By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Sep. 6) – To be honest, I could have changed the headline on this blog altogether, or simply removed the word “blahs.” But, since Part 1 included the term, I thought I’d be consistent. In this second part, however, you will come to realize (or fondly recall) that the history of professional sports ownership in this city includes an exemplary case.
To the sports consumer and avid fan, it is beyond debate that team ownership is measured solely by success on the playing field (rink… floor, etc.) and not by ancillary gain. In other words, a fervent supporter today of the Toronto Blue Jays could care less how many additional mobile subscriptions are generated by Rogers’ ownership of the baseball club. He or she lives and dies for a World Series contender and expects it to be a priority of those footing the bill. Quite often in the era of conglomerate sports enterprise, that fan is quickly disappointed.
But, it hasn’t always been that way here in the Big Smoke.
In fact, the gold standard of sports ownership – Labatt Brewing Company’s majority control of the Blue Jays from 1977 to 1995 – began as a marketing ploy. If not, the ball club might have been called simply the Toronto Jays or another name altogether. The “Blue” was a not-so subliminal reference to the brewery’s signature brand – Labatt Blue – as it fought for leadership of the Canadian beer market with rivals Molson and Carling O’Keefe. The Labatt’s strategy, however, evolved around fielding a competitive baseball team as quickly as possible.
Selling the “sizzle” – as the Blue Jays first general manager, Peter Bavasi, often spoke about – carried the bumbling expansion team through its growing pains by slapping a club logo on everything from T-shirts to bumper-stickers to jars of peanut butter. Once the “steak” began to cook and the impressive farm system developed Major League talent (beginning in 1982 – Year 6 of operation), Labatt’s got serious. It had already replaced Bavasi with its sharpest baseball eye – Pat Gillick – and Gillick hired the club’s first established field manager, Bobby Cox.
THE CATALYST FOR THE NAME OF TORONTO’S BASEBALL TEAM.
What followed, under the steady leadership of Gillick and president Paul Beeston, was more than a decade of contention in the American League, culminating in the consecutive World Series triumphs of 1992 and 1993. Labatt’s vice-chairman, Peter Hardy, was directly involved in hiring Beeston and Gillick and became Chief Executive Officer of the Blue Jays in 1981. Mr. Hardy – as he was known to everyone – developed a close, trusting relationship with his two baseball executives, allowing them to build the club as they saw fit.
Most important, however, was the unwavering commitment of Labatt’s to provide the financial resources required to catch up with – and ultimately overcome – the competition. This was chiefly exhibited when the Jays lured to our town – as closing pieces – Tier 1 free agents Jack Morris and Dave Winfield in ’92; Paul Molitor and Dave Stewart in ’93. The world championships that followed were hardly a coincidence.
If a similar financial commitment exists with the current Rogers ownership, it’s a closely-guarded secret. We live in a different time and with a different circumstance. In order to deploy the Blue Jays as a vehicle for increasing beer sales, Labatt’s felt it imperative to produce and maintain – throughout 11 seasons – a winning ball club. Rogers, by comparison, had already structured a virtual communications monopoly here in Canada long before it purchased 80% of the Blue Jays from the Belgium-based company Interbrew (now InBev) on Sep. 1, 2000. In November 2004, Rogers acquired the formerly bankrupt SkyDome for a paltry $25 million… or roughly what it originally cost for one of the stadium’s retractable roof panels. The baseball club has never made the playoffs in 13 seasons of Rogers’ stewardship (and likely a 14th this year). Conversely, by the 14th year of Labatt’s ownership (1990), an expansion team had twice won the American League East Division crown and was two years away from consecutive World Series victories.
This isn’t to suggest, of course, that Rogers won’t spend on the Blue Jays. You can’t own a Major League team and not shell out ridiculous amounts. As an example, the Jays are on the hook for a glutinous $41 million between Mark Buehrle and Jose Reyes next season. Left-hander Buehrle (11-9) has been superb at times in 2014. Though hitting respectably (.284), Reyes has lost considerable range at shortstop. Given the advancing age of both players (Buehlre is 35; Reyes an “old” 31), the Blue Jays’ 2015 commitment is probably $20 million too rich.
But, c’est la vie.
It costs a lot of money to win in the Major Leagues and – more importantly – to create an attractive environment for free agent players. One goes with the other. Conversely, it is simple to be average; to wallow from one mediocre season to the next. Under Rogers’ stewardship, the Blue Jays have done just that for 1½ decades.
THERE HAVE BEEN MANY LEAN YEARS AT THE FORMER SKYDOME SINCE THE LABATT BREWING COMPANY DIVESTED INTEREST IN THE BLUE JAYS IN 1995.
As mentioned Part 1 of this blog series, the company did finally step to the plate with a big-money commitment prior to the 2013 season. With no guarantees in pro sport, however, that investment turned into a disaster and there is no indication Rogers will try again. A barometer of the company’s desire to at least maintain respectability in the American League will arrive this off-season when the Jays’ best hitter – Melky Cabrera – becomes a free agent. With a $14 million club option on Jose Bautista (or an unlikely $1 million buyout), few observers are expecting the Blue Jays to retain Cabrera – now lost for the remainder of this season with a fractured pinky-finger. That could change if Bautista asks for a trade, which is not an implausible notion. Otherwise, Rogers will again have to open the vault for the Blue Jays to stay relevant.
Why, it’s enough to make any long-time baseball fan in this city bust out a case of Labatt Blue. Isn’t it?
END OF PART 2
TORONTO OWNERSHIP BLAH’S — PART 1 (http://bit.ly/1Befcex)
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