play. These people can't even Kawasaki their way out of a problem.
Stand pat is as good as it's going to get. One just wishes they'd say that instead of droning on about exchange rates and hoping everybody catches their meaning.
The club has essentially reverted to the team that existed before the trade deadline – the one that wasn't good enough. It is a truism in baseball that the hard thing to do is make the playoffs. Once there, anything's possible. Kansas City – a team without any real stars – proved it a few weeks ago.
If just a few simple things had gone Toronto's way in the postseason – if David Price had pitched averagely or reliever Brett Cecil hadn't been rolled over on a choppy run-down – it could easily have been different. Fans were primed to use those "What Ifs" for a great imaginative leap. Why not pile aspiration on top of aspiration? Why not capitalize on a city's best sports story in two decades by reinvesting your profits?
Instead, they've changed nothing but the nameplates in the executive suite and the tone. They were the two things you really couldn't afford to screw up, since they are linked.
It wasn't until Beeston and Anthopoulos were gone that anyone realized that the only people who sounded like they really meant it when they talked up Toronto were the two guys who live here year-round.
That unlikely combo – two Canadians running Canada's baseball team – was always going to be a tough act to follow. So far, Shapiro and his crew are making it look impossible.